September 25, 2001
Cities breathe. Cities think. Cities can be hurt. Cities
grow. Cities sleep.
Cities are alive.
The metaphors are easy enough: streets as arteries, buildings
as organs, people as blood. When you choose to live in a city,
you surrender a part of yourself to it. You are no longer
completely an individual, some aspect of you joins a collective
that is more than just you and other people. It is the sidewalks,
the lights, the skyscrapers, the museums, the restaurants,
and the monuments. All of which need blood, the people, to
give them meaning. But the blood too gains purpose in having
a place to work, sleep, dance and laugh. A symbiosis is at
work over concrete, steel, glass, and flesh.
You can feel a city in your soul. When you stand at its busiest
intersection, or its quietest back alley, it touches you,
moves through you. There is an energy to New York that does
not exist anywhere else, but there is also an energy to San
Francisco, or Boston, or Chicago that does not exist in other
cities. It's unique, like a fingerprint. But it is THERE,
and all but the least sensitive can feel it.
The paradox of this energy is that despite its uniqueness
there's still something that connects cities, like some vast
underground thread that stretches beneath nations and continents.
Again, you can FEEL it. There's a familiarity to the Bostonian
as he walks the streets of Manhattan, or to the San Franciscan
viewing Chicago for the first time. It's as if, much like
people, cities are different from each other but made out
of the same stuff. Paradoxical, yes, but real nonetheless.
There are those who resist this energy, refuse to become
part of it, or have a disdain for it. Missing the point, they
speak of crime rates, dirtiness, and crowds. The city eventually
will cast them out by filling their head with visions of tree-lined
suburbs where the smells of barbecues and sounds of lawnmowers
fill the homogeneous air. Like a giraffe living on a mountaintop,
these people are no less beautiful, no less vital; they just
aren't built for the environment we call city.
The word "city" has a legal meaning: a certain number of
people within a municipal boundary. But this does not define
a city. There are places that call themselves cities (or are
legally allowed to) that somehow miss the mark, and don't
quite have that aforementioned energy. People who have spent
their lives in the sprawling development of a twentieth-century
megalopolis are often astounded at the vitality of a place
like Manhattan (or scared to death of it).
What is it about the new cities that somehow fails to capture
this urban "vibe?" It would be easy to pin it on their newness,
but that probably only explains part of the story. Worse,
that explanation lends itself to a nostalgia that does a disservice
to the modern relevance of a place like New York or San Francisco.
What could be missing from the new cities may be the simplest
of human activities: walking. To develop that urban energy,
cities may need to feel feet on the pavement, allowing them
to touch people, connect with people, and make people part
of them. If this seems overly romantic, one can at least see
how an empty sidewalk is a sad thing, used only as a gateway
between an automobile and merchant. Maybe walking simply forces
people interact with each other, which in turn allows the
city to come alive.
And cities ARE alive.
New York, New York, it's a hell of a town. Bigger, taller,
more crowded, more diverse, more MORE. Of all the cities,
New York is the most "city." Other cities may claim more geography,
a few others may claim more people, and a smaller number may
claim taller buildings, but New York is THE city. New York
is first amongst equals, the capital of the world in every
way except the political. Anything a city can offer you to
experience, taste, or see, New York will provide for you at
any time of night or day. If you can make it there, well,
you know the rest.
And now she has been broken. No, that's wrong. Bent, not
broken. Central Park still holds her trees and ponds. The
Empire State Building still stands, the Chrysler building
still stands; the Flatiron, the U.N. building, and the Guggenheim
all still stand. They all look to the south and weep at the
loss of their twin younger brothers. But they stand strong,
with a strong foundation and some of the strongest blood in
America running through their veins. There will be tears,
there will be pain, but life and hope will not be extinguished.
New York, that greatest collective of steel, concrete, glass,
and flesh, will not allow itself to topple. Mere blocks away
from the chaos, the city embraces its people, and nurtures
them. Babies are being born, and people are meeting who will
fall in love. Perhaps New York somehow, someway made itself
the target, knowing that unique amongst American cities, it
could survive this loss.
The saddest irony in a sea of sad ironies is that New York
is the ultimate harbinger showing that blind hatred will not
stand. Its day is done (perhaps this is some final death-throes?)
No matter where in the world you are from, you can find your
kind in New York. A sea of different faces, functioning together.
And it works. Is it perfect? No. Is there still mistrust between
people from different walks of life? Yes. But is it better
than it was fifty years ago? Absolutely. And it will continue
to get better. And how New York goes, so goes the country,
then the world. New York stands as a shining example to the
rest of the world that we can, as a people, "get it right."
Millions of people, all living on an island, building a community,
smoothing out the edges over time, intermarrying, creating
art and music. It sounds like something out of science fiction
novel. But it's real, and it's New York.
And New York is alive.