Democratic Underground

The Living Cities
September 25, 2001
by John Mickevich

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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.