A Maritime Mind in New York City
I promised myself I wouldn’t be one of them. That, as the sky-line appeared over New Jersey and I stepped out of Grand Central Terminal, I wouldn’t be one of the millions who are captivated by the symbol of the American Dream. I wouldn’t come home repeating the old, tired trope that New York City is the greatest city on earth.
As our train barreled along the Hudson River I was confident. I had seen some of the world’s great cities already and although they are fantastic experiments in human cooperation, New York couldn’t possibly be as good as everyone said.
First through Yonkers. Then Washington Heights. On to Upper Manhattan and by mid-morning the red brick towers of West Harlem.
I was absolutely, and completely, hooked.
Robert Moses shaped a city and its sprawling suburbs-and, to an extent that would have astonished analysts of urban trends had they measured the implications of his decades of handiwork, influenced the destiny of all the cities of twentieth century America.
The city in which the shaping by his hand is most evident is New York, Titan of Cities, colossal synthesis of hope and urban despair. It had become a cliche by the mid-twentieth century to say that New York was ‘ungovernable.’ and this meant, since the powers of government in the city had largely devolved on its mayor, that no mayor could govern it, could hope to do more than merely stay afloat in the maelstrom that had engulfed the vast metropolis. In such a context, the cliche was valid. No mayor shaped New York; no mayor-not even La Guardia-left upon its roiling surface more than the faintest of lasting imprints.
But Robert Moses shaped New York.
-Robert Caro’s ‘The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York’
In more ways than we’d like to imagine, this was all that Robert Moses had built. The arrogant, iron-willed Power Broker that sacrificed communities for great through-ways and was the architect of much of what Robert Caro refers to as ‘urban despair.’
What I first experienced in this ‘urban despair,’ was undeniable beauty. Women walk in bright, traditional African garb past Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Bengali street food sizzles in Soho and 40 first languages are in dramatic conversation outside of NYU in Washington Square Park. Latino shopkeepers wake at 4 am to prepare the days empanadas and the Jewish community goes to and from in Brooklyn. Old men with olive skin, open collars and gold chains sit on the steps of the gelato shops in Little Italy- reminiscent of the North Side of Boston; a virtually cash-only economy that operates much like Sicily did in the day; it mattered who your father was and state taxes were negotiable. Certain places are microcosms of the entire human family and the Bronx is one of those places; you can get whatever you need in the Bronx, and nobody gives a shit what you need.
Robert Caro, like many before him, have tried to distill the essence of New York City. Most prominently through the saga of a life lived by Robert Moses, the central character in his epic tome, The Power Broker; a Pultizer winner and one of the greatest stories ever told by a single curator. The quote above is from that epic book and I immediately understood what he meant when he said the city itself seemed ‘ungovernable.’
I was shocked it all worked. How could it possibly all work? And then I thought about home…
Maritime communities, in some tangible way, make sense. There aren’t very many of us per square kilometer and we’re taught to follow a ‘reasonable,’ ‘risk-adverse,’ path; 12 years of public education, post-secondary, job, retire. Our quality of life is incredibly high, they say! Yes, it’s true, we live well but we risk using our quality of life argument as an excuse not to change as the future demands. Imagining that you live in an oasis can breed complacency and the delusion that whatever happens here doesn’t effect out there and whatever happens out there doesn’t effect in here.
There is a feeling to certain places; the post-industrial PTSD of rural Maine and New Brunswick, the manufacturing boom in China in the 90’s, the patriotism of the United States of America directly after 9/11 or the new tech wealth of Bangalore, India.
Above any place I’ve been since, the feeling of New York City has infected me like a virus.
Perhaps it’s what it’s been through. Perhaps it’s the hundreds of different languages, sounds, spices and histories that it’s people have brought with them. Perhaps it’s standing outside the New York Times; images of Thomas Friedman, Bill Keller, Nicholas Kristoff and Maureen Dowd scrambling to make deadline and each taking home a Pulitzer for it. Perhaps it’s the young humans of every hue in Washington Square Park on an impossibly hot summer night; each fueled by the unique feeling of possibility that millions of humans have recognized is only possibly in NYC.
From where I sit North of the border, our opinion might not matter that much. But perhaps it is exactly that which America needs the most; the opinion of an outsider.
From the nosebleeds it appears that America the Great is America the Confused.
Building walls, banning people we don’t understand and incarcerating immigrant children all seem antithetical to everything the greatest city on earth stands for.
The particularly insidious aspect of it all is that America is already great. What claims of making America Great Again do is hack our human need for certainty. They know this the same way social media platforms know they couldn’t care less how many friends you have or how deep your connections are. As in; there was once a time when America was greater, whiter and more prosperous and I’m the only one who can take us back to the promised land! It’s a lie. There is no such thing as eden and there is absolutely no way a billionaire with a self-worth problem is fit to speak for your country.
New York City is perhaps the greatest multicultural experiment on the planet.
It is the best of America.
It is the worst of America.
It is America.
From where I sit, it is everything America could be.