Friday, December 25, 2009

new york

And when I have to give the world a last farewell,
And the undertaker starts to ring my funeral bell,
I don't want to go to heaven, don't want to go to hell.
I happen to like New York. I happen to like New York.


-- Cole Porter


The writer of Apocalypse, imagining the end of history when all would be made new and tears wiped away, described a New Jerusalem as it descended from heaven. A city. Not a farm, or a nomad’s tent, or a village. Though scripture honors these other places, the final Word does not mention them, nor does it describe a suburb or a “gated” community (meaning that the gate is always closed).


The New Jerusalem would have twelve gates, a remarkable number, open to all points of the compass. The peoples of the world are invited in from their various locations, social and geographical. We can approach her golden streets and crystal towers from any direction. In this final vision, each will meet all the Others, and our human differences will bless not kill us. Instruction in community shall go forth from Zion, which is not a desert mountain like Horeb or Sinai but a hill in the midst of a city. That’s what the purpose of a city is.


I’ve lived in a place called Michigan, where the substance and idea of City have been destroyed with prejudice and without remorse. Detroit was one of the first American cities to uproot its public transportation, to rip out neighborhoods of the poor and build over them aptly named “depressed expressways” to distant uncommunities, where only the white and successful would be admitted, and even they would seldom have to meet each other. This anti-social engineering has for decades been racially glossed, but it was born of a different fear – the terror that some sentient being, somewhere, might not be forced to own an automobile.


The elements of a living city are known, except in Michigan. Efforts to revive the place encounter not only physical but mental devastation as well, from generations of insult to the notion of urbanity. A chapter in the programming of modernity has been extracted from the public mind. During the time I lived there, the people of southeast Michigan turned down an arts tax because they couldn’t understand why museums and concert halls, theaters and galleries, should be “down there” rather than in their own sparsely populated, traffic-choked outer-ring suburb. The last great effort to re-create the city centered on stadiums and casinos, places that provide few jobs and foster no communities. The Renaissance Center is a fortress entrenched against its neighborhood, concealing the waterfront that should have been the center of revival.


In my life’s current phase I work in a city that could not be destroyed, though Robert Moses tried to reduce it to a shopping strip. He won the battle of Penn Station, but the city beat him in the battle of Grand Central. It’s still a place for people, not for cars. Manhattan exerts its enormous daily force against the owners of automobiles.


A tourist lady with two kids in tow asked me, as I hopped the bus to visit a client, how to get to the Metropolitan and Natural History Museums. I told her what buses to connect with, and that the one museum was just a walk across the park from the other. She raised her eyebrows. “Is it safe?” Yes, my dear, it’s safe. Safer than many a stroll in your manicured suburban grove.


We’re safe here. Hundreds of nationalities and language groups live jammed together in a tiny space. They do not know or understand each other, yet seldom resort to violence – there’s greater risk on many a farm. My associates, male and female, go home by themselves at night in safety. People come from all over the world for the privilege of working; that Urdu-speaking cabdriver may have been a physician in his former life. They work with commitment and with style; they live in separate ethnic neighborhoods, but their children will assimilate, and their grandchildren won’t even know the language of the old country. Hope rules. We take care of each other.


As a woman walks out a subway car, a mass of papers, clearly a creative project, falls out of her carry-all. All together now: a woman sitting opposite the door calls to her, a man sitting by the door puts out his hand to prevent it from closing, another man gathers the paper and hands them to her as she turns around. Catastrophe averted. The door closes. Enough said.


It’s raining, and I’m going down the subway steps (southeast corner, 50th and Broadway). People are going both ways, we’re in a hurry. Just for a moment my foot slips, my rhythm is staggered. Hands are reached out to me from above, below, from my left. “You all right?” “I’m good, thank you.” I’ve been cared for. I never see their faces. We don’t miss a step. We stay on the course of our separate business, and we’re all in it together. If only America could remember that. It’s not grab everything that ain’t bolted down and run. We’re all in this together.


It ain’t perfect, but this is one place where the dream survives. Work hard. Learn something. Make a noise. You can make a life.


Those who call themselves Christians and revile the cities should read the scripture closer. In the final word it’s not on a farm, or in a village, or in a gated community, that the tears shall be wiped away. All things shall be made new in a city. And this one is the nearest thing human beings have made to a City of God.

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