I’m a Fool for the City

foolontrain[Writing from New York City.]  The last time I was here, I went with my granddaughter Rachel, then 15 years old, to the top of the Empire State Building. It was nearly 10:00 p.m., and so the many millions of lights of New York were spread beneath and around us as if the starriest of skies had fallen to earth.

“How many lives are we gazing down upon?” we wondered.  A smartphone told us 8.5 million. We tried to comprehend 8.5 million individual lives, their individual stories, all bumping and banging into each other. This led us to wonder how much pain was down there amid those lights. How much joy. How much despair. How much hope.  It’s incomprehensible, we agreed.

But another thing it is: amazing. Cities are the foundation of human civilization. About 5,000 years ago, people began to settle in large groups, bumping and banging into each other, collaborating, organizing, dividing labor, setting up agricultural supply lines, making stuff, building economies, arguing the hows and whys of human existence.

Cities are where humans first learned to tolerate and benefit from those who are radically different from themselves. This isn’t to say that hatred and bigotry are absent from the city. Cities do create enclaves of like-minded people who often disrespect those of different minds. But for a city to survive and thrive, diverse groups of people must learn to work with and accommodate each other.

Take New York City, for example: 8.5 million people crammed into only 321 square miles. Some may say, “That sounds horrible!”  

No, it’s amazing–amazing how well organized these 8.5 million people are; amazing to sit or stand in a subway and hear a medley of languages and see an array of races and an endless diversity of fashions. Amazing that these creatures are Homo sapiens, a species that began as little more than apes who fought at the first sign of difference.  Amazing how these people share with one another their differences–in visual art, music, drama, fashion, folklore, cuisine, and custom.  And in this melange, they make new stuff that changes the world.

Each time I visit this city I’m renewed with hope that, despite the obvious and much publicized sins of cities, the lesser told story is the most amazing one: that hundreds of thousands, even millions of different people are living together and cooperating in mutual benefit.

Twenty-seven years ago, in a massive city on the west coast, Rodney King, a victim of that city’s sins, asked, “People, can’t we all just get along?” Cities that survive and thrive must answer that question, “Yes, we can.”

And that, my friends, is why I’m a fool for the city.

 

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