Political Education

Reflections on 20+ years of day trips to New York City.

Yesterday, I had an interview. In New York City.

As my train approached the city, I felt a lot of the same feelings that I usually do on my way to New York. A sense of excitement. An anticipation. A feeling of empowerment and speed, drifting slowly along the tracks into America’s socio-cultural capital.

For 20+ years, I have taken day trips to New York City (I don’t think most people in other areas of the country realize how easy it is to get to NYC from Philadelphia). Each time I feel this aforementioned form of twisted excitement, probably similar to the form that any animal would feel upon entering a concrete jungle.

Each time, I leave New York City with the same feeling; it is a love-hate relationship. Each time I visit, I arrive at the same conclusion: I really enjoy visiting, but I would have significant difficulty living in New York (*Manhattan, specifically).

Living in Manhattan, it seems, occurs at a hyper-speed level. Time is warped. Attention is warped. The smell. The crowded sidewalks. Economically troubled and luxurious livelihoods clashing against one another acrimoniously expressing itself through intensely straightforward talk, rushed stares, and unceasing and turbulent movement. It is the world’s largest concrete playground, one which many of its occupants use to battle with, struggle against, and live life too as one in a sea of many. I’m pretty sure this is what Frank Sinatra meant when he said “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”.

Having lived in Chicago for ~2 years, I really haven’t found anywhere in America or the world which brings forth similar sentiments. Maybe New York isn’t for me. But, for the ~4 million people living in this conclave of ~23 square miles that is Manhattan (~174,000 people per square mile) during a typical midweek Manhattan day, I would imagine that a significant portion of these people feel jaded/excited/alive/dead-through the cornucopia of emotions that the city elicits.

Perhaps this was what Rem Koolhaas meant in his seminal work Delirious New York (a book which I have not made the time to read yet, though have been thoroughly curious about). Mr. Koolhaas, it seems, uses the book to dissect all aspects of the city as it relates to the actual lives of those living in Manhattan. As author Emma Watson writes:

Koolhaas promotes Manhattan as a prototype of the modern metropolis, a collaboration of visionaries that strive to make life in the city a ‘deeply irrational experience’.

Declaring himself as the city’s ghost-writer, Koolhaas tells the story of Manhattan, a ‘mythical island’ and setting of an urban experiment in which the city becomes a factory for man made experiences, a laboratory to test the potential of modern life. He claims that ‘Manhattanism’ is the one urbanistic concept that revels in ‘hyper density’ and is fuelled by the splendours and miseries than come with the urban condition of man made living. ‘With Manhattan as an example, this book is a blueprint for a culture of congestion.’

This examination, I feel, is part of a larger story. One which expands beyond Manhattan. One which impacts the daily lives and nature of every human living anywhere, on Earth, Mars, the moon, or not.

Our environment, the urban settlings that we dwell in, shape our daily experiences more than any other component of our lives. Echoing this, I once heard professor Robert L. Frost pronounce the belief that “Architects are the most powerful people in the world”.

The placement of a wall, the width of a sidewalk, the ratio of the width of a door to that of the side of a house — every component of the environment that we live in immensely and quite literally shapes how we move, who we interact with and meet, how we isolate ourselves, and the mechanisms under which we lead and live our lives.

Trying to ignore this reality or escape from it is a fantastically dangerous mistake. The GI Bill after World War II provided incentives to build new and better housing, “White flight” of the 1960’s and 1970’s populated American suburbia, and the Housing Crisis of 2008 questioned our collective moral-financial relationship around what it means to be a home owner.

But the underlying reality has been ignored; whether we live in suburbia, a swanky high-rise loft, or an apartment in Manhattan, increased attention needs to be placed upon the design and environments around towns/communities/houses/cities, before we resign ourselves to living at the whims of the financially elite, ‘cutting-edge’ architects, and urban designers. Determining the collective conditions of our living environments should not be purely be bestowed upon centralized entities or ‘professionals’. This is the medium through which we live and experience life. This is a job for everyone, one which requires more engagement and attention from everyone.

The urban planning community seems to have made a lot of strides in this realm in the last 30–50 years, pioneered by Jane Jacob’s work The Death and Life of Great American Cities. No longer are urban planning decisions made solely by centralized authorities, such as the planning of Philadelphia in the 1950’s; often times, community town meetings and extensive interviews are conducted before a decision is taken. While these efforts have likely been well intentioned and inclusive on-the-surface, they still seem be have fallen short. Zoning laws still are the rule of the land. You still have to obtain approval on making even a tiny change to your own house. In the end, large real estate firms, urban planning commissions, and the real-decision makers are the actual ones still molding the urban-clay. My day trips to New York City only further my belief in this.

Alternative thinking for constructing ‘urban’-human-living-environments have been proposed over the last century. One fascinating possibility, popularized by Buckminster Fuller, focuses around the notion of a ‘Geodesic dome’. This, Mr. Fuller believed was his shortest path “to make the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage of anyone.”

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Another possibility, pioneered by Lewis Mumford, focused around living in harmony with nature. He was a huge proponent of not having highways in cities. Mr. Mumford’s idea for a “Townless Highway” involved connecting all towns in America with a park, one which people could wander from town to town in. As Mr. Mumford himself put it in the work The Culture of Cities:

“This metropolitan world, then, is a world where flesh and blood is less real than paper and ink and celluloid. It is a world where the great masses of people, unable to have direct contact with more satisfying means of living, take life vicariously, as readers, spectators, passive observers: a world where people watch shadow-heroes and heroines in order to forget their own clumsiness or coldness in love, where they behold brutal men crushing out life in a strike riot, a wrestling ring or a military assault, while they lack the nerve even to resist the petty tyranny of their immediate boss: where they hysterically cheer the flag of their political state, and in their neighborhood, their trades union, their church, fail to perform the most elementary duties of citizenship.

Living thus, year in and year out, at second hand, remote from the nature that is outside them and no less remote from the nature within, handicapped as lovers and as parents by the routine of the metropolis and by the constant specter of insecurity and death that hovers over its bold towers and shadowed streets — living thus the mass of inhabitants remain in a state bordering on the pathological. They become victims of phantasms, fears, obsessions, which bind them to ancestral patterns of behavior.”

Yesterday evening, in the late afternoon, I was on a plane at LaGuardia. Waiting on the tarmac for takeoff, a group of girls in the row across from me were Snapchatting (is this an official verb yet?) a picture of a sunset behind the Manhattan skyline. With a rainbow of orange, yellow, and purple colors emitting through the pollution-laden fog, the scene was actually quite breathtaking. I was really tempted to take a picture of this skyline-backdropped-sunset myself.

Before I got out my phone, I stopped myself. So often we look at a city like New York, or any living environment for that matter, and assess it for its looks; promote it for the “beauty” of the tall skyscrapers, unmatched crowds, and magnificent density of human creation. It’s easy to fall for the trap, it’s easy to think that an urban environment is peachy, that it’s where you for-sure want to live.

It’s really difficult, however, to see a city as something humanistically larger. Something that, by its very nature, brings forth a completely different life experience. Certainly, this indeed does have its social and entertainment benefits within our collective occupational and economic game, but it often misses something elusive. Cities, and all living environments, are the snow-globe that we live our lives in. They shape our emotions, movement paths, and lives. They are our video game. They are our Truman Show.

Before we promote a particular living environment or city, it’s important to question these often overlooked components. We look at a sprawling skyline like Manhattan’s with grandeur, yet forget that there are literally 174,000 human souls who are a product of these conditions. Who are forgotten in what, from afar, is seemingly cool, just, and Snapchat worthy.

I really didn’t want to take a picture of that skyline. I, really, just wanted to go home.

Photo Credit.

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