Commentary Magazine


In Praise of New York

Different cities acquire great symbolic significance at different moments in human history. Paris was significant in this way in the 18th and 19th centuries, as was London (though perhaps to a lesser degree), and Rome, over and beyond anything that was actually going on there, has retained its powerful symbolic character over many centuries. New York City undoubtedly has a comparable symbolic significance today. It is perceived as a symbol of modernity, of Western civilization, and (despite the often-repeated statement that “New York is not America”) of the civilization of the United States. The curious thing is that it is very widely perceived as a negative symbol—that is, as a metaphor of everything that has gone wrong with our society.

Much of the rest of the country sees New York as one gigantic agglomeration of social ills: crime, poverty, racial hatred, mismanaged and corrupt government—not to mention dirt, pollution, and traffic congestion of virtually metaphysical dimensions. The same perceptions have been widely diffused abroad, and foreign tourists come here with the piquant ambivalence of apprehension and fascination that used to go with dangerous expeditions into the jungles of central Africa. Interestingly, New York City has negative symbolic value right across the political spectrum. As seen from the Right, New York is the habitat of an anti-American intellectual and media establishment, bent on converting the entire nation into the decadent welfare state that the city, supposedly, has already become. Seen from the Left, New York is, above all, Wall Street—the heart of the beast, headquarters of capitalist imperialism, the cosmic cancer; Madison Avenue has a slightly lesser place in this particular demonological vision. Cutting across the political dividing lines there also exists today a widespread cultural mood of anti-urbanism. Vaguely linked with the ecology movement, this mood offers yet another incentive to deplore New York.

And yet, despite all this, New York City continues to be a magnet and even an object of love, sometimes fierce love. People, especially young people, continue to come in large numbers, irresistibly drawn to the city by expectations of success and excitement. And New Yorkers themselves, although they, too, frequently share the negative views of their own city, nevertheless continue to be inexplicably, perhaps dementedly, attached to the putative cesspool of perdition in which they reside. Such ambivalence suggests that the reality of New York is more complicated than its symbolic imagery. And so, of course, it is. For New York City—not New York in some romanticized past, not New York in some utopian future, but New York today—can, I would argue, best be understood as a signal of transcendence.

The currently fashionable anti-urbanism concentrates on the harsh empirical facts about the city. To speak of New York City as a signal of transcendence is neither to ignore nor to deny these facts. Rather, it is to try for a glimpse of another reality, which is both hidden under and hinted at by the reality of this world. In other words, to speak of a signal of transcendence is to make an assertion about the presence of redemptive power in human life. Such assertions, needless to say, lie at the very center of the Judeo-Christian view of the world.

An exploration into the possibilities of New York as a signal of transcendence must begin with the root fact that it is not only a vast and vastly important city, but the city par excellence, the prototypical cosmopolis of our age. In other words, while New York may no longer be the largest city in the world, it is still the world’s most potent symbol of urbanism and urbanity (two related but distinct matters). This is why visitors and new arrivals feel at home in New York so quickly. Every urban experience that they have had before has been, in a way, an anticipation of New York, and the encounter with the real thing thus has a strong note of familiarity, of déjà vu (quite apart from the fact that the major landmarks of New York are known everywhere and serve as instant orientations for the newcomers). Wherever skyscrapers reach up toward the clouds, wherever masses of cars stream back and forth over steel-girded bridges, wherever heterogeneous crowds pour through subways, underground concourses, or cavernous lobbies encased in glass—there is a bit of New York. Conversely, the New Yorker visiting other cities finds everywhere the sights and sounds, even the smells, that remind him of home. The mystique of New York City is, above all, the mystique of modern urban life, concentrated there more massively than anywhere else.

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It is not accidental, I think, that the biblical imagery of redemptive fulfillment is so persistently urban. Jerusalem became the focus of religious devotion from an early period of the spiritual history of ancient Israel, and it has remained the holy city in both Jewish and Christian religious imagination ever since. And this same Jerusalem, of course, came to be transformed into an image of eschatological expectation—the Jerusalem that is to come, the heavenly city, “its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.” Biblical scholars disagree on the precise origins and status of the Zion tradition in the Old Testament, on the religious significance of Jerusalem at, say, the time of David and Solomon, and on the significance of the various images in the Apocalypse. Yet there seems to be far-reaching consensus on one rather simple point: the city as a sociopolitical formation marks a transition in human history from bonds based exclusively on kinship to more comprehensive human relationships. Perhaps this was not the case everywhere, but it was clearly so in the ancient Mediterranean world. Here cities—as markets, centers of political or military administration, and sanctuaries—served to weaken and eventually to liquidate the archaic bonds of blood, of clan, and of tribe.

Max Weber has argued that, in this, cities are incipiently “rationalizing”—that is, they constitute a social and political order based on reason, as against an older order based on magical taboos. This development reached a dramatic climax in the emergence of the Greek polis, but it is not fanciful to suggest that the biblical imagery of the city served as a religious legitimation of the same underlying liberation from the magic of the blood. Whatever else the city is, it is a place where different people come together and find a new unity with each other—and, in the context of the ancient world, that is a revolutionary event. What all this suggests is that the city is a signal of transcendence inasmuch as it embodies universalism and freedom.

If universalism is a root urban characteristic, then surely New York is the most universalistic of cities. And, of course, it is this quality of universalism that most impresses the newcomer and that is so often bragged about by the native. Here they are all pressed together, in this small space, all the races and all the nations of the earth. A short subway ride separates worlds of mind-boggling human diversity—black Harlem borders on the Upper West Side, the barrio on the territory of East Side swingers, the Village on Little Italy, Chinatown on the financial district. And that is only in Manhattan, beyond which lie the mysterious expanses of the boroughs—places like Green-point, Bay Ridge, or Boro Park, each one a world of meaning and belonging almost unpenetrated by outsiders. In this city you can enter a phone booth shaped like a pagoda, and make a reservation in a Czechoslovak restaurant (or, more precisely, in one of several Czechoslovak restaurants). You can spend weeks doing nothing else, if you have the leisure, than savoring the world’s greatest concentration of museums, art galleries, musical and theatrical performances, and other cultural happenings of every conceivable kind from the sublime to the unspeakable. When I first lived in New York as a student, I had a job as a receptionist in a now-defunct dispensary on the Lower East Side. I still recall with pleasure my lunch hours: I would buy a bialy with lox in the old Essex Street Market, munch it while strolling through the teeming street life at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, and then have a quiet coffee with baklava in one of several Turkish cafes over on Allen Street, surrounded by old men smoking water-pipes and playing checkers (apparently their only occupation). What I recall most of all is the exhilarating sense that here I was, in New York City, where all these things were going on and where, in principle, everything was possible.

These mundane facts carry redemptive meaning. They point to the promise that all of humanity in its incredible variety is God’s concern, and that the divine culmination of history will mean not the end but the glorious transfiguration of every truly human expression. The city of messianic fulfillment too will contain every human type and condition—and in this, necessarily, it will resemble New York. There is also the promise that the same culmination will be the reign of perfect freedom under God. Until then, all liberations are incomplete, some are illusory. All the same, wherever human beings are liberated from oppression or narrowness to wider horizons of life, thought, and imagination, there is a foreshadowing of the final liberation that is to come. It is in this sense—in the exhilaration of its pluralism and its freedom—that New York City is a signal of transcendence.

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To some extent the characteristics of universalism and freedom are endemic to urban life nearly everywhere, in varying degrees. The distinctiveness of New York comes from the enormous magnitude of these features here. The same may be said of another characteristic which, I propose, may be taken as a signal of transcendence: the city is a place of hope.

If there is any New York legend that is generally known, it is that of the immigrant, and the legend, of course, has as its most famous physical representation the Statue of Liberty. This legend is, above all, a story of hope. I myself arrived in America a short time after World War II, very poor and very young, after a long ocean voyage that sticks in my memory as an endless bout with seasickness. The ship sailed into New York harbor in the early morning, in a dense fog, so that very little could be seen at first. Then dramatically, the fog was pierced, and we saw first the Statue, which seemed perilously close to the ship, and then the skyline of Lower Manhattan. All the passengers (a motley crowd indeed) were assembled on the deck, and there was an awed silence. But, curiously, what impressed me most at the time was not these majestic sights; I had, after all, expected to see them. There was something else. As the ship sailed up the Hudson toward its pier, I was fascinated by the traffic on what I later learned was the West Side Highway. All these cars seemed enormous to me. But more than their size, it was their colors that astonished me. This was before New York taxis all came to be painted yellow; then, they came in every color of the rainbow, though yellow was predominant. Only, I didn’t know that these garish cars were taxis. The exuberance of color, I thought, was characteristic of ordinary American automobiles. This, then, was my first unexpected sight in New York, and it pleased me greatly. I don’t think I quite put it this way to myself, but implicit in my visual pleasure was the notion that someday I too might be driving past the skyscrapers in a bright yellow car of surrealistic proportions, engaged (no doubt) in some business of great importance, and enjoying the company of the most beautiful woman imaginable.

As immigrant stories go, mine has been lucky. Indeed, I could say that New York has kept all its promises to me. I know full well that this has not been so for all newcomers to the city. If New York has been a place of hope, it has also been a place of disappointed hope, of shattered expectations, of bitterness and despair. It has been fashionable of late to stress this negative aspect of the American dream—mistakenly so, I believe, because America has fulfilled many more expectations than it has frustrated. I would even go farther than that. The currently fashionable intellectuals, who decry the hopefulness of America, are far more in a state of “false consciousness” than the millions of immigrants who came and who continue to come to America full of hope.

Nevertheless, just as it would be false to speak of the universalism and the freedom of this city without also speaking of the sordid underside of these facts, so it would be dishonest to pretend that the hopeful message emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty is an accurate description of empirical reality. Of course it is not. And yet the proclamation of hope to all those who came here across the ocean is a signal of transcendent portent. For all of us, men and women of this aeon, are on a long journey, across vast and dangerous seas, toward a city of hope.

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There is more: New York is a place of useless labor. Just compare New York with an honest-to-goodness industrial city, like Detroit or Pittsburgh, or even Chicago. In these cities most people are engaged in labor that has at least an indirect relation to economic utility. Certainly there are such people in New York. The peculiarity of New York, however, is the large portion of its labor force employed in activities which only the most ingenious economic theory can interpret as a contribution to the gross national product. Leave aside the enormous number of people working in municipal government and other public services (and leave aside the very timely question of how long the city will be able to afford them): one is still left with legions of people making their livelihood, or at least trying to do so, through activities which, economically speaking, are bizarre. Promoters of Renaissance music, producers of non-verbal theater, translators of Swahili literature, purveyors of esoteric erotica, agents of nonexistent governments, revolutionaries in exile, Egyptologists, numismatic experts, scream therapists, guidance counselors for geriatric recreation, Indonesian chefs, belly-dancers and teachers of belly-dancing (and, for all I know, belly-dancing therapists)—not to mention individuals who are on university payrolls to provide instruction in phenomenological sociology.

A Chicagoan will know what to say to all this: these people can’t be serious. Precisely! The opposite of being serious is being playful; the invincible playfulness of New York City is, I believe, in itself a signal of transcendence. Homo ludens is closer to redemption than homo faber; the clown is more of a sacramental figure than the engineer. And we have very good reason to expect that paradise will be a very playful affair—and in that, at the very least, it will resemble New York more than Chicago.

New Yorkers, like the inhabitants of other large cities are supposed to be sophisticated. The word, of course, is related to sophistry—the ability to be clever with words, to be quick, to be surprised at nothing. This notion of sophistication is closely related to that of urbanity, and it is as much a source of pride for the urbanite as it is a provocation to others. Somebody once defined a true metropolis as a place where an individual can march down the street wearing a purple robe and a hat with bells on, beating a drum and leading an elephant by the leash—and only get casual glances from passers-by. If so, then surely New York is the truest metropolis there is. To some extent, of course, this is but another expression of the aforementioned universalism. But, in addition, the city is a place of magic. And in that too it offers us a signal of transcendence.

I don’t mean occultism, though there is enough of that around as well. I mean magic in a more ample sense, what Rudolf Otto called the mysterium fascinans—namely, the quality of the surreal, the intuition that reality is manipulable, unpredictable, subject to the strangest metamorphoses at any moment. The British author Jonathan Raban, in his curious book Soft City, argues that modern urban life is characterized by magic, and not (as it is more customarily thought to be) by rationality. I think that there is much to be said for this view; Raban also maintains that New York has this magic in a particularly potent form. The magic of the city can be summed up in a sentence that points to a recurring experience: anything can happen here—and it could happen right now.

Magic always has its dark side, and it is hardly necessary to spell out the sinister possibilities of the insight that anything can happen. But it would be a mistake to limit the experience to its negative aspect. The city is a place of strangers and of strangeness, and this very fact implies a fascination of a special kind. Ordinary-looking houses contain unimaginable mysteries within. Casual encounters are transformed into revelations of shocking impact. Passions explode on the most unexpected occasions. All this helps to account for the excitement of the city, but it also makes for a general vision of the world. Reality is not what it seems; there are realities behind the reality of everyday life; the routine fabric of our ordinary lives is not self-contained, it has holes in it, and there is no telling what wondrous things may at any moment rush in through these holes.

This vision of the world is perhaps not itself religious, but it is in close proximity to the root insights of the religious attitude. The magic of the city should not be identified with religious experience, but it may be said to be an antechamber of the latter. When people say that New York City is a surrealistic place, they are saying more than they intend. They are making a religious statement about the reality of human life: behind the empirical city lurks another city, a city of dreams and wonders. They are also making a statement about redemption: for redemption always comes into the world as a big surprise, even as a cosmic joke. Anything at all can come through the holes in the fabric of ordinary reality: a man leading an elephant by the leash—or Elijah returning in his fiery chariot to herald the dawn of our salvation.

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Between Rutgers University, where I teach, and Brooklyn, where I live, I regularly travel by crossing from Staten Island over the Verrazzano Bridge. It has often occurred to me, especially in the evening when the light is soft and the contours of visual reality seem to lack firmness, that the entrance to heaven may well look something like this wonderful bridge, with its majestic arcs and its breathtaking vistas on both sides. The transcendent hope of both Jewish and Christian piety is, quite simply, this: that in the evening of our lives we shall be part of this traffic and that we will know that, in the city on the other side of the bridge, what awaits us is home. I for one would not be overly surprised if the gatekeeper were to address me in a Brooklyn accent.

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