I’d never really been to New York City. I’d been through a couple of times driving up and down the coast. I’d flown through each of the major airports. But I’d never seen the city on foot.
Seeing a sampling of the icons of NYC – Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Central Park, 5th Ave Apple Store (ahem), and, yeah, the WTC site – was certainly interesting. Times Square was smaller than I expected, Rockefeller Center larger. Central Park was about what I expected. The WTC site … was an annoying but almost refreshing collision of somber reflection and runaway opportunistic capitalism.
But more than the icons, I was struck by the human scale of the city. For all its size, enormous population, and reputation for bigness of every sort, NYC felt intimate. I wasn’t overwhelmed at all. Quite to the contrary, I felt a cozier sense of homeness in NYC than I ever felt in Atlanta, which has the misfortune of feeling far larger than even its absurd extent. I’m sure I’m not saying anything new here, but NYC felt like you’d taken a thousand villages and towns from all over the world and stripped out the pesky miles separating them.
I still couldn’t live there. For all the intimacy, it’s still far too many people and far too little green for me. But it certainly surprised me. It’s like Washington, DC, a city that is more complex and far more human than its cultural representation.
And, for the record, it’s not that I was expecting New Yorkers to be mean, rude and dismissive. I’ve rarely known better people than New Yorkers. I don’t know that you can ask for a better, more honest and loyal friend. Far better in any event than the slithering, superficial niceness that I grew up with in the South. (Now don’t get me wrong: there are wonderful Southerners and monstrous New Yorkers, but the nature and extent of the South’s politeness is wildly misrepresented in our national culture, as it is merely a tool to prevent daily interactions of Southerners from breaking down into our instinctive violence.)
But the general decency of people was on full display in New York, acts of kindness and wit and charm on every corner, though I’ll admit that the tourists were as gaudy and brash as they are anywhere.
Many of the things I don’t like in cities were also on display: traffic, incessant noise, unusual pools of unidentifiable liquids, pee smell everywhere. But compared to the filth that urban humans lived in just 100 years ago, our species has made remarkable progress at living in close proximity while not gassing each other out. Not exactly a tagline for a tourist campaign, but it’s always worth trying to keep perspective in these things.