The other day I read an article in Harper’s Magazine about how New York has changed.
As New York enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is in imminent danger of becoming something it has never been before: unremarkable. It is approaching a state where it is no longer a significant cultural entity but the world’s largest gated community, with a few cupcake shops here and there. For the first time in its history, New York is, well, boring. — Kevin Baker
I was in New York City way back in 1969 for a religious conference I ignored for the most part to explore the urban streets I found so riveting. What else can you expect from an almost sixteen-year-old?
According to Kevin Baker, that was just before the city became a cesspool of crime, filth, cockroaches, and homeless defining its roadways, alleys, and tenements during the 1970s. Truth is, I saw the filth and homeless during my fluttering through shops and parks. You did not want to be caught in a rainstorm on those streets because the million drops of water falling from the heavens were chalked full of smog. Those were the days before there was all the hype about air quality.
Back then it was an exciting place to visit. Johnny Carson had his show live at Radio City. There were Broadway and off-Broadway shows. Visiting the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building was still an awesome experience. Visiting Macy’s was supposed to be a shopping trip you’d never forget. [Personally, I was a little disappointed.] Nowadays, the tourist attractions seem dwarfed against the skyline. Johnny Carson is gone. Macy’s has stores all over the country so the sensation of shopping at a famous store can’t be brought forth. All that is left are the hotdog stands every few blocks and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
My hometown is Denver. While growing up, going downtown was an exciting adventure. Our mother would take my brother and me at the start of the Christmas season to buy our two special ornaments for the Christmas tree that year and to pick out our present for our dad. Mom would also take us to one of the bookstores as part of her quest to keep us interested in reading. The streets looked so wide back then. It seemed to take forever to cross a street. I would get nervous wondering if the light was going to stay green long enough so I wouldn’t get run over while crossing. Somehow I always made it across before I saw the yellow light.
However, nowadays, even with 16th Street being a long wide walkway downtown, that glorious feeling I had when walking with my mom and brother has vanished and has been replaced with anxiety, annoyance, and a little fear. The bustle of yesterday has been replaced by trudging feet barely moving forward. The streets are congested with drivers ignoring the pedestrian lights, insisting on making that turn. People walking aren’t pleasant either, flipping the bird to anyone who doesn’t move out of their way.
The fun and euphoria of the big city have departed and we are left with concrete buildings and tarred roadways that seem to evoke sadness, despair, misgiving, and perplexity. Oh, and, of course, a little bit of fear.
Have you noticed the difference?
“Everything in modern city life is calculated to keep man from entering into himself and thinking about spiritual things. Even with the best of intentions a spiritual man finds himself exhausted and deadened and debased by the constant noise of machines and loudspeakers, the dead air and the glaring lights of offices and shops, the everlasting suggestion of advertising and propaganda.”
― Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island