I strongly believe that one of the pillars of humanity’s future is New York City, the city that never sleeps and which exemplifies the stark contrast of human achievement, potential and limitation.
My first trip to the United States and New York City (in 1991) was a transformational experience. After my first plane trip ever (which seemed to go on forever) I arrived at JFK airport and took my first steps into the New World. For a boy who grew-up in Vienna, the Old World, this was an adventure to be remembered. On my first day I wasn’t able exploring New York City (NYC) as I had to catch a transfer flight to Rochester. First memorable impressions of the good and the bad of the New World include delicious grilled chicken salad with sweet and spicy mustard sauce (with the meal not being charged unless the restaurant managed to fulfil the order within ten minutes sharp, with a stopwatch and exit survey on every table – until this day a customer service experience second to none), watching people checking-out what seemed to be excessive quantities of all kinds of goods at supermarkets, and driving-through visibly run-down and isolated suburbs home to a majority of African-Americans (and an Austrian butcher’s shop).
The highlight of the first visit to the US was driving to NYC though (with a stop-over in Buffalo where I was able visiting a native American heritage site, day-dreaming what the country must have been like during the time of the ‘Leatherstocking Tales’). Arriving at NYC we crossed the George Washington Bridge (which in itself was unbelievable as I never saw stacked lanes on a bridge before) approaching the city’s skyline. At that moment, still on the bridge but with the many skyscrapers in front of us, my sense of scale changed forever. I felt much smaller but also enlarged, breathless and I was totally smitten. Over the next few days, whilst suffering from an increasingly stiff neck and blisters on my feet looking up and walking countless miles on concrete paving, I thought that here is a city that has transcended the ordinary to become extraordinary. A beacon (best exemplified by the Statue of Liberty’s torch) of progress and prosperity for all – shining, calling and inviting across the seas.
And yet, I also thought that NYC harboured great disadvantage, with many visible and invisible lines that seemed to divide the city into the well and the less well-off. To me, the city was one of great contrast, too great for my liking and inconsistent with what it aspired to be. A city of many cultures and many histories, all interwoven and mutually reinforcing. Energetic and growing, evolving and all the while maturing and also ageing. A visible cycle of life and death on a great canvas, and a reflection of both our potential and limitations. A city where people own more than they can (or should) ever consume, home to the very poor who are unable approaching a church without being chased away by security guards and the police, suburbs that seemed worlds apart, buildings that appeared to pierce the clouds and a vision of freedom, liberty and equality that was at odds with reality when looking towards Harlem from a locked fence in Central Park.
Of course much has happened since then, most of all the horror and aftermath caused by 9/11. Without expanding the theme of human pain and suffering further, but paying tribute to all of NYC’s history to-date and how the city evolved in time, I have no doubt that NYC is one of the pillars of humanity’s future. It heralds the further development of ever larger urban spaces that are combining all the various dimensions of humanity – both the good and the less good – growing ever skywards and sideways, to heights and areas unimaginable today. Cities as high as mountains and as large as oceans, with countless spires reaching into the void beneath the stars: humanity’s great engines of social progress, commerce and innovation.
New York City, Big Apple, I respectfully salute you from across the seas and wish you well. Don’t be afraid of your history but instead seize all of it to transform yourself, again and again, to enable a brighter future for all of humanity, as you should.