Monday, April 17, 2017

Hope For Humanity


I've spent last week in New York City where my wife and I came, primarily, to spend some time with our daughter Josephine who now lives there.

I'm a fan of urban density and there are few more densely populated places than this. I like the noise and bustle; the nearness of services, art, and entertainment; the ease of moving about on foot, bike, and mass transit; and the fitness of a human geography that grows up rather than out. But what I most love about urban density is the message of hope it sends me about humanity.

One evening I was waiting for Josephine on a bench in the East Village. The weather was pleasant. I'd arrived ten minutes early and I was just idly watching the people go about their business when a well-dressed young woman walking briskly with a friend suddenly stepped into a small doorway, dropped trow, and urinated on the sidewalk, before going on her way, continuing her chat as if the moment hadn't happened. I wasn't exactly appalled because, being a preschool teacher, I deal with the bodily wastes of other humans on a regular basis, and I wasn't even particularly shocked given that there have been times when I have had to give in to the urge at inconvenient times and places. No, it was more the audacity that struck me along with the fact that my brain was now contemplating the sanitary conditions of the pavement in general and questioning the wisdom of my choice to wear sandals.

As I considered warning people who's dogs lunged against their leads in that direction, I told myself, "Well, that's the city." Moments later another pair of well-dressed young women approached, heading in the opposite direction. Suddenly one of them stooped to pick up a pizza box that had been discarded on the sidewalk, and without missing a beat in her conversation, went out of her way to shove it into a trash can, a completely selfless act, one rewarded only by the knowledge that she had done the right thing. That's the city too.

I understand why many people are repelled by the very urban density to which I'm drawn, preferring the relative quite and elbow space represented by rural or suburban living. I mean, I can see the attraction of tidy lawns over urine stained, pizza box cluttered sidewalks. I've lived that lifestyle myself, but have ultimately rejected it throughout my life, always choosing to move closer and closer to the center rather than farther and farther away.

I live and work in Seattle, a smaller, but still densely populated part of the world. There was a time not so long ago that when the city grew too much for me, I could be standing in relatively untouched wilderness or bucolic countryside within a matter of minutes, but over the decades that has been pushed farther and farther away as people who feel differently than I have chosen to move their lives out there, paving paradise with strip centers, gas stations, and conveniently located supermarkets, converting large tracts of nature into a sort of flat, bland, concrete sameness, fenced off into grids. Where I once hiked in a forest, there are now daily traffic jams.


I know it's more complicated than this, but I can't help but note that in our effort to escape the unpleasantness of urine-stained sidewalks, we have taken to destroying the very thing we claim to love. They call it "urban flight," and that's what it looks like to me, an unconscious effort to run away from half of what makes us human.

When I'm in the city, especially New York City, it's not possible to just look away: I stand beside an overflowing dumpster as I contemplate the beauty of a work of art; I eat my fancy dinner while panhandlers beg for crumbs; I walk on urine-stained sidewalks kept tidy by young women who take it upon themselves to dispose of other people's refuse. Cities are the best and worst of humanity, all of humanity, every day, all the time. I prefer this over bland. I prefer growing up not out. And it encourages me that in my city of Seattle at least, more and more people are seeing it as I do, with an increasing number of my fellow humans opting to live and work together in an urban core that is becoming ever more densely populated. There is a 41-story apartment building going up right outside my living room window: that's some 800 new neighbors. I welcome them.

And this is what gives me hope for humanity. Densely populated places like New York are a testament to human cooperation, to working things out, to being interconnected, to community, to acknowledging those urine-stained sidewalks while also accepting our own responsibility for them.

Whenever I come to New York I always take a walk through Times Square, a place thronged with tourists and hucksters and traffic. A place abuzz with all that makes us human, from the very best to the very worst. You can't walk briskly and those who try are frustrated. You can't demand your own unencroachable self-space and those who try are frustrated. You can't be separate because the other people won't let you. You have no choice but to slow down, to step outside yourself, and to become one with it all, a part of this thing called humanity.

As I walked around the city on Easter Sunday, strangers, from stations high and low, wearing hajibs and kippahs, going to church or out for a run, wished me "Happy Easter!" I bounced as I walked full of the joyful awareness that we're all in this together, as ugly and beautiful as it is, and to deny that is to deny life. This is why cities give me hope.


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