As the bus exits the Lincoln tunnel and enters Manhattan, I strain my neck to look out the window at the buildings towering over me in the narrow corridor called a street. I am overwhelmed with awe at the beauty and majesty of this new environment. I can hear, feel and smell the city breathing with both life and decay. Steam coming out of the asphalt. Music coming out of a church. Rotten food coming out of buildings. Light coming out of windows. People walking everywhere. I am a foreigner here. Where can I find shelter, or a drink of water? Where do I push my stick into the landscape, like Brigham, and say this is where I will begin?
I decide to explore this living organism called a city. Much more seems to be going on here than is visible on the surface. The landscape before me is teeming with life like a tree, with roots extending deep into the earth and branches soaring into the sky. Lightning and water flow hidden through arteries giving life to all. Burrowing under the city’s skin I enter one of the arteries called a subway. Here I am transported to another time. As I emerge, not knowing what to expect, my eyes take time to adjust to the changed scene before me. A person reeking of urine and dressed in rags asks for money. I get a sandwich from a guy at a deli. Someone follows me calling out that he knows me, but I’ve never seen him before. This part of the city is old. The scale of all I see is different. Ground Zero lies in ruins. People around me share where they were when it happened. There is a wall lining an entire street with flowers and graffiti-like markings. One of the scrawlings says, €œI sat in silence watching. € Why are all these people here?
By chance I run into a friend from high school. I don’t know what to say to him. He doesn’t say anything, so we pass each other on a piece of concrete called a sidewalk. How do I make my mark? How do I make a difference? I run into a friend from college. He lives here now. We talk as though we were not in a foreign place. I forget that I am the foreigner.
An obsession begins to develop towards this strange wilderness. I feel at home for the first time in my life even though I am alone. But I’m not alone. This vast landscape is layered with people, surfaces, textures, and materials that combine infinitely to provide me the community, music, crime, art, filth, food, and beauty that I need. Every stranger I pass on the street helps contribute to make each of these parts of my life here possible. Again I burrow into the city’s skin.
I emerge reborn, now a child of the city, confident. I am ready to begin. I know where in the landscape to place my stick. I enter a box called an elevator and fly upwards, unseen, as high as is humanly possible, to the top of an Empire. Here I stand on stones carved out of the earth by human hands. These stones suspended 1250 feet above the street allow me to see the grandest achievements of Humanity. It is February 14th at midnight. Sleepless in Seattle comes to mind. Except my love is not coming for me. My love is already here, all 8.3 million of them.
Jonathan is an architect and blogger who loves talking about sustainability, the environment, buildings, and cities. He has worked in Orlando, San Francisco, Portland, and now Salt Lake where he is approaching one year in Utah working for the LDS Church. He blogs at green mormon architect and salt lake architecture and is looking forward to a return trip to New York next month.
7 thoughts on “Guest post by green mormon architect: 8.3 Million”
Many things here I recognize, though I’ve never lived in a big city and the biggest cities I’ve visited, in only the most superficial ways, are SLC and Pittsburgh.
Your statements about NY providing you with everything that you need resonate right now because reading them I have to admit that where I live doesn’t provide everything my family needs. I live in an isolated community with one grocery store that, facing no competition, can allow its shelves to go slack while it maintains continuous tension on its prices. In order to procure many common household items, we drive approximately 160 mi. over to the next state or 150 to the next small-ish in-state town worth the trip.
But this sentence fascinates me for other reasons:
This vast landscape is layered with people, surfaces, textures, and materials that combine infinitely to provide me the community, music, crime, art, filth, food, and beauty that I need.
It’s the city’s “filth” and “crime” that many people flee. How do these elements satisfy something in you?
Ha — I should have known you would ask about this! 🙂 Here’s an attempt to hopefully clarify what I was getting at. In thinking about filth, my thoughts centered on the city as a living organism. Looking at it now, another word for this could have also been waste. An organism needs to create and dispose of filth/waste as a natural by-product of the digestive system. Just as my body needs this creation and removal of filth in its struggle to survive, so does a city when we think of it in terms of an organism.
As for crime, in one way, a crime is committed anytime someone does something foolish or unwise that has unintended consequences. This crime could harm the person, benefit the person, harm others, or benefit others. In writing this, I was not as much interested in the legal definition of a crime being an act against the law, but just in how making mistakes or acting in a foolish way is something everyone does, often with devastating consequences. Since this is apart of what it means to be human, we have to learn to navigate through these crimes on a daily basis — especially in a city filled with millions of people.
Ah yes, I get it now. Your answer, punctuated with actual experiences, would make an intriguing post by itself.
I am acquainted with “unintended consequences,” not just as the downstream beneficiary of ripples but as one whose actions have produced swamping bow waves.
Meaningful to consider how the city environment differs from the “wild” environment mostly by nature of its population and their constructions. Out in the canyon today, I encountered several wild turkeys. I wouldn’t expect to find turkeys roaming the streets of Pittsburgh or SLC (except maybe in cages in their zoos), but I do find I wonder about turkeys about the same as I do any Other.
I’ll try to be more open toward cities now, let the wonder out more when I’m in one. Thanks for this post.
I don’t like cities, but your writing helped me appreciate them better.
I have been reading about sustainability and city development with interest over the last couple years. I like some of the ideas, like having the garage in the back of neighborhood houses, planning in more green areas around schools, and making sure there are sidewalks.
I live in suburbs, which is a pain. It takes the entire day to drive on errands because no two destinations are terribly close to one another. There are also no sidewalks and children on bikes must navigate between cars. In our talks around the kitchen table I have said that I wouldn’t mind a more developed place if it were small and as long as it had sidewalks and I could walk to a library and/or store.
I had that once; and I miss it.
Big cities, hm. They feel so utterly concentrated to me. But they do have a concentration of resources as a result as well. And your writing brings them to life for me. That takes real spirit.
BTW, this line: My love is already here, all 8.3 million of them.
… makes me think of a line from a Brothers Gibb song: “How deep is your love?”
Jonathan provides a nice measurement of his: 8.3 mil deep. 🙂
I appreciate your comments Lora. I agree that the concentration of resources (and people) can lead to both positives and negatives. And I am excited to have brought a little bit of life to cities for you despite your dislike for them.
Patricia, thanks for allowing me to guest post here. It was an enjoyable challenge for me to articulate my experience from years ago.