Tuesday, August 31, 2010

NYC at a Crossroads

"May you live in interesting times." This old maxim has lately become our reality. We certainly do live in interesting times, a period that history will remember -- and it's friggin' depressing.

What makes any period of time "interesting" anyway? That's a tough call. Any moment in the past has points that are interesting. But what makes some periods more interesting than others, I guess, are those times when a society -- be it a city, country, or even the whole world -- is going through a particularly fierce and tumultuous battle for its very identity and soul; when it appears that the future is a complete tabula rasa, a clean slate that the victor in the battle for power will be able to draw on; where the choices are zero-sum and the winner takes all.

In essence, history is most interesting when it is being transformed.

Think of the Revolutionary War. The Civil War. Certainly World War II. Think of the Battle of Waterloo or 9/11. Think of the Great Depression or the election of Ronald Reagan. People were faced with a choice about what kind of country and world they wanted to live in -- and the battle was on. Thus interesting times ensued. And the world was never the same again.

But interesting times must, at some point, come to a climax -- the story must reach its moment of maximum intensity before going into its denouement.

For the last decade, since 9/11, NYC has been going through some very interesting times. We suffered and then recovered from the worst terrorist attack in history. We went through a dreadful blackout. Most recently, the financial crises hammered the city and the country's economy. We took a beating but got back up.

Yet it feels, more and more, that the interesting times NYC has been going through has been leading right up to this very moment. The climax of our story is upon us. Perhaps I'm being overly dramatic but, when I read the headlines, I get the sense that NYC is at a crossroads, a turning point where we may be permanently transformed in ways in which our city's fate will be sealed forever.

The debate over the "Ground Zero mosque" is but one example. If the forces of darkness, of hate and fear, prevent a private entity from constructing a building purely for religious/political reasons, it will be a dark day for our city and a troubling precedent for our future.

But it wouldn't be the first troubling precedent we've seen lately: less than two years ago the city council blatantly ignored the public will and extended term limits for themselves after city voters had twice approved a two-term limit. This outrageous action spawned a city charter commission that has created two "ballot issues" for this fall's election: one where we get to change term limits back to two and another that is so confusing and strange that no one seems to understand it. This charter commission has been regarded, quite rightly, as a disgrace. It failed to do anything about structural reform in our city government and it allows those council members who are currently in office to still serve three terms! The changing of term limits already brought NYC to a crossroads -- and we went down the wrong path.

And yet another crossroads is one that, in years to come, we will be able literally to see outside our windows. The city council has approved, and financiers and developers are furiously working on, constructing enormous big glass box buildings that will change the city skyline. Now, we all recognize that NYC is dynamic and that buildings go up and down all the time. But as this fine article points out, this "cavalcade of skyscrapers" are ugly as sin and the skyline could start to look like any typically overbuilt, anonymous city -- not the NYC of unique architecture and spirit that we all love. Another crossroads and another (apparently) wrong turn.

Then, as always, there's the economy. Apparently the recession in NYC is over -- and we're doing great! But like everything else in these "interesting times", the reality is more complex and confusing. Apparently if you are professional and upper class and/or live in Manhattan, you are thriving. Wall Street is back! Bonuses are huge! We face less foreclosures and bankruptcies than elsewhere. But if you're middle class or poor, the future in NYC is bleak. Non-professionals who have lost their jobs are struggling mightily and wages for those lucky enough to work are declining. Most distressingly, high long-term unemployment is becoming a permanent fixture of the city economy. This really is becoming a city of the haves and have-nots, of rich and poor. Increasingly 21st century NYC is beginning to resemble 19th century Russia. Our economy, our city's very well-being, is at a crossroads as well -- and it appears to be going in the wrong direction too.

So as the long decade since 9/11 comes to a close in NYC, the interesting times of the last several years are playing out -- and this is how the city has been transformed since then; this is the climax to our story. The rich are richer than ever before, the poor are getting poorer. The middle class is becoming but a memory. The city is increasingly starting to resemble Dubai and our government is as rinky-dink as ever. We are allowing the forces of darkness to overwhelm the forces of reason and the city is more polarized than ever.

NYC will always be a great city and I will always love it. But we're at a crossroads now and it looks like we're inching down the wrong path. Let's hope we change course before it's too late.

1 comment:

  1. The middle class is becoming but a memory. The city is increasingly starting to resemble Dubai and our government is as rinky dink as ever.


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