Wednesday, April 8, 2020

There is nothing inevitable about New York

I have this phrase floating in my head and I'm not sure why. It doesn't really make any sense and yet I keep repeating it. I keep saying, there is nothing inevitable about New York.

I don't mean that there is nothing inevitable about COVID-19 having the destructive effect it is having in NYC right now. That's not what I mean.

What I mean is, there is nothing inevitable about the city itself.

Take this image. It's a classic view of Manhattan island, taken from the air out in New York Harbor. The year is 1933. Look at all the piers traveling up the West Side, where goods, cargo and passengers all disembarked. Notice the rectangle in the middle of the island, the living lung of New York, Central Park. Though the shape of Manhattan is deeply ingrained in our minds, nothing in this image was preordained, no matter how familiar it is to us.

Some might say, "Incorrect! Geology along with geography account for it all." That as soon as the trading Dutch arrived in the New World, this argument would go, the island's destiny was determined. A deep water port, a navigable river with access inland, broad channels and plenty of shore. Perhaps. Salem, Massachusetts was a gem 200 years ago too.

The photograph, romantic in its black-and-white perspective, is emblazoned on most Americans. The history is so rich, the cultural lore so ever-pervasive. New York has always been this way. But nothing that made it so.