It’s a city that’s always fascinated me. I remember crafting cardboard models of New York landmarks for a board game I made in Year 4.
And if you’re a regular to my site, you may have noticed that my homepage header is a photo of Times Square, also known as “The World’s Crossroads”.
But this week I finally get to see the city that never sleeps with my own eyes. I’ve only scratched the surface of this sprawling concrete jungle in the five days I’ve been here. But in that time, 100,000 steps have taken me to every site at the top of my list and many besides.
“Within New York’s greater metro area lives a population as large as Australia’s.”
I was taken by surprise at my first glance of New York’s skyline. Looking up at hundreds of antique, pixellated high-rises piercing the sky, I was transported. I found myself in the world of Batman’s Gotham City and Superman’s Metropolis—both of which, no surprise, began as fictional spinoffs of NYC.
Something felt different about this city to the many others I’ve visited, and I knew what it was right away. Around the world, skyscrapers have been built mostly in late decades from steel and glass.
By contrast, the majority of New York’s went up a hundred years ago. This was a time when architects stunned the world by sending stone up to impossible heights. And there that stone remains to this day, forming a proud trophy cabinet to the city’s historic genius and wealth.
“Looking up, I found myself in the world of Batman’s Gotham City and Superman’s Metropolis.”
The Big Apple really is big. It’s the most populous city in America. It has more subway stations, more billionaires, and more spoken languages than any other city on earth—over 800 dialects can be heard in its streets. Most impressive of all, within New York’s greater metro area lives a population as large as Australia’s.
This city has been called the cultural capital of the world, the media capital of the world, the financial capital of the world, and just the straight-up capital of the world. It’s even been dubbed the ‘centre of the universe’—though that last one might be taking it a little too far.
The list of New York’s iconic marvels is so long that it’s easy to forget they’re all found in the same place: the Empire State Building, Times Square, The United Nations, Brooklyn Bridge, the Guggenheim, Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, the Rockefeller Centre, Wall Street, the Chrysler Building, the World Trade Centre. The list never seems to end.
“The Big Apple really is big.”
The city has such a curious past. As I’ve previously written, during the Age of Discovery, the island of Manhattan was bought in exchange for a now-forgotten ‘Spice Island’ in the backwaters of Indonesia. If only its buyers—or worse, its sellers—could know Manhattan’s value now.
Another discovery I made, confirmed by Google as I paced New York’s vast underground, is this: the terms ‘uptown’ and ‘downtown’, now used around the world, originated in NYC.
‘Downtown’ was dubbed for the simple reason that New York’s street numbers descend the further south you travel towards the city’s pulsing centre in Lower Manhattan. Now every city in America and many beyond use the same terminology. Who knew?
Then of course there were the fateful events of September 11, when we all became New Yorkers for a day. Thousands of lives were lost before the eyes of a watching world, and western civilisation was brought to its knees. We were reminded of our own mortality—but also of our enduring resilience and hope.
“New York has even been dubbed the centre of the universe.”
Much of what I’ve shared so far could be found anywhere online, but what of my firsthand experiences? Three words that come to mind as I reflect on my days in this city.
Diversity. Perhaps that’s expected in any city of this size. But evidence of it was everywhere in New York, from the chorus of accents at street level, to the smorgasbord of cuisine sold from vans, markets and cafes, and the array of religious attire worn as unapologetically as this year’s fashion.
But the diversity that really captured my attention, that I’d been warned of but hardly believed until I saw it myself, was the gulf between rich and poor, which ran along strongly ethnic lines.
“Multiple subway closures left me stranded in Harlem late on Saturday night.”
Manhattan is finite in size, so its real estate sells at a premium. Which is why I was amazed that a community like Harlem in the island’s upper reaches really is as rough and seedy as the movies portray.
This hit home for me when multiple subway closures left me stranded in Harlem late on Saturday night.
The people I spoke to that night were friendly and helpful. But there were many sleeping rough; lone young kids rode scooters unsupervised; and the rip of distant gunshots blended into the atmosphere. At every turn, music pulsed from clusters of parked cars, and it was difficult at times to see sidewalk for litter.
“The divide between rich and poor knows no geographical limits.”
All this within a stone’s throw of Central Park.
It was a sobering reminder that not only is my own nation of Australia an incredibly lucky country, but also that the divide between rich and poor knows no geographical limits.
I don’t pretend to know the solution to this disparity, but I now see the American problem more clearly.
Generosity. I’ve been kindly hosted by friends of friends in upstate New York—now friends of mine—who went above and beyond to make me feel welcome.
They’ve loaned me train tickets, cooked me meals, shuttled me to stations, pointed me to local secrets, and much more besides. I was left wondering what I’d done to deserve such generosity.
I also had the chance to visit Redeemer Presbyterian, a church I’ve followed from afar through the books and podcasts of Tim Keller.
“I’ve been kindly hosted by friends of friends in upstate New York.”
I was fortunate enough to sit next to a couple who’d been part of the church since its earliest days. They introduced me to many others in the room who were part of the furniture. If that weren’t enough, they took me out to lunch, showed a great interest in my life and prayed for me before we said farewell.
If anyone thinks New Yorkers are too brash or busy, I’d simply counter that they haven’t met the right ones yet.
History. New York has a chequered past—from its treatment of Native Americans and slaves to the unrestrained greed that saw vast fortunes won and lost on Wall Street.
But originally, New York wasn’t founded for any of that. It was one of thirteen colonies that banded together seeking democratic and religious liberty.
Those thirteen colonies boldly declared independence in 1776 with the famous words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
Liberty is still a key word for the city of New York, though these days it’s taken on a new hue. Walking the streets of Times Square, it was clear that people flock to this city to indulge every pleasure imaginable.
“Almost 250 years later, the American experiment continues.”
In that sense, New York remains a city of great liberty. I just wonder if this is the best use of its hard-won liberty—given that the excesses of today quickly become the chains of tomorrow.
A distant king is a terrible master, but unrestrained desires within are arguably far worse.
Almost 250 years later, the American experiment continues, taking the rest of the West with it, whether or not we signed up for the journey.
With that in mind, my prayer for this nation I’m calling home for six months is a rediscovery of the liberty it began with and still so desperately needs.
I’ve got some big writing and travel adventures planned for 2019. If you’d like to stay updated every once in a while by email newsletter, let me know here.