Between Urban and…Urban

in the Bowery

Relaxing on the terrace, looking on to the new One World Trade Center tower (center).

Even though we live in the sort of place most people escape TO, my hubby and I feel the impulse for a break now and then. Sometimes the change of place from this semi-arid ridge in central Colorado’s mountains is wet and coastal and occasionally it’s foreign, but often it’s a short city break. We eat in restaurants, take long walks on chewing-gum-freckled sidewalks, rely on public transportation.

There’s plenty about these trips that unsettles me. The charms of air travel withered long ago. I sleep poorly in noisy and over-illuminated cities. I’m distressed at how much harder it is to minimize my participation in the disposable economy while traveling. I’m unnerved by the press of people. I dislike the persistent befuddlement of being stripped of my insider’s native confidence. Yet for the brief interlude of a few days, spending time someplace that bears no resemblance to where we live, be it by sight, sound, smell, or rhythm, can be revitalizing.

New York tenement neighborhood

New York tenement neighborhood.

At the end of March, Doug and I flew to New York City to spend a few days in the urban frenzy and to visit my mom and brother. Doug had scored an online deal for a hotel and our time there aligned with a couple of days of fine spring weather. We socialized with family and friends and visited a couple of museums, but spent a lot of time wandering the streets, taking in the bustle and intricate choreography of that frenetic and assertively urban environment. In our temporary local neighborhood, we strolled past stores selling durian fruit, used restaurant equipment, shoes, high-end lighting, fancy clothes, cannolis. We strode streets and ambled avenues while dodging workers, tourists, bikes, food carts, and forests of steel construction scaffolding sprouting on walkways in every neighborhood. We squinted in the glare of glass-clad high-rises, admired the rusting fretwork of fire escapes on refurbished brick tenements, and noted that construction fashion trends have brought concrete back in vogue.

Overlooking the High Line and The Standard hotel from the Whitney.

Overlooking the High Line and The Standard hotel from the Whitney.

The city is not the environment I claim as my own, and I’ve managed to arrange my life to hold the urban, the world of people, at a distance much of the time. The urban pole of my everyday existence consists mostly of books and words, of our house and outbuildings and vehicles and the infrastructures that support them, and of the technologies that enable my at-a-distance participation in twenty-first century society—including the electronics that allow me to publish these reflections.

There’s plenty about the human universe that makes me glad of my selective engagement, and I recognize that I’m privileged in being able to regulate my exposure. Somewhere in the course of every single day I find opportunity to consider what human arrogance, cruelty, or apathy has most recently wrought.

In the city, you’d think all that would be amplified, and in some respects it is. The human imprint in a place like New York is so profound that it takes special attention to detect anything of the wild. I can’t help but ponder the hubris of hiding our collective human reliance on natural systems beneath clever systems of concrete, steel, and glass.

Beyond all that, though, and beyond the mental recalibration of a few days away from work routines and the refreshed sense of gratitude for my home place, an interlude of voluntary submission to the metropolitan crush matters to the point of necessity. Time in the urban environment reminds me that all the negatives arise, in part, because people are such amazing animals.

Outdoor terrace at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Outdoor terrace at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The in-your-face intensity of so many human souls gathered close together in a large city confronts me with undeniable evidence of our ingenuity, grit, diversity, and grace. Whether it’s the unexpected spices on the duck breast I ordered for dinner, the efficiency of a crowded subway, a building packed with artwork, a novel architectural declaration, or a friendly greeting rendered in an unfamiliar accent, I come away awestruck at our capacity for invention, affability, and collaboration. I’m floored by the human ability to make things, and make things work. In the city, I’m all but assaulted by an astonishing wealth—not of money, although that’s certainly well in evidence—but of improvisation, hard work, adaptability, creativity, and perseverance.

Nice work, everybody.

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2 Responses to Between Urban and…Urban

  1. michael delaney says:

    Oh, Annie! Yes and no. I’m currently reading _Half Earth_ by E O Wilson. Do we have the ability as a species to think beyond the next quarter’s profit-margin, or the next election? Maybe. I certainly hope so, but the daily news argues against.
    My get away at the end of March was to Montana. 🙂

    • Andrea Jones says:

      Michael, I don’t know if we have the desire to think bigger or more long term, even though I’m confident the ability is there. That sense of potential is what I was responding to, I think, following those days in NYC. It was interesting to experience that little surge of optimism, even while my habit and inclination is to see the destructiveness. What I’m thinking about since then is whether giving ourselves credit for what we do right is part of the project of taking ownership for what we do wrong?

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