New York Calling

New York Calling

Spirit is a power only by looking the negative in the face and living with it.
Living with it is the magic power that converts the negative into being.
—Hegel, Preface to The Phenomenology of the Spirit, 1807

My city’s in ruins / My city’s in ruins
Come on rise up! / Come on rise up! / Rise up
—Bruce Springsteen, “My City of Ruins” from The Rising, 2002

When I was a child, about sixty years ago, the city’s publicly owned radio station, WNYC, had a wonderful announcement that it would transmit every hour on the hour: “This is Station WNYC, New York City, where seven million people”—at some point in the early 1960s it became eight million—“live in peace and harmony, and enjoy the benefits of democracy.” I was thrilled by this language; I can see now that it formed my first idea of New York.

My parents were too poor to have gone to college, but their talk was rich in ideas. We spent many weekends exploring New York’s grand material structures—the Harbor (still thriving all through my childhood), the Statue of Liberty, great buildings, Times Square, Penn and Grand Central Stations, Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge. We learned to love them, but also to see their human costs. From the deck of a ferry or a skyscraper, we would exclaim, “Wow!” Then my mother would say som...

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