Spirit of New York
by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on March 15, 2007.
My friend had told me to sit in a window seat on the left side of the airplane. Good advice. As my plane took off from LaGuardia, slowly the whole of Manhattan came into view. The sun had recently set, so the lights of the city smiled back at the moon. The greatest of skyscrapers congregated at the lower tip of the island and near its center, around Times Square. So as I flew through the air in this contraption that some once thought impossible and even blasphemous, I witnessed the very heights of human glory. It is a magnificent city.
One morning during my stay I walked down Fifth Avenue past much of Central Park, then (after that avenue ends) through the lower part of the island to the Museum of the American Indian. From there, I joined a walking tour around Wall Street. I'll mention only a few of the interesting facts that the guide related.
I had never considered how the various streets got their names. Wall Street is named after the wall that once served as the protective northern boundary of the early tiny settlement. Wall Street ran into Pearl Street, named after the shells that once washed up onto the shore there. But now one can walk three blocks southeast of Pearl Street. Our guide showed us a map of the original landmass and its expansion. Racontours.com shows how the coastline expanded from 1660 through 2004. The site also shows an image of the corner of Pearl and Wall in 1691; the image shows small boats tied just off the street. Similarly, the coastline slowly moved several additional blocks west of Broadway.
New York could not be contained by something as trivial as the existing boundary of land; the city pushed on into the waters. And commerce spilled over the wall until the street bearing its name moved from the northern edge of the settlement to the southern tip of the recognizable and densely populated landmass. The city grew in three dimensions: out into the water, up into the towers, and down into the subways.
The city was built on scientific knowledge. While on my own, I happened across a plaque at 40 Fulton. It states, "In a building on this site an electric plant supplying the first Edison underground central station system in this country and forming the origin of New York's present electrical system began operation on Sept. 4, 1882, according to plans conceived and executed by Thomas Alva Edison."
One consequence of the vitality of the city is its seductive appeal to those born in other lands who are looking for a better way of life. A May 8, 2006, article from the Washington Post indicates that "38 percent of New York's 8 million residents are foreign-born, nearly the same percentage as a century ago." The same article notes, "Until 1918... [n]ew arrivals were required only to prove their identity and find a relative or friend who could vouch for them."
It is this vibrancy and growth, this commerce and productivity, this appeal to the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," that is the spirit of New York -- and the spirit of these United States.
Unfortunately, it is not the spirit shared by all who claim to be Americans. If the essential history of New York is that of liberty and progress, it has always competed with a contrary drive toward oppression and stagnation.
Today, many conservatives who at times pretend to endorse free markets react gleefully to news of federal raids on businesses owners and their immigrant employees. Rather than allow people to come here and contribute to our nation's wealth, such conservatives wish to spend our resources to punish producers and forcibly prevent people from working.
For example, Kari Milchman reports for the Feb. 28 New York Press that "a Republican student group at NYU hosted a game called 'Find The Illegal Immigrant,' in which participants playing INS agents searched the campus for a participant labeled 'illegal immigrant.' ... [A] version has been played on several other campuses."
Meanwhile, many self-styled "progressives" openly resent America's productive achievements and wish to cripple the market economy because of hysterical fears that (for instance) New York will be swallowed up by the sea if we don't use less energy, run our paper-weight cars on corn juice, and expansively socialize the business of energy and transportation. So we've gone from confidently redrawing nature's boundaries and pushing our cities into the water and into the sky to sniveling about the wrath of sea and sky if we dare attempt to keep building, growing and expanding.
While the conservatives and the "progressives" of the sort here described continually snipe at each other, they share the same spirit of force, reaction, regression, anti-progress, diminishment and curtailment. Often they lament productive achievement and applaud its destruction. They obsess about exaggerated dangers, whether the criminality of immigrants or the impacts of a common gas on a planet that has continually fluctuated between warm and cold spells, while utterly ignoring the phenomenal life-enhancing benefits of the productive activities that they attack.
The next time I stand at the corner of Pearl and Wall, I will joyfully celebrate all the immigrant labor and carbon-dioxide that went into building the city beyond a barrier and a coastline.