The diversity of city life is not only its definition. It is its saviour
PUBLISHED: 13:45 26 May 2017 | UPDATED: 13:45 26 May 2017
How the indomitable spirit of our city dwellers renders terror pointless
Two ladies walked out of the shopping centre in Manchester and straight up to the reporter.
They were of what the French call ‘a certain age’ and they were arm-in-arm. One of the ladies flicked her long black hair back, then turned to look at her friend.
Her friend walked a little towards the camera, took a breath and shouted: “They’re not driving us out of here! We’re Manchester! We’re diverse, vibrant! I’d like to see somebody try and stop us! We’re metropolitan!”
Metropolitan. From the Greek: ‘metropolites’, residents of a city. Plato called the Greeks ‘frogs around a pond’. The pond was the body of water they thought was the middle of the world: the Mediterranean Sea.
A few weeks after 9/11, the BBC asked me to return to New York City and look around, ask a few questions. I had not been in Manhattan for 15 years. If you choose to leave a city – even to go to another one – you have to purge yourself. Because the city is in you. You never leave it.
I went back to my old neighbourhood on the Lower East Side. In my day, the Puerto Rican community called it ‘Loisaida’, a kind of slang that you can hear if you try to say ‘Lower East Side’ in a Spanish accent. By the time I had returned that late autumn day in 2001, it had become ‘The East Village’ and even that name was being broken up into units to suit real estate development.
My old neighbourhood used to have Irish, African Americans, Ukrainians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Koreans, Chinese, Italians, Afghanis, and everything in between. Every community had restaurants and if you were lucky, you got the chance to eat in all of them. The Ukrainians had big bowls of soup and bread and always called the Jews and Russians liars. The Jews hated the Ukrainians and the Poles, but it was possible to taste the interface between their various foods. They knew that this existed, too. The African Americans and Italians were the loudest, along with the Puerto Ricans who were angry with the Koreans who were taking over the shops.
There was a homeless person in residence on one corner and a junkie on the other. The homeless person was often a Vietnam vet and you could hear the stories about the war if you stopped long enough after giving him some change. The junkie was swaying and nodding too much to care whether there was conversation of not. That was fine too.
Music; gunfire; the occasional East Side kid found stuffed in a garbage bag after a night mainlining too much heroin; the rabbis; the priests; the hell-fire-preacher walking the streets; the ladies and gentlemen who sold their bodies, but not themselves, to pay rent. That was New York. The City. My city.
The person I went to interview for the BBC lived across from what had been the Twin Towers. His building looked derelict from the outside, but that was New Yorkese, and told you that opulence awaited you if you had the door code.
His apartment looked like it belonged to the Pope – full of art and mirrored closets and a massive bed. He had been awakened at 9:03 by the sound of the first plane going in. He thought that he was still high, so he set his camera up, pointed it to the window and went back to sleep. He was a film director and, for him, only the lens told the truth.
The second plane woke him up. Just as he was about to check his footage, everything went black and soundless. A void. It had to be a kind of sonic wave, an effect of the buildings coming down. He thought that he had died, that this was death.
But in the blackness, he recorded a message to his father. He told him why he had stayed in New York City; why he had chosen such a precarious life: that he was a city-lover. He had to live in cities; live around people not like him; hear different voices; be scared; confused; learn new things; be in the world.
This was the way he had been in the city of his birth because the city of his birth allowed it. That city had been where his father had been born and his father before him and his father before that.
Office paper was still floating in the air in my old neighbourhood those weeks after 9/11. We all brought food and drink to the local firehouse because the fireman were the big heroes: 300 or so had died at once in one of the towers.
My ex-neighbour had hopped in her car the day of the attack and driven upstate non-stop. That’s the equivalent of London to Edinburgh at top speed. But she came back. This was life now. Nothing would make her leave New York City. Because The Stranger came with the deal... was the deal. Villages and towns are the familiar, what you know. A city is not. It is the world rushing fast at you every day.
I would glance up at the London sky for a long time after coming back from New York City. I kept expecting planes to crash into buildings, crash into me. Every public place looked like a threat. I remembered New Yorkers singing songs to themselves as they hurried down the street, New York songs for comfort and courage. I thought about a friend of a friend who couldn’t sleep because he had called in sick on September 11. That saved his life. You hear a story like that and it sticks to you, like it happened to you because you know the city.
Then I adjusted. Like most New Yorkers, present and former, I was not going to lose New York City.
My friends in Nice go about their business. As one friend explained to me, there was no real memorial because the atrocity happened on the sea front. The Promenade des Anglais, where the truck-massacre happened, had been built by the English to stroll on in Victorian times. I go there every morning when I’m in town, and it is very busy. The Nicois remember that day. One of my friends lost a colleague. But Nice is a city. And they are metropolitans. They are not afraid.
It is 1,358 steps from my front door to the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. I’m a true metropolitan. The statue is surrounded by police vans and armed officers. The other day someone was offering free sandwiches to the cops, and a few pictures were being taken by tourists. At Horse Guards, the Household Calvary was practising Trooping the Colour in honour of the Queen’s Birthday. The troops and horses were in full regalia and orders were being yelled. The trumpets sounded and the horses stepped out, accompanied by the Met on horseback. I could see where the police holstered their guns. I was born and raised in a big city. I knew where to look.
I overheard a group of construction workers nearby, eating their lunch and arguing. They were Londoners, born and bred, you could tell by the accent. They weren’t talking about the terror alert but about the so-called ‘dementia tax’. “We had the IRA”, one of my taxi driver friends explained. It was clear to me that that was all he had to say. There are people who say: ‘Get angry!’
But the anger you feel – as a metropolitan – in addition to the loss of life; the broken families; the destruction of property; the sheer terror engendered in innocent people, is the violation of the pact.
This pact is about an ‘us’, a ‘we’ living in the city, enjoying it, enduring it. Every day in a city is a test of endurance and also one of faith. It’s about mixing; taking a chance on a stranger; trying to navigate a foreign accent; and foreign ways.
The idea is about trying to do this, wanting to do this. The pact is about being afraid but not minding your fear, maybe even seeing fear itself as the price of the city... the wages you pay for living in a world that challenges; that makes you face yourself and who you think you are and what you think you know on a daily basis.
City life makes the nation bigger; makes it reach up and out beyond itself. A city keeps a country young and fighting-fit. It allows it to step forward into the future, embracing all.
In that embrace, a city and city life recreates the nation anew. Everyday. Its diversity is not only its definition. It is its saviour.
We are in the infancy of a new reality: the multi-global, interconnected world of the 21st Century. The change is as profound as the advent of the Gutenberg Revolution. This change will be powered by the city and city life. It will not be reversed.
When my late father, Ben came over for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, we went to the Cabinet War Rooms. It was narrow, badly lit, and vulnerable. There was a special cabinet where Churchill had a secure phone to Roosevelt and my dad looked at that for a long time. He looked at the War Room and the maps. He shook his head when we came out into the light. We walked up to the Houses of Parliament.
We stood on Westminster Bridge as the bell with the same name as his chimed. He was quiet for awhile and then said: “Yep. I always did think that these Brits were a hell of a people.”
Then we went to Chinatown. He loved his Chinese food.