The Big Apple Better in Segments

Published in the Courier Mail 5 February 08

THERE’S a reason why they call it the city that never sleeps.

Stopping off in New York City recently for a short holiday, my earlier love for the city was quickly reignited as we wandered down to Times Square at midnight for hotdogs and pretzels.

With easy access to just about anything, my husband and I quickly got used to their outrageous retail hours. He appreciated the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue being open 24 hours a day, and I was quite taken by the two-storey M&M store, which was open until midnight every day.

As the most populous city in the US, and one of the largest urban areas in the world, there is no question that New York is big. With its global influence on economics, media, politics and entertainment, this city carries a leadership capacity. But what most interested me was that this large city was becoming smaller.

The City is officially divided into five boroughs – Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx and Staten Island. Within those boroughs, there are a number of neighbourhoods, which have developed over time due to the types of activities located there.

The Theatre District, the Garment District and the Financial District are just some examples. Each neighbourhood tends to have a different feel and a variety of architecture, built to meet the needs and functions of the area.

These are all noted in tourist guides, helping you geographically “get your head around” such a large populous city, but they do more than just this.

Albert Schweitzer, the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner, theologian, musician and philosopher, could have been describing New York when he said: “We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”

Ironically, it’s easier to be lonely among 8.2 million people than it is among 80. And as New York has grown, these neighbourhoods have given people somewhere with which to identify. Even though you may be spending all your time in the same large city, the neighbourhoods mean there is still an area to come home to. And without somewhere to come home to, we cannot be at rest.

Something else quite noticeable was the appearance of Alliances. The SoHo Alliance, the Times Square Alliance and the Downtown Alliance are just a few of these not-for-profit, co-operative organisations that have formed.

For example, the Times Square Alliance, which functions with a voluntary board of directors writes, “In addition to providing core neighbourhood services with its Public Safety Officers and Sanitation Associates, the Alliance promotes local businesses; encourages economic development and public improvements; co-ordinates numerous major events in Times Square (including the annual New Year’s Eve and Broadway on Broadway celebrations); manages the Times Square Information Centre; and advocates on behalf of its constituents with respect to a host of public policy, planning and quality-of-life issues”.

It seems New York is a great big city whose citizens have realised it must get smaller as it gets larger. This wasn’t what I expected to find. Culturally, the large is celebrated. Economies of scale and the idea that bigger is better permeate our culture.

Truth be told, I love the opportunities that come with large resources. For example, being involved with a larger size church, we can mobilise greater resources for local and global projects than if there were just a few of us. Large businesses can employ more people than smaller ones. In whatever capacity you’re involved, size does bring influence.

However, big is not enough. New Yorkers have implemented alliances, not because they were looking for more activities to occur but because they realised that if we are only part of the large, we miss a vital component of community.

Dag Hammarskjold, second Secretary-General of the United Nations, made the following observation: “What makes loneliness an anguish is not that I have no one to share my burden, but this: I have only my own burden to bear.”

While New York may embody a culture that celebrates the individual, it seems its people have been rediscovering that we carry within us a deep, inbuilt desire to help carry another’s burdens.

That could be outworked in formal alliances, or simply manifest through caring for our neighbour. Living for ourselves only brings loneliness, but living for others is a key component of a more meaningful life.

That’s a rediscovery that’s worth making every day – whatever city you’re in.

Ruth Limkin is a Brisbane pastor and writer.