By Mike Koetting July 19, 2022
Last weekend my wife and I took our 10 year old grandson to New York City. It was a great trip, but it left me without time or motivation to write my usual blog. So I thought I would share some thought snippets from the trip.
Manhattan is kind of a Disneyland in the real world. (In fact, Manhattan is only half the size of Disney World, though quite a bit larger than the original Disneyland.) It isn’t the artificial world of the Disney enterprises. On the contrary. It is as absolutely real world as you can get. But there were fun things to do from morning till night. And many of them were the originals—the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, the Empire State Building—that have been borrowed countless times for every commercial purpose imaginable to the human mind. I was compelled to teach the grandkid what “iconic” meant.
Holden Caulfield probably wouldn’t recognize the American Museum of Natural History. He loved it because it always stayed the same and the only thing that changed was him. The dioramas and the mummies are still there, somewhere, but they are surrounded by all kinds of new, interactive, changing exhibits. A full day kaleidoscope of the people, places and things that make the world so exciting.
At the same time, we felt a little bad about the number of exhibits that warned, in explicit and technicolor data, how many elements of the world were under threat. Or even already extinct. It did not reflect at all well on our stewardship of the world we are leaving our grandson. That he has been duly warned was of little comfort.
After the museum, we went looking for sushi. But a sudden downpour sent us scurrying into the closest thing at hand, in this case, a Mediterranean restaurant where he had to settle for grilled octopus. When I was his age, the idea of sushi–or grilled octopus, for that matter–was not only unknown, it would have been unimaginable. (Sushi is believed to first arrive in the US in a restaurant in Los Angles, sometime in the late 1960’s, by which time I was well into my 20’s. It didn’t arrive in the Midwest until well after that.) It is a tangible marker of how much the world has shrunk in my life-time and the extent to which a kind of global perspective has simply become incorporated in our lives.
Chicago is a dense, urban area, but it is physically very different from Manhattan. Chicago is no where near as vertical. Also, there is the omnipresence of garbage on the NYC sidewalks, which the grandkid noticed immediately. I explained it was because New York was built without alleys, where Chicago keeps its trash. He thought they need a better solution. (I told him he could work on that when he grew up.)
Another difference was that that the street addresses don’t make as much sense and, to compound the problem, there doesn’t seem to be any ethic to make them visible. It was hard as heck to figure out where a particular number was even when you were close. Cabbies weren’t that interested in addresses; they wanted us to name the cross street.
The Statue of Liberty was as magnificent as ever. For me, the best part was the photos and recordings of people about their feelings at the time they first saw the Statue, which they universally described as a beacon of hope and possibility. And, in many cases, their relief at being gone from the oppression they were fleeing. That, and the bronze plaque with the quote from Emma Lazarus, made it hard to keep the tears away.
It was also a graphic reminder of how much the world has looked to America…and how much America has benefited from the excitement, energy and enthusiasm of these people. It is good for both the world and for our country that the United States remain a vibrant source of possibility. That is the best version of ourselves, and we all benefit when we strive for it.
We can’t accept all the people who want to come here, but we should be working as hard as we can to accept as many as we can. And continue to have a country to which people want to come to.
The Museum at the Statue also included a display of anti-immigrant posters going back for a while. There have always been elements who didn’t like disruptions to predominant White culture. We have not always been able to contain that impulse. The Immigration Act of 1924 set immigration quotas based on the 1890 distribution of population, thereby guaranteeing disproportionate immigration from northern Europe. It remained in effect until the 1960’s.
It was more than a little dispiriting to see the amount of security necessary to get into the Statue of Liberty. Totally different from the first time I went, 57 years ago. It’s understandable. But the irony was bitter. Hard to figure out who poses most danger to the Statue now.
New York has always been diverse. And Chicago is a fairly diverse place. But 2022 New York is diversity on steroids. So many of the people we interacted with had obviously been raised in a different language. But in all but a few cases, we were able to communicate without any trouble. And people were friendly and helpful, especially the cabbies. That was quite a change from my first couple visits. They still drove pretty crazy, however.
The population of New York City exceeds the population of 40 states. If nothing else, this explains why the U.S. Senate so poorly represents the population of the country. It is flat out un-democratic. I can see the disadvantages of a country dominated by New York City, but there must surely be a balance that better reflects what a diverse and urban nation we are.
Security was equally tight at the 9-11 Memorial Museum and the One World Trade Center. I guess those are just the times.
I’ve always been of two minds about the 9-11 observation. Well, maybe one mind and a nagging sidenote. I can’t completely shake the issue that the number of people who died in that disaster was a fraction of the number of people killed in many other circumstances. For instance, well over 100,000 citizens were killed in the Iraq war. Even at home, the 9-11 deaths were less than a third of the annual gun homicide total.
Still, the nature of this attack—a premeditated attack on a visible symbol of American culture in what is one of American’s most symbolic cities—outweighs my concerns in assessing its place in America and New York City in particular. The stories of the first responders that day were truly moving, but I was most struck by the video montage of faces watching the disaster. The look of pained surprise, the hurt of specific assault, will stick with me for a while.
We had wanted to visit the United Nations on this trip, but we just couldn’t get it in the schedule. However, on the way out of town, I realized we were going to pass the UN Headquarters. Heading east on 42nd Street, I explained to my grandson that the United Nations was a place where all the nations of the world came together and worked to find peaceful solutions to all the problems facing the world. “Cool,” he said with some genuine enthusiasm. I continued to point out it doesn’t work all that well, but it’s a place to start. “Oh…” he said. I thought I noticed a trace of deflation in the response. Another problem for him to wrestle with.
The trip home was smooth. No terrible travel stories from this trip. I believe he had a terrific time. We certainly did. I don’t think he worries about all the same things I worry about and I suspect—certainly hope—he mostly experienced the excitement and magical chaos of New York City as a great celebration. May his travels always be so happy.