Why New York? Why Manhattan? What is it that makes this place the metropolis? It’s certainly not the biggest city in the world and its skyscrapers are no longer the tallest, and yet somehow New York remains the archetype for all modern cities. It is the city, in my eyes anyway.
Certainly size has something to do with it. You have to have a certain heft to be considered a real city these days. In England, it used to be that only places with their own cathedrals could be granted city status (hence the likes of Wells, population 10,400, and Ely, population 15,100) but the 21st century city is really all about mass. It’s a numbers game, primarily people. It’s about man-made structures stretching far beyond the horizon, fly-overs and underpasses, tall plate-glass fingers and dusty hovels. It is ceaseless activity, constant destruction and renewal.
New York City has all these things, in spades, but then so do Mumbai, Jakarta and Hong Kong (other cities I’ve visited) on an even larger and more mind-numbing scale.
Perhaps it is because New York remains the blueprint for all other modern cities, the birthplace of the skyscraper (although Chicago might dispute that), the spiritual home of the vertical urban environment. New York reminds us just how significant the development of the skyscraper was to 20th century history, on a par with the motor car or television. Like the pyramids of Ancient Egypt or the cathedrals of medieval Europe, skyscrapers functioned to underpin an entire economic structure and social order. They defined a 20th century identity and served to embody the very people – modern people – who built them. In that respect, New York is everybody’s hometown; it’s where we all come from.
Other cities may be bigger and taller, their skyscrapers more dazzling, and yet, somehow, after spending time in Manhattan, they seem to me just pale shadows of the original, the best city in the world.