(will resume posts from my manifesto next time …)
I started the day in the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the Tenement Museum. Through film, an amazing bookshop, and guided tours of restored tenements and the local area, the centre tells the story of how the Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, Chinese and others came to New York and shaped the society that is the Manhattan we know today. I learned about the living conditions, the working environment, and labour movement, the social institutions and the cultural melting pot that was the Lower East Side. These people were adventurous and resilient. From incredible hardship, they achieved prosperity for their families and communities.
The streets in the Lower East Side are still an eclectic mix of cultures. It is gritty and strong.
Then I got on the metro and 5 stops later emerged into a different world. Up near Central Park on 5th Avenue, the Rockerfeller Centre is a monument to individual capitalism. The creed inscribed in the plaque is the classic homage to liberal capitalism. As one of my colleagues said, that’s easy to say when you’ve got lot’s of money and power.
The buildings around Midtown are shiny and tall. The streets are clean and sidewalks are paved in contrast to the clusters of brick tenements and potholed roads of the LES. What is greatness? It can mess with your brain. Contrasting perspectives born of different life experiences.
I have only been here once before, many years ago. It is presumptuous of me to say so, but in my view NYC is a transformed city. Overall it feels cleaner, more civil and more socially aware. It is more ‘progressive’; there is healthy food everywhere and the Highline is a great example of urban renewal done with outstanding success. When I was here last time my local host was explaining to me the city’s challenge to completely replace the water and sewerage infrastructure in New York and on Manhattan specifically. I remember being completely overwhelmed with the magnitude of the project. This weekend there is evidence all around the city of pipes being replaced. We also learned of the now completed project to renovate the Empire State Building to achieve the highest level of energy efficiency. I admire the American spirit and commitment to get on and do it. In our part of the world it is always politically too hard to do the big things, the things with long term payback.
If there is one thing that these few privileges days here have reminded me, it is that people, individually and collectively can achieve great things. It takes courage and steely resolve. The scale of this place blows your mind. If you can transform a city like NY, then it seems anything is possible.