I had lunch today with Ben Slivka, who I knew many years ago during the famous browser wars between Microsoft and virtually everyone else in the software business. Ben led the team at Microsoft that was working on Internet Explorer.
Back in those days a guy like me could have lunch with a guy like Ben and talk pretty frankly not only about what was going on in the technology, but also about the politics at Microsoft and elsewhere. Ben was his own guy, sort of a SWAT team leader, a programmer who more or less reported to the CEO of what was then a powerful company.
We went to Odessa where we both had a combo plate with stuffed cabbage, four perogies, a potato pancake, a big fat kielbasa and a pile of mushy sauerkraut. It was deliciously wonderful for a guy like me with a lot of Ukranian blood.
After that we went for a walk. He's from Seattle, so he saw things with his green-country eyes that my city-dweller eyes no longer see. He pointed out the razor wire on top of a fence, noting they don't have that in Seattle. I said that Pioneer Square seemed pretty grubby, and heard in myself a surprising chauvanism for NYC. I felt defensive on behalf of the city. I thought to myself, you could fit downtown Seattle in three square blocks of mid-town Manhattan (if you factor in the vertical dimension of the city). Seattle is small. Everything in NY is big.
We walked past Cooper Union through NYU-land, and straight into Washington Square Park where he observed there were a lot of people in the park. I was thinking the opposite, even though it was a sunny day, it was so crisp, bordering on cold, the park looked relatively empty to me.
Parks have different meaning in Manhattan than they do elsewhere. At first, I was really confused by this, but I've been reading about the history of NY, and working my way through the excellent PBS miniseries.
New York is a very planned city. Early-on, they planned a grid that went all the way to the top of the island, even though then, everything above where City Hall is now was country. And the city had hills and ponds, streams and forests, all of which would be levelled according to the plan. However in the plan they didn't allow space for parks. So uptown they created a huge 840-acre park, but it wasn't left to nature. They ripped the whole place up and created an interpretation of nature. The artist of the park, a man who had no design experience named Frederick Law Olmsted, was creative with the design of the park the way a composer is with a symphony or an artist with a canvas. As a result the park is as vibrant a part of city life as the sidewalks, streets and subways are. It was planned that way, as integral to the flow of the city. And on a huge scale you don't see anywhere else in the US. Nowhere in the US does it even approach the scale of New York.
The life of New York is both capitalist in the extreme and democratic in the extreme. When we use our parks here, we use them with everyone else, rich and poor, blue blood and fresh-off-the-boat immigrants. And the range of activities is mind-boggling. Visit the park on a summer weekend when the rest of the city is empty.
I have had some wonderful back yards myself, and they have their advantages, for sure. Being by yourself is great, esp in the outdoors. Hot tubs, swimming pools, casual attire. You don't get any of that in the big city. But you sure don't get any of the big city in the small cities of the country.