Last Wednesday thousands gathered in Fort Totten Park in Bayside, Queens for a fireworks display. The event had all the makings of potential disaster by modern metrics. Thousands of diverse people crammed into a limited area and jockeying for space to get a good view. A little league soccer team was wrapping up practice as people took their places in the expanse of green field between portable toilets and a row of food trucks. Bounce castles entertained children before the fireworks started and people took what they thought were the best positions to view the show as they waited for the sky to get dark enough.
The fireworks started promptly and a roaring whoop went up from the crowd as fireworks lit up the sky. New Yorkers cheered enthusiastically for this celebration of our War of Independence. When it was over, the crowd made its way out of Fort Totten without incident, or at least any major ones.
From parts of Fort Totten you can see the glitter of the Manhattan skyline and be inspired by the nighttime majesty of the Throgs Neck Bridge lit up. It is a marvel how New York holds itself together while the country seemingly tears itself apart. Gotham is as rife with division as everywhere else: New York City gave us both Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The greatness of New York serves as a microcosm of America. We see all the same issues in New York first, and the city, rightly or wrongly, serves as a template for how the rest of the country can navigate its problems.
The Fourth of July brings us down to Earth, reminds us of how American we are. It is popular to look upon outward signs of patriotism as right-wing or quaint, but if you believe America is for everyone and that patriotism is expansive and great, then join the celebration. The freedom we have was purchased in a bloody war, several actually.
The land we are on we do not claim by divine right. Every inch of America was fought over. We waged war on France, Great Britain (twice), Mexico (twice), Spain and countless Native American nations to get the current borders of the United States. July 4th celebrates the birth of our nation, a hard-fought war for Independence that was in effect our first civil war. When the war started it was not a foregone conclusion that we would win. The patriots who signed their names to the Declaration of Independence knew that the document would serve as their death warrant if the war didn’t go their way.
The Battle of Brooklyn was one of the bloodiest fights in the history of the American Revolution, and the war would have ended had Washington not been able to retreat to Manhattan. The British held New York for most of the war, but the city has signs of the American Revolution everywhere. The first woman who took up arms for America, Margaret Corbin, fought at the Battle of Fort Washington in Manhattan.
Some are fatalistic and see America as it is headed now as intrinsically doomed. There is no cultural coherence to sustain us through these times, they say, and new communities and nations will rise out of what is now a crumbling empire. But New Yorkers have bridged these divides in the crucibles of ambition and creativity. We are strong when we demand truth and strength, and turn to leaders not afraid to speak honestly and make the right enemies. We can do that in America as a whole if we are willing.
Let the American Revolution be our call to action today.
New Year’s goals are familiar to most. We vow to exercise more and eat better, travel more, and read more books. Yes to all of those things. But there’s an important resolution that is more important and helps spur others. Let this year also be the year we embrace being bold adults and demand those around us be the same.
Being a bold adult means being willing to face hard truths and decipher realistic perceptions into coherent action, in repeated situations.
We see the division between these true adults and the rest of society when a violent incident occurs in public. Invariably, there are several videos of the incident made by bystander who could have made a difference but chose not to instead. If only half of the mobile phone zombies we see on our sidewalks and subways actually took some meaningful action when these incidents occur, we’d be in a much better position. The true, bold adults are the ones who step in to stop the fight, or help the injured person or even call the police. Sure, having a dozen cell phone videos of a subway stabbing will help police solve the crime, but my gut tells me most of these on-the-spot auteurs are not planning to aid law enforcement but instead contribute to a viral spectator culture that is hollow and shameless.
There are too few people willing to be the adults in the room. This lack of maturity even spawned the term “adulting,” which is used by grown people amazed that they are behaving appropriately for their age groups. I can’t hate on these people too much though. I was still living in my family’s basement at the age my parents had two kids. I like to think I have made up for lost time.
Earlier in the evening on New Year’s Eve, my wife and I took our children to a small party thrown by people in our neighborhood. My wife noted that even though many of the people at the party lived within a few short blocks of each other, few of us had ever met. And here was a hopeful sign. People breaking out of the rote functions of surface celebration to have a meaningful interaction with neighbors. It’s a much-needed reaction to a culture that increasingly exacerbates the superficial and exploits the chasms between identity groups: new tribes form communities that work for them.
The parents gathered their children in a circle to help count down and ring in the New Year a few hours early so we could get our kids to bed at a decent hour. Then the adults cleaned up and went home, to welcome 2019 after the children were asleep.
I rang in the New Year while lifting weights, not because I’m a roid-raging meathead determined to inflate myself to grotesque proportions, but because I’m planning to make this year one of continued self-improvement. I have been a mobile phone zombie myself at times, and the staid and stressful routines of a middle-aged office worker have taken their toll. I have no one to blame but myself for being generally out-of-shape, but I wanted to set the tone right for the New Year in that this has to change.
Being the bold adult in the room can be a scary prospect. No one wants to be the one to put their head out, to risk ostracization or attack. But you will be glad you went forward and did what needs doing, turned away from what the herd is doing and tackled the business of life head-on.
2019 is going to be a great year. Make it so.
Last week I found myself having to go to Times Square and I actually looked forward to doing so. It was for work—I work in public relations and there was a conference I needed to attend. I hustled through half the workday to get enough done since I’d be away from the office.
Times Square is where tourists go to drink in the grandeur of New York. It’s where our city wears its gaudy commerce on its sleeve without apology, where someone with a silly gimmick can strike it rich and inspire many imitators. It is in some ways the central square of Western Civilization today, as sad as that may seem at times.
I’m old enough to remember when Times Square was a foreboding place, though I always found it more alluring than scary. The pornographic theaters were what thrilled me when I would walk through as a kid, trying to look like I wasn’t gawking at the barely-censored photos of women in acts of glorious carnality. I would be entranced at the spectacle of what Times Square as I was feasting my eyes on this delightful glimpse into the ribald adult world. It did not appear to be the war zone that I had been led to believe. Its name carried more ominous insinuation than realized malice.
When I moved back to New York, nearly 20 years ago now, things were different and it became an embodiment of all that was wrong with a vastly improved yet quickly gentrifying city. It was where people would feed at the trough of major chain restaurants when they could dine on authentic culinary delights only a short journey away. It was where ignorant tourists got taken to the cleaners with overpriced goods. For many years I avoided Times Square, and with good reason. It was in a transitional period where it had become safe and was attracting lots of tourists but had not yet been renovated to include the wide pedestrian plazas it enjoys today. The sidewalks were nearly impassable and traffic still zoomed around.
In the years since, I’ve come to have a begrudging appreciation for visiting there. On a date with my wife several years ago, I wanted to avoid Times Square, but my wife insisted we walk through it. “You need to learn to enjoy being a tourist in your own city,” she told me. And she was right.
Last week I wasn’t there long and spent most of my time at a conference in the Thomson Reuters Building. I marveled at the view, and got the closest you can get to the large Times Square New Year’s Eve ball without being one of the workers in charge of its upkeep.
As night descended, I took breaks from the work conference to steal looks and take photos of the avenues leading from Times Square. As the sky darkened, the lights of the city came to life and the twilight glowed with a ready anticipation of what night would bring.
Stepping out into the night, I stopped for a minute to take a video of the scene before me. Two mounted policemen trotted by as I got my phone out so I only captured them from a distance as they passed, but even on a relatively uneventful weeknight, the scene in Times Square is both maddening and encouraging. It is a slice of Walt Whitman’s bustling and beautiful New York writ for modern times, coursing with strangers, each with a story we’ll never have time to learn or decipher.
Two days after my visit, a car drove onto the sidewalk and killed an 18-year-old woman, a visitor to the city there to take in the vibrancy of life. The police say the driver was under the influence of drugs. He didn’t stop until his car was upended by a stanchion. If there’s any functioning justice system in our city this killer will never be a free man again.
Another week later, and terror is rearing its head in another part of the world. But in New York we have known fear and breezed past it, the way New York commuters breeze past slower-moving tourists. We don’t respect fear in this city because it contributes nothing, it doesn’t earn its keep.
Even in the face of fear of death, Times Square will be full of life. It may be foolish and squalid life, but it glows with the unstoppable light of New York, and it will never be extinguished.