Last week my parents came for a visit, and I decided to take them into New York City for a day. Before hitting Broadway, I decided to take them to Top of the Rock, the observation deck on the 68th-70th floors of Rockefeller Center. It's the kind of touristy thing I never do since I live here, but get to indulge in with visitors.
I was not expecting much from the experience, considering I'd been on top of plenty of tall buildings before. This time, however, I was overcome. It may have been geography. I had been to the top of the World Trade Center while it still stood, but that meant looking at the urban canyons from a distance. Rockefeller Center sits amidst the skyscrapers, and I felt like I could reach out and touch them on that clear day.
On the ground in midtown Manhattan it is also just easy to miss its grandiosity. Down on the street it's such an unappealing place, crowded, dirty, loud, and corporatized within an inch of its life. Up in the clouds I felt a sublime connection to something higher. It reminded me of how in the 1920s when foreigners steamed into New York Harbor they gawked at Manhattan's skyline, something monumental and totally unprecedented. This was the skyline that inspired the futuristic city of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a place embodying new possibilities and new fears all at once.
I got to thinking specifically of Of Time and the River, a Thomas Wolfe novel ending with the arrival by ship in Manhattan in the 1930s, the narrator gushing over the sight of the tall buildings from the decks of the wondrous ocean liner, calling it "the supreme ecstasy of the modern world." We have become so used to this sight that it does not register in the same way anymore.
I've been thinking a lot about the impoverishment of our politics being rooted in a lack of belief in the future. The fascistic strain embodied by Putin and Trump prefers an eternal present when it is not trying harken back to an imagined past. Progressives, belying their name, lack any imagination. Faced simultaneously with high gas prices and global warming they are ignoring an opportunity to move us beyond fossil fuels and advocating for cuts to the gas tax instead. Across the political spectrum there does not seem to be any interest in building anything, merely maintaining power.
Staring at the New York skyline from the Top of the Rock is a reminder that things can be built, that the world can be re-imagined. If we want to make the world a better place we need to start thinking as big as the New York skyline.