If those of us who hold to a biblical and often conservative perspective on life are occasionally criticized for being overly negative about the state of society, let the record show that this week I sing the praises of a distinctly liberal icon. I'm here to say something positive about New York City.
The boards of WORLD magazine, and of its parent organization, God's World Publications Inc., held their regular spring meetings in New York last week, and were the guests of The King's College at its new "campus" in the Empire State Building. World Journalism Institute had welcomed its students to the same site for its first May term in Manhattan. So for most of a week, some of us country folk had to adapt to the ways of the big city. It wasn't what I expected.
Chronic gripers should be encouraged, for instance, that New York isn't as crowded or as dirty as it used to be. And that's in spite of the fact that more people live there than when I was a kid.
A huge investment in mass transit over the last 20 years is paying off. I was told that nearly 40 percent of everyone who commutes to work in New York City now comes by train or bus-more than twice the national average, and also nearly double the rate a generation ago. There's still a lot of honking by all the taxis-but nothing like it would be if the city hadn't decided to keep upgrading its subway system. A whole new line up the east side of Manhattan on Third Avenue is now being planned.
And maybe my thinking is colored by the fact that I visited New York once during a strike by the garbage workers, and again during the 1992 Democratic National Convention. But the city has recovered marvelously from both those disasters-and now and then you'll actually see someone pick up a piece of somebody else's waste paper and go a couple of steps out of his way to put it in a garbage receptacle. Spic and span are still not the first two adjectives that leap to your mind when you want to describe a New York street scene. But neither are grimy and gritty.
Pessimists also get their comeuppance on historic 42nd Street. Twenty years ago, that strip was all but unvisitable by decent people; the stench of sleaze was everywhere. Today, while you may not describe it as Jerusalem the Golden, neither are you harassed by pimps, hustlers, and drug dealers the way you would have been not so very long ago. You have to think: Somebody was bothered, somebody developed a vision, somebody took some risks and did something, and things are remarkably better.
The 843 acres of Central Park, smack in the middle of the city, have a similar story to tell. You still wouldn't want to take a midnight stroll there, even if the moon were full. But my wife and I started an afternoon walk near the northwest corner and wandered in zigzag patterns for nearly three hours before emerging two and a half miles away at the southeast corner. The park still has its share of seedy-looking characters-some sleeping on park benches and some just staring-and we recommend staying on the walkways rather than exploring the dirt paths in The Ramble around The Lake. But Central Park's wonder remains, wide open, free, and probably safer than it was a generation ago. The landscape architecture of Frederick Law Olmsted is a marvel a century and a half after he did it-and you have to be thankful for the diligence of those who have preserved it.
My most vivid experience in New York was also my most embarrassing. Following the opening session of WORLD's board meeting, several of us sat down for small talk near the lobby of the hotel where we were staying. I slipped my briefcase under the table-and didn't think about it again until the next morning when I was heading off for our meeting. "Oh, no!" I wailed to my wife. "I left it under the table." It had everything in it that was important for the week, plus a few credit cards, a little cash, and my keys.
I raced downstairs, but found no sign of my briefcase. The front desk offered empty stares. Hotel security checked their records, which included only blank pages. The bellman was courteous, but not ultimately helpful. So all day I was distracted from my meeting, every 15 minutes thinking of still one more item in the lost briefcase.
Finally, for the third or fourth time, I returned to the front desk. "No," said the clerk. Nothing had been found. But right behind her, on the floor, was my briefcase. "Where did that come from?" I asked. She turned to look, and replied casually, "Oh, someone brought that in off the street about 15 minutes ago." It was an unlikely story, but everything was there. An honest thief, on the streets of Manhattan?
It was a picture of my life, and of New York's as well. Carelessness, irresponsibility, silliness. And still God was gracious. He renews and redeems and preserves and restores even when we don't deserve it. Both the mightiest city on earth, and I, have experienced so much of God's patience and repair work. Both New York and I still need a lot more.