The test of civilization is the power of drawing the most benefit out of cities.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Cities are improbable. For most of our history we lived in little roving bands: Groups held together by personal relationships, of blood, marriage, or friendship, scattered lightly over the landscape, not tied to any particular spot but moving in accordance with their needs.
Agriculture changed that. You cannot raise crops without tending them throughout the year; thus you need a permanent settlement. Crops can also be grown and gathered more efficiently the more people there are to help; and a stable food supply can support a larger population. Cities grew up along with the crops, and a new type of communal living was born.
(I remember from my archaeology classes that early farmers were not necessarily healthier than their hunter-gatherer peers. Eating mostly corn is not very nutritious and is bad for your teeth. Depending on a single type of crop also makes you more sensitive to drought and at risk for starvation should the crops fail. This is not to mention the other danger of cities: Disease. Living in close proximity with others allows sickness to spread more easily. Nevertheless, our ancestors clearly saw some advantage to city life—maybe they had more kids to compensate for their reduced lifespan?—so cities sprung up and expanded.)
The transition must have been difficult, not least for the social strain. As cities grew, people could find themselves in the novel situation of living with somebody they didn’t know very well, or at all. For the vast majority of humankind’s history, this simply didn’t happen.
New problems must be faced when strangers start living together. In small groups, where everyone is either related or married to everyone else, crime is not a major problem. But in a city, full of strangers and neighbors, this changes: crime must be guarded against.
There is another novel problem. Hunter-gatherers can retreat from danger, but city dwellers cannot. And since urbanites accumulate more goods and food then their roving peers, they are more tempting targets for bandits. Roving nomads can swoop down upon the immobile city and carry off their grain, wine, and women. To prevent this, cities need defenses.
As you can see, the earliest denizens of cities faced many novel threats: crime from within, raids from without, and the constant danger of drought and starvation.
Government emerges from need to organize against these threats. To discourage crime the community must come together to punish wrongdoers; to protect against attacks the community must build walls and weapons, and fight alongside one another; to protect against starvation, surplus crops must be saved for the lean times.
Hierarchy of power, codes of law, and the special status of leaders arise to fill the vacuum of organization. Religion was also enlisted in this effort, sanctifying leaders with titles and myths, reinforcing the hierarchy with rituals and customs and taboos, and uniting the people under the guardianship of the same divine shepherds.
Despite these unpropitious beginnings, the city has grown from an experiment in communal living, held together by fear and necessity, into the generic model of modern life. And I have the good fortune to live near one of the greatest cities in history.
* * *
Whenever I am alone in New York City, I wander, for as many miles as time allows. The only way to see how massive, chaotic, and remarkable is New York, is by foot. There’s no telling what you might find.
I like to walk along the river, watching the freighters with their bright metal boxes of cargo, the leviathan cruise ships carrying their passengers out to sea, the helicopters buzzing overhead, giving a few lucky tourists a glimpse of the skyline. Bridges span the water—masses of metal and stone suspended by wire—and steam pours forth from the smokestacks of power plants.
I pass through parks and neighborhoods. Elderly couples totter by on roller blades. A lonely teenager with a determined look practices shooting a basketball. The playground is full of screaming, running, jumping, hanging, falling, fighting kids. Their mothers and fathers chat on the sidelines, casting occasional nervous glances at their offspring.
Soon I get the United Nations building. The edifice itself is not beautiful—just a grey slab covered in glass—but what it represents is beautiful. The ideal of the United Nations is, after all, the same ideal of New York City. It is the ideal of all cities and of civilization itself: that we can put aside our differences and live together in peace.
The city is not just the product of political organization and economic means; it is an expression of confidence. You cannot justify building walls and houses without the belief that tomorrow will be as safe and prosperous as today. And you cannot live calmly among strangers—people who dress different, who speak a different language, people you have never seen before and may never see again—without trust.
It is that confidence in tomorrow and that trust in our neighbors on which civilization is built. And New York City, that buzzing, chaotic, thriving hive, is a manifestation of those values.