New York is the empire of the present, for in this city the past is gone and the future is already here.
For me, coming to America was a form of time travel. Not into the future or into the past, but rather from them and into the deep dense present.
I come from Jerusalem, the holy and sad city that is at the heart of this complex space people here call the Middle East. In Jerusalem, the present is narrow, pale and insignificant, for it has the disappointing disposition of being always overshadowed by a much greater past [cradle of Western civilization and monotheistic religions] and future [the location of the redemption or destruction of the world]. In the shadow of such overpowering past and future, the present just wants to be left alone in his room, like a middle child with two over-achieving siblings.
In Jerusalem the past owns all of the finer parts. No matter what we have here now, whatever was there before is more important and meaningful. When I was still in Jerusalem I hosted a friend from America and took her for coffee in a place very close to where Jesus was crucified. Was it really there? Is it the truth? I don’t know, and more importantly — who cares? The truth is such a disappointing and narrow part of reality. It is actually our dreams, imaginations and perceptions about the future and the past that drive life, much more than any piece of actual reality. I casually pointed out to my friend that we are sitting just above the place where they used to sacrifice children to the gods some 2700 years ago [yeah, I never did hear from her again]. I remember my first date in this city. We had a picnic under a large willow tree, over a green lawn that had hosted three major bloody and deadly battles, never mind those less bloody, less major [and that was not even the worst part of that date]. This is what it means to live in a city that was already past its prime way before the Anglos met the Saxons. After years of walking your dog a short distance from the location of the Binding of Isaac, you get used to the pressing presence of the past in your present.
In Jerusalem, the past is always there, and it has demands, especially about the future. This divided and complex city carries the weight of being seen by millions around the world as no less than the place from which the salvation of all humanity will come [no pressure]. If you think that the history of this city is tough, just consider all the dark possibilities that her future has in store for us. One wrong move, one slip, and Jerusalem is the center of a fully blown Third World War, in which my people will be either extinct [which is bad] or really guilty [which is worse].
Putting behind us the impossible but fascinating problems that are Jerusalem, my husband and I moved to Philadelphia, which is New York designed in human scale. We did that following my husband’s prosperous career, of which I am proud as if it was a personal achievement, although I was not involved in it at all. (And that, my friends, proves that I’m ready to be a Jewish mother). Of all the American cities, Philadelphia is perhaps the one most conscious of the past, and with the greatest readiness to accept it. In Philadelphia you can feel the antiquity and continuity of the city. The 200-year-old buildings are well synchronized into the skyscrapers, like the chic look of that exactly one girl in the universe who can actually pull-off vintage. It takes a lot of grace and sense of proportion. Good for her.
New York, on the other hand, has neither grace nor sense of proportion. It is rather a tough city, designed, I believe, only to make all other cities in the country look and feel lighter by comparison. New York is the empire of the present, for in this city the past is gone and the future is already here.
It is not as if this city has no past, yet it does not seem to show any interest in its preservation. In this truly historic city, you cannot see ten years back; the fog of the present is too thick and meaningful. I particularly remember a party for the Department of Sociology, here at the New School. It was 8/11, so the eve of another anniversary of that day. With my Jerusalem-trained eyes I constantly saw the missing towers at the horizon, suggesting and threatening us with the things that were and things that might be. That evening I thought that one of the professors would say something. I thought someone is certain to mark it out. Surely now is the time, surely this is the place. But there was no one, and there was nothing. That deep disregard taught me how comprehensive the effect of the present is on the social reality in this city.
Not just the past, but also the future is sidelined in the face of such an overwhelming and vigorous present. One missing aspect of future reckoning is the concept of consequences. New York knows none of them. She dances as if no one can see her, using everything she’s got and more, like there is literally no tomorrow. Another missing aspect is social imaginations and dreams for the future. New York is not a futuristic city. Futurism is essentially a desire to be otherwise or elsewhere, a passion for transformation. This city has no desire to reach out, she has already arrived. Indeed, all future scenarios pale in the light of what is going on here now.
New York is an ever spinning swirl of the present. This is the perpetual motion achieved: A powerful movement that is ongoing and is in constant progress, and yet has no beginning, no end and no direction. I came here from Jerusalem. I was dragged down by her past, shivered by her future, and lived in her thin present throughout at least two wars. But it is only in New York that I am truly afraid. Because such a strong motion with no outlets cannot go on forever. I am afraid of the time in which the present ends. I don’t want to be here when it does.
The city that never sleeps, the empire of the present. Good luck in the future. It is coming.