People in Mali, Africa wear “I love NYC” t-shirts to proclaim their mindset of hope and ambition. They are envious of their fellow Malieans who worked in New York City and now can proclaim on their t-shirts, “I’m from NYC”--love requited being so much more satisfying and exciting. You can think of New York City as one of the few, maybe the only, city that has mindspace in peoples across every boundary, class, race and nationality and religion. Even if someone says that he or she hates the city and never wants to come to visit, the person is affirming a sense of homebody identity in relationship to New York City.
New York is one of those rare cities that has a global presence by virtue of its unique role in the United States and its own singularity. The city is by far the largest economic region in the country, producing twice as much gross national product as the nearest competitor, Los Angeles. It has the largest population in the country and is unique in its diversity and large number of smart ambitious outsiders striving to become successful in the preeminent center of finance, media, art, fashion and education.
London occupies mindspace in its former colonies. Westerners keep a sentimental place in the heart for Paris. Tokyo was the ultra modern city of the future, until its decade of troubles. Fustel de Coulanges said that Beijing summed up all the energy of its empire into its symbolism as the pivot of Heaven, a centrality it lost and hopes to regain again. Beijing doesn’t preoccupy the world now except as a threat. It is unlikely to replace New York City as a center that values diverse people and accepts them fully. Beijing’s success is marred by its racism and reluctance to accept racially non-Chinese from other countries as citizens.
Los Angeles and Hollywood occupy the world’s mindspace at times, but it is California as the golden land that was at the center of people’s aspirations. Sadly, the state has become a creaky, over-mortgaged property that people are fleeing.
The bad times of New York City caused an admiration and imitation of the tough characters it generated. The good times gave life to the myth that the city’s streets were paved with gold and walked upon by exuberant successful characters.
The destruction of the World Trade Center deeply affected the world’s mind. It stunned it unlike any other recent event. The reaction was a rallying around New York City and the United States. Only a successful attack on the White House might have matched the deep global mental disturbance caused by the Towers falling down.
The reaction tells us something about the meaning of New York City for the United States and the world. The city is the symbolic apex of global capitalism, modern culture and American preeminence. The city draws on the capital and best minds of the world to shape the way the world works, thinks and communicates. A sudden and large change in the well-being of the city deeply moves the affect of people around the world.
The 1950s artists like Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and others decided to shatter the place Paris occupied in artists’ minds as the essence of art. They boldly did an art that had no reference to Continental heritage. They proclaimed a purely American age and placed New York style in the forefront of mindspace. Their efforts coincided with similar icon busting and making by U.S. business, architects, fashion designers, sociologists and mass media.
In religion New York City has been a locus of influence and imitation in the late 20th Century and may become religiously important again. In the 1950s the National Council of Churches, Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking, Union Theological Seminary, Reformed Judaism achieved their height of influence before their precipitous decline after 1960.
The 1970s were unkind to the city, but the huge adversity also reinforced the myth that New Yorkers are the toughest people in the world. The city also became a global byword of urban decay, ruin and apocalypse.
The economic and social recovery of New York City under Mayors Edward Koch and Rudolph Giuliani ushered in a worldwide admiration and excitement about the city and it became the place to come and emulate if one wanted to bounce along the moving tip of modernity. Japanese came in droves to get married in the city. Europeans snapped up properties. And a great tidal wave of immigration lapped over the city’s shores in order to make it in New York City.
In sum no other city’s ups and downs become part of the world’s consciousness quite like New York’s.
Today, postsecular New York City is in a similar icon busting and making stage. It is busting the image of the city as Sodom and Gomorrah and the Secular City. It is becoming the place where faith has an accepted public role in the fate of the city. Whether the faith leaders have the vision, courage, and can muster the resources to rise to the occasion is uncertain. Maybe, New York City will be like Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and London where the predominate faith presence is now taken by foreigners like African and Latin American and Asian evangelicals and South Asian, Middle Eastern and African Muslims.
However, in New York City, unlike Europe, this transition to outsiders’ religious leadership will hardly be noticed as unusual because it has been normal here for a long time. Truly, the city speaks a vernacular gospel that is also cosmopolitan in its impact.
Whatever happens, a fundamental change in the role of faith in New York City will affect the mindspace of the world.