A Paean to a City

The seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic has shredded municipal budgets and tax bases. A regular cycle of news stories darkly speculate as to the health of the American city. Essential services–mass transit, public parks, schools–seem imperiled. The current presidential administration and its conservative allies delight at the situation. At best, the future of our cites seem uncertain. At worst, grim.

Joes-Fruit
Shopping for fruit at Joe’s (Seinfeld, Season 5, Episode 1: “The Mango”)

American cities–specifically New York City–found a surprisingly (albeit logical) booster in last week’s New York Times. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld penned an op-ed affirming the necessity of New York and urban centers, citing the fact that “inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together in crazy places like New York City.” Our cities will bounce back, because creativity–in every discipline and field–thrives in them. 

Seinfeld–the show, the anti-sitcom–introduced me and countless viewers to urban life during its original run in the 1990s. It provided me with a window into a different way of living. The show’s characters, Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, bumped into people on the street. They shopped at newsstands, fruit vendors, and stationers. They jawed for hours at diners. They lived in apartments. They experienced full adult lives untethered to a car. The exotic mundanity of the show fascinated me.

Growing up in a rural mill town in New York, I never lost myself in a city before sharing road trips to Buffalo and Toronto with a college friend (now an old, trusted friend). Before then, my only understanding of urban life came from literature and, even more so, films and television.

Yes, Seinfeld presented an idealized version of New York shot on a Los Angeles sound stage. Nevertheless, it captured the everyday possibility percolating in New York or any great city. Seinfeld, the man, the comedian, still sees that possibility.

I hope he’s right.

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