23 May 2015


This morning the news programs in the US were all excitedly reporting on the opening of the new observation deck atop the 1 World Trade Center tower, and some of the visual technologies on the way up appear to be quite impressive. But the claim some made about new and unique vistas is simply untrue. Perhaps they weren’t around when the first World Trade Center stood there, because the view is essentially the same as that of the original. I still can’t relate to this one because I recall too much of what is missing. 

From a pier in Brooklyn I watched the twin towers rising downtown and when they were completed, spent a lot of time there over the years either in offices, the concourse, or the Windows on the World restaurant and the bar at the opposite side. All are now gone, along with the church next to the towers where I was married, and unforgettably, the thousands of innocent souls who perished in that terrible attack. 

Yet the city rebounded  with renewed enthusiasm and real estate continues to rise, but nothing goes up indefinitely, and can easily head in the other direction. For it was not that long ago that a majority of the people living here said they would move somewhere else if they could, at a time when the path towards decay and decline then seemed inevitable. But these days people again think that New York is the greatest city in the world, and to the west and south there are only provincial places, but that in itself is also a kind of parochial  viewpoint. It is also seen as the center of the world, especially for those who have come here from somewhere else. 

What is true is that if you came back to NYC after a decade or so, you would find things different due to the constant building and rebuilding going on, and it is in large measure sustained by that constant reinvention and renewal. But there are other places, such as Detroit or Baltimore, that no longer seem to have a purpose, and could be headed towards the same fate as some of the ancient city ruins I recently visited. But neither applies to Venice, which was finished long ago, and remains intact even after many years of decline. It is a place you could revisit after decades and find nothing changed, not to mention settings that appear as they would have centuries in the past. It was once a republic that lasted over a thousand years, but today it is basically a dead city, a museum, that exists almost entirely for tourists. Nothing else happens there anymore. The population is only 60,000 and falling as well as aging, so that it is projected that no Venetians will be left by 2030, when in any case it may be flooded by rising seas. 

Other cities, like Athens and Rome, have existed for thousands of years, undergoing periods of sharp decline, but then rebounding, because although they contain ancient ruins, they are still living cities with people engaged in a wide range of activities. From ancient times onwards cities have been sacked, populations slaughtered, and temples destroyed, but often they would rebound and build a new temple, and sometimes the ruins we see today are the second or even third incarnation of what was there originally.  

Other times cities would be totally and deliberately obliterated, like Carthage, with little left to suggest they ever existed.  Some simply fade away for other reasons. I recently visited the ancient Greek cities of Ephesus and Miletus on the coast of what is now Turkey. It was there that philosophy began and rational thought was applied to explain natural phenomena previously attributed to divinities and spirits, thus providing the foundation for science. They were once important cities, with commercial harbors, but as rivers silted up over time they were left in an inland location, resulting in the loss of economic vitality and depopulation. The same thing happened in other places, such as Pisa in Italy. 

We can never know what the long term fate of our cities will be. Will they decline beyond recovery, will they transform into something else, or will they still remain vibrant? In any event we cannot assume that the world we live in now will be the same a few hundred years from now, any more than we resemble the world of a few hundred years past. But whatever record we do leave will likely only be found in cities or what remains of them. 

04 May 2015


Every time I return from a trip abroad I dread the miserable process of passing through JFK airport in New York, which continues to a be a national embarrassment, especially when you think that this is the first thing people from other countries experience when they come here. It is says a lot when it is an even worse experience than traveling to Venice, where I just returned from.  

Venice is notoriously difficult to come and go from as you either have to travel via a water taxi, or haul your luggage to your destination from the furthest point a train or bus from the airport can take you. From there you have to cross canals, and since this will involve dragging suitcases up and down the steps of a series of bridges to get to your hotel, it is well worth paying a porter to take care of that for you. But with canals instead of streets everywhere, these difficulties are at least the result of unavoidable physical conditions.

The same cannot be said for the dismal conditions at JFK which are man-made and entirely avoidable. It is a disgrace, compared to modern and efficient airports in other cities around the world. First you have to walk through an endless dingy corridor to a huge room with a vast series of lines below a huge, truly dreadful mural. Initially there is a line for US citizens, foreign legal residents, and first time visitors, but then the first two pointlessly get merged. Then you have to get on a very long line that snakes back and forth several times, until you finally get to stop number one. Then you go to a kiosk, insert your passport and it prints out a paper with your picture verifying your information, with such new technology apparently designed to speed things up and smooth your passage. But it doesn’t, because you then go to another line anyway, and at this point the confusion is such that I can’t even tell you what department each stop is for, but after that there is yet another line. Then you pick up your luggage and wind up on yet another line, before finally exiting the airport to one mercifully quick last line to get a taxi, by which time nearly two hours have transpired since landing. If you weren’t exhausted after spending eight hours on an airplane you will be after this. 

This can’t be blamed on enhanced security, because oddly, leaving from the same airport took less than half an hour, despite full security checks. Problems returning are instead based upon bureaucratic ineptitude, needless duplication and terrible organization. Clearly no one is looking at things from the customer standpoint. What is clearly needed is an effort to bring this airport into the twenty-first century in terms of physical plant, as well as new and better management. 

I did come across one thing even dumber, in Croatia, one of the countries we visited. For some odd reason the government insists that merchants display prices only in the local currency, which is so obscure you can’t even find it on most conversion tables. In most other countries prices are usually posted in dollar or euro equivalents for the convenience of tourist customers. That is obviously good for business; pricing things in kunas  is definitely not, and local businesses suffer as a result. Clearly government ineptitude knows no borders.