City vs. Country

City vs. Country

Commentary for WAMC Northeast Public Radio

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Dancers at Sunset Park in Brooklyn

The question comes up often these days: Where would I rather live? The city or the country?

And the answer is… both.

One makes you appreciate the other more.

If someone put a proverbial gun to my head, I suppose the country would win out because it’s, well, more civilized.

I suppose that’s an ironic thing to say since cities are synonymous with civilization. But the country seems to triumph as the more genteel and refined of the two experiences, especially if you’ve ridden the New York City subway at rush hour, or weathered the many other indignities of urban living. (MTA fans take heart; I’m going to celebrate the inimitable virtues of subway ridership shortly.)

By genteel, I mean that there’s something to be said for waking up to birdsong and the sound of the breeze rustling the leaves rather than jackhammers and ambulance sirens.

Or an uninterrupted vista of trees and hills instead of the new building on your block that seems designed not to win any architectural awards but to obstruct your view.

It’s also nice to know you can get in your car and go somewhere without having to factor in how much time will be spent in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Or shop at a supermarket where the prices are half what they are in the city, the variety of snack foods stirring, and the aisles positively oceanic.

But part of what makes the experience of the country so precious is returning to it after several days in the city. To remind you of the ease and beauty of rural life.

On the other hand, there’s also a sense of marvel getting off the West Side Highway at 96th Street, stopping for the light on Broadway, and being thrust back into humanity.

As much as I like birds and consider chipmunks and raccoons my friends, I find people much more interesting to observe.

There’s a myth that what makes a city great are its cultural opportunities – things like plays, concerts, and museums. They may contribute to the experience, but the most attractive aspect of living in the city, it seems to me, is the almost unconscious cross-pollination that occurs among people of different ages, races and backgrounds in places like, yes, the #6 train.

Better yet, take a walk from, say, the Upper East Side to Midtown, or along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. The people watching and window-shopping are unique to great pedestrian cities; they also double as excellent exercise.

What brought home the virtues of city life was the summer solstice. You might assume the country the only place worthy to mark the day the Northern Hemisphere is most inclined towards the sun. But we spent it at aptly named Sunset Park in Brooklyn, joining my daughter and her boyfriend who were planning an evening picnic.

The park boasts a sweeping view of New York Harbor, the skyline of Lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty and New Jersey beyond.

We began the evening by picking up affordably priced tacos to go, scored dessert at two bakeries – one Mexican, the other Chinese – and then drove to Sunset Park, where we managed to get a parking space right at the entrance to the park.

Before I get carried away by the benefits of city living, I should mention that we drove around for some time, desperation starting to creep in, before my wife, who generally has excellent parking karma, saw someone pull out of a space in front of us.

If carefree parking is a concern, then the country has the city beat hands down.

We found a spot on a park hill with exceptional views, lay down a picnic blanket and prepared to launch into our beer, wine and tacos as we watched the sun sink below the horizon.

But as it turned out, the sunset was only the second most interesting spectacle we were to witness that evening. The Sunset Park neighborhood has a large Chinese population and the majority of them seemed to be out on this lovely evening. And not just out, but dancing in the park.

There were men and woman dancing together, women dancing with other women, as well as groups of women – from adolescents to unselfconscious older ladies, line dancing as a form of exercise. And if that wasn’t enough activity, children on scooters wended their way among them, angling for a better view.

It reminded me of an Asian version of that famous Renoir painting depicting a typical Sunday afternoon of 19th Century working class Parisians dancing and drinking among the trees of Montmartre.

So, on one side of the park people were celebrating nature, on the other side the pleasures of community, both groups brought together by the magnetic pull of city life.

If you wanted to create an advertisement for benevolent and joyous humanity, at a time when faith in each other seems in short supply, you couldn’t do much better than Sunset Park on the evening of the longest day of the year.


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