Samuel Johnson put London and life itself on the same platform, writing:
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.
I often think the same thing can be said of New York City. It, at least, seems that way to me, a foreigner vis-a-vis NYC. Despite its subway violence and ridiculous policies, sane people continue to live and flourish there.
And they love it.
The affectionate, often rabid, devotion to NYC is an American tradition, especially, it seems, among Catholics.
Consider the ecumenical journal with a strong Catholic bent: First Things. It was born in NYC. Its founder and editor, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, loved NYC and didn't mind tweaking FT readers who didn't appreciate the marvel that was NYC.
RJN passed away over ten years ago, but NYC continues to flow through its veins. Its editorial offices are still in Manhattan and NYC-philia manifests itself in every issue, sometimes vigorously.
It starts at the Park's southern entrance, which is simply known as "the Mall." It features the "Literary Walk," which is a tribute to a great writer (Shakespeare), a good writer (Sir Walter Scott), a good poet (Robert Burns), and four others who don't belong there (Fitz-Greene Halleck and a trio of women combined in one statue: Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Cody Stanton).
The fundraising for the Shakespeare statue is interesting: Part of the money was raised "at a remarkable New York performance of Julius Caesar in 1864. The role of Mark Antony was played by John Wilkes Booth."
The essay then proceeds north, walking under (possibly) the largest grove of elms in the world, which mysteriously survived the pathogen that killed off our country's elms a hundred years ago.
The essayist walks a quarter mile to Bethesda Terrace, which is "the miracle that stands at the center of the park," which was abandoned in the 1950s, claimed by the counter-culture in the 1960s, and a den for drug, crime, and graffiti in the 1970s. The beautiful Bethesda Fountain broke and wasn't fixed. The whole place "stank of urine."
But by the 1990s, order was restored. You can now find street performers, families, and a working fountain, which attracts the locals and the tourists and the deranged.
Occasionally we still find some of the old New York color. Once, as the Japanese couples posed for their photos, I saw a man drop his nine-foot python into the fountain to let it have a cooling swim. Mothers all around swooped in to grab the little children who were splashing in the fountain’s waters.
The essay ends with a tribute to Frederick Law Olmstead, who was a remarkable man who appreciated the significance of Bethesda.
I return to the fountain again and again, and I see it as a hidden meaning of the city, a way of explaining why some of the deeds of our fellow citizens have an afterlife, a luster and grace that persists, whatever may be their other sins. Olmsted was a member of a generation who knew the story of Bethesda, who venerated it as proof of true divinity and, in many instances, imitated it here on earth. Here is the way to healing, here are the life-giving waters; and when I depart from this place refreshed, I feel that I know once more what I must do.
Interestingly, it appears that "what the essayist" must do is move to Steubenville, Ohio, because that's where he is now.