The Symbiotic City
by Doc Searls Thursday, June 15, 2017

My street is in one in the north end of Manhattan's grid, flanked by high-rises, each a henge of air conditioners protruding from windows. The hood is residential, a mix of Orthodox Jewish, Dominican and other religions and ethnicities, some apparent but most not. Collars are a mix of blue and white. No rich people, or at least not so one can tell. All the retail action faces the street and absent of brand names the world knows. There are no corporate headquarters and no buildings with doormen. Our street is a block away from the main retail action, meaning most of the traffic is pedestrian: people walking their kids or their dogs, hurrying to or from one of the subway portals, or walking slowly toward or back from one of the parks that have benches. 

The larger apartment buildings here have supers: guys who live on the ground floor, know everybody, and keep things fixed. The super next door is serious and friendly, smokes constantly and rarely smiles. He's called Smiley. His brother-in-law is the super of another building on the street. That guy is relentlessly cheerful and has a nickname I forget, though he greets me by name. The two of them have been on their jobs for seventeen and thirty-five years.

Our building is too small to have a super, so that's kind of my job, meaning I'm the one who calls the landlady, or that she calls if she's wondering how to replace a broken washer or air conditioner for the lowest possible cost, knowing I'll take care of that.

All this is preamble to a story typical of living here, featuring a one-liner uttered by Smiley.

When the first heat wave came a couple weeks ago, one of our window air conditioners crapped out, and I replaced it. Being busy with other stuff, I left the dead AC on our small balcony, waiting for me to deal with New York's very specific requirements for disposing of deceased appliances containing chlorofluorocarbons. I wanted to make sure I did this the Right Way, so I asked Smiley about it one morning when we ran into each other on the sidewalk.

"Don't call the city," Smiley said. "Call Ted."

"Who's Ted?"

"You've seen him around here. Greek guy."

What I love about that exchange is that I actually knew who Smiley was talking about while having never spoken to the guy, and having had no clue that the guy was Greek.

"You mean the guy with the huge key ring on his belt who has all that stuff roped to a van?" I said.

"Yeah. Hold on."

Smiley took out his phone and called Ted. Later Ted retrieved the dead air conditioner.

This is one of the many informal ways cities work, and I love it.

If you want to know more about those informalities and their importance to all of civilization, I have four recommendations.

First, see Abacus, a perfect documentary about a bank in Chinatown that was all but crucified by the government for the sins of giant banks that mostly went unpunished (while some were quite rewarded) after the mortgage crisis of 2008. It's the true story not only of the bank's (literal) trials, but of the neighborhood it serves, and how the very human vernacular of business is so much more essential within the weave of civilization than anything corporate giants or governments do, though they get almost all the attention. (I also visited this fact in Small is the New Big.)

Second, see Citizen Jane, the Battle for the City, a documentary about fights between Jane Jacobs, the best friend cities ever had, and Robert Moses, the massively influential planner and builder of roads, bridges and parks, who completely re-shaped New York (mostly for the worse) while modeling for the country trashing of public transportation and handing over transport responsibilities to cars and trucks.

Third, read The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert Caro. It is huge, deep and thoroughly readable; yet it still cannot convey—because nothing can—the full scope of Moses' influence on all the world's cities, even today.

Fourth, follow Bubkes, the blog of Stephen Lewis, who studies, photographs and writes about cities and their people with a depth of understanding and care that has few equals. You will never encounter a better docent in your browser.