At the risk of putting others off and making people think New Yorkers arrogant, I insist that my beautiful city is the capital of the planet.
I first heard it called that on a plane on my way to Singapore. During a stopover in San Francisco, I elected to stay on the plane and nap, given that I don’t sleep well in flight. A cleaner came on just before the rest of the passengers were about to re-board. In an accent that could have been German or Dutch, he asked me where I was from. When I answered New York City, he immediately said, “Ah, the capital of the world.” He referred to the United Nations Headquarters as part of the rationale for his opinion. I agree with him, but only partly because of the UN.
Having the UN here is a blessing, generally speaking, but not every denizen of the town would agree this week—General Assembly Week, especially those who reside on the Upper Eastside. When there are more than one hundred heads of state tooling around one’s neighborhood, gridlock is inevitable.
The buildings that house the international body occupy a seventeen acre site in the Turtle Bay section of town. The enclave has extraterritoriality status. That is, it is not really part of the United States—kind of like Vatican City being its own country though it is surrounded by Rome.
Having the UN in our midst costs New York about $5-7 million each year in extra security. They are racking up a lot of that total this week. But all in all, the city turns a profit on the presence of the UN.
So why did they put it here in the first place? There were lots of contenders for the honor. Most European countries wanted it in Europe. But in 1945, almost that entire continent was wrecked by war and struggling to rebuild. There were fleeting thoughts that it should be in South America. One fanciful idea was to place it on ships in the oceans. Since the United States was ponying up most of the money to support the institution (and still is), America wanted it in America. And the Russians also said it should be in the US.
In the end, there were two major contenders—Geneva and New York. New York won, partly because of the US financial support. But also because NYC was already—in 1945—an international city. For instance, thanks to all the immigrant communities, New York had presses that could print newspapers in all the different alphabets of the world. Before computers and copying machines, this was an important consideration. With only old-fashioned typesetting as an option, how could the United Nations communicate to all its members in their own languages without such printing capacity? Geneva would have had to create all those foreign language presses. No mean task. But New York had citizens already speaking and reading newspapers in all the major tongues—in Cyrillic, Greek, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, you -name-it. We were international headquarters ready.
These days, there are UN installations in Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi. But the capital of the United Nations, of the planet itself, is right here. Where else can you find in one borough—Queens—150 languages spoken. Every ethnic group, race, creed, color, religion, national origin is represented in our citizenry. As regular readers of this blog are already aware, I am fond of saying that the panoply of humanity is here in force. We all ride the subway together and no one cares about the color or creed of the guy sitting to them or the girl holding on to the same pole. We are all residents of the capital of earth.
© 2013 Annamaria Alfieri