The pavement on the cross-streets between 9th and 7th avenues between 14th and 23rd streets have been stripped for the past month. The first step here is milling, which takes off the top layer of asphalt in preparation for repaving, and, maybe because the city is in the midst of filling nearly 300,000 potholes, these streets have remained exposed and bumpy for weeks.

Here’s what it’s looked like.


In these few weeks, we’ve gotten to see what lies underneath: layers of patching, the old covering of potholes, extra asphalt around manholes. Sometimes even the cobblestone, which must be nearly 100 years old, is exposed, making me wonder if any more paving lies between that and the sewer system.

It’s a hodgepodge that’s been built up, layer by layer, over decades, one that we rarely see.

It is easy to be fooled by the thin veneer, the smooth top layer that is so easy to glide across. This layer fools us into thinking that it came into being fully formed. But of course everything builds on what came before it, on what lies below.

In seeing all this I’m reminded of the grimy past of New York City, of a time of dirt and struggle and disease, a time when this neighborhood was the home to slaughterhouses and slop in the streets, not fashion boutiques and 16 Handles.  Today’s glossy world sits adopt that messy history, one we are quick to forget at our peril.

I can’t help wondering how it’s come to pass that today’s reality feels so normal.  How, in a world where glamor and wealth and radical inequality has become the norm, we manage see only that top layer while ignoring the deeper moral questions that lie beneath: When did we go from building a system that rewards winners to one where the winners, quite literally, take all? And why does it seem so easy to drown out the quiet sound of people throwing up their hands and turning their backs on a system that doesn’t work for them?

Some of this stems, I think, from being fooled by that thin veneer, one that shields us from the fact that our success is not just the product of our own efforts. We literally stand upon decades, even centuries, of groundwork that came before us – times of toil and trouble and near misses that somehow all added up to this life, here and now. The foundation of our comfort, our accomplishment, and our success is our dumb luck of being born into lives in which deploying effort, brains and resources yields results.  That’s a winning lottery ticket held by precious few.

Sure, we deserve credit for our own effort, guts, and ingenuity.  But let’s not forget that we are nothing more than the top layer.

7 thoughts on “Layers

  1. Our lack of appreciation for history is what blinds us all. Thanks for shaking us awake and reminding us there was something here before we arrived. We would be wise to take heed and try and leave something substantive and sustainable for those that follow us.

  2. Sasha, your writing about layers makes me think of the history that undergirds organizations. I’ve watched so many social entrepreneurs talk about what they do, how they do it, and why it’s important. Jim Bildner at the DRK Foundation recently pointed out to me that very few leaders highlight the history of social movements or other organizations on which they stand and are able to build. And when we do make reference to historic trends, even briefly, it lends more depth and meaning to our own efforts.

  3. I totally agree Sasha. And I wonder if this is a peculiar quirk of the social enterprise sector – sometimes it feels we are more ahistorical than our predecessors.

  4. Heritage trails have become extremely important to me. Many days history seems the key to deeper understanding of people, organizations and always changing cultural trends. Thanks for this post… I’m deeply pondering layers!

  5. Slightly different direction that previous comments but I serendipitously read this post & then this New Yorker post nearly back to back.

    There is something very sad occuring in NYC as repurcussions of Bloomberg’s pro national chain or ‘glossy world’ economy continues to strip away and replace the classic New York establishments that many found so attractive in the first place. Slowly turning the city into a mall makes it so much easier for many of us to lose touch with reality without even noticing.

  6. Jamie I agree we need to be careful that New York remain distinct. I feel like it is in terms of restaurants more than retail though I’m not sure why that is the case.

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