The Stranger in Everyday Life

11/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Seated by my window as the sun rises. Monk's Dream on the blaster on top of the fridge. Our neighbors are arguing. Their voices, an Irish father and a Dominican mother, rise into notes of the birds and the jazz in our backyard of air.

Last night's "Jane Jacobs Night" was a revelation. The nine readers each read aloud a quote or two from her book, then burned their own activism with it. Some read letters from Jane herself, weighing in from Toronto up until her death, one city-defending campaign after another. The arc of the evening became a many-faceted look at her work, and our work. This morning I have this lesson.

In the city we meet in public and create the city as we meet each other. The improvisation of our everyday living is the city. This idea would seem simple enough, but it is in direct conflict with the agenda of the official city. We insist, though -- I mean I hope we are insisting -- on a charged level of accident, pitched responses, a musical free-fall through crowds, a gift economy full of surprises, neighborhoods that keep being hilarious and finally long spells of stillness ...

Strangers are important in this musical choreography, they rub certain rhythms into the air as they pass through. We trust them, we are strangers ourselves, and we confront one another in a you-tip-me I-tip-you kind of play. We build safety this way without products or guns. This is not the official "security" of this city. The citizens are out-maneuvering the fear of suddenly-encountered people. We may be wary of strangers but we are drawn to them and want to enter harmonized chaos with them. How strangers treat strangers is the landmark of any city.

Why try to slow down our concentrated co-response? We are a city. The over-designed universities, the chain stores and big boxes, the gentrified styles and miles of pavement that try to seep under the asthmatic children ... They want to distance us. We the people only keep this anti-city going with our exhausted consumerism. The city-as-monoculture can only continue with surveillance, stop-and-frisks, eminent domain, developer tax windfalls and all the illegal activity brazenly called Progress and New York Greatness and The Future by the teleprompter readers.

The music of people improvising as they play the sidewalks with chattering souls - this is more like a child's gaze at the deep night sky than we ever realized. Or the moment we can't explain when we make love. Or the thing the world's worshipers hope to catch when they raise cupped hands to the sky. It is the thing the immigrants bring the city, when they stand shell-shocked or starry-eyed on the A train from JFK. They come to us the way we came ourselves -- with best wishes in so many languages that our backyard has a new thrilling whisper.