11/26/2013 03:05 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

On Transitions

Manhattan at night transforms into a whole other beast. Not in a science fiction sort of way--there are still streetlights and skyscrapers, buses and buildings, steaming grates hinting at the thundering trains below. And in the village and midtown, in hipster Brooklyn and commercializing Harlem, crowds buzz and restaurants overflow, much as they do at lunch hour.

But at night, in certain downtown pockets, the New York of old, of uncovered mysteries, of imagination and availability, finds its way through the sudden quiet. Hints of neon leak out the edges of dark alleys, and small groups coalesce on unsuspecting corners. Change waits for no one, no matter how we may fight it, but no matter 'progress', in a city of this size, the past lurks for those curious enough.

The first Tuesday night in November was unexpectedly warm, and as SoHo receded into the distance the streets gave themselves willingly - music in my ears, arms wide, the bike gliding beautifully in emptiness that brings a certain euphoria familiar to anyone who explores on two wheels when the crowds have gone. Even Broadway was surprisingly empty - deserted, even - and already, only hours after the results were announced, a sense of transition hung in the air. In front of City Hall the subway station was closed, an unthreatening slack yellow fence stretched lazily across the descending stairway, and for a night, anyway, the locus of power had hopped the East River to Brooklyn. Twelve years of cocksure billionaire bachelor Bloomberg- masculine, decisive, unflinching-- and now a family man, a public advocate, married to a black former lesbian, with two kids and a tale of two cities. Sometimes change takes time. Sometimes it doesn't.

Fifty years ago Jack Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas -- a brutal, sudden end to an era of optimism, of a collective belief in the ability of government to lead. His assassination stopped the world in the way that sadly only tragedy seems to manage. Ask anyone 56 and over today where they were when JFK was shot, what they were doing, and they know. It's forever vivid, an instance of collective consciousness that softens and unites those who lived it. And it's powerful enough that even today, those of us newer to the planet are still moved by collective memory.

It's been a long 50 years too. Think of the Government of JFK, of the Media in 1963 - tightly managed one-way communication, information limited, veneer intact. It's tough to imagine Camelot in today's clamor--imagine Fox News and Perez Hilton turning the other cheek on rumors of Obama roaming the bowels of the White House with Kim Kardashian (I know, I know, but YOU find today's equivalent for Marilyn Monroe).

Evolution isn't usually instant. Social and physiological changes within and around us, the changes we create through technology, through society, are slower, more intertwined, and not so easily narrowed to a specific moment. Yes, we may celebrate the glorious epiphany, but they too are merely the tips of an iceberg, the visible outcomes of processes both conscious and un- that propel us forward on an evermore-connected planet. And yet tragedies like JFK's devastate us in a manner so shattering that the moment never goes away, hanging interminably.

MLK and LBJ, some say, were able to use Kennedy's death to advance much needed change to our country's laws, to pass new equal rights legislation, to elevate the consciousness of those who previously stood by passively. It's a vast simplification of years of effort by countless people fighting for equality on many fronts, of course, and we are far from any sort of true equality. But we are people, after all, and people are subject to change.

At the International Climate Conference last week, representatives from the Philippines - still reeling from the typhoon that killed thousand - demanded reparation, accountability from developed nations whose missions, and emissions, have altered global climate patterns. They were joined by so many other Pacific Island nations whose assassination is coming, a bullet from the sixth floor in undeniable, painful, fossil-fuelled slow motion. When the refugees from a dozen no-longer-there countries in the pacific rock up on our shores, will we mark the moment the same way we did 50 years ago in Dallas? Will we find an easily fingered "natural" disaster, a sort-of pre-emptive Jack Ruby to eliminate the danger before it unloads?

We may well be past that point. Transition is, after all, always in motion. If one thing remains, though, it is New York's ability to influence, its opportunity to lead. It is the ultimate 21st century city in the Western, if not the entire, world. Art, music, politics, innovation -- if it makes it anywhere, it eventually makes it here. The same will be true with human-driven 'natural' disasters. And so, as we mourn old leaders, we also welcome in new leadership. In fact, in some places, we are dying for it.