New York, New York

NEW York City has long been about wrestling King Kong to the ground. The Empire City's own gigantism was matched against that of the huge ape from Skull Island in the film that opened just 60 years ago, on March 2, 1933.

Since the Tower of Babel, skyscrapers have represented a daring arrogance of engineering to master the tendency of built things to topple. In other forms - the cathedral spires in Cologne, for example - sky-piercing structures have represented aspiration of the heavenly city variety. On Manhattan Island, the United Nations tower symbolizes a commitment to peace.

New York in this century became the world city for making it big. Financial fortunes. Broadway. Furs and necklaces and parlors with 18-foot ceilings. The place for ticker-tape parades. Radio and then television news. Carnegie Hall. Madison Square Garden. Rockefeller Center.

The cliche "big apple" implies a striving to be first and foremost even as the theater district grew tawdry, corporate headquarters abandoned the city, Los Angeles and Atlanta became media centers, and Washington became the focus of international news. Negative forces have washed over the city, in common with other large cities: drugs and related health, crime, poverty, and school woes.

There is also a survivor New York City. It remains the financial center at the same time the world's wealth is spread among Tokyo, London, Frankfurt and other financial capitals. It still holds 7 million people of, believe it or not, ever more varied origins.

Even last week's detonation at the World Trade Center, site of the city's tallest towers, was a form of tribute to the city. Whatever the motives turn out to be, the attack was on the city's gigantism, its claim to firstness. Absent an early known perpetrator, the list of pretenders has included Libyan, Iranian, Iraqi, Yugoslavian, Latin American, and Irish underground forces. Whatever the material damage, the attack was chiefly on the imagination of Americans.

There are too many New Yorks for one assault to humble, even one on the trade towers. Subjectively, there is a different New York for everyone who lives there every day, for everyone who has visited it over the years.

For me it has Jason Robards Jr. in O'Neill's "Iceman" and "A Long Day's Journey Into Night," and Leonard Warren in his last performance of "Rigoletto." It is a debutante ball in a borrowed tuxedo during my sophomore year in college, a strange event that assures that you seldom dance with the date you brought. A dock strike that required oceangoing passengers - senior citizens and pregnant alike - to tote luggage aboard themselves. Russian gymnasts Olga Korbut and Ludmila Turischeva at the Garden, with a TV announcer achatter in front of us. I would often feel a deep melancholy, driving from Boston to Manhattan with friends, passing mile on mile of high-rise apartments with more people in them than I could speak to in a year: How could anyone encompass this city, I would wonder.

No wonder there is so much fuss about becoming the toast of the town, an ambition thought to be quite unbecoming elsewhere where most of us come from!

King Kong was the ultimate non-New Yorker. The unsophisticate. A pagan force from a remote island, he wore his own fur. The gentleness Kong showed for lovely Fay Wray, whom he held in his hand, was lost on the hard-hearted city. The Empire State Building, then the world's tallest structure, was the antithesis of his walled jungle retreat, to which natives came with the captured Wray as tribute.

Who are the toasts of the town today? Television anchors? Athletes? Authors? Are their antagonists drug lords, terrorists? Are fashion models the Fay Wrays? It is as if the New York of the imagination has yet to catch up with two of the structural changes of our time, the expansion of higher education and the leadership potential of women.

Fortunately, the Trade Center bomb was exploded in the apron between the two towers and at a time of abundant office space elsewhere in Manhattan. In New York, one landlord's disaster is another's opportunity.

It is ironic too that, just as President Clinton has been making Little Rock, Ark., into the model of all things governmental, the big city has captured public attention.

Mixed blessing that it is, New York remains an epitome of modern human aspiration that commands more than a little respect.

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