I recently returned from Shanghai, and whenever I visit, I think of Lincoln Steffens famous remark after his first visit to the Soviet Union in the 1920s: “I have seen the future and it works.”
I live in New York, which I have always thought of as the most vertical city in the world; but Shanghai takes verticality to new heights (pun fully intended). There are neighborhoods in Manhattan that have groupings of high-rise buildings, but in Shanghai, the high rise office buildings and apartments go on for miles and miles and miles. Reading about it and seeing photographs was impressive, but being there made it viscerally real to me.
Half the world’s population lives in cities now, but in a generation, that proportion will increase dramatically. Over the next fifty years, several billion people will move to or be born into cities, adding to those who live there now. In this half-century, there will be thousands of new cities built, each of them as necessarily large as Shanghai. It is almost unimaginable, but Shanghai helps us imagine it.
When I walk in Shanghai, I also wonder if this is what it must have been like to experience New York City at the turn of the century. It is a laboratory of the new: new means of transportation, new methods of construction, new kinds of building, new modes of living. At the same time, there is an inevitable sense that these new ideas and technologies are outpacing the social structures that underpin them. In New York in 1910 there were and in Shanghai in 2012 there are almost unfathomable human dislocations that accompany every new venture, and barely hidden beneath the surface, extremes of wealth and poverty.
Shanghai definitely represents the future, but the verdict is still out on whether it works. But for anyone who is interested in the future of the species, it is definitely the place to be.

Yesterday, I helped serve lunch to 218 people at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on Morningside Heights. I volunteered for this assignment through a wonderful non-profit called New York Cares that has a web site that matches volunteers to scores of local organizations that need help on any given day.
I started volunteering regularly during the winter holidays a few months ago. I’m no fan of holidays, and usually I travel in December and January to avoid them, but this year my wife and I stayed in New York. We decided to volunteer together: serving seniors Christmas dinner in Chelsea, delivering Meals on Heels in Yorkville, and sorting donated winter coats in a basement near Penn Station. I’ve tried to volunteer at least once a month since.
New Yorkers don’t necessarily think of the Upper West Side of Manhattan as a neighborhood where there are many people who need a free meal, but I’ve realized these last few months that there is real need everywhere in this city. Sunday, we served not only people who clearly were living on the street, but whole families, the elderly, and quite a few veterans. They were all deeply grateful. It’s a cliche, of course, but these small personal efforts remind me that it is always better to give than to receive.
These events also remind me that ordinary people can be very generous. My work partner (I washed about 300 cafeteria trays, he dried) – who astonishingly has an office in the same building as mine though we’ve never met before – had just returned from a three-month assignment in Libya for the UN, but here he was on his first Sunday back home standing next to me at the soup kitchen, dish towel in hand. There were about 20 of us who had volunteered, many like me there for first time. It was all rather disorganized and chaotic at times, and yet somehow we all managed to work together effectively and 200 hungry people were fed.
There’s a lesson there. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but it’s a good one.