Rockefeller Center—there it is, only six blocks south of America House. I often pass through it just to savor the plaza’s open space, carved out oasis-like from the surrounding tall buildings in congested New York City. The sunken section of the plaza is transformed into a skating rink as of mid-October, and soon after its opening this year I watched as well-dressed skaters twirled or wobbled their way over the ice to the rhythms of Muzak. This was at 9:30 on a weekday morning, when an appointment had delayed my arrival at work. The skaters included two boys who, at that hour, were presumably playing hooky. Atop one of the complex’s buildings is the Rainbow Room, with its expansive views of the city and prices to match.
The complex includes the Radio City Music Hall, a 1932 Art Deco landmark that seats almost 6,000. On major holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, crowds line up outside waiting to enter, mostly family groups who come to see the seasonal shows featuring the Rockettes. But of greater interest to those in the journalism line, like me, is another of the Rockefeller Center structures—the Associated Press Building a few steps from the rink. Over the entrance is a gleaming steel bas-relief sculpture titled simply “News.” It depicts people at work using journalism’s tools of the trade as they existed in 1940, when the sculpture was completed. One figure holds a camera, another a telephone, another works at a typewriter and the fourth holds a notepad. If executed today, the handsome work of art might include a laptop computer.
The person primarily responsible for the cluster of buildings was John D. Rockefeller Jr., only son of the family patriarch, whose immense fortune was based on his monopolistic grasp of the Standard Oil Company, which he founded. The senior Rockefeller was excoriated in his time as a robber baron. So for all the Art Deco beauty of Rockefeller Center and the benign philanthropic associations the family name holds today, walking among the center’s buildings cannot help but sharpen in one’s mind the implicit contrast they present with the poverty that wracks much of the world—a contrast that conjures up an image of globalization’s forces at work in ways that do not necessarily suggest prosperity for all.
In a speech at Regis University in Denver, in September, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles spoke of globalization as an almost too convenient “villain for many of the world’s troubles.” But he added that globalization can indeed be linked with “the growing disparities in wealth and income between peoples and nations,” as well as with “pervasive unemployment and underemployment” and “unequal access to communication systems and technologies.” The latter epitomize the very basis of the wealth of the world’s richest nations. The Census Bureau reported in September that even here in the United States, the richest country of them all, the number of people living in poverty rose by over a million last year. Many among them are children.
Walking through Rockefeller Center that fall morning, one would not think such poverty possible in a land like ours, especially if you moved along the passageways of the sleek underground concourse with its high-end shops like Godiva. But in an unoccupied section of the concourse with a scattering of empty tables and chairs just off the rink, I saw two poorly dressed men and a woman, all of whom might have been homeless—the men together at a table, sitting listlessly as one of them paged through a tattered copy of The Daily News. The woman sat by herself at another table. All three were silent. A security guard was making his rounds through the area. To his credit, he did not disturb these isolated figures, out of place in that moneyed environment, where they seemed like tiny specks.
They represented, though, the many millions excluded from globalization’s wealth, a wealth lavishly reflected throughout the center itself—in the sleek buildings, the restaurants and shops, the skaters gliding across the artificially created ice, and now, in December, in the towering Christmas tree ablaze with light in the frigid darkness.