Essayist Reflects on Burgeoning U.S. Population After it Passes 300 Million

October 26, 2006 at 6:50 PM EDT

NANCY GIBBS, Time Magazine: So how does it feel to suddenly live in a country of 300 million people? Do we each feel a little smaller, more cramped by this news?

It’s hard for me to worry too about running out of room, but that’s probably because I’m an island girl — Manhattan Island — and we’ve never had much elbow room. We live in stacks, like books. And when more people come, the shelves just get taller and boroughs around the island just get more crowded.

Some cities, like Atlanta and Houston, keep oozing outwards in every direction, but island cities can’t do that and would lose something if they could. People who come here must like the buzz and breath of crowds, don’t mind density, think it makes you nimble and shrewd.

The greatest achievements in history have tended to arise from the most crowded living conditions, but then so do riots, and plagues, and squalor. So it’s remarkable that New York seems to work as well as it does. How is it that the biggest city in the country is also the safest, with so many of us entwined so tight? And why do people keep coming here, when so many other trends suggests that we want to get as far away from each other as possible?

We migrate to the exurbs, find a gated community, home school, telecommute, order online. How can a tall, tight, insanely expensive city like New York be thriving at a time like this?

People say that September 11th changed us; we were ennobled by our suffering. But we were never as mean as we looked. During the last blackout, people marched down to the river in an impromptu parade under a big dipper they could see for the first time.

No place to escape

TV NEWSCASTER: The small plane that struck this building...

NANCY GIBBS: We can be fatalistic in the face of disaster. There is no escape from New York, as the mayor admitted during our most recent scare. So tell us a hurricane is coming, and we know we have no place to go, except maybe the nearest restaurant where we can all hang out together.

Maybe the reason we don't make eye contact on the street is because it's intrusive. There are too many of us on any given block to greet with a smile as though this were all one, big, small town. It's many small towns pushed together, and we cross borders without documents, to SoHo for the galleries, to Arthur Avenue for prosciutto, to Little Odessa for the night clubs, to Mott Street for the dumplings, to Flushing to hear more languages spoken in one zip code than anywhere on the planet.

This is what America is going to look like as we grow, vastly different populations nestled up against each other, intermingling with each other. So maybe we have some lessons to share about getting bigger without growing too tribal, about welcoming the gifts that strangers bring.

That 300-millionth American, no one knows who it really was, but demographic odds favored a Hispanic boy born near Los Angeles. That's our second biggest city, Los Angeles, so long mocked as a suburb in search of a city, but now actually growing ever more dense. Even downtown L.A. is becoming populated by people sick of commuting or seeking a skyline.

There's plenty of evidence that we're coming together more than we're coming apart, but we'll know even better in about 37 years as the population clock keeps track. One new baby born every seven seconds; one soul lost every 13; one pilgrim landing every 31. That works out to be one more person every 11 seconds -- tick, tock, tick, tock -- on our way to 400 million and beyond.

I'm Nancy Gibbs.