AP

A stabbing attack in New York's Riverside Park acts as a reminder about the way cities really work.

Early Tuesday morning in New York’s Riverside Park, a terrifying and random attack unfolded. A homeless man, apparently suffering from mental illness, went on a stabbing rampage. He attacked two joggers, a man walking his dog, a toddler in a stroller, and the child’s father. Altogether, five people were injured, two of them critically, before the assailant was subdued by a passerby. All of the victims were rushed to the hospital and are expected to recover.

You could look at the incident as an example of how frightening life can be in a big city like New York. And without a doubt, it highlights the inadequacies of mental health services in the city and the nation at large.

Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see something much more positive about the way cities really work.

As the attack unfolded, according to news accounts, multiple bystanders ran to aid those who were being assaulted. The 43-year-old assailant, wielding a scissors blade, was ultimately tackled by one of the passersby, who brought him to the ground and held him there until police arrived.

A worker from a nearby Sanitation Department facility comforted one of the joggers, who had been stabbed in the neck. Another person who stepped in to help made sure that the dog that was being walked was returned safely to its home, even as its owner was on his way to the hospital.

This is the way a functional community protects itself. When some of its members are under threat, whoever happens to be nearby rises to the occasion and begins to repair the damage immediately. It’s like the way white blood cells respond to an attack on the immune system.

Jane Jacobs, in her classic Death and Life of Great American Cities, documented this exact effect. She wrote this about the aftermath of a fight at her local bar:

When Jimmy Rogan fell through a plate-glass window (he was separating some scuffling friends) and almost lost his arm, a stranger in an old T shirt emerged from the Ideal bar, swiftly applied an expert tourniquet, and, according to the hospital’s emergency staff, saved Jimmy’s life. Nobody remembered seeing the man before and no one has seen him since. The hospital was called in this way: a woman sitting on the steps next to the accident ran over to the bus stop, wordlessly snatched the dime from the hand of a stranger who was waiting with his fifteen-cent fare ready, and raced into the Ideal’s phone booth. The stranger raced after her to offer the nickel too. Nobody remembered seeing him before, and nobody has seen him since.

The fight and the injury to Rogan caused a rupture in the social fabric of the city sidewalk that Jacobs was observing. But as soon as that happened, whoever happened to be nearby stepped up to begin healing that wound.

When scary things happen, we tend to focus on what has gone wrong. One of the things that made Jacobs such a genius observer of the urban milieu was her ability to see what is going right – to find, in the complex and challenging web of interaction, the forces that keep things from descending into chaos. Often, as in Riverside Park the other morning, it is the unthinkingly kind acts of strangers that restores order to the street.

Top image: A police officer stops a bicyclist from entering a section of New York's Riverside Park South where a man earlier went on a rampage stabbing five people, including a toddler, early Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

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