Before moving to the city, I obsessively read about it.
Throughout my research, people often referenced E.B. White’s essay, “Here is New York.” I didn’t get a chance to read it until after I’d already moved, and perhaps it was better that way. Much of what he says can only be understood by experiencing it.
A former New Yorker, White wrote the essay on a visit in the summer of 1948. He recalled arriving in the city as a young writer, bolstered by his proximity to the giants of his field. He had been living in Maine for quite some time by the time he wrote it, but his memories of the city remained vivid. Many of his observations are as true now as they were 60 years ago.
“To a New Yorker,” White writes, “the city is both changeless and changing.”
Seven other observations:
the gift of loneliness & the gift of privacy
“The strangers of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending on a good deal of luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”
there are three new yorks:
the new york of commuters, of natives & of settlers.
“Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last — the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.”
it is a work of art, a mystery.
“The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniments of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”
it’s for the ambitious.
“The city is always full of young worshipful beginners — young actors, young aspiring poets, ballerinas, painters, reporters, singers — each depending on his own brand of tonic to stay alive, each with his own stable of giants.”
it’s not for the weak.
“The city is uncomfortable and inconvenient; but New Yorkers temperamentally do not crave comfort and convenience — if they did they would live elsewhere.”
it’s a microcosm of the world.
“The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of the world. The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry.”
“A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York.”
(About the image: Greenwich Village, 2007)
Edit: This post made it to WordPress’s Freshly Pressed for Oct. 7. Thanks, WordPress, and thanks to the wonderful comments!