On my first week in Manhattan, in June 2005, as the New York correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, a friend of a friend had me round for a drink.
He lived in a glorious town house on Spring Street in SoHo. I duly admired the building.
“I’m afraid it’s all changed,” he said wistfully. “On my first morning here in the 70s, I was woken up by a guy beating another guy to death with a trash-can lid.”
New York is always changing—a strong theme in E. B. White’s elegy to the city, Here Is New York, now celebrating its 70th anniversary.
The New Yorker writer had been lured from his Maine home to write the essay for Holiday, a new travel magazine. That essay literally became instant literature: it was first produced as a book in 1949.
“I was woken up by a guy beating another guy to death with a trash-can lid.”
When I flew to New York in 2005, I took the book on the plane, admiring White’s cool prose and acute observational powers. But it is only since I left New York for London, after two years working there, that I have felt the book’s full impact.
Here Is New York is a book for people who have left New York—but whom New York has never left.
As White wrote, “The city is both changeless and changing.” He recorded that most of the elevated railways had gone since his time there in the 1920s; that Broadway had disappeared under neon letters and frozen-custard-colored façades.
When I go back to New York now, 12 years after I left, I notice the changes, too. The first section of the High Line park was opened in 2009—funnily enough, on one of the surviving sections of the elevated railways White referred to. I saw the foundation of One World Trade Center being dug in 2006. I’d left long before it was finished, in 2014.
Unlike my friend of a friend who recalled the golden age of trash-can murders, White isn’t an old moaner and groaner about change; he’s a recorder of change.
And he’s a recorder, too, of how much the city has stayed the same in its heart and soul, even as its bones are consistently rearranged by real-estate developers.
In his opening lines, White points to the reason for New York’s continuous life force: the “strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail.”
The city has stayed the same in its heart and soul, even as its bones are consistently rearranged by real-estate developers.
I was seeking sanctuary from a heart-shattering love affair in London. My grail was to break away from another sanctuary—the sanctuary of London, where I’d been born and had lived and worked for 33 years before I came to Manhattan.
My friends in New York were other exiles seeking sanctuary: a Turkish writer who’d lived in the city for 30 years; a German journalist who’d fled Berlin for life on Long Island; a British-expat friend from Oxford University who’d married a lovely New York girl.
I, too, went out with a native New Yorker for a while. She began by hosing me down with flattery, graduated to attacking me for not earning enough money, and accelerated the end by asking about our relationship: “So, as my Colombian mother says, ‘Progreso o no progreso?”
It was no progreso, though I was grateful for the opportunity to get to know one of White’s three categories of New Yorkers: the native who takes the city for granted.
White’s other two categories were commuters and the people who, like me, were born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.
It was we, the outsiders, who gave New York, White thought, its “high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts and its incomparable achievements.” I would add that we outsiders also import extra doses of desperation to succeed, and loneliness.
How right White was about the best outsiders, I thought, in April 2006, as I biked to the former front door of a Scranton-born 89-year-old in Greenwich Village, around the corner from my West 11th Street apartment. She had just died in Toronto.
We outsiders also import extra doses of desperation to succeed, and loneliness.
“To Jane Jacobs, the woman who saved the Village,” said the card on a wreath to the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities—her 1961 classic explaining how humans thrived in the low-rise neighborhoods she protected, and foundered in tower blocks.
Jacobs must have read Here Is New York, which makes a similar point—New York is really a composite of tens of thousands of tiny neighborhoods.
When it comes to tower blocks, White is agonizingly prescient: “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.”
For that chilling sentence alone, White must be named New York’s Nostradamus.
“A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy.”
What White doesn’t quite say is how small Manhattan is. One Saturday I biked around its full circumference with a London-expat friend. But it is its smallness that gives the city its thickly piled layers of historical memories and you your inevitable proximity to breaking news.
White wrote his essay 22 blocks from where Rudolph Valentino lay in state; five blocks from the publisher’s office where Ernest Hemingway got in a fight.
Only a 10-minute bike ride from the Telegraph’s SoHo office on Broadway, I watched poor Boy George sweep up garbage on the Lower East Side in 2006—part of his community service for cocaine possession.
He swept up that garbage only a few minutes’ walk from the Fulton Fish Market—which I’d visited on its last day of business in 2005 after 183 years.
Frank Tortorice from Staten Island told me then how angry he was at the market’s move to the Bronx: “I should have gone into fucking computers or been a teacher like my daughter, instead of busting my balls with 300-pound handcarts loaded with red snapper when it’s 20 below.”
That was one of the rare moments I went down to the edge of the East River. White was right about how little New Yorkers look out to the water. New York is the greatest seaport in the world, he says, but he’d only ever noticed one boat, when he heard the Queen Mary blow at midnight from the Brooklyn Bridge. “The sound carried the whole history of departure and longing and loss,” he wrote.
I feel that longing and loss every time I think of New York—and it’s never been better captured than by E. B. White.
Harry Mount is a journalist based in London