One of my favorite ways to spend a Sunday is pouring through the voluminous New York Times while sipping a latte the size of my face (seriously, my coffee shop serves them in a cereal bowl) and this past Sunday I supplemented my reading with E.B. White’s Here is New York. At roughly 7,500 words this small piece of literature would now headline as a magazine feature story, but since it was written in the summer of 1948 it stands alone as a remarkable essay and I was shocked to discover how little of the world White wrote about changed in the past 60 years.
Since it is raining buckets on the East Coast right now (again!), I thought it would be an appropriate time to share some highlights from his work with you. I’m one of those people that constantly reads with a pen in hand to underline or circle whatever intrigues me, but I literally would have marked up this entire piece because it was so amazingly accurate in capturing the essence of New York. I hope you enjoy.
There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second there is the New York of the commuter- the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last- the city of final destination, the city that is a goal.
This couldn’t be truer today. The people are the spirit of New York. The gritty, jaded New Yawkers that have lived here their entire lives, yet never visited the Statue of Liberty, keep the city beating and churning day after day. The city finds its energy and vibrancy from the third group, however. These are the artists, the dreamers, the misfits, the ones in pursuit of something better; and I love them. I just hope the depression (yeah, I said it) doesn’t run too many of them out of town.
New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.
I think New York’s isolation and loneliness are the biggest shocks for newcomers. I could go an entire day without speaking to a single person, yet I am surrounded by some 10 million people. I could buy a coffee, read a newspaper, go to a museum, ride the subway, work, work out, buy groceries and there is a great possibility that I could get away without engaging in a single conversation. Rather, it is up to the individual to opt into the city. At any given moment a new museum exhibition is opening, kings and presidents are giving speeches, a protest is underway, a pick-up soccer game is starting, and the next Lady Gaga is performing at some dive bar. Really, the entire thing is yours for the taking; you just have to want it.
The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but form necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry. […] In New York smolders every race problem there is, but the noticeable thing is not the problem but the inviolate truce.
Patience is a virtue that I unfortunately possess very little of, and I didn’t expect New York to help me out in this department, but perhaps it is out of necessity like White says. I have grown to expect subway delays, cabbies that don’t speak English and long lines at grocery stores. These things are completely out of my control and I can spend my energy more efficiently complaining about the weather or something. As far as tolerance goes, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, gays, whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians all live by each other. There is no place for people to go except together and, in the case of high rise buildings, on top of each other. Outsiders call New Yorkers “progressive” in this regard. We take the label but it really is just a fact of life here, and there is no need to make life any more complicated.
I’m sure you can find White’s essay online somewhere now, and however you go about reading it I hope you enjoy his respectful homage to the city. I’m sure he would be appalled by the idea of Starbucks as our place to exchange provoking thought, or that smokers have been banished from indoor establishments, but I think White would be delighted to see the spirit and glory of this town is still alive the way he wrote it over half a century ago.