This slim booklet has been sitting on my bookshelf for ages, and I finally decided to give it a shot yesterday. Here is New York is amazing book, perhaps the most succinct and apt description of New York City ever put on paper. In the hands of E.B. White, NYC is at once a city of inches and multitudes, of loneliness and excitement, of riches and squalor, of permanence and transience. The particulars of the city have changed, as White himself admits, but the first half of the book could well have been written yesterday instead of 1949. With apologies to Mr. White and his publishers, an extended excerpt:
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. Since I have been sitting in this miasmic air shaft, a good many rather splashy events have occurred in town. A man shot and killed his wife in a fit of jealousy. It caused no stir outside his block and got only small mention in the papers. I did not attend. Since my arrival, the greatest air show ever staged in all the world took place in town. I didn’t attend and neither did most of the eight million other inhabitants, although they say there was quite a crowd. I didn’t even hear any planes except a couple of westbound commercial airliners that habitually use this airshaft to fly over. The biggest ocean-going ships on the North Atlantic arrived and departed. I didn’t notice them and neither did most other New Yorkers. I am told this is the greatest seaport in the world, with six hundred and fifty miles of water front, and ships calling here from many exotic lands, but the only boat I’ve happened to notice since my arrival was a small sloop tacking out of the East River night before last on the ebb tide when I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. I heard the Queen Mary blow one midnight, though, and the sound carried the whole history of departure and longing and loss. The Lions have been in convention. I’ve not seen one Lion. A friend of mine saw one and told me about him. (He was lame, and was wearing a bolero.) At the ballgrounds and horse parks the greatest sporting spectacles have been enacted. I saw no ballplayer, no race horse. The governor came to town. I heard the siren scream, but that was all there was to that — an eighteen-inch margin again. A man was killed by a falling cornice. I was not a party to the tragedy, and again the inches counted heavily.
I mention these merely to show that New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that ever event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul. In most metropolises, small and large, the choice is often not with the individual at all. He is thrown to the Lions. The Lions are overwhelming; the event is unavoidable. A cornice falls, and it hits ever citizen on the head, every last man in town. I sometimes think the only event that hits every New Yorker on the head is the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, which is fairly penetrating — the Irish are a hard race to tune out, and they have the police force right in the family.
And a smaller bit from near the end of the piece:
The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. 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 now: in the sounds of the jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
White was referring to the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union but he could easily have been talking about 9/11, or even the current financial crisis threatening to take down one of the city’s most prominent institutions.