Elwyn Brooks White, better known as E.B. White, gave us Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. Journalism students may recall his work from a slim writing bible he co-authored, The Elements of Style. All three have a place of honor on what I introduce to guests as Grandpa’s Shelf. My paternal grandpa built this modest oak shelf in the early 1930s. It’s sturdy with a dark wood stain and three slightly upturned shelves. When my dad gave it to me I finally had proof that I’m his favorite child. This is the thing I grab if ever there’s a fire. Its very heavy so a brave, fireproof volunteer will be needed to grab the other end and make sure none of my books fall off while we haul it down the steep, narrow stairs.
I’ve lived in the city so long I’ve stopped counting the years. Yet White’s apparently famous 7500-word essay, since printed into a book, is new to me. ‘Here is New York‘ was first published in a 1949 issue of the lavish travel magazine Holiday. For his contribution, White left his home in Brooklin, Maine and returned to the city where he made his name.
I don’t usually seek out NY-centric reading, feels redundant, but spring is the hardest season for me to live here. Reading this essay is part of my on-going effort to enjoy the city again. May as well while we’re here. While not exactly the upper I was hoping for, it’s a quick (30-minute) read well worth checking out of the library.
I expected to follow White on a long, nostalgic walk through Manhattan’s various neighborhoods. I don’t know why I had such a specific assumption of this essay, there’s at least as much analysis of the city’s essence and people as there are physical observations. White writes gorgeous descriptions though. He details walking past a free evening concert in Central Park. Brass horns fill the evening and, as if in response, The Queen Mary blares it’s own off-key horn. You feel like you’re walking beside him, pleasantly aware there’s no other place you’d rather be.
I’ve seen this essay described as a love letter to the city. While his fondness is evident, his tone seemed like one of someone glad to be gone. New York is much easier to love from a distance.
The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.
White stays in the city during an August heatwave. For this he has my sympathy. Summers are abusive here. Even reading about summer in the city makes me itch. If you’ve never had the pleasure of walking through New York on a sweltering day, imagine every drop of will and hope oozing from your eye sockets while the grit and fumes off millions of well-dressed sweaty flesh bags seeps into your pores and solidifies until there’s very little of you left in your own body. Why not come in October instead?
So New York in August, 1948. White arrives to experience and reflect on the New York he used to know. Alas, visiting his old city is impossible; it’s already gone. Any longtime or former New Yorker can probably relate. The city you first meet is fleeting. Before you know it, walking down a block is consumed by remember whens. Looking at new buildings and businesses and people only reminds you of the ones no longer here.
White circles back to change being the only constant in a place always reinventing itself and never quite catching up. There’s nothing in this essay that doesn’t ring true. He captures it all in this thorough, timeless representation of the city as a living machine. It still feeds on yesterday’s dirty dogs. Today it spits out sleek predictability and $5 “punk rock” Popsicles, but has no clue what to do about the cracks, and there are so many cracks. Cracks and ghosts.
The normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified-
The people who come here do so for a reason. Many find their tribe or relish the city’s “gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy” that White refers to in his opening line. Others tap into a bottomless source of inspiration and drive. With some chutzpah you can still get your foot on a stage or in a fancy office or wherever it is you want to be.
-but New Yorkers temperamentally do not crave comfort and convenience – if they did they would live elsewhere.
One section refers to the people who live or work here as composing three different New Yorks: that of commuters, of natives and of transplant dreamers. In considering post-war atomic fears, his thoughts on the city’s vulnerability to airplanes is an eerie prophesy of 9/11. A part that stood out addresses the city’s growing diversity. Imagine if we had a president today capable of believing and articulating this same sentiment:
The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry.
It was fun to learn that E. B. White and I have something small in common. We both worked as ushers in theaters – he at the Metropolitan Opera and me on Broadway. I loved ushering in college. Through it I met all sorts of people, had time to read and got to swap shifts to see tons of different shows. Highly recommended for students.
This little book gives its audience much to chew on. Readers who love the city will find more reason to love it. Those of us who no longer feel at home here will find camaraderie and validation. Still, like White and countless others, I’ll always remember the city as I knew it when I knew it.