“One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
It has been 66 years since E.B. White sat in a sweltering New York City hotel room and crafted the exceptionally witty, perceptive, and charming love letter to the city; Here is New York. In just 39 short but expertly crafted pages of prose, White walked his readers through an unforgettable journey through the varied, charismatic, and effortless city that is New York.
Since the books conception, billions of people have travelled to and from, visited, departed, and newly arrived on this small island, and of the many, a select few like myself, have pledged their allegiance to the city and taken on the daunting task of succeeding in this highly competitive, irrationally expensive, dreamed and sought after place.
In so many ways, New York City is exactly the same place White left all those years ago. Taxis are just as hard if not harder to hail in the rain, walk ins are just as unlikely to be seated at Balthazar’s on a Friday night, and while the inception of restaurant week has made it slightly more feasible, tasting the luscious lightness of a chocolate soufflé at La Bernadin is mostly an unattainable dream.
However today, the city has changed and evolved to be an even more elite and storied place. New niches have been formed, cultural hot spots have impacted the flow, and if nothing else, New York City, its appearance itself has in fact been drastically altered. Lower Manhattan is no longer defined by two strong and distinguished towers, but rather by one infallible building that represents New York’s tenacity and resilience. Similarly, Midtown is no longer marked solely by the Empire State Building, but by both the Chrysler Building and The New York Times offices as well.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote “the only thing constant is change” and in New York City that could not be more true. As White said “to a New Yorker the city is both changeless and changing” (48), and as I work to make my mark on this willful city, I am learning how to conform to its ever changing ways, while still striving to make it my own.
Here is New York: Now.
As I write this, I am sitting on the grass near the steps of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, a drastically different image than White sweating in an overheated midtown hotel room. It is mid-October and aside from the light breeze it is unseasonably warm, hot even for this time of year. But the open air invites a pleasant counter, to those, like myself, who are over dressed for the heated temperatures. Around me clicking cameras, talking tourists, and the washing water of Bethesda Fountain combine in a cacophonous symphony, creating an almost harmonious sound of silence. Suddenly the soundless noise is broken by a jazzy trumpet players variation on Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5,” flooding the sound waves with swank and sophistication.
On my little blanket on the grass, I have secured myself a small space on this coveted island. I am secluded from the cities vibrations, yet feel the presence of the others that surround me, suddenly reminding me that I am a part of something greater. As White claimed you are never more than 18 inches away from some event in the city, and as I look around I notice tiny pockets of interaction occurring. To my right, on the hill across the path, three people bounce with agitation before starting a thai chi session. To my left, a man races up and down the stairs testing his endurance, while multiple photographers shoot pictures of their friends, loved ones, and customers on the steps beside him. So far, there have been three couples that have come to the fountain to take wedding photos and one professional ballerina posing under the arches. At the top of the steps, screaming and cheering bystanders encourage street performers to take on another show. Meanwhile along The Mall, vendors try to sell replicas of current and past celebrities and overprinted signs. All this occurs a mere 18 inches or so away, begging me to join, yet I remain affixed on my patch of grass. As White explains, “New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation” (22), an experience many New Yorkers engage in every day.
As if serendipity reigns in this metropolis I discover in my wallet a slightly faded five dollar bill. As someone who rarely carries cash in her wallet at all, I took this discovery as an order to understand what E.B. White described: “you always feel that either by shifting your location ten blocks or by reducing your fortune by five dollars you can experience rejuvenation” (25) he said. As I exited to the east side of the park I did in fact experience a rejuvenation of sorts. I was no longer a bystander, casually strewn amongst the trees, but an active participant, dodging cars, bikes, and pedestrians. The easy laid back energy of the park dwellers morphed into an electric and anticipatory buzz. And as I walked down Madison Avenue the glistening storefronts of legendary labels winked at me through the sparkling glass windows.
This is the beauty of New York. Its chameleon like tendencies allow you to go from the leafy canopies in Central Park to the steely chaotic city streets, and even as far as the shore lined sands of the Atlantic Ocean, by simply taking a few steps or a short subway ride. It is safe to say that no other city in the world provides this vast an experience in such a close and well organized proximity. “New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm” (54) White wrote, and that charm is evident in the city’s continuous efforts to reawaken the souls of its citizens.
In today’s New York, it is common for every New Yorker to have their place of solace. For some it’s Yoga for the People on St. Marks Place in the East Village or a trip to SoulCycle. For those residing in lower manhattan it might be a short bike ride along the pier, while for those uptown it could be a quiet lunch on the bench outside of Bakersfield Market or coffee at The Hungarian Pastry Shop. Whatever it is, every New Yorker has their place, their “thing” that they do to regain equilibrium. It is one of the great joys of a New Yorker to have a moment to regain stability and revisit their place of sanctuary. This process of rejuvenation, rebalance, and resilience is what New York and it’s inhabitants run on. In a place that is constantly reconstructing itself it can be easy to lose your sense of identity making it vital to acquire a place of refuge.
Many New Yorkers identify themselves by their neighborhood, and the construction of the city allows each neighborhood to take on its own identity and practice it’s own beliefs. “Each area is a city within a city within a city….” White wrote, “so complete is each neighborhood, and so strong the sense of neighborhood, that many a New Yorker spends a lifetime within the confines of an area smaller than a country village” (35-36). Although the demographics in each neighborhood have somewhat changed since White’s time, the tradition of each district having a distinct reputation remains the same. Aspiring actors work in the chic eateries of the Meatpacking District and Chelsea and then retire to their homes in Brooklyn or Alphabet City. Brioni clad business men taxi down to the Financial District and return each night to their manicured homes on the Upper East Side. While the Chinese in Chinatown have expanded their borders since White’s time, they are still a close knit community and are friendly neighbors to the Italians in Little Italy. And of course, the unavoidable chaos of Times Square and the Theatre District remains one of the most cliché and loathsome stereotypes of all Manhattan neighborhoods. Each niche harvests a distinct demographic, making the city as a whole a melting pot of diversity, innovation, and opportunity.
However, what’s more than the difference between citizens of each neighborhood is the distinction between what White describes as “the three New Yorks.” For White there is “the New York of the man or woman who was born here,” “the New York of the commuter,” and most importantly “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,” White writes, “the greatest is the last- the city of final destination, the city that is a goal” (26).
I am a member of the third New York and can attest to the assertion of New York City being the end game, the goal met, the dream come true. For those who were born here, the privilege of New York was simply a birthright, the benefit of chance. For the commuter, their experience is something more akin to that of a tourist. New York to them is a place to visit, a nice place for a good meal or a quick show at the theatre, but far too busy, far too energetic to live in. But for me, and for my fellow dreamers and doers, New York City is the symbol of success. Being a “New Yorker” is a label we take willingly, an identity we display proudly, a sign we wear that says “I made it!”
One of the most interesting paradoxes of the city is that each member of the third New York came with the expectation of gaining what New York was, however, with each new person the experience of the city changes. We are the reason New York evolves, we infiltrate the alterations. As White exclaims; “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. 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” (29).
New York City allows a gentleman to walk into his favourite French bistro on Avenue B and talk to the waiter in his native tongue, acting as if he is at his own kitchen table. New York allows families to sell frogs and exotic fish in Chinatown making residents feel as though they are at a market in Shanghai. New York allows Eastern Europeans to fill themselves with perogies and borsch in the East Village and Mexicans to eat freshly fried churros in Morningside Heights. “The collision and intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world” (47), White said, and it is that weaving of cultures that have made New York such an intricate and elaborately fabricated metropolis.
Many have said that New York can barely keep up with itself. But one of the beauties of the city is its ever evolving composition that allows for each person to have their own unique, cosmopolitan experience. Being a member of the third New York is like getting an invitation to an elite and secret society. It shows you have done something to prove you’re worthy of being here. And members of this exclusive group choose to stay no matter how hard, lonely, or uncomfortable it becomes. “…the city is uncomfortable and inconvenient;” White said, “but New Yorkers temperamentally do not crave comfort and convenience- if they did they would live somewhere else” (53).
New York City offers its residents a daily test of tenacity. It constantly challenges your abilities, your strength, and your desire to succeed in such an impossible place. Back in 1999, Roger Angell wrote an introduction for E.B. White’s 100th birthday printing of “Here is New York” and in it he wrote; “this is a city that still calls to its “young worshipful beginners”…. it has never been more difficult or expensive for them to hang on here but they would not be anywhere else, not for the world” (15). Today, with both the competition and fluctuating economy of the 21st century, that difficulty could not be more relevant. However, the grit of those “young worshipful beginners” (38) is an everlasting wick, that would take the exhale of a dragon to blow out. New York is a choice we make. As John Updike explains; “ the true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”
In the popular HBO drama “Sex and the City” the protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw, once said; “when I first moved to New York and was totally broke, sometimes I’d buy Vogue instead of dinner. I felt it fed me more.” That is the reality of the third New York and the New Yorker who will stop at nothing to obtain experiences and immerse him/herself within Manhattan. The need not for nourishment, but for fulfillment. As White describes it, “New York hardly gave me a living…but it sustained me” (38). New York allows you to simultaneously fall in love for the first time and the last. By providing you with samples of varying unexpected experiences you are constantly introduced to new love, while at the same time, the legacy and tradition of the city sustains your initial infatuation.
There is still a longing for the “old” New York, White’s New York, but the beauty of the city is that through the years remnants of times before remain. Today, Fifth Avenue is littered with commercial storefronts, but as you make your way to the corner of 57th Street you are reminded of the bountiful bustle of Holly Golightly peering gracefully in the window of Tiffany’s. So many aspects of the bygone city remain, that by walking down just one street you can be placed within three different decades at once. As White describes, “[New York] carries on its lapel the unexpungable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings” (19). A trip to the Upper East Side (Lexington Candy Shop, 83rd and Lexington Avenue) will take you through a time capsule to an old style diner, where you can have handcrafted milkshakes and syrup malted sodas. A little further down you can have a single malt on the rocks and feel the tensions of prohibition and the seduction of speakeasies in The Oak Room at The Plaza Hotel. And in the villages downtown, you are constantly reminded of history. On the east side, a step into the sticker covered and dimmed 315 Bowery reminds you of the vibrations of the rock and roll era. Even though this building has been converted into a clothing store, the energies of the old music venue, CBGB’s, remains. Likewise, a trip to the west side can take you on an experimental journey to the bygone era of apothecary’s at C.O. Bigelow.
New York is a conglomerate so equally segregated, by old and new, race, culture, and tradition that no one thing stands out, or in a different light gets lost among the crowd. White exclaimed, “New York is not a capital city- it’s not a national capital or a state capital. But it is by way of becoming the capital of the world” (55), and since his time the prominence of New York City has generated even more impact. White’s assertion was especially apparent after the tragedies of 9/11. During those events, New York proved itself to be the most resilient, united, and determined city in the world, and since then has become an even more desirable destination. While some, White included, thought that the interruption of planes could end the island, it fought in deterrence of making that statement true, and won the heady battle.
Every New Yorker comes to the city with eager anticipation, expectation, and a thirst for adventure. Discovering New York is like unwrapping your presents on Christmas morning. Within this city, there is an energy unparalleled by any other contemporary metropolis. Paris, London, Los Angeles, and Toronto are all wonderful cities in their own right, but none quite live up to the enigmatic vivacity of New York. There is no simpler metaphor for New York nowadays than falling in love. With such eloquence, White showed us New York by both complementing and criticizing it, engaging us in his complicated relationship with the city. Like any sustainable alliance, every New Yorker has it’s ups and downs, but they continue to hold on. We are not being pushed away so much as we are being constantly asked if we want to stay. Even through all the pitfalls and indiscretions this city throws at us, we choose to hold on, to work harder, and if we’re crazy enough to dream bigger. This is the magnificence of Manhattan.
Within this concrete jungle, lambs are challenged to become lions, while at the same time are constantly given the tools to be inspired and aspire to rise up again and again. For White, the city symbolizes “a steady reaching for the sun” (56). New York is an unsolvable riddle with an irresistible rhyme. It preys on the weak, captures the willing, and intrigues the curious, unfailing in its efforts to provide an incomparable experience. Although this city can feel daunting at times, it sustains eager minds, fulfills arduous aims, and fills you in on the secrets of its well oiled enterprise.
In an ancient love letter, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote to his beloved, “Ever mine. Ever thine. Ever ours,” a scripture so relevant to today’s New Yorker. New York City cannot be experienced without the experiences of others. You are a part of a cosmopolitan conglomerate of characters all trying to make Manhattan their own. But the beauty of New York is that it allows you to own a piece of it. It readily shares itself to those of us, crazy enough, to believe we deserve to take it. New York City, it’s the dream come true.
White, E.B. Here is New York. New York: The Little Bookroom, 1999. Print.
“The Real Me.” By Michael Patrick King. Dir. Michael Patrick King. Sex and the City. HBO. New York, 3 June 2011. Television. 18 Oct. 2014. DVD.
Street Performer, perf. “Take 5.” By Dave Brubeck. Time Out. 1959. 17 Oct. 2014.