I wrote an essay a few years ago that contained, in the opening sentence, the phrase ‘fuck you, Roger Angell’. It wasn’t out of any deep animosity toward Roger Angell, simply a momentary rage brought on by his preface to E.B. White’s wonderful book, Here Is New York. Some of the things Mr. Angell says in that preface are perfectly fine, actually. But then he dips into a form of nostalgia that I find intolerable, especially when it is directed at New York City. New York has many problems and it isn’t hiding them, just walk down the street. But if nothing else, it is a city that has never succumbed to the nostalgists—just the opposite. It runs them down, runs through them, runs past them and keeps going and that’s always been the best way to refute nostalgia.
Maybe it has something to do with The New Yorker and the identity it thinks it is trying to foster and protect, but a thought came to mind while reading a recent ‘Talk of the Town’ and that thought was thus: ‘fuck you, Adam Gopnik’. Gopnik’s piece is sensible in many respects but, in the end, it can’t help dipping into the same vein of nostalgia that Roger Angell mines and which, I’d like to suggest, misunderstands something fundamental about New York City.
When Angell writes about New York City he writes in the tone of elegy, of something that ‘once was’. He imagines people living in New York and saying things like “remember when…?” and “wasn’t this where…?”. His sense of E.B. White’s book is that it is lament for what has been lost and for what New York City used to be. This is how Angell describes E.B. White’s mood: “Even as he looked at the great city, he was missing what it had been.” The culmination of Angell’s analysis is that the title of E.B. White’s book should have been Here ‘Was’ New York. As Angell puts it, White “wanted it back again, back the way it was.”
I submit, though, that this is not at all the mood in which White wrote his book. Witness E.B. White’s own Forward to Here is New York:
“This piece about New York was written in the summer of 1948 during a hot spell. The reader will find certain observations to be no longer true of the city, owing to the passage of time and the swing of the pendulum. I wrote not only during a heat wave but during a boom. The heat has broken, the boom has broken, and New York is not quite so feverish now as when this piece was written. The Lafayette Hotel, mentioned in passing, has passed despite the mention. But the essential fever of New York has not changed in any particular, and I have not tried to make revisions in the hope of bringing the thing down to date. To bring New York down to date, a man would have to be published with the speed of light—and not even Harper is that quick. I feel that it is the reader’s, not the author’s, duty to bring New York down to date; and I trust it will prove less a duty than a pleasure.”
That is the mood in which E.B. White wrote his brilliant little piece on New York City, and it is notable in two of its aspects. One, in that New York is characterized by its essential fever. And Two, in that New York cannot be ‘brought down to date’ but by those who are living in it at any specific moment. And I don’t think anyone who ever wrote a Forward like that can also be said to want New York ‘back the way it was’.
Now, on the face of it, Adam Gopnik’s ‘Talk of The Town’ from January 8th, 2007 is less overtly nostalgic than Roger Angell’s preface. Gopnik is commenting on Mayor Bloomberg’s speech about the future of New York City and its infrastructural needs looking forward to 2030. While lauding the mayor’s farsightedness, Gopnik notes that the speech did not address the issue of New York in terms of its ‘soul’, in terms of the ‘kind’ of city that we want New York to be. As Gopnik says, “New York, as generations have been taught by the late Jane Jacobs, is a self-organizing place that fixes itself. But let the additional truth be told that though the life of the block is self-organizing, the block itself that lets life happen was made by the hand of a city planner. As the mayor said, and knows, what we want the city to look like in 2030 will depend on the rules we make now.”
That’s true and we do need to think about what we want the city to be. Cities don’t happen simply by mistake, they need to be planned for. City government is something. It does something. Gopnik is right about that. But he also says, “For the first time in Manhattan’s history, it has no bohemian frontier. Another bookstore closes, another theater becomes a condo, another soulful place becomes a sealed residence. These are small things, but they are the small things that the city’s soul clings to.”
Forget the fact that Mr. Gopnik reveals himself to have a pitifully small radius for New York experience (I suspect the man has never been to Queens). More fundamentally, he, like Angell, has misunderstood the essential thrust of White’s point about New York and the essential fever. It is as if Angell and Gopnik have a snapshot of New York in their memory and then they go about judging New York according to that snapshot. The degree to which New York approximates that snapshot is the degree to which it has preserved its soul. The degree to which it is indistinguishable from that snapshot is the degree to which it has lost it.
But this is the wrong way to conceptualize the essence of New York. New York City is ruthless and depressing. It destroys itself and remakes itself without pausing long enough to reflect on the consequences (just think of Penn Station). As Gopnik suggests, we could all stand to think more about what makes New York work and what doesn’t. On the other hand, that is the cost of the ‘essential fever’. New York is not a museum of itself, at least not yet. The corner store might turn into a massive development tomorrow. Maybe there is a limit, a point at which New York loses its soul in the tumult. But I don’t think we know what that is. The problem with Angell and Gopnik is that they think they do. They think they have the snapshot of New York in their mind’s eye that defines the limits and contours of its soul. They think they know New York as such. They think they know what it is supposed to be.
In the end, I prefer the trust of E.B. White. He knows there is something special about New York but he doesn’t know the specifics. He knows that New York runs in cycles of boom and bust but he doesn’t pretend to know where it will go next. For the moment, he believes in the essential fever and he is willing to admit that that essential fever will always move farther and faster than anything he could track. He assumes that the future will simply be an update of where the essential fever has gone for the next decade, the next generation, the next era.
The saddest thing, perhaps, is that we can’t really legislate or plan for the essential fever. We don’t really know what it is that makes New York what it is. We just know that here it is, here is New York.