Savannah Leavitt: Here is New York

Editor’s note: Students were asked to read E.B. White’s famous essay “Here is New York” and then write an updated version in their own voice, paying homage to White.

Between all who scuff deeper grooves into its streets; who add their breath to its clouded air; who scrape its peeling paint further into decay, New York weaves its intoxicating web. Some are tangled in the strands and left discarded on the streets; others sandwiched between ever-blaring lights and eternal noise and 9 million lives; others still are vaulted to the highest reaches of affluence. There are no quotas, no differentiation, no pattern at all to the city’s discretion. “Fairness” is a construct of the people who built it, not of the city they made.

New York deals out reward just as easily as punishment. It provides connection just as liberally as it does separation. Privacy is a treasure as commonly found as participation. The range of New York’s gifts sum to net zero, rendering the city an apathetic overseer. New York has known no rules since the beginning. This legacy is draped down the walls of buildings on the Lower East Side and carved through the haphazard streets of Lower Manhattan. History is never erased; only painted over.

I am sitting at the moment in a stifling three-bedroom apartment. Paint is chipping off the walls and all appliances have been removed. It once housed an Italian family of four, but now houses a poet named Charlie, or three gay men named Gary, Peter and Joe, or the Asian woman who works behind the counter at King’s Coffee –– or all of them at once. Every resource is reused, repurposed, reimagined.

Even if you know how to peel back the layers of all that caked paint, you’ll find that New York’s present is not so different from its past. Josephine Baldizzi reached into her neighbor’s apartment to turn off the light for them on Shabat one Saturday in 1933 –– the year her family was evicted. Now Brocha Friedman donates to the needy from her tzedakah box –– decades after her ancestors were slaughtered. Tomorrow the direction of the current of giving or taking will reverse yet again.

The echoes of history warp and discolor but do not change the meaning of New York. I am still sitting in this gutted apartment while New York City has forged ahead in its meaning without me. People have been walking along the Highline, holding hands; someone suffered a tragedy in the streets near Times Square; a recent arrival in Hell’s Kitchen just finished pinning his laundry up to dry. These streets are the strands that wrapped themselves around the legs of all those who passed through –– Mark Twain and Ida Tarbell and E.B. White and countless more –– and pulled each and every one of them back into the core of the world’s wide web to write:

Here is New York. The world grows around it and the years build up over it but the layers of paint are really only shades of the same color.

Categories: New York, Opinion, Personal Blogs

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