This Was New York, Baby

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I live eight blocks from the World Trade Center — where it was. "Eight blocks" may mean nothing to you, my non-New York friends, who on a typical day are no more likely to walk from where you live to where you shop than you are to read Schopenhauer in Esperanto. So, in simple American, eight blocks means that if you were driving 65 mph on one of your highways and you passed my apartment building, you would reach the memory of the World Trade Center 22 seconds later, or about the time it takes to read the 100 words in this paragraph.

A year ago, the World Trade Center was just that huge, architecturally undistinguished place at the southern end of my Tribeca neighborhood. I bought books there, at Borders in Building 7. I rushed through its concourses and covered bridges to get to the much prettier World Financial Center atrium across West Street. And each January, at the Windows on the World restaurant, I would attend a party for the New York Film Critics awards. On September 11 the books turned to ash. The atrium was cratered, though at least that is being rebuilt. Many of the waiters who served our dinners died.

On that day, the World Trade Center graduated from being a bunch of buildings to being a monument. In its death — and of course in the deaths that accompanied its fall — the WTC achieved a grandeur and status it had never known in its 27-year life. It means so much more in its poignant absence than it did in its hulking presence. It has joined all the vanished relics of New York's past, in a city that cherishes living in the Now and the Then.

The ornery truth is that great buildings come and go in this town. New York is so congested, and so rapacious is its impulse to reinvent itself, that it quickly developed the bad habit of tearing down great edifices with no more thought for precious antiquity than a householder would replace grandma's furniture with Ethan Allen knockoffs. Sometimes a grand mastodon is replaced by an instant classic, as when the original Waldorf and Astoria Hotels gave way in 1931 to the Empire State Building. And who can remember what stood at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue before Walter Chrysler commissioned the most gorgeous of all Deco skyscrapers? But more often the magnificent surrenders to the mediocre. Bye-bye, Roxy Theatre. Farewell, Wanamaker's.

The tendency is easily explained: nothing in New York costs more than real estate, and if a new building is cheaper than an old one, pennywise burghers will make the switch — the architectural equivalent of cashiering middle-aged employees for younger, less expensive ones. If Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other Eastern cities retain more of their visible past, it's because no one was willing to pay to get rid of it. New York never lacked tycoons with a taste for the wrecking ball.

Yet New York is also the one American city that glories in its past — trades in it. Many visitors come here to do business, create more profitable tomorrows, but many more are here for a living history lesson: national (the Statue of Liberty), cultural (our museums), showbizzical (Broadway, which is its own musical anachronism). And many residents ache when they think of what might still be here, except for the plausible imperative of greed. Is it an exaggeration to say that a certain generation of New Yorkers felt the 1963 destruction of the McKim, Mead & White Penn Station every bit as keenly as we do the loss of the World Trade Center? New Yorkers are surrounded by so much of the past, architecturally and artistically, that they yearn for what's gone to be magically restored, for Oz to be rebuilt by pressing the rewind button.

I am one of those sentimental souls. All right, I've lived here for 37 years. But I think that others, who have visited New York, or who just love the idea of this strange place, can be fascinated by the city's past. For all of you, I suggest you take a trip into the city's teeming history, as rendered so eloquently in a quartet of popular history books. Two of them I wrote about (for TIME's European edition) when they were published nearly four years ago; two others have kept me company for the past year or so. All four are just the things, in what will be a melancholy week thinking about New York, to read, keep and take heart from.


How funny you are today New York
like Ginger Rogers in "Swingtime" and St. Bridget's steeple leaning a little to the left...

oh god it's wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much

— Frank O'Hara, Steps, 1960

I emerge from a Lower Manhattan subway at night and thrill to see the Woolworth Building, 792 feet high, lighted up like God's cash register. F.W. Woolworth didn't believe in mortgages; he paid for this svelte, soaring neo-Gothic monolith with $13.5 million in cash, with the nickels and dimes his stores charged for their trinkets. In 1913, when it opened, it was the tallest building in the world; since last September 11, it is the tallest in lower Manhattan. F.W. is long gone, and so, now, are his stores; the last ones closed in 1998. That was the year the Woolworth Company sold off its most spectacular remaining asset. But this Cathedral of Commerce stands as a reminder of New York City's perpetually mercantile soul. It's as close as we get to Chartres.

I hear European readers snorting at a New Yorker's notion of ancient history. "So an 89-year-old edifice is your idea of a shrine; we've had Queen Mums older than that." Yes, it's true: New York is a pup compared to Paris, which in scale is still a medieval city, and London, where you can walk behind Simpson's in the Strand and find the remains of a Roman bath. But in the States, where way-back-when means yesterday, New York is the only place that dares to, or wants to, carry itself like a great European city. For nearly 400 years it has been the focus of America's power and arrogance, its commerce and culture, its stunning and appalling diversity. For all those centuries it has been, and surely still is, what O. Henry called "the wonderful, cruel, enchanting, bewildering, fatal, great city."

Could New York's history and culture possibly be synopsized in just two volumes? Yes: in "Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898," by Edwin G. Burrows, the Broeklundian Professor of History at Brooklyn College, and Mike Wallace, Professor of History at John Jay College, City University of New York; and in "Writing New York: A Literary Anthology," edited by Philip Lopate. These big, brilliant, complementary books amount to 2,500 pages between them, weigh in at 7 lbs. and are worth every back spasm.

"Gotham" traces the town's growth from the Ice Age to the incorporation of its five boroughs. "Writing New York" offers a banquet of observations on the city from 108 writers, beginning with Washington Irving — who called it "Gotham," or Goats' Town, after a village in England — and ending with a 1996 piece of bleak nostalgia by Vivian Gornick: "Now the city is violent, everything costs the earth, and we are all visible."

Put "Writing New York" by your bedside and find months of keen visions. Just a few, plucked and random and with gratitude... Walt Whitman reminisces on actors he had seen a half-century before on the Bowery, the Broadway of its day. The poet and physician William Carlos Williams recalls his work in Hell's Kitchen with indigent moms and battered or battering kids at the Nursery and Child's Hospital (where, I believe, our current Poet Laureate Billy Collins was born a few decades later). Jane Jacobs, the graceful, influential writer about city planning, describes a day in the life of a neighborhood — Hudson Street in Greenwich Village — as "an intricate sidewalk ballet," a 24-hr. play with hundreds, thousands of characters. The city, she says, is an organism kept alive not by the headliners, the great and the wicked, but by ordinary people in the magnetic pull of their daily destinies.

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