E.B. White’s Here is New York, written in 1949, describes the New York City of his era, but what is immediately striking about the work, despite being nearly 70 years old, is its currency. What White describes in the book is a New York that is not one of the past, but recalls the New York of the present. In one sense, this can be considered a logical conclusion, to the extent that, at the heart of White’s book, is a meditation on what it means to live in a cosmopolitan city. In other words, cosmopolitan cities themselves are nothing new, from Rome to Babylon to New York. Massive urban centers were a magnet, for artists, for workers, for immigrants. White describes precisely this cosmopolitan phenomenon, when he writes that New York is a “permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.” But because New York was and is a cosmopolitan city, this is precisely what makes White’s book relevant not only as a historical document, but as a document which shows how close the past can be to the present. The impression one gets from the book is that there is an underlying continuity to life in New York, a sense in which its cosmopolitan essence allows it to transcend time.
This is clear in the similarities one can draw between present day New York and the New York of White’s era. As noted, one of the constants is the multicultural environment of New York. New York, in White’s time, as in the present era, is anything but a homogeneous society, with a city constituted by diverse groups. Furthermore, in line with its cosmopolitan character, New York is also an attractive place, for example, for artists. White describes the artists that go to New York, seeking their dreams, and this is much the same in present-day New York, for example, with the hipster phenomenon above all in Brooklyn. As with all great cities, White describes the crowds and, more specifically, the difficulty of finding a taxi. This crowded aspect of New York is one of its distinctive features, but one that is present in all metropolises, in other words, it is synonymous with the definition of a metropolis. In the metropolis, therefore, there is also signs of affluence and poverty, as White notes, and which remain present to this day. White’s description of millionaires going to Wall Street remains unchanged, the capitalist ideology still dominant. One feature which White describes, which is current with New York, however, is somewhat shocking: he notes that the city, in his time, became destructible, in the sense that it could become the target of military interventions, towers crumbling, to paraphrase White, under the brunt of such attacks. This is prophetic of the September 11 terror attacks and in one sense, after these attacks, what White describes almost 70 years ago is something that is in the back of the minds of New Yorkers.
Certainly, however, there are also clear differences. White describes a city that is bursting with an inner tension between different ethnic groups. In the New York of today, many of these problems feel as though they belong to the past, although tensions take new forms, such as police and community tensions. Furthermore, White suggests that all facilities in New York do not function correctly, suffering from overcrowding, for example, but it can be argued that New York has greatly improved in this regard. White writes that New York is the centre of art, commerce, and religion, however, and while commerce clearly remains key in New York, religion has shifted its primary location and entertainment is found on the Internet as much as it is in a city. Clearly, also, the description of Manhattan’s skyline, from the perspective of architecture, is also no longer unique, showing how the cosmopolitan principle has grown throughout the world.
White suggests that if New York functions, it is a miracle: this is because of the sheer mass of the city, the commuters, the native born population, those looking to fulfill their dreams, in a condensed space, where, as noted above, White thinks facilities are ineffective. However, this would seem to be a problem which is common to all cosmopolitan areas: a large number of people requires a number of resources. It is, in one sense, a miracle that any large cosmopolitan area survives.
White’s book is memorable, not only to see a glimpse of New York in the past, but more importantly, to see how little it has changed. History meets the present in White’s book, in an almost perfect symmetry. Reading this book allows one to see how the cosmopolitan concept creates a certain transcendent urban area, which goes beyond distinct historical time periods.