NEW YORK—The master of the love letter to New York, E.B. White, eloquently described the city as a place that “can offer the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” Like many of us he believed the place would last and would always matter. White was an optimist, sophisticated and thoroughly American. He was lucky to die in 1985. I say lucky because fate spared him from seeing the wreckage of what was once his dream city. It was also my dream place, an indelible part of my youth, a poem of steel and limestone majesty, of high-end shops, hotels, theaters, and nightclubs, of dandies and high-class women, of hustlers and gents, of tall, blond Irish cops, gangsters in fedoras, and kids playing stickball in empty Bronx streets.
Walking down Park Avenue this week, I had problems spotting the tip of the Chrysler Building’s spire. Ugly glass behemoths were in the way. Tall, slender, and glassy is the choice du jour in buildings; short, squat, fat, and ugly is le gout du jour in humans. Never have I seen a people more “replaced” than what used to pass for New Yorkers in my day. There are no more Winston Guests, not to mention Vanderbilts, Whitneys, or Rockefellers. We now have hygiene-challenged Silicon Valley imitators—ugly, slovenly, foul-smelling, and probably far richer than those mentioned above. (It’s even worse out west. A hero airman/tycoon Howard Hughes has been replaced by a Jeff Bezos; a champion sailor/magnate Ted Turner, by a Mark Zuckerberg.) Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $15.00 (as of 12:45 UTC - Details)
Bemoaning the changes can sound bitter, an old man’s cry against progress. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s a protest against ugliness and the constant search for the lowest common denominator. The city’s character has been irretrievably lost, what with diners, cigar stores, newsstands, bars, and strip joints gone forever. Landmarks have disappeared and Times Square is now Hollywood lite, without the grit and splendid squalor of old. Small businesses are disappearing, with ultra-luxury condos replacing them. Yet the quality of those moving into the ultra-luxury flats is less than zero, greed and self-interest being the operative words. Edward Hopper’s 1941 painting Nighthawks, an emblem of the city’s description by E.B. White, is a distant memory, the city’s golden melancholy light extinguished. And over in Central Park the bums of City Hall now tell us that the statues of Robert Burns and Christopher Columbus must come down and be replaced by those of women. (Lily St. Cyr, the most beautiful and sexiest stripper of all time, is my choice, and maybe even Stormy Daniels.)