An Elegy for New York

The city’s character has been irretrievably lost

The master of the love letter to New York, E.B. White, eloquently described the city as a place that can ‘bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy’. Like many of us, he believed that the place would last and that it 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 his dream city. New York 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 on empty Bronx streets.

Walking down Park Avenue this week, I had problems seeing the tip of the Chrysler building’s spire. Ugly glass behemoths were in the way. Tall, slender and glassy is the choice du jour with buildings; short, squat, fat and ugly is le goût du jour when it comes to humans. Never have I seen a people more supplanted than what passed for New Yorkers in my day. There are no more Winston Guests, Vanderbilts, Whitneys or Rockefellers. We now have hygiene-challenged Silicon Valley imitators: ugly, slovenly, foul-smelling and probably far richer than the Guests et al. (It’s even worse out west. A hero airman, the tycoon Howard Hughes, has been replaced by Jeff Bezos, a champion sailor-magnate; Ted Turner by Mark Zuckerberg.) Gift Card i... Buy New $10.00 (as of 08:25 UTC - Details)

Bemoaning these changes might make me 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 — diners, cigar stores, newsstands, bars and strip joints gone for ever. Landmarks have disappeared and Times Square is now Hollywood lite, without the grit and splendid squalor of old. Small businesses are disappearing, replaced by ultra-luxury condos. Yet the calibre of those moving into them is less than zero — greed and self-interest being the operative words. Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting ‘Nighthawks’, which encapsulates E.B.White’s description of the city, is a distant memory, its golden, melancholy light extinguished. And now it’s being suggested that over in Central Park the statues of Robert Burns and Christopher Columbus must come down and be replaced by those of women. (Lili St Cyr, the most beautiful and sexiest stripper of all time, would be my choice, and maybe even Stormy Daniels.)

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