The saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This expression came to mind the other day as I was browsing in Housing Works Bookstore and came upon a book by Richard J. Whalen entitled A City Destroying Itself: An Angry View of New York. Whalen, a native New Yorker, originally wrote a shorter piece on the same theme for Fortune Magazine that was so popular, he expanded the article to a book-length diatribe about all the myriad things he feels are destroying New York. Written in 1965, it is noteworthy that the complaints he had then are the complaints we still hear today in 2013.
The opening of chapter 3 reads:
New York shows alarming signs of spiritual malnutrition and death-by-inches. It is frowning, tight-lipped, short-tempered, the most nervous city in America. It is a city without grace. It is humorless, able to mock and taunt, but too tense to gain the release of laughter. It is a city that cried “Jump” to a would-be suicide perched on a window ledge.
I, too, am a native New Yorker, and I happen to disagree with Whalen here, but I have heard this sentiment expressed by countless others, although usually from those who were born and raised in other, more peaceful and bucolic, places where people are polite, even if they don’t mean it.
Whalen opens the book with:
All but a few years of my life have been spent in and around New York City, but I cannot claim an intense feeling of identification with the city. In a sense, one is cheated by being born here. The newcomer never entirely recovers from his stunning first impression, while the native becomes aware of the city gradually and without a thrill of wonder.
Point well taken. I do find newcomers to New York have a strong reaction to it, whether negative or positive. The excitement in the eyes of those whose lifelong dream it was to move to “The Big Apple” is almost blinding, whereas this is all I ever knew, I thought everyone grew up riding graffiti covered-subways and having year-round access to the world’s greatest museums.
Here is another refrain, oft heard, especially from old-time natives:
New York exists only in he present tense. Just as there is no sense of obligation to the future, so there is no feeling of pride in the past. Although Manhattan is quite old—it was first settled in 1615—is, as Alexander Woollcott once remarked, “a town without any attics.” The city seems to regard the past with contempt and hastens to obliterate its heritage.
In 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Commission New York was a newly established institution, and was born too late to save the old Penn Station:
Symbolic of New York’s self-destructive frenzy is the demolition of Pennsylvania Station. Now being razed to make way of a $120 million complex including a new Madison Square Garden arena, an exhibition hall, bowling alleys, and a thirty-three-story office tower. This will be the fourth Madison Square Garden in eighty-five years. There will never be another Penn Station.
I wonder what Whalen would have to say about our city’s current plans for Moynihan Station, an attempt to harken back to a time when trains arrived in terminals both grand and central.
What fun I had perusing this volume of complaints and criticisms that also contains thirteen illustrations by Feliks Topolski. The jacket copy declares, “Here is a city of endless human discomfort, inconvenience, harassment and fear…one which strives and dehumanizes its inhabitants…a city destroying itself.” Though obviously rather one-sided, Whalen’s prose is very readable and his arguments astute. Had he been writing today, he would have made a first-rate blogger!
Whalen, Richard J. A City Destroying Itself: An Angry View of New York. New York: Morrow, 1965.