Writing New York
Last week, my inbox was flooded with forwarded e-mails sharing an article that recently appeared in the satire newspaper “The Onion.” The article, entitled “8.4 Million New Yorkers Suddenly Realize New York City a Horrible Place to Live,” imagines a time when every single New Yorker would suddenly get sick of the rodent infestations, the pollution and the outrageous rent hikes at the exact same time and head for the suburbs. Of course, “The Onion” is only satire, and most of my New York friends are staying put. I’ve always wondered if New York will ever become too expensive, too dirty or too impractical to house its tenants, and after the shutting of the 42nd Street AMC Movie Theater last month due to a bedbug infestation, maybe the end is near. But reading a three-book series about New York this week, I discovered that while New York has changed since the early 1900s, its constantly beating pulse is what continues to make it an inspirational city to so many people, decade after decade.
The Little Bookroom, a boutique publishing house specializing in travel books, released the series featuring three short books about my favorite city, New York. Each contains material that was originally published in another venue. Here is New York by E.B. White is an essay originally based on an article he published about New York in Holiday magazine” in 1948. Truman Capote’s House on the Heights is also an essay he originally published in Holiday, albeit in the late 1950s. The final book in the series, Harpo Speaks… About New York is co-written with Rowland Barber. Upon reading, I discovered that Harpo Speaks… About New York is only a small excerpt of his complete memoir, Harpo Speaks!, in which Harpo writes about living in New York as a child in the early 1900s.
I started with Here is New York, which I remember reading a portion of in college. I was new to the city and my love affair with New York was just beginning. I remember poring over passages about the city streets, feeling a special bond with White because he and I might have been standing in the very same square of pavement, only decades apart. In his essay, White discusses the pace of New York and tries to understand why the intangible energy of the city is what makes it so exciting and wonderful. He breaks down the people of the city into three different types of New Yorkers: “There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.” As a new New Yorker on a quest for an artistic career, I felt, for the first time, like a necessary thread woven into the thick fabric of New York instead of a lowly student lost in a sea of artistic giants.
In the six years that I lived in New York, I watched Alphabet City in the East Village transform from a drug-addled slum into a trendy neighborhood with high rises and restaurants. After four years of living in Manhattan, the rent nearly doubled. I was priced out of my old neighborhood and eventually settled on moving to Queens. Although White wrote his essay five decades before I ever arrived with my suitcase, he writes almost helplessly about how much New York has changed before his eyes. “The city has never been so uncomfortable, so crowded, so tense,” he writes. Most striking of all, White recites an eerie omen: “A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions.” White’s gut feeling that everything could all come crashing down—and it almost did—couldn’t feel any more appropriate in today’s turbulent times.
In the second book in the series, A House on the Heights, Truman Capote takes readers outside of the bustling island of Manhattan to the quieter and more industrial neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. Capote rented a basement apartment in Brooklyn Heights, below a yellow brick house on Willow Street. Eventually, Capote purchased the entire Willow Street property, where he wrote both In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In May 2010, the house was put up for sale for the first time since Capote’s death, for $18 million. In A House on the Heights, Capote sells the up-and-coming neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights like a realtor, sharing the perks of the historic neighborhood with the reader while adding a few gossipy Capote-esque anecdotes for good measure. Because the neighborhood was still mostly industrial in the 1960s, Capote admits that the area sometimes feels creepy, especially at night. In a section about a frightening hotel that never seems to have any guests, Capote writes, “daytimes the location, a dead-end Chiricoesque piazza facing the river, is little disturbed; at night, not at all: not a sound, except foghorns and a distant traffic whisper from the bridge which bulks above. Peace, and the shivering glow of gliding-by tugs and ferries.” Capote swaps the hustle and bustle of Manhattan for the quiet, although sometimes haunting neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, which, in 2010, still feels every bit as eerie and historic as the author describes it.
In the third book of the series, Harpo Marx shares his ragtag childhood adventures with his large family of performers in Harpo Speaks… About New York. Marx and his destitute family live in a tenement on 93rd and Lexington—today, this neighborhood has become highly desirable. According to Google Maps, the rent for a studio apartment in a similar building down the street is currently $1,650 a month. Despite having no formal education and almost no money, Marx makes the best of a difficult situation. “School didn’t teach you how to collect tennis balls, build a scooter, ride the El trains and trolleys, hitch onto delivery wagons, own a dog, go for a swim, get a chunk of ice or a piece of fruit—all without paying a cent.” Although Marx later mentions that most of his swimming took place in the trash-ridden East River, he doesn’t complain. The streets of New York City were both his classroom and his playground. To this day, I still believe that it’s possible to have fun in New York without paying a cent.
The one qualm I have with this entire book series is that although Harpo Speaks… About New York contains a few silly anecdotes about growing up poor in New York, it feels disjointed. It is clearly a small section of a larger work, and contains no flow or story arc. Both Here is New York and A House on the Heights felt almost flawless as they described life in New York in another era. I was transported to Capote’s cobblestoned streets and saw every passenger whizzing through E.B. White’s 50s-era Grand Central Station. Maybe it’s not fair to compare the writing of Harpo Marx (and Rowland Barber) with the masterpieces of two of America’s most brilliant writers, Truman Capote and E.B. White. But the disjointed feeling I get from reading Harpo Speaks… About New York may be due to the fact that it is only an appendage of a larger, more complete memoir.
Although E.B. White, Truman Capote and Harpo Marx resided in different New York neighborhoods in different eras, each artist gathered inspiration from the city and used it to fuel extraordinary creative work. New York is city that has always been filthy, a city that has always been crowded, a city that has always been in a state of change. This change has become the city’s consistency. But maybe best of all, New York has and will always pulse with stories. Every block, every street corner and every building contains the creative energy of a generation of artists and writers gone by. “[New York] carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past,” writes E.B. White. “So that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings.”
Books mentioned in this column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.