Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mr. White’s neighborhoods

E.B. White on New York City neighborhoods, each a few blocks long, each with its own drugstore, grocery store, liquor store, newsstand, shoe-repair place, and so on:

So complete is each neighborhood, and so strong the sense of neighborhood, that many a New Yorker spends a lifetime within the confines of an area smaller than a country village. Let him walk two blocks from his corner and he is in a strange land and will feel uneasy till he gets back.

Shopkeepers are particularly conscious of neighborhood boundary lines. A woman friend of mine moved recently from one apartment to another, a distance of three blocks. When she turned up, the day after the move, at the same grocer’s that she had patronized for years, the proprietor was in ecstasy — almost in tears — at seeing her. “I was afraid,” he said, “now that you’ve moved away I wouldn’t be seeing you any more.” To him, away was three blocks, or about seven hundred and fifty feet.

From Here Is New York (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949), 29–30.
This essay in book form would be a wonderful gift for anyone hailing from or headed to the city. Never mind that White was writing in 1948. As he says in a foreword, the New York that he has described had already become a matter of the past by the time his book was published. It’s the reader’s job, he says, “to bring New York down to date,” though in a final dark meditation on Manhattan’s vulnerability to attacking planes, White has done the job for us.

Here Is New York is available again in hardcover, from The Little Bookroom. It’s this book I had in mind when I wrote last month that I pass up books that I would’ve bought without hesitation in the past. Maybe I’ll still get a copy. (But for now: thanks, library.)

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