Brain Pickings

What Makes a Great City: E.B. White on the Poetics of New York

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“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.”

A great city is like a great love — it makes you feel closer to your own center, envelops you in its immutable and caring magic, and no matter how far from it you may travel, it always beckons you with steadfast, unshakable mesmerism.

But what makes a great city? Scholars, social scientists, and urban planners have pondered the question for centuries, pointing to everything from walkability to the social life of small urban spaces. And yet the most timeless answer is a poetic rather than a pragmatic one. From the 1949 gem Here Is New York (public library) — one of the best books about New York ever written, and undoubtedly one of the best books about anything — comes an exquisite articulation by E.B. White, who captures the singular mesmerism of Gotham and all the “enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.”

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

In one of the most spectacular passages, he writes:

New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute. … New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.

But White’s words also emanate the universal exhilaration of any large city that cajoles humanity into a state of constant interaction:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Stone and William Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

Here Is New York is a sublime read in its entirety, as “miraculously beautiful” itself as the city it serenades. Complement it with White’s moving obituary for his beloved dog Daisy and his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity.

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