High life

An elegy for New York

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

New York

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, theatres 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 A hero airman, the tycoon Howard Hughes, has been replaced by Jeff Bezos, a champion sailor-magnate; Ted Turner by Mark Zuckerberg.)

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.)

What is even worse than the destruction of the city’s grandeur is what has happened to its politics. The major news media are based in New York, and the hacks working for them have had a collective nervous breakdown over the past three years. Led by probably the most dishonest major newspaper in the world, the New York Times (the paper recently reported sexual allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, despite the fact that the ‘victim’ had no memory of any such incident), Trump derangement syndrome has morphed into a campaign of rare virulence and hate. The structures of white power must be dismantled, and the Supreme Court and the Electoral College, the two institutions that guarantee fairness and equality for all states, are the main targets of this campaign.

This is not exactly new. Susan Sontag — whose biography was reviewed in these pages recently — announced back in 1967 that ‘the white race is the cancer of human history’. Sontag was an opportunistic publicity seeker, and her very good brain was situated in her backside. Nevertheless, shrieking about ‘white privilege’ is now prevalent throughout the western world. Whiteness is considered to be the original sin. My friend Jim Goad has written a book about it, but he has been excluded from TV talk shows and ignored by reviewers. I’m not surprised. Just think: the left today seem to believe that white-majority countries are cages of oppression for non-white inhabitants. Yet global immigration patterns don’t support this theory.

Well, if you think that the residents of north Devon are too white and don’t know people from other countries, as the Liberal Democrat candidate Kirsten Johnson said recently in a bizarre explanation for why her constituents voted Brexit, then don’t think the Bagel is a utopia. Come and see for yourself. There are no picturesque villages, no sweet children playing football barefoot, no lithe females wearing colourful dresses, no fearsome cops. Over here they now douse the police with buckets of water and the fuzz don’t react. The crowds jeer and the cops go home and change.

What the Americans call ‘white flight’ is happening again, not that anyone will admit it. Big cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles will all be changed. So where’s left for the poor little Greek boy?

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