From the archives:

"America's Heart" (February 1999)
"New York's story is the nation's ... The city was the birthplace of window shopping, American bohemia, the Associated Press, and the hot dog." Timothy J. Gilfoyle reviews Edwin G. Burrows's and Mike Wallace's Gotham.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Dispatches: "Ground Zero, the Day After" (September 19, 2001)
A pilgrimage to the "ash-covered canyon" that was once the World Trade Center. By Petra Bartosiewicz.

More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.


Flashbacks
 
Loving and Hating New York

November 28, 2001
 
ince September 11, New York City has been the focus of much of the country's—and the world's—attention. But, as David Carr pointed out in The Atlantic's November, 2001, issue, "to have the attention of a nation is hardly novel in a city that's been ground zero for more than a century." While the coverage of New York and New Yorkers since the terrorist attacks has been almost universally reverential, a look back at Atlantic articles spanning the past century reminds us that the emotions and opinions New York inspires have usually been more complicated.

Ninety-five years ago, in October of 1906, The Atlantic published Alvan F. Sanborn's "New York after Paris," in which the author reconsiders New York after returning from years spent living in France. Having been charmed by the serene beauty of Paris, he finds the much younger city of New York to be uncultured by comparison and glutted with "unlovely excesses":
The truth is that New York is in the throes of creation. With infinite travail it is taking on a body adequate to its needs,—a feat Paris long ago accomplished.
But over time, he explains, the returned traveler begins to recapture the "spirit of New York" and to fall "completely under its spell:"
New York's disconcerting sky-scrapers are vastly picturesque, and even grandiose in certain lights. On winter afternoons, when the dusk comes early, their myriad lamps afford a spectacle which outclasses in brilliancy the grandest electric displays of the greatest world's fairs. Athwart the moonlit or starlit sky, their soaring masses stand forth black and ominous, like the donjon keeps of colossal castles; and, under these conditions, the lower end of Manhattan, where they most abound, might pass for the Mont St. Michel of the New World. In a night of rain, the ruddy reflections of their lights incarnadine the clouds till the entire city appears to be the prey of a monster conflagration. Under the slanting glow of the rising or the setting sun their tops take on the gorgeous iridescence of the peaks of Mont Blanc, the Rigi, or the Matterhorn, and one quite forgets, as in the Alps, to be critical of imperfect form.
Writing many years later, L. E. Sissman, a contributing writer and poet for The Atlantic, expressed a similarly ambivalent response to New York's discordant bustle. One November morning, Sissman set out for New York with friends. The following month his piece, "A Day in the City, 1970," offering an impressionistic, almost stream-of-consciousness panorama of his excursion, appeared in The Atlantic. Sissman paints a city trembling with commotion. He sees streets crowded with "artists, writers, painters, students, hangers-on, neat pretty girls, sloppy pretty girls." Gritty and realistic, his descriptions both excite and exhaust:
Across town: double-parkers, women walking poodles, town houses with miraculous cream fronts, boys on delivery trikes, many tiny ethnic restaurants. New buildings still going up in spite of slump; who rents all those square feet of space?
Wary of the construction and change occurring before him, he describes downtown Manhattan, specifically the as yet unfinished World Trade Center:
Down under Battery Park, up on the West Side Highway, confronted by the absurdly high twin red-and-silver towers of the World Trade Center still being built. No spires, no masts, no setbacks: only the infinite tapering up of parallel lines, ugly, unnerving, and repeated for overemphasis.
Eight years later, in September of 1978, Thomas Griffith composed "Loving and Hating New York." Aptly titled, Griffith's article addresses the conflicting emotions one feels toward the city. New York is a city of disillusionment and contention, he explains, but also of exhilarating freedom and opportunity. Though it is dangerous, dirty, and competitive, it provides a current that is galvanizing, even life-affirming:
The trash-strewn streets, the unruly schools, the uneasy feeling of menace, the noise, the brusqueness—all confirm outsiders in their conviction that they wouldn't live here if you gave them the place. Yet show a New Yorker a splendid home in Dallas, or a swimming pool and cabana in Beverly Hills, and he will be admiring but not envious.
Finally, in "Street Scene" (February 1995), Atlantic contributor Ian Frazier records an episode in which he witnessed New York's capacity to defy its hard-bitten reputation. He had emerged from his Brooklyn apartment one Saturday morning to discover a crowd just beyond his doorstep. An older woman was lying on the pavement, straddled by two strangers administering CPR. He comments:
A large, lumpy-faced man with his pants high on his waist said to me, "The ambulance will never come. They never come anymore. They don't care. In New York nobody cares. People are so arrogant on the street in Manhattan. I call New York City a lost city. Used to be a great city, now it's a lost city..."
But the cynical man is proven wrong. The ambulance arrives quickly, and the two CPR-administering strangers display extraordinary concern and tenderness toward the unconscious woman. Of the woman giving resuscitation he writes, "She was a thin-faced white woman with Prince Valiant hair and a green windbreaker—an ordinary-looking person, but glowingly beautiful." In a city dismissed by some as heartless, Frazier's chance encounter offers a glimpse of hope, strength, and belief in community—qualities that turn out to apply not just to a street corner in Brooklyn, but to New York as a whole.

—Caitlin Riley


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Caitlin Riley is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.