“Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness,” EB White wrote in his famous 1948 essay “Here is New York.” “[N]atives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.” Whoa boy. Times columnist Clyde Haberman mentioned the quote to outgoing Miss America Mallory Hagan, who received local attention because she lived in Brooklyn—the first Miss America to hail from our borough. She hadn’t heard the quote before (womp womp), but she agreed with its sentiment. “I almost feel bad for people who are born and raised here,” she told the columnist, “because you’ll never understand how the outsider feels about New York City. People look at this place as a dream machine, as an opportunity to escape whatever their current reality is. They look at it like it’s magical… people look at this place and dream about coming here. And people who have grown up here will never understand what that feels like.”
Um, as a born-and-raised Brooklynite, that’s sweet of her to feel so bad for me, but I don’t really need or want her pity. I can ride the subway over the Manhattan Bridge at magic hour and appreciate the way the light glitters off the skyscrapers, too! I can feed off the energy of pedestrian swarms pushing past each other, as well! I can hop from reading to play to bar to bed, also! “The city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin,” White also wrote in his essay: “the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled.” I get that, despite where my parents raised me.
White and Hagan seem to be talking about starry-eyed transplants who come looking to make it here to prove they can make it anywhere. Sure, those people exist, and their accomplishments do help to make the city the vibrant place it is. Others, like Hagan, come here and split (or, heck, even stay), their accomplishments unclear.
This strikes me as transplant apologism run amok; ask most native New Yorkers who make the city great and they won’t cite the recently arrived flyovers “finding themselves” amid the wonder those of us raised here found long ago. Listen: these are all just stereotypes, broad generalizations meant to inflate our own worth at the expense of others. Anecdotally, I know lots of locals starting businesses, playing in bands, showing art in galleries, plotting ways to connect their communities to cultural expression. And I know lots of other people from outside the city who’ve relocated here to do the same.
People passionate about New York give the city its passion, and they come from anywhere. Those like Hagan, who show up for a few years before moving to Los Angeles of all places, “looking to get into television in some form or another,” who set up their Times interview at a local chain restaurant, whose favorite spots in her neighborhood, Windsor Terrace, were boring even for a neighborhood not known for being hip or chic—Connecticut Muffin? Her dry cleaner?—don’t. They revel in a romanticism that’s not particularly productive. Let’s say I feel sorry for Hagan: while the rest of us stay here to make some meaningful contribution to where we live, she’s off to La La Land, rootless and unmoored.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart