There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable.
It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.
Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.
White falls into the third category of New Yorks—born in Mount Vernon, he was a New York settler until 1938, when he moved to Maine.
Colson Whitehead, on the other hand, is a born and bred native. ) And there have been five stores in that spot before the travel agency.
On being a true New Yorker, he writes in his 2003 book You swallow hard when you discover that the old coffee shop is now a chain pharmacy, that the place where you first kissed so-and-so is now a discount electronics retailer, that where you bought this very jacket is now rubble behind a blue plywood fence and a future office building. You say, ”It happened overnight.” But of course it didn’t. Five different neighborhoods coming and going between then and now, other people’s other cities. Thousands of people pass that storefront every day, each one haunting the streets of his or her own New York, not one of them seeing the same thing.
Your pizza parlor, his shoeshine stand, her hat store: when they were here, we neglected them. Being a native New Yorker myself, I can relate to Whitehead’s idea of having one’s own New York, how each person here sees his or her own story in the city’s streets, all of them unique and specific to that person.
For all you know, the place closed down moments after the last time you walked out the door. I can also confirm that the starry-eyed transplants, the third of White’s New Yorks, give our fair city an energy that is unique to cities where almost everyone is from someplace else.
I grabbed them both and used my time on the subway to revisit them, one on the way uptown, the other on the way down.
These two works have found themselves in each other’s company before, no doubt.
They are, at least on the surface, ripe for comparison, in that they are both brief, personal love letters to New York City, though their authors are separated by, among other things, time and circumstance.
White’s essay, originally published as an article in There are roughly three New Yorks.