May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
Everybody hates poor old New York now. Actually, I suppose everybody has always hated New York City, but it’s during times of civic calamity that the feelings really reveal themselves. It’s certainly happening at the moment. And it’s happening in the same terms that it has since the beginning of this town: gloating, under a thin sheen of dismay and concern. The real message comes through clearly enough: “All right, you’ve had the eighties; you’ve eaten your plate of two-hundred-dollar pasta, and now it’s gone and by God, you’re going to pay for it.”
Manhattan is my home, and I’m a little surprised to find myself getting defensive in exactly the same way I would have if I’d lived in a small Hoosier town ninety years ago and some smart jasper in a mustard-colored suit got off the train and started hanging around the express office making fun of the way we did things in Weedon’s Corners. Even New Yorkers have joined in. Time magazine devoted a cover story to “The Rotting of the Big Apple” (although I notice the company is still doing business at the old stand some forty blocks north of where I’m sitting), and in a bleakly eloquent essay in a recent Esquire , Pete Hamill made the unequivocal assessment that “New York is more dangerous now than at any time in its history.”
Any time? More dangerous than it was in the summer of 1863, when half the city was burning and the mob held the streets and gunners were firing canister into the citizenry and line troops had to be pulled up from Gettysburg to help restore order? Worse than in 1850, when a population of just half a million souls supported ten thousand prostitutes?
The counsels of the present are so strident, and those of the past so quiet, that it is easy to forget the latter’s powerful ability to offer solace. Whatever it is we are facing now, the record tells us that Americans have managed to get through far worse before. As far as New York goes, try to think back on the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s; it was doom and dishevelment then, and in some ways a darker picture than is being painted now. But that was then.
I’m glad we had the feature on some of New York’s historic houses scheduled for this issue, because these buildings suggest not only survival in the midst of want and worry but—as the historian Joseph Nye reminds us in the interview that opens the magazine—that things are rarely as bad as they seem. The terrible urgency of the present raises frightening specters; more often than not, history dispels them.
The subject of Stephen Sears’s biographical essay understood that. Robert E. Lee is not chiefly remembered for his eloquence, but I know of few more graceful statements on history’s power to comfort than this one. “The march of Providence is so slow,” he wrote, “and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing ways, and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.”