When E.B. White wrote "Here Is New York" in the summer of 1948—working in an airless room in the Lafayette Hotel—he took note of a construction project then under way: "Along the East River, from the razed slaughterhouses of Turtle Bay . . . men are carving out the permanent headquarters of the United Nations—the greatest housing project of them all."
There can scarcely be a New Yorker this week who will not ache for those prelapsarian days, when cavalcades of the allied and the enemy did not bedevil the city's traffic and rob those who live here of their territorial rights. New Yorkers were more tolerant in E.B. White's time, less cynical. "In its stride," he wrote of the imminent U.N. headquarters, "New York takes on one more interior city, to shelter, this time, all governments, and to clear the slum called war." Ah, the antique magnanimity of those words, reflecting an era when New York was far grander than the rest of the world.
New York is still the pre-eminent global city, but it is no longer indisputably grand. Grandeur was abundant in White's day, when the city was self-possessed enough to endure intrusions on even very large scales without losing its composure, without succumbing to indignation. New York, White observed (and we marvel as we read), "is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants." Don't be misled by White's word "constructed": He refers not merely to the urban grid, which has not changed radically since his day, but also to civic temperament, which has altered almost entirely.
In our sullen era, New Yorkers are much less resilient. Of course, traffic has grown giant, and there are many more people hunting and gathering in a jungle of unchanged dimensions. But diminished by economic decline, the city's sense of itself has also shrunk. (Look at the pygmies who are running for mayor.)
The U.N. is in town, and the city cannot "absorb, almost without showing any sign of it, a congress of visitors." Instead, it glares at them from the sidewalks, from the inside of taxicabs, from the windows of buses. Stuck in traffic caused by the Parliament of Man, one would do well to remember that the shrugging of shoulders by thousands of inhabitants makes a city more noble than indignation. A great city must be a carefree city. And New York, this New York, is much too careworn.
Mr. Varadarajan is a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a writer at large for the Daily Beast.