I went to see Danny Hoch's impressive one-man show "Taking Over" at the Public Theater. (Recently extended!) I expected a performance filled with righteous anger and I was not disappointed. In every character he inhabits, whether it's an elderly African-American woman watching her world evaporate or a greedy real-estate developer laying out plans to destroy that world, he paints a powerful, pitch-perfect portrait of a city painfully vanishing.
What I did not expect was to get a dose of my own vitriol. Hoch's anger is pointedly directed at non-native New Yorkers, to whom he bellows in agonized rage: "Go home!"
I walked out of the theater sorting through mixed feelings. I'm on Hoch's side, but I'm an "outsider," too. Does he want me to go home? This is home. So when does one become a New Yorker--after 15, 25, 50 years? Is it ever possible? Allen Ginsberg came from Newark and Frank O'Hara was from Baltimore. Andy Warhol came from Pittsburgh, Patti Smith from Chicago. George M. Cohan was from Providence and Mickey Mantle came from a small town in Oklahoma.
For solace, I turned to one of my favorite books, Here Is New York, written in 1949 by E.B. White--who was born in Mount Vernon, just over the Bronx border so not, technically, a city native.
After reading the following excerpt, I gained some comfort, but also a new reason to be angry. It shows that until very recently in New York's history, its "settlers" were viewed as a valuable asset to the city, to its passion and thrum and creativity. But today's swarm of new arrivals have radically altered what it means to be a settler here. Do they bring "poetical deportment," or do they just deport those who came before them?
I don't want to be lumped in with them. Can I get a pardon? Anyway, go see Hoch's fantastic show. In the meantime, here's E.B. Try to imagine saying his words about small town girls and boys today. It seems unfathomable.
“There are roughly three New Yorks. 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. Second, there is the New York of the commuter--the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.
Of these three trembling cities, the greatest is the last--the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. 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.
And whether it is a farmer arriving from Italy to set up a small grocery store in a slum, or a young girl arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company."