Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Gone to New York

I'm nearly finished with Ian Frazier's delightful Gone to New York, which collects most of his writing about the city (or the metropolitan area, technically, since there's an excellent article about Route 3 in New Jersey.) The earliest stuff here dates from 1975, when the author began contributing Talk of the Town pieces to The New Yorker. But he really gets up to speed with "Canal Street" (1990), whose mixture of history, pinpoint observation, and personal reportage is a version-in-miniature of what he accomplished the year before in Great Plains. Here's a typically delectable sample, about the dodgier eastern edge of Canal Street:
Just below Canal is a network of narrow streets centuries older than the bridge roaring above them. It is Chinatown, but not the part where conventioneers come to eat Chinese food. Some of the side streets are so narrow they barely have curbs, much less sidewalks. Flatiron buildings almost small enough to put your arms around occupy tiny wedge-shaped lots. Gentrification has left this place untouched; rents are probably about the same as they were in Carthage, or Nineveh, or Peking under the Tangs. Shoes have worn shallow depressions in the stone of apartment-house steps; hands have polished the paint off railings. Ancient paint on door lintels is cracked and ridged like alligator hide. This is the basic city that people have always lived in, of which the rest of New York is only the twentieth century's approximation.

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