What Sony Electronics Can't Replace

WHEN they tore down the old Sixth Avenue elevated transit line in Manhattan in the late 1930s, E. B. White, the writer and essayist, already had left the city for a farm in Maine. But he had lived near the structure for years and had more reason than most to welcome its demise.Instead, White recalled the clunky old El with affection, the kind one feels toward homely things that seep unannounced into our lives. He recalled its "fleeting and audible shadow," the way it "punctuated the mornings with brisk tidings of repetitious adventure, and it accompanied the night with sad but reassuring sounds of life-going-on." Yes, he was sitting in the woods by then, not near the shadows and noise. But White was not sentimental; if anything, he was on the crusty side. What bothered him about the demolition of the El was the unquestioned belief that it represented civic advance. "There is always a subtle danger in life's refinements, a dim degeneracy in progress," he wrote. "Half a man's life is devoted to improvements, yet the original had some quality that is lost in the process." That quality is often the hidden glue that connects people to one another and to their place. The Els are mostly gone now. Sixth Avenue is calmer but also nondescript. The skeleton of an old elevated freight line still snakes through the warehouses of the West Side just above Greenwich Village. To neighbors, it has become a precious point of identity. To the city, it's an eyesore impeding development, so it's coming down too. The twist is that many Americans regard the city itself as a bigger version of the El. It looms in the imagination as a dark, hulking threat, where tourists are stabbed in subways, and where Wall Street sharks and welfare cheats together are bankrupting the country. Wouldn't it be better, the thinking goes, if New York crumbles first? There's an uneasy feeling that it could. But crime and disorder are only part of it. The bigger threat is improvement. In the past, the city could always bounce back from declines, because it had something America needed: a crossroads where the ambitious could make deals, where large enterprises were managed, and movies and plays produced. It had place. Today, what the press calls the "communications revolution" makes this function superfluous. Deals are made at swimming pools by portable phone. So people have less need to get close to one another any more - that is, if need is defined solely in economic terms. As White warned, something is lost in the process: the rubbing-elbows stuff. It's often stated, but only because it's true. It's not a bad thing that investment bankers share subway seats with black teenagers, and Muslims even try to live near Hassidic Jews. The mix sometimes explodes, but it would be worse to give up. Sometimes, New York's bump and shove hide that part of the city that Sony electronics cannot replace. One Sunday evening last summer, I was walking through Washington Square Park, on my way some place but not hurrying to get there. The park is a human carnival, and as I poked along, the lyrics of "Walk Away Renee" hit me like an aroma from childhood, and I stopped next to an impromptu group crooning '60s songs. I was in a vague reverie when I noticed a young man hunched next to the group in a strange, exaggerated dance. He was wearing no shirt, scruffy dungarees, one shoe, and he looked as if he had not bathed for weeks. For some reason, my anger and frustration at what New York was becoming poured out in me toward this man. Why couldn't he take his inebriation elsewhere and let me enjoy the song? Then he moved slightly to the side, revealing a little boy in a wheelchair. The scruffy man had been dancing for him. Then he gathered the four singers around the wheelchair, still doing his strange hunched dance, and the last stanza of "Walk Away Renee" became a serenade. The boy's eyes went wide. His face broke into a big contorted grin. I felt fortunate that day to be part of this place.

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