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André Aciman: Old New York

Aciman ponders an image of New York, then and now @ the Paris Review. The Sixth Avenue El train has just cleared the steep bend off Third Street. It is now picking up speed and will, any moment now, bolt uptown. Next stop, Eighth Street, then past Jefferson Market, Fourteenth Street, then all the way north till it reaches Fifty-Ninth Street. But perhaps it is not racing up at all but grinding to a stop after that notoriously difficult curve before Bleeker Street. It’s hard to tell. The blue lettering on the train’s marker light must spell something, but it’s hard to decipher this as well. Under the el two vehicles seem to know where they’re headed. To the left of the train, on the corner of Sixth and Cornelia, a scrawny, wedge-shaped, twelve-story high-rise strains to look taller than it is. Its numberless lighted windows suggest that, despite darkness everywhere, this is by no means nighttime, but evening, maybe early evening. The building’s residents are probably preparing dinner, some just walking in after work, others listening to the radio, the children are doing homework.

This is 1922, and this is Sloan country. The Sixth Avenue El no longer exists as John Sloan painted it in The City from Greenwich Village. Sloan must have worshiped the el, and his many portraits of it pulsate with the brassy, vigorous thrill of an overconfident, urban painter who never spurned the clunky, steely structures punctuating life in the city. Under his brushstrokes, though, the here-and-now Village suddenly acquires a lyrical, beguiling, almost dreamlike cast, and its crepuscular inflection suggests that maybe, just maybe, Sloan might have been trying to capture the city as it looked on that day, in that year, from his window, sensing, as rumors must have already been flying then, that the el didn’t have long to live. “The picture,” he wrote, “makes a record of the beauty of the older city which is giving way to the chopped-out towers of the modern New York.”

Did Sloan like the el—could anyone really have liked the ugly, thundering, mastodontic el—or was he, like so many of us, struggling to preserve the old—ugly, junky, beaten-up old that it was? The scrap metal of the el, they say, would eventually be sold and shipped to Japan; Japan would then bomb us with arms made from it. Most likely an apocryphal tale.

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