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New York, New York

Photograph by Julien Donada

Out of the Old Hotel

As the New York Times kills its City section this month, New York loses a fine way of knowing itself. Paying tribute to all the Joseph Mitchells and Joe Goulds.

In the back of a red-brick building on Seventh Street in Park Slope, 80-year-old Hugo Picciani collects and repairs old radios. Tall shelves are stacked with ship radios from World War I, wooden radio boxes, phonograph horns, and tuning forks. Picciani, who’s short half a finger, can fix a 1917 crystal-powered receiver and grind custom radio parts. He remembers the bygone city, like the 36 radio shops that lined Cortlandt Street in the 1930s and the heroin ring that operated out of his block in the 1970s. Around the corner from the dry cleaners and delivery vans on Fifth Avenue, Picciani and his shop would have faded unknown to most New Yorkers had not Cole Louison rung the bell, chatted about audio frequencies, and written 800 words about it for the New York Times’s City section. His piece has no news hook, though Picciani talks vaguely about moving to Florida, and there was no reason for it to be published one Sunday last July, or even at all. But the neighborhood feels a touch richer for those who read it.

The City, which is folding this month, is full of stories like this, the street-corner anecdotes that help give New York its personality. The section reports on life outside the fire-and-crime news cycle, listening in on the weekend chatter of church choirs and late-night poker circles that usually goes unreported. Though it follows the Times’s Escapes section and many others around the country to the grave, the demise of The City strikes locals hard, in part because its coverage is unique: You can’t Twitter about Hugo Picciani. But it’s not just the pieces themselves we’ll miss—it’s how they made us feel. Here, New York is more than congestion and chain stores; it’s a small town of eccentrics, thick with the stories that made us want to move here in the first place.

London and New York industrialized so quickly that they became unrecognizable to contemporaries, who were shocked by their size, diversity, and anonymity.

Though only begun in 1993, the section drew from a long journalistic tradition that grew with the city itself: attempting to know it. When this genre of urban vignettes first appeared in the nineteenth century, modern cities themselves were news. London and New York industrialized so quickly that they became unrecognizable to contemporaries, who were shocked by their size, diversity, and anonymity. Immigrants and rural laborers poured in to work in factories, packing the streets with strangers from around the world. New York’s population tripled between 1800 and 1830; by 1850, half were foreign-born. “What is the city?” became a vital question, and writers looked to everyday life for the answer. As the first industrial metropolis, London arguably introduced this street journalism that became common in the nineteenth century, with Charles Dickens as one of its founders. In early essays, Sketches By Boz, Dickens wrote colorful portraits and dialogues, like scenes on a clamoring omnibus or by the morning carts around Covent Garden Market—prose snapshots of the teeming streets. “It is strange with how little notice, good, bad, or indifferent, a man may live and die in London,” he observed in 1836, when this absolute urban anonymity was still jarring.

New York wasn’t far behind. In the 1840s, essayist Nathanial Parker Willis sat by a window overlooking Broadway and described daily patterns: “A vigorous female exerciser or two may be seen returning from a smart walk to the Battery, and the orange-women are getting their tables ready at the corners.” George G. Foster wrote books like New York in Slices, chronicling city characters, including their speech: “readynminitsir, comingsir, dreklysir.” From Theodore Dreiser’s description of an Italian fruit vendor in 1919 to Dan Barry’s depiction of an Irish step-dancing class in 2005 , these small stories have shaped our perception of the city.

Few urban essayists match Joseph Mitchell for sheer detail. Like Dickens, Mitchell captured a wide cast of characters: yellow-haired Mazie, who ruled a Bowery theater ticket counter “like a raffish queen,” members of the Deaf-Mutes Club on Eighth Avenue, and Happy Zimmer, who patrolled the harbor’s oyster beds with a .38 revolver. You don’t need to know any back story to understand why they ended up in New York. “In my home town,” Mitchell quotes the drifter Joe Gould as writing, “I never felt at home. I stuck out…In New York City, especially in Greenwich Village, down among the cranks and the misfits and the one-lungers and the has-beens and the might’ve beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats, I have always felt at home.”

It no longer takes a Dickens to reveal the daily patterns of a seamstress: she could blog about it herself.

These urban sketches helped mythologize New York as a city of arrival and anticipation. It became “the city of final destination, the city that is a goal,” as E.B. White wrote in 1948 in the Holiday magazine piece, “Here is New York,” summarizing a century of New York writing. “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 he 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.” To White, glass-and-steel New York rose from softer individual passions. Telling their stories in print helps us understand how it got built.

Given the sorry state of the newspaper industry, it’s no surprise that the Times is forced to axe The City. Newsier stories will probably live on in the Metro section, which on Sundays will consolidate reports from the region, but it will be interesting to see where others appear. The internet has made urban storytelling more participatory; it no longer takes a Dickens to reveal the daily patterns of a seamstress: she could blog about it herself. Posting local observations to neighborhood websites or childhood memories to history pages, residents digest the city themselves rather than looking for a writer to make sense of it. The City’s sketches may someday seem as antiquated as Hugo Picciani’s radios, but we’ll still want to tune in, and listen to New York sing.