Italo Calvino’s Timeless Descriptions of Living in NYC

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As an avid fan of NYC, I am always mesmerized by the words of famous writers and thinkers in describing the city that continues to shape the lives, hopes and dreams for millions of aspiring movers, shakers, and thinkers worldwide. Recently, the blog explored the wonderfully silly and yet priceless pranks that artist Salvador Dali played on Andy Warhol during a time both were living in Manhattan.

Italo Calvino’s wonderful posthumously published accounts of living in New York in 1960 as a Ford Foundation grantee is littered with astute gems and observations about the city. Amongst the many gems, three exquisite descriptions offered by the Italian writer, of his first encounter with New York City, are particularly interesting, as it is told point by point, and reads like a photograph would read, if it were described.

On 9 November, 1959, Italo Calvino was staying at the Grosvenor Hotel on Fifth Avenue after taking a turbulent ocean journey from Europe to America.

1. Calvino’s first impressions of New York is one of emotional excess, whilst trying to ground the city within an architectural narrative which attempts to situate New York with everything else that Calvino has encountered thus far:

The boredom of the voyage is handsomely compensated for by the emotions stirred up on arrival at New York, the most spectacular sight anyone can see on this earth. The skyscrapers appear grey in the sky which has just cleared and they seem like the ruins of some monstrous New york abandoned three thousand years in the future. Then gradually you make out the colours which are different from any idea you had of them, and a complicated pattern of shapes. Everything is silent and deserted, then the car traffic starts to flow. The massive, grey, fin-de-siecle look of the buildings gives New York, as Ollier immediately pointed out, the appearance of a German city.

Given that the reconstruction of Berlin after World War II embraced newer architectural styles and patterns- an attempt to provide an alternative in conjunction with creating the necessary visual antidote that attempts a clean break from the socio-cultural history bombed by Nazi Germany, I am not surprised that German cities are the point of comparison for Calvino, with New York’s buildings evoking much of the minimalist modern architectural style that are embraced by the likes of architect Bauhaus.

2. Calvino writes about the magnetic pull of New York City to newcomers, which absorbs them into an invisible magnetic pull, and draws them in a manner which showcases that New York is truly unique.

“New York is not exactly America.” This phrase, which I had read in all the books on New York, is repeated to us ten times a day, and it’s true, but what does it matter? It’s New York, a place which is neither exactly America nor exactly Europe, which gives you a burst of extraordinary energy, which you immediately feel you know like the back of your hand, as though you had always lived here, and at certain times, especially uptown where you can feel the busy life of the big offices and factories of ready-made clothes, it lands on top of you as though to crush you. Naturally, the minute you land here, you think of anything except turning back.

Perhaps, what remains unsaid here is how New York is not simply unique to America, but to the world, for this logic seems to flow in the comparison that Calvino draws with the world.

Amongst the multitude of images that Calvino divulges in his jottings regarding le Grande Pomme, perhaps the most moving is his tribute to the charm of the moving vignette, of a sight that every New Yorker, and many tourists, have encountered at least once, in the Rockefeller Plaza complex.

3. Under a title called “The Most Beautiful Image of New York by Night,” Calvino gives us a fantastic image of New York City in motion:

At the bottom of the Rockefeller Centre there is an ice rink with young boys and girls skating on it, right in the heart of New York by night, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue.

If the world can be measured by the vignettes that have defined it, I wonder then, what a world really, is that provided to us by our predecessors. Regardless, I’m moved enough, for the moment, with the happy images of New York which has now filled my head, adding to my list of 101 Reasons Why You Haven’t Really Lived, Until You’ve Lived in NYC.

Read about Calvino’s observations, including his surprising endorsement of Wall Street, here.

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