And yet, in many separate ways, the people of the city express certain common emotions. The forms and details are different for every generation and every group, but certain emotions have continued to repeat themselves for centuries. One is surely greed, the unruly desire to get more money by any means possible, an emotion shared by citizens from stockbrokers to muggers. Another is sudden anger, the result of so many people living in so relatively small a place. Another is an anarchic resistance to authority. But far and away the most powerful of all New York emotions is the one called nostalgia.
The city is, in a strange way, the capital of nostalgia. The emotion has two major roots. One is the abiding sense of loss that comes from the simple fact of continuous change. Of the city’s five boroughs, Manhattan in particular absolutely refuses to remain as it was. It is dynamic, not static. What seems permanent when you are twenty is too often a ghost when you are thirty. As in all places, parents die, friends move on, businesses wear out, and restaurants close forever. But here, change is more common than in most American cities. The engine of greatest change is the cramped land itself. Scarcity can create a holy belief in the possibility of great riches. That’s why the religion of real estate periodically enforces its commandments, and neighborhoods are cleared and buildings hauled down and new ones erected, and all that remains is memory.. . . .
. . . The New York version of nostalgia is not simply about lost buildings or their presence in the youth of the individuals who lived with them. It involves an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanent presence of loss. Nothing will ever stay the same. Tuesday runs into Wednesday and something valuable is behind you forever. An “is” has become a “was.” Whatever you have lost, you will not get it back: not that ball club, not that splendid bar, not that place where you once went dancing with the person you later married. Irreversible change happens so often in New York that the experience affects character itself. New York toughens its people against sentimentality by allowing the truer emotion of nostalgia. Sentimentality is always about a lie. Nostalgia is about real things gone. Nobody truly mourns a lie.. . .
. . .That tough nostalgia helps explain New York. It is built into our codes, like DNA, and beyond the explanation of constant change, there is another common thread in our deepest emotion. I believe New York nostalgia also comes from that extraordinary process that created the modern city: immigration.