New York Panorama: Essays from the 1930s

New York Panorama: Essays from the 1930s

by Federal Writers' Project


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486821009
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 04/18/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 608
Sales rank: 920,375
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Created in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), The Federal Writers' Project was intended to provide employment for historians, writers, teachers, and librarians. The project focused on creating a series of guide books highlighting the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States.

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Metropolis and Her Children

The rumor of a great city goes out beyond its borders, to all the latitudes of the known earth. The city becomes an emblem in remote minds; apart from the tangible export of goods and men, it exerts its cultural instrumentality in a thousand phases: as an image of glittering light, as the forcing ground which creates a new prose style or a new agro-biological theory, or as the germinal point for a fresh technique in metal sculpture, biometrics or the fixation of nitrogen. Its less ponderable influence may be a complex of inextricable ideas, economic exchanges, associations, artifacts: the flask of perfume which brings Fifth Avenue to a hacienda in the Argentine, the stencil marks on a packing case dumped on the wharf at Beira or Reykjavik, a flurry of dark-goggled globe-trotters from a cruise ship, a book of verse

Under the stone I saw them flow express Times Square at five o'clock eyes set in darkness

read in a sheepherder's hut in New South Wales, or a Harlem band playing Young Woman's Blues from a phonograph as the safari breaks camp in Tanganyika under a tile-blue morning sky as intensely lighted as the panorama closed by mountains in the ceiling dome of the African section at the American Museum of Natural History.

The orbit of such a world city as New York also intersects the orbits of other world cities. New York, London, Tokyo, Rome exchange preferred stocks and bullion, ships' manifests and radio programs — in rivalry or well-calculated friendship. During the 1920's, for example, a jump spark crackled between New York and Paris. The art of Matisse, Derain, Picasso commanded the Fifty-Seventh Street market. The French developed a taste for le jazz and le sport; in an atmosphere of war debts and the Young Plan, the Americanization of Europe was mentioned. Paris, capital of the Valutaschweine, became the bourne of good and gay New Yorkers, the implicit heroine of a comedy by Philip Barry or a novel by Ernest Hemingway. The French replied, though not always in kind. Georges Duhamel pronounced a jeremiad against the machine apocalypse in America and Paul Morand, an amateur of violence, explored the sensational diversity of New York. These were symptomatic. The comments of Jules Romains went deeper and established fixed points for contrast with a later period.

All the rays of force alive in the modern world move inward upon the city, and the burning glass of its attraction concentrates them in the flame that is New York. Historically, it has been to an exceptional degree a city of accumulation: its methods promotion and commerce, its principle aggrandizement. About a nucleus of Dutch and English — even French Huguenot — settlers it subsequently collected swarm after swarm of Irish, German, Italian, Jewish and Russian immigrants, a proportion of other nationalities, and Americans of many stocks from the seaboard and the interior. For the most part, those immigrants who remained in the city were compacted into districts especially suited to their exploitation, districts as verminous and sunless as the Cloaca Maxima. Here, in dwellings that reproduced the foetor of the slave ship in all but the promise of eventual liberty held out to the more intelligent or ruthless, they formed a crawling agglomeration. This was the frontier of New York and the grim apotheosis of the frontier in the United States, preserved almost untouched into the third decade of the 20th century.

The shawled refugees from European want and oppression, most of whom crossed the ocean in immigrant ships under conditions of the utmost squalor, were also transported by a succession of great New York trade vessels: the Black Ball and other Western Ocean packet lines, the world-ranging Donald McKay clippers, the first wood and iron steamships. These were conned through the Narrows by men off the superb Sandy Hook pilot schooners which had been worked out from the designs of Isaac Webb in the 1830's, the hollow-entrance experiments of Griffiths in the 1840's, and the later masterly work of George Steers in such craft as the Moses H. Grinnell and the America, for which the America's Cup was named. Great numbers of immigrants and New Yorkers moved inland by way of the Hudson River sloops and steamboats, the Conestoga wagons, the Erie Canal barges and the railroads. Very early, therefore, the history of New York began to be a history of the successive phases in American transportation. As its lines of influence spread out into the interior, thickened and were fixed, it became more and more the commanding American city, the maker or merchant of dress silks and pannikins and spices, wines and beds and grub hoes. Long before the paramount age of sail ended, New York had taken on its alternate character as a great two-way transfer point and classification yard for men and goods and ideas moving between the other countries of the world and the great central plain of America. It has consolidated and enlarged this character with a multiplicity of functions which help to determine its position as the first city of the Western Hemisphere.

Approach to the City

For the American traveler coming home from Cape Town or St. Moritz or the Caribbean, and for those others who converge upon the city from Chicago and El Paso and Kildeer and Tonopah, New York has a nearer meaning. It is, in whatever sense, a substitute home town — a great apartment hotel, as Glenway Wescott wrote, in which everyone lives and no one is at home. In other eyes it may be a state fair grown to magnificence, a Main Street translated into the imperial splendor of Fifth Avenue. To such travelers the city is a coat of many colors — becoming to each, but not quite his own. It is both novelty and recognition that pleases him: the novelty of its actual and amazing encompassment, the recognition of great shafts and crowds and thoroughfares remembered from a hundred motion pictures, rotogravures and advertisements.

The man from another city will perhaps be least discommoded, his sense of the familiar both intensified and expanded. But to the men and women of the small towns, the sierras, the cornlands and grasslands, the seaboard coves and Gulf bayous — farmers, automobile mechanics, packrats, schoolteachers — New York cannot help but stand as a special order: the place which is not wilderness, the place of light and warmth and the envelopment of the human swarm, the place in which everyone is awake and laughing at three in the morning. These things are not altogether true, of course — but magic does not need to be true.

The traveler will know many things about New York and there will be guides to tell him many more, in the particular and the large; but he will see by looking, and find out by asking, and match the figure to the phenomenon. He may know that New York City is made up of five boroughs, four of which — Brooklyn, Queens, Richmond, the Bronx — compose like crinkled lily pads about the basking trout of Manhattan. He will not know, perhaps, that he and the other men and women who travel with him helped to make up a total of 68,999,376 visitors to the city in 1936, an off year. If he is an agronomist, he may find a certain perverse irony in the fact that the 198,330 acres of the five boroughs, without any tillage worth mentioning, supported an estimated population of 7,434,346 in 1937.

But it is less likely that the visitor who moves down one of those enormous radials that converge on New York from Seattle and Galveston and Los Angeles and Chicago will understand how Thomas Campanella's vision of a City of the Sun, published in 1623, has influenced the growth of such a modern metropolis as New York. Nor will he be aware, perhaps, that the verses of Walt Whitman and the paintings of "The Eight" and the landscape architecture of Olmsted the elder, quite as much as the Roeblings' Brooklyn Bridge and the Hoe press and the steel converters of Kelly and Bessemer, helped to create the social climate of the emerging city.

In the larger aspects of New York he may glimpse not only the results of the Randall Plan of 1811, but evidences of the influence of Geddes, Norton, Wright, McClellan, Bassett, Delano, Burnham, Keppel, James, the Olmsteds, Lewis, Whitten, Howard, Unwin, Wilgus, Mumford, Adams, McAneny, Stein, Perkins, Walsh, the indefatigable Moses, and a hundred others of the noble guild of city planners, up to and including the work of the Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs, the Port of New York Authority, the New York Department of Parks and the New York City Planning Commission. He will wish to know how the city changes, the extent and character of its physical property, and something about the nature and complexity of its functions. But he will understand that plant and function are never more than indicators of a series of cultural choices and directions. Finally, he will be made aware of these choices and directions at their source, in the character, convictions and behavior of New Yorkers themselves: the faces, vivid or distracted, washed in neon light the color of mercurochrome, faces of men and women who work and eat and make love in catacombs under the enormous pylons of their city.

The traveler approaches in bare winter or rainy autumn, in keen seaboard spring or the dog days. He drives a faded sedan with a child slung in a hammock cradle in the rear; or he takes the hot bouillon and crackers of the great airlines. He walks the glassed-in promenade deck of the Normandie or the open boat deck of the Nieuw Amsterdam; or he lounges in the doorway of the Manhattan's radio room. In the streamlined club cars of the Yankee Clipper, the Twentieth Century, the Royal Blue, the Broadway Limited, or in the day coaches of slower trains, he turns the pages of a national or trade journal published in New York — Women's Wear, Collier's, Life, Variety, Printers' Ink — and watches the conglomerate backyards of Albany-Bridgeport-Trenton slide past the window. Painted with slipstream whorls, his blunt-nosed bus trundles out of the lunch stop and bores Manhattan-ward again, the whipcord back of the driver twisted as he pulls out and around a great dark pantechnicon truck with small lamps at its clearance points.

The traveler is a fuel company executive returning from a trip through the West, a copy of Saward's Coal Annual wedged into the briefcase beside him; an elementary school principal from Lewiston, bound for special courses at Barnard College; a Cleveland printer out of a job, a men's wear buyer from Jacksonville, a Brooklyn clergyman on his return trip from Rome, a Pittsburgh engineer coming back from a South American cruise, a San Francisco divorcee loosed in Reno and remarried to a Hollywood fashion designer commuting to New York. These make up a composite American as alive and definite as Chaucer's pilgrims or Whitman's cameradoes of democracy.

But perhaps only the industrial engineer begins to comprehend the technical changes in transportation between Chaucer's time — or even Whitman's — and the 1930's. Unless the traveler drives his own car, he must resign himself to the helmsmen of the neotechnic age — locomotive engineers, ships' quartermasters, bus drivers, transport pilots — whose responsibilities have been reapportioned into a vast complex of schedules, maintenance men, radio directional and telephone signals, cartographers, traffic lights, instrument panels and routine instructions, all centered on New York.

The helmsmen themselves are aware of their place in this network. The locomotive engineer knows it, intent on the block signals aimed at and swallowed by the rush of his train, a full minute to be made up between Poughkeepsie and Grand Central Terminal. The bus driver gunning his coach in heavy traffic over US1 from New England, or the Albany Post Road, or the Sunrise Highway, or the loop over the Pulaski Skyway into the Jersey City mouth of the Holland Tunnel feels responsibility like a small knot between his shoulder blades: the need for quick and certain decisions, the judgment of space and time and the intent of drivers and a small boy heedless on a bicycle.

The pilot of Flight 16 eastbound, crossing the Alleghenies in cloud at 7,000 feet, knows it well. When his tally of instruments — altimeter, clock, air speed, bank and turn, artificial horizon — indicates that he has passed the outer marker, he reports by radio to the company dispatcher at Newark Metropolitan Airport, chief terminus for the New York district. Passengers rub at the bleared windows. But as he nears the inner marker at Martin's Creek, the mist begins to fade apart into soft translucent islands drenched with sun and the voice from the Newark radio control tower comes in with the tone of a man speaking clearly in the same room: "WREE to Western Trip 16, Pilot Johnson. Stuff breaking up fast. You are cleared at 3,000 feet to the range station. You're Number Two airplane."

In the chart-room of a transatlantic liner inbound from Cherbourg to New York, 200 miles off Fire Island in a pea-soup fog, the blasts of the automatic ship's siren at intervals of one minute vibrate amongst the polished metal or enameled instruments: the chronometers, telephone, radio compass, loudspeaker, mercury and aneroid barometers, gyro course-indicator and other devices of the new scientific navigation. The senior watch officer checks his chronometers against time signals from Nauen, Arlington and the Eiffel Tower. A seaman at the radio directional compass slowly swivels the frame of his antenna ring until the note of the Fire Island radio beacon — plangent as a tuning fork, but crisper — is loudest in his headphones. Making a cross-check, the junior watch officer sets down fathometer depth readings on a length of tracing paper in such a way that it can be laid over the chart for comparison with course and position marks.

Immobile in the dark wheelhouse, the helmsman concentrates on the lighted compass before him. No longer must he watch for the telltale flutter of the leech, or nurse his ship in weather seas. In the 330 years between Henry Hudson's Half Moon, steered into the future New York Harbor with a wheel-and-whip staff rig that resembled a four-armed capstan with elongated bars, and the great express ships of the 1930's, already obsolescent in view of operating costs, irreducible vibration and other factors, the helmsman's responsibilities have been shorn away by engineers and technicians. The automatic steering device, or "Iron Mike," has even in part replaced him.

These new helmsmen of land and sea and air are the creatures of demanding time, their senses extended in the antennules of a hundred instruments. So they must necessarily regard the city a little as the gunnery officer does his target; but they too feel its magnetism. It comes to the traveler a great way off, like the intimation of any other dense human engagement. The expectant nerves contract, the mind is sensitized in advance. A familiar visitor, a New Yorker, waits for the sense of the city's resumed envelopment; but the bus passenger coming down over the Boston Post Road from New England watches traffic slow and thicken as the environs towns become larger, draw together, give off the effect of a brisker life. There is a moment in which he asks himself: "Are we in the city yet? Is this New York?" The visitor by rail, if he approaches from the south, may get hardly a glimpse of the towers before he tunnels under the river and coasts to a stop along the platform at Pennsylvania Station. Coming in from the north, he cannot help but be struck by the infinite pueblo of the Bronx.

But to the traveler by air, especially from the north or east, the city appears with the instancy of revelation: the slowly crinkling samite of its rivers and New York Harbor vaporous beyond, the Bronx splayed out and interwoven with the tight dark Hudson Valley foliage, Brooklyn and Queens and Staten Island dispersed in their enormous encampments about the narrow seaward-thrusting rock of Manhattan. Seen thus from above, the pattern of the island suggests a weirdly shaped printer's form. It is as if the lead ruies had been picked out for avenues between the solid lines of type which are buildings. The skyscrapers — those characters too pointed to be equalized by the wooden mallet of the makeup man — prickle up along the lower rim of Central Park, through the midtown section, and most densely at the foot of the island.


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