To the Parisian who sees New York for the first time, it must appear a wilderness of sprawling ugliness. He is shocked rather than dazzled by most of the things with which he is expected to be impressed; and his eyes, nose, and ears are constantly and cruelly assailed by sights, smells, and sounds to which New Yorkers through long familiarity are oblivious. "A big iron bazaar, and dirty beyond belief!" was the verdict of a Frenchman who fled from it in dismay and disgust at the end of twenty-four hours; and while not every Frenchman who arrives in New York takes to his heels in this inglorious fashion, the criticism is fairly typical of the way New York strikes the fastidious Gaul.
To the American returning to New York with a point of view gained by a long residence in Paris the New World metropolis must spell disillusion. The squalid, sagging, lurching wood-and-iron wharf line—the thing above all others he would most willingly have missed—confronts him on his arrival practically unaltered, except that it seems to him, in comparison with the trim and tidy banks of the Havre he has just left, more insufferable than his memory pictured it. Everything else has changed, and changed, it seems to him, for the worse.
Trinity spire and the Produce Exchange tower, which used to refresh his vision down town, are hidden by a score of nondescript sky-scrapers, and the beautiful lines of the Brooklyn Bridge are broken by these same intruders. The exquisite City Hall suffers likewise from their proximity, and will soon be perceived but dimly, like a jewel at the bottom of a well. The Bowery, which was erstwhile gay and piquant with glitter and gaud, has degenerated into sodden commonplaceness. Broadway (from City Hall to Fourteenth Street) has become completely Semitic, without having acquired thereby a scrap of Semitic charm.
The old-fashioned dignity of Washington Square has been irretrievably compromised by a modern corporation building which adds insult to injury by wearing on its façade the Latin motto perstando et prestando utilitati. Furthermore, this insolent structure so dwarfs the Washington Arch as to give it the artificial air of the frosted show-piece of a confectioner's window. Union Square, which could never pretend to have gentility or beauty, but which had, notwithstanding, an agreeable little presence of its own, has been rendered positively uncanny by the erection of a number of lean, spectral horrors. The symmetry of somnolent, unpretentious Stuyvesant Square and the cosiness of Gramercy Park, where "The Players " live, have each been sadly marred. Madison Square, which was long, and with reason, the most loved spot in the city, is now (with its pagan temple bearing Christian symbols, its brown-stone church in a marble pen, and its far-famed Flat-Iron Building) a fit subject for colossal laughter.
Fifth Avenue (below the Park) has lost its restful, if sombre, brown-stone unity by its unconditional surrender to retail trade. The formerly compact "Tenderloin" has been harried into spreading its unsavoriness over an indefinite area. The ancient slovenliness of upper Broadway has been emphasized instead of relieved by the gorgeous caravansaries with which it is dotted.
The limitations of the narrow Park, which used to be rather successfully disguised, are now perpetually in evidence, by reason of the multiplication of soaring apartment houses along its sides.
Venerable Columbia, which forsook, perforce, its sleepy, artistic Madison Avenue quadrangle when it decided to become aggressive, appears callow and crude in the splendid isolation of its windswept hill, and must continue so to appear until it can contrive to conceal its pathetic, almost indecent nakedness by trees, or can persuade the city to move up around it.
The Hall of Fame, which has refused to open its doors to such world-glories as Whitman and Poe, is as unimpressive as this provincial attitude demands.
The Bronx, though happily saved from annihilation by the Park Department, is no longer the ideal and idyllic refuge it was of yore. Long stretches of the Palisades have been quarried out of existence. Brooklyn, always a desert, has expanded into a limitless desert.
In a word, this returned New Yorker finds few familiar landmarks; and the few he does find seem to have lost most of their original meaning. He is as much dazed and puzzled by his surroundings as Rip Van Winkle after his twenty years' sleep. Nobody resides, does business, dines, or drinks in the same places as before. Nobody frequents the same pleasure resorts. Nobody saunters along the same walks. It is not safe for him to make a business or social call, or to set out for a restaurant, a chop-house, a theatre, or a club, without consulting the Directory in advance; and, even so, he risks having his trouble for his pains, inasmuch as there is more than a chance that a move has been made since the Directory was issued.
After he so far recovers from the shock of his initial disenchantment, however, as to be able to take note of details, he finds that there is some balm in Gilead, after all. At the end of a month he begins to catch the spirit of New York; and at the end of six months he has come completely under its spell, and loves it, as Montaigne loved the Paris of his day, "with all its moles and warts." The radiant white city by the Seine still appears to him at intervals, like the memory of a favorite picture or poem; but it has lost the power to disquiet him with desire. Paris is no longer a perpetual obsession,—the absolute norm by which he judges everything he sees. Indeed, it has passed so far out of his life that he is in danger of being as over-lenient in his judgments as he was at the outset over-severe.
He has become callous to dirt, disorder, ugliness, and vandalism. He takes philosophically the wobbly and cavernous sidewalks which render hazardous, especially in wet weather, some of the most attractive promenades; the over-flowing garbage-boxes which pollute for the greater part of the day the approaches to even the most pretentious houses; and the tardy emptying of ash-barrels, with disastrous results to eyes, lungs, and raiment,—abuses which would not be tolerated for a week in the poorest working faubourg of Paris.
He accepts as a part of the divine order of things the presence of bent, battered, decapitated lamp-posts, of sagging hydrants and hitching-posts, of ragged, discolored awnings, of clogged gutters and leaking waterspouts; and the absence of vespasiennes.
It no longer occurs to him to compare the insistent shabbiness of the elevated roads with the sober massiveness of the elevated portions of the Paris Métropolitain and Ceinture; the gruesomeness of the subway stations with the cheeriness of their Parisian counterparts; or the misshapen, rusty, street-front fire-escapes with the graceful Parisian balconies. He is no longer scandalized at beholding a shanty and a palace, a flaming billboard and a public monument, a squat stable and a sky-scraper, side by side. He is no longer annoyed by un-named streets, barn-like ferry stations, rattling, reeking, unpainted horse-cars, and steam railway tracks where steam railway tracks do not belong. He no longer complains of being forced to choose, in the business sections, between a detour into the street and a running high jump over the bales, barrels, and boxes with which the sidewalks are encumbered during the unloading of trucks. And he forgets to be wrathful over the wanton mutilation and and slaughter of precious trees.
More than this. When he has got himself into tune with his surroundings, he discovers a thousand and one reasons for downright joy.
Trolleys have been pretty effectually kept out, except in Brooklyn; and, except in Brooklyn again, most of the telegraph and telephone wires have been put underground. Engineering schemes which reflect credit upon the imagination as well as the ingenuity of the age have been conceived and executed. The streets, however much they still leave to be desired, are, on the whole, better paved, better swept, and better lighted than they used to be; the night views up and down Broadway and Fifth Avenue are superb. Half-way refuges for pedestrians are being gradually introduced into the busiest thoroughfares, and the shape of the electric light mounts has been decidedly improved. A green square has here and there supplanted a slum. The wealth run wild of upper New York ("the new New York") has achieved more than one architectural triumph. St. Patrick's is finished; a colossal new cathedral is being built; and Grace Church, which closes the vista up Broadway from City Hall Square so effectively, has guaranteed itself for a long time to come against being engulfed, like Trinity, by purchasing the property adjacent. The atrocious painted-iron hotels and office-buildings erected a generation back are rapidly being replaced by structures of light-colored brick or stone. At the same time, artistic wrought-iron work is coming rapidly into vogue, particularly for the portals of the more luxurious private dwellings. A few of the newest sky-scrapers are designed to be seen from all four sides, which is certainly an improvement, if they are to be seen at all. Considerable attention has been paid to architectural effect in the more recent municipal buildings, several of which would do honor to any capital in the world.
The glory of Paris, architecturally considered, lies less in the multitude of its beautiful features—though it does undoubtedly possess this advantage—than in the intimate relation these features bear to the whole city and to one another, in the mutual consideration and deference, so to speak, that they display. It is by virtue of its unity and symmetry that Paris is supreme. The beautiful features of New York, on the contrary, turn their backs most impolitely on each other, paying no more attention to symmetry and unity than a woman's watch pays to time. An arch that closes no vista for instance, however admirable an arch it may be, is, in such a position, little better than an architectural joke. A façade that might be grandiose if provided with a fitting approach is merely elephantine without it. A marble masterpiece in a setting of dilapidated tenements is anything but a vision of delight, since it is "matter out of place," and matter out of place—we have the authority of Emerson for it—is but another name for dirt. A jewel in a pig's snout ceases to serve a decorative end, even though it does not cease to be a jewel.
The truth is that New York is in the throes of creation. With infinite travail it is taking on a body adequate to its needs,—a feat Paris long ago accomplished. The operation necessarily involves disagreeable surprises, and the immediate result, viewed in its entirety, is, it must be confessed, much more grotesque than impressive. An orchestral performance in which each and every performer played a different tune could hardly be less prepossessing.