Revisiting 'New York After Paris'

In 1906, just as today, people loved the American metropolis less for its beauty than its vibrant energy.

A. Loeffler souvenir postcard

In October 1906, Alvin Sanborn's "New York After Paris" gave The Atlantic's readers a comparative portrait of Western civilization's finest two cities. I first stumbled on the article at the most opportune moment, beginning graduate school at New York University and not that far removed from living on the Île Saint-Louis. "To the Parisian who sees New York for the first time," the article posits, "it must appear a wilderness of sprawling ugliness."

And so New York City often appeared to me as I gazed from the scratched-up windows of elevated subway trains that snaked above the blighted lots of semi-industrial Brooklyn. I'd already embraced the palpable energy of New York City, its "aroma of unjaded life, which cannot fail to thrill every man who has a drop of red blood in him." But I couldn't yet gaze upon the New York cityscape and perceive beauty.

For beauty, I had my memories of Paris.

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Over the years, I've reread "New York After Paris" many times. More than a century removed from its publication, part of the pleasure is imagining a New York City that I never saw and can scarcely imagine. At the turn of the 20th Century, the sidewalks were often wooden and wobbly, while the streetscape included "sagging hitching posts," squat stables beside skyscrapers, "rattling, reeking, unpainted horse-cars," and "steam railway tracks where steam railway tracks do not belong." The author was optimistic that "a few of the newest sky-scrapers are designed to be seen from all four sides," evoking images of the backs of the others.

How incredible to imagine Columbia University "in the splendid isolation of its windswept hill," where it "must continue so to appear until it can contrive to conceal its pathetic, almost indecent nakedness by trees, or persuade the city to move up around it." And "Brooklyn, always a desert, has expanded into a limitless desert." This is a New York City that has ceased to be and never will be again.

In contrast, the passages that describe Paris, "the radiant white city by the Seine," render a city that I inhabited: "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."

* * *

If "New York After Paris" stopped at rendering a lost New York City and a familiar Paris, it would give pleasure enough. But its place as one of my favorite articles is owed to the fact that it also captures elements of New York City that haven't changed, so much so that I came to appreciate them during my residence.

For me, New York's beauty made itself visible as my eye adjusted to a new vernacular, much as one appreciates Shakespeare only after acclimating to the language. It took until my first February in the city to appreciate its aesthetic appeal. I recall gazing out the window of an NYU building and noticing, as if for the first time, the twilight silhouettes of water towers on rooftops near and far. "New York's disconcerting sky-scrapers are vastly picturesque, and even grandiose in certain lights," Alvin Sanborn wrote. "On winter afternoons, when the dusk comes early, their myriad lamps afford a spectacle which outclasses in brilliancy the grandest electric displays of the greatest world's fairs. Athwart the moonlit or starlit sky, their soaring masses stand forth black and ominous, like the donjon keeps of colossal castles; and, under these conditions, the lower end of Manhattan, where they most abound, might pass for the Mont St. Michel of the New World."

And then, "in a night of rain, the ruddy reflections of their lights incarnadine the clouds till the entire city appears to be the prey of a monster conflagration," he continued. "Under the slanting glow of the rising or the setting sun their tops take on the gorgeous iridescence of the peaks of Mont Blanc, the Rigi, or the Matterhorn, and one quite forgets, as in the Alps, to be critical of imperfect form. Finally, a fog softens their hard and crude lines into a close approach to cathedral lines, lending them thus a poetic charm, an air of mystery that becomes them well, and that puts them into harmony with one other and with the city as a whole."

The timeless observations go beyond the aesthetic.

"The typical New Yorker is always in such a hopeless hurry to make his fortune that he is impatient of small things in every relation of life," Sanborn observes. "He has no time to eat and drink like a civilized being—witness the barbarous noon-lunch counter and the still more barbarous bar. He has no time for the little courtesies which go to make up manners; for the reading and reflection conducive to culture; for edifying conversation in which no 'promoting' is involved; for discrimination between comely splendor and vulgar display; for the whole-souled expansiveness which is the zest of good-fellowship ... The Londoner is said to take his pleasures sadly. The New Yorker takes his hurriedly, as if—rush is so much second-nature with him—he were anxious to get them off the docket as expeditiously as possible. In short, he has no time to live a well-rounded life. He uses up so much energy in getting together a heap of dollars that he has no energy left for living. And yet he looks down upon the Latin as an inferior, and pronounces him a decadent because he holds that 'work is for life, not life for work.'"

I need hardly dwell on how Paris is still different in this respect, so on to other contrasts observed in 1906. For example, "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." Though the center of America's literary culture, it "has nothing to correspond with the open-air bookstalls along the quays of the Seine, before which thousands of bibliophiles pass their lives browsing among the classics," and whereas in Paris, art and literature are "their own best excuse," the New York writer "would be helpless, probably, against the city's insistent and omnipresent commercialism, if he tried to resist it; but there is very little evidence that he tries... While the New York writer strives thus to hide his penury as if it were a badge of shame, the Paris writer flaunts his as a badge of honor."

(As for New York City's newspapers and magazines, "the man, woman, or child does not exist who can read week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out, such a motley array of totally unrelated facts as the Sunday papers and these magazines provide, without becoming afflicted ultimately with locomotor ataxia of the mind through the gradual loss of the power to coordinate ideas.")

There are more comparisons and digressions, each intriguing in its own way, and all returning to the article's ultimate thesis: that singular Paris, while coherent, polished and wise in ways that New York neither equals nor even approaches, is an established elder; whereas New York City, as an upstart youngster, has the potential to surpasses it, or at the very least appears to by virtue of sheer life force. "It is not to be expected that a new civilization should be as coherent as an old civilization; and it would be surprising, indeed, if New York were either materially, intellectually, or morally as coherent as Paris, which is so thoroughly organic that it has not so much as a vermiform appendix, so to say, to spare," he writes. Positing that "formlessness is a reproach only when it is a finality, the end of a devolution instead of the first stage of an evolution," he suggests that "New York may not plead its youthfulness forever in extenuation of its vagaries, of course; but it may plead its youthfulness legitimately for some time longer."

In the intervening years, New York has cohered in many ways–one wonders what verdict Sanborn would render if walking its streets today–but still feels, will perhaps always feel, more youthful, more variable, and more alive than does Paris, for all that city's glory. For my part, I can only report that having lived in New York, having once acclimated myself to its pace and adjusted my eyes to its own beauty, I prefer it to Paris, if only because I feel able to exist as a part of its lifeblood rather than a tourist standing on cobblestones admiring a bygone moment. That isn't to say that New York is my favorite city, or one where I'd want to make my life. Today, after stints in Paris, Seville, New York, and Washington, D.C., I live in Los Angeles. How do I find it here, after New York City?

That story is still being written.