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.