A Plea for New York
MR. HOWELLS once started a question that went the rounds of the newspapers : “ Why should any one love New York ? ” Some answered, with a sigh, that there was indeed no good reason why any one should do so. Others bristled up to the defense of the unconscious metropolis, and succeeded in showing, not why any one should, but the fact that they themselves did love with a rare and surpassing devotion the city that affords them sensation and their daily bread. It is clear that the question, in the answers it elicited, did not escape altogether the harassments derived from a political bias. The anxious mugwump, gazing from his high tower upon the indifference of those who ought to be interested in the city’s welfare, would fain find a cause in the city itself for their distressing lack of attention to his familiar exhortations ; the striped Tammany man, oh the other hand, is profoundly convinced of the moral and material greatness of the community in which he is so prominent a figure; while Republicans are prone to believe New York wicked by reason of its steadily Democratic majorities. Considerations such as these serve only to obscure the issue, and must be rigidly abjured if we would address ourselves to the preservation of an impartial mind.
In beginning our examination of Mr. Howells’s question, it will not greatly affect most of us to hear it said that the question itself is, in a certain sense, an idle one. In the same sense are all questions idle that do not bear directly upon a practical end. It is by reason of the light it throws on the way, of the consciousness that it awakens in other directions, that such a question is valuable. Most of us like or dislike New York. A large majority of us who live there have to put up with it, whether we like it or not. We shall perhaps not like our individual lots the better for knowing that there are good grounds for believing in and loving the community within which those lots are cast. But if we know (and such a question is a help to our finding out) that the conditions under which we live, and the society of which we form a part, are not so much inferior to those obtaining elsewhere, then we have made a step toward contentment ; and that step is usually one in the direction of increasing the usefulness of our lives to ourselves and others. A question that stimulates, even indirectly, such a result is not to be called an idle one.
It may be maintained that we love a place chiefly for two things : first for the associations it brings us, and then for the present interests it affords. Besides these, we may be in love with its external beauty; but few cities of our modern, overcrowded, industrial type are beautiful externally. At most there are some beautiful spots in them, best rendered by the etcher’s point, so minute and delicate is the treatment they demand ; and even these derive how much of their charm from association ! For instance, Washington Square is almost beautiful to the present writer; but he cannot be certain it would so appear were he to chance upon it in a foreign city. There was nothing remarkable there architecturally — nothing above what might be called distinguishing in its old-fashioned respectability — until they built the Arch and the Judson Memorial Church; and of the effect produced by these, it must be said that it is already impaired, and is threatened with extinction, by the inroads of an advancing commercialism from the side of Broadway. If the bronze bust of Alexander Holley is fine, the statue of Garibaldi is decidedly queer. These are not the things that give to the old part its fascination, in his eyes ; rather, certain vague and shadowy recollections of childhood, together with an intellectual connection, formed later on, between its green, shabby precincts and a whole class of city lives with the glamour of Bohemianism upon them beating backward and forward about its boundaries. These are the associations of the place ; and associations do not need to be historical, in order to lend a place character and to give it a certain kind of beauty.
In such associations New York is rich; even in the historical association that clings to men and events, rather than to phases of social development, it is not poor. The difficulty is that so many of its inhabitants — the larger half — have lived there too short a time to feel the value of such association. It has been said by a witty traveler that long search for an old New Yorker discovered him at last in the person of a corner policeman, who brought to the discharge of his official duties a composure that distinguished him from the bustling throng of money-makers. Assuming the story to be true, — although we should not have thought of going to the police force for a specimen of the native New Yorker, — this man, if he passed his childhood in Greenwich Village, or even in a Mulberry Street tenement, when there was still room in the “ yard ” for a row of green cabbages, and the families took pride in their “ garden,” is in a better position to judge of local associations than are most of our critics.
The geographical position of New York, on a long slip of land between the waters, explains much about the city. It explains the crowded slums of the lower end of the peninsula, now creeping threateningly along the river banks, until already half the island is covered with them. It explains the hideous elevated railways, made necessary by the daily rush of people going in the same direction at the same time. It does not explain why New York, with water washing both its shores, is not a clean city; that is another chapter. But it explains why, in spite of carelessness in destroying old landmarks, associations are thicker than ghosts in a churchyard. The ghosts of nationalities have passed over it, and are passing. Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, and negroes have occupied in succession the same quarter, and each racial wave has swept on its way “ up town,” leaving behind it an odor not always of sanctity. Poor
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes! ”
as Shelley says of the dead autumn leaves driven before the west wind, — is the souvenir of these to be forgotten, and are the associations connected with their coming too vile to dignify and adorn the city that gave them a refuge ? Castle Garden! What associations, painful, palpitating with hope and fear, its name must call up to many a prosperous citizen of to-day ! What second building in the world, scarce excepting the Roman Coliseum, has witnessed scenes so touching, so dramatic ? Such a scene, for instance, as the following, of which I remember reading in the newspaper. A young Englishman had come there to meet his two children, whom he had delayed sending for until his position in the new country was assured. With them came their mother, a poor, forlorn little woman, who seemed to have no interest in life apart from this girl and boy. But she had not been sent for, and her husband refused to receive her. Some one had written him that she had proved an unfaithful wife. In vain she protested her innocence; in vain the children pleaded to have her stay with them, urging pathetically upon their father how good mamma had been to them. The man was obdurate, and the woman, desisting at last from her entreaties, bade the children go with their father. Such is the wonderful strength of weakness ! The woman found herself without a friend, in a country unknown to her. On the threshold of so blank a future the newspaper account left her standing.
Hundreds of episodes as poignant as this have been enacted within the walls of the old Garden, where Jenny Lind once sang to the “ wealth and fashion ” of New York, and where now the fishes swim and the sea anemones bloom, not alone for the wealth and fashion, but for all the people of the city, — among them many, no doubt, to whom the place brings up memories of other days and different scenes.
In the meantime they are not all ghosts, it may be objected ; they are with us still, these fateful foreigners that have trailed their sad procession through this romantic Castle Garden. Yes, they are ghosts only in their relations to one another, passing and flitting one before the other from neighborhood to neighborhood, as a fresh wave of alien population sweeps up from the Battery. But the city holds them all, —real creatures of flesh and blood, who contribute according to their strength to her prosperity. Perhaps she is not the better for them all. Yet am sure that her life is incomparably the richer for their presence here. In the case of the Irish and the Germans, their roots have struck deep into the soil; what the city might have become without them it were idle to guess. They cannot be absolved from their share of responsibility for the evils that have grown upon us. In particular, the Irish have written a chapter of corruption and misrule upon the city’s records. In other cities, it is only fair to say, native Americans have done the same. But in New York the Irishman’s superiority in the domain of ward politics has been unquestioningly accepted by the other nationalities, and the fabric that has arisen is his own handiwork. Beauty and refinement have not entered very largely into its composition ; where is the political machine that can show us beauty and refinement ? But before condemning it utterly let us remember one essential fact, which, if not in its present favor, at least holds out a hope for the future, — namely, that it springs from the people. New York is governed to-day, not by the wealthy, the intelligent, or the specially fit, — in a word, by those persons constituting in every community the privileged class, — but by persons from the lower ranks of her citizens. Representatives of the poor they are not; it is much that they are not representatives of the rich.
Apart from the peculiar sphere of politics, Irish influence in New York — the Irish note in her cosmopolitan symphony — has always been marked and insistent. The popular pastimes get their dominant characteristics from the Irish, although they have submitted to modifications from the German. Irish wit and easy - going Irish nonchalance are responsible for a great deal of the picturesque incident of our daily lives. The popular songs are chiefly Irish, and some of them are admirable in the plain grasp they have upon the essentials in words and music. Listen to little Annie Rooney’s accepted suitor : —
She ’s my sweetheart, I ’m her beau,”
These words have a universal application ; simple as they are, they are not to be surpassed (I mean, of course, in a popular song, wedded to music) in the vivid sense of personal relationship conveyed. It is impossible to listen and not feel the heart of the people beating beneath them. Or take some of the Harrigan songs, — Danny by my Side, Maggie Murphy’s Home, The Knights of the Mystic Star. Danny and his girl go walking every Sunday afternoon, with a host of other lovers, on Brooklyn Bridge : —
Watching the silvery tide ;
Dressed in my best,
Each day of rest,
With Danny by my side.”
These songs illustrate some phase of existence in the metropolis, and have a local life. It would be easy to multiply examples of the social influence of the Irish, were it not patent to all. The Irish are preëminently a sociable race, and where so many are gathered together as in New York, we should not expect the community to escape the contagion of their example. Their political ascendency has aided in stamping upon the city, in its external aspects, some of the less engaging qualities of the race. Improvidence and lack of consequence seem only less marked in the Irishman than in the negro, and New York thoroughfares, police courts, and public institutions yield abundant evidence of the fact.
These are some of the earmarks of the Irish in New York. Most of the nationalities have not yet been here long enough to leave earmarks, and their value as elements in her interestingness, if one may be allowed the word, is as yet chiefly picturesque. No one will be inclined to dispute their services in this regard who has seen what used to be “ the Bend ” in Mulberry Street, on a fine afternoon, the bright colors of its Neapolitan population all astir in the sunlight; or who has walked through the Pig Market in Hester Street, on a Saturday night. The quality of such a locality that strikes the modern observer most is, fortunately, not the picturesque one. The world, with the possible exception of fin-de-siècle Frenchmen, is growing too humane to feel first for beauty, where there is a question of human degradation and misery. Yet it is of no use, on this account, to deny the picturesque; and the true artist may accept it gratefully, even gladly, not as a compensation for the misery it covers, but as one testimony the more to that visible beauty of the universe which lingers still after man has done his worst in abasement of his fellow and himself.
One scene impressed me strangely, when I saw it first. I had been walking through the Italian quarter, where the light - hearted, careless inhabitants, gathered about the street stands piled high with red peppers and gayly colored merchandise, were lingering to chatter in the new-found enjoyment of the April sunshine, when, turning a sudden corner, I found myself in Mott Street. Here the Chinese, sombre-clothed and sullen, stood silent in their doorways. The place was so quiet as to seem deserted, but for these silent figures. It was like a scene from the last act of The Flying Dutchman, where the jovial sailors are disturbed in their revelry by the sudden appearance of the uncanny seamen of the phantom ship. These unaccountable Chinamen ! Like an enigma they stand in the middle of our Western civilization, and no man can read them. The Italians — “ dagos ” and “guineas,” the northern races prefer to call them — have come into possession of nearly all the fruit stands in New York, and their little boys are our bootblacks. This means for New York a gain in picturesqueness, and little corresponding disadvantage anywhere. The Italians in New York do not live a life of prolonged basking in the sunshine, whatever may be their custom at home on the vineyard-clad hills of provincia di Napoli; they work for their living, and it will not be long before they too have imprinted their earmarks upon the city.
How is it with the sturdy Teuton ? If he has been left until so late in the story, it has not been because we had forgotten him. The figure of the Irishman himself is not more familiar to the patient New Yorker. (Will the typical gentleman on the police force kindly consent to do duty again ?) The Teuton has brought us much that we cannot dispense with. He has brought us the love of music, — it is a matter of doubt whether we really cared for it (as a nation, I mean) before he came, — and for this one gift he ought to be held in immortal honor amongst us. But this need not blind us to the fact, as it seems to be, concerning the social influence of the German in New York, —that it is, when one considers the force in which he is here, remarkably slight. Not that it is so surprising, after all. For the German is an impressionable animal, and has a wonderful habit of adapting himself to circumstances, — putting on the fashion of the place. So, when he has gone into polities and become an alderman, he has borne a very faithful resemblance to an Irish city father; and when he has gone into business, he has laid aside his steady Teutonic habits, and developed a degree of shrewdness and what is called “ business head ” that compares not unfavorably with the Yankee original. In the meantime he has retained his deeper characteristics, and it is a pleasant reflection that they are at work upon the generations destined further to modify the national character. The German is playing for the long run. If the future is to belong to him, his graceful acquiescence in the present ought to reconcile us to his coming domination. He is a most courteous conqueror, never insisting upon his national holidays, as do almost all the other nationalities in New York, but content to regard St. Patrick and Uncle Sam as twin divinities. For all the years he has been in New York, the city has only to show, in its external features, a crop of “ summer gardens,” — rather dilapidated bowers, where the national taste for nature and the national taste for beer receive a gratification by no means proportionate. It has a permanent German theatre and an intermittent German opera : and with these the stock of things German — unless we include the imported beers — must be brought to an abrupt close. Mind, we said external things. Of course it has German thrift, and the magnificent product; German stability and German erudition (just enough of it to boast of). But in its character and aspects the city is entirely un-German, and the spirit of its people is quite the reverse of the tranquil and imaginative Geist that possesses the populace in the towns and cities of the Fatherland.
Should an apology be deemed necessary for the attention here bestowed upon the foreign element in New York, let it be found in the statement that the charm of nationality is subtle and pervading. One reason, it cannot be doubted, why Europe is so fascinating to Americans lies in the close juxtaposition of nationalities there : you have only to travel a few miles to find yourself amid different surroundings, in which men and customs are also different; in traveling these few miles you have left one civilization for another. In our country it is possible to travel for hundreds of miles without shifting the ideal. There is no need to deny an interest to the facts one will observe, — symptoms they are of a passion for progress that will one day turn in a direction less prosaic, — but it is idle to pretend that, for the moment, the interest they excite compares with that felt in the problems of race and mind suggested by the brushing of one civilization against another. New York, in this regard, enjoys some of the advantages of Europe ; her experience of nationalities is already deep and varied. This, surely, may count as a large element among the “ present interests ” the city has to offer those of her citizens who will see.
What are these interests, — the rest of them ? Matthew Arnold, we know, makes the test of a civilization’s success the answer to the question, “Is it interesting ? ” Whether the justice of such a test be admitted or not, we shall probably all agree that the response a place makes has a good deal to do with our liking or disliking it. “ What are the interests of New York ? ” we can hear the average citizen repeating. “ Why, they are too numerous to mention.” And the average citizen is not far wrong. He is not much troubled with civic pride, the average citizen of New York, and he does not, in general, feel it necessary to boast about the town ; that is big enough to take care of itself. He has the provincialism common to the denizens of all great cities, to whom what goes on in the world outside the city walls is of far less consequence than what occurs within. This is provincialism, of course, because it sets a higher value upon the interests of a part than upon those of the whole ; but if that part is the centre, there is a greater chance of its interests coinciding with those of the whole, and the provincialism is not without an excuse, which it usually lacks. Now, New York is still — be it said gently, and with due regard for the tender susceptibilities of sister cities — the centre,1 the intellectual and social no less than the commercial centre, of the United States. Chicago may be destined to take the place, but the change will not occur, as so many of the inhabitants of the Western city seem to think, upon the day when she surpasses New York upon the population lists. Chicago, it may be admitted, is in some respects even more representative of the American spirit of progress than is New York, but she requires time in which to grow a tradition capable of attracting to her the finest flower of the national life ; as yet she is too much the creature of chance, the product of forces gigantic but blind. Boston has succeeded in creating for herself an atmosphere of culture superior to that in which New York swelters; and she enjoys to some degree the aspects of an independent capital. Philadelphia, on the other hand, while more American than either Boston or New York, seems never to have parted with the colonial stamp, and consequently fails to impress one as a capital at all. Neither city occupies in the public eye the position ascribed to New York. To enumerate but a very few of the many indications of this, it is only necessary to refer to the fact that about one half of the news, not local, published in the lesser newspapers of the country is under date of New York; further, to the well-known habit of men who have made fortunes in other parts of the country of coming to New York to spend or increase them ; again, to the generally accepted belief that any problem in letters, art, or social economics solved in New York — a new play produced successfully, or a measure of reform carried — is solved as well for the country at large; and lastly, to the interest in the city and its social conditions manifested by people everywhere, one class displaying as much anxiety to see the Bowery as another to behold for themselves the magnificence of Fifth Avenue.
If, then, it be true that we of New York live at the centre of a civilization, no matter how crude and undeveloped in some respects we may be willing to admit it to be, can we escape the admission of a considerable degree of superficiality in ourselves, if we assert that for us it is lacking in interests ? It is possible, of course, to find ourselves out of sympathy with its tendencies ; it is possible to lament the lack of coherency in its plan, to complain of the lack of symmetry that permits such glaring inconsistencies in its social and physical structure, although we should not omit to consider our own share in its building ; but it is scarcely possible to deny to it an uncommon measure of the interest that attaches to growth. New York is vast, confused, incomplete. There is a struggle for expression going on in all its parts at once, but they are separated one from another, and a common denominator is missing. The soul of man yearns for unity in an organism, and in this respect New York must long remain unsatisfactory. But in the meanwhile all who care for progress cannot well refuse the city their interest.
Will they, at the same time, accord it their affection ? It is natural for men to love the place where their labor is being accomplished, their duty done, although it is also a little natural for them to growl at it sometimes. If it be true that the children and foster children of New York form an exception to a rule so universal, the reason for it ought to be nearly as obvious as the fact. I do not think that either is very obvious ; but admitting the fact, for the sake of argument, what can the reason be ? It will hardly be enough to say, as used to be said, that the average dweller in New York looks upon the city as a transient stopping place, convenient for the acquisition of a fortune or a competence, as the case may be, but not to be regarded in the light of a permanent home. That must be true now of only a small portion of the population. To be sure, many wander from house to house, hardly giving themselves time to identify with home the aspect of any particular house or set of apartments ; yet the Irishman’s question, delivered pathetically to the other occupants of an elevated-railway car in which he had been standing, supported by a strap, from the Battery to Harlem, — “ Hev yez none o’yez homes ? ” — must be answered, for a sufficiently large number of us, in the affirmative. “ Yes, you have homes, some of you,” perhaps some hyperæsthetic critic will be found to reply ; “ but they are so painfully deficient in individuality and in distinction, these homes of yours. And that is why I cannot care for your city, because it lacks these things, and because it is lacking besides in the charm of a quality best described by the French word intimité, — a quality that is subjective and personal as well as possessed of an objective side. Without this I can respect your achievement, but it is impossible for me to give you my affection.”
There is quite certainly a distressing want of individuality about our long, straight streets, lined with ugly “ brownstone fronts ” or gaunt tenements, according as one is in the rich or in the poor quarter of the town ; they have forfeited even the privilege of a name. But one is not so sure that this lack of individuality in the parts does not in itself secure a kind of individuality for the whole. At least, this is only an outward and physical peculiarity, and one that our architects, with something very near to genius, are conspiring every day to overturn. As for distinction, — most assuredly we lack distinction ; it is a national defect. But distinction comes of itself, or does not come, and he who makes its acquisition the object of his ambition is apt to earn the solitary distinction of turning out an unconscionable prig. We are too frank, too ingenuous (except when we go abroad), to deserve to be called prigs ; and for the present we should seek consolation for the absence of distinction in our possession of the good sense that prevents us from going in search of it. Nor is it only that we as a city lack individuality and distinction, but we lack also, it seems, a subtle something that our critic chooses to define as intimité, — meaning, perhaps, the quality that permits one to feel himself at home amid surroundings that speak to his spirit with the force either of a long authority or of a peculiar degree of intensity. Intimacy and cosiness are the terms of subject and object that enter into the definition. The objection is too vague to admit of a reply in exact terms. But perhaps we guard against possible misapprehension in hazarding the remarks that intimacy is perfectly compatible with vastness in a city, and that it is a mistake to assume New York guiltless of a tradition. Intimacy, in our sense, means the parting with a little piece of one’s soul, with which the object of the intimacy becomes endowed. Does no part of the soul of its inhabitants cling about New York ? One can answer for himself, yes ; and he fancies he is not the only one who finds expressed in the city as an entity some part or portion, privately favored, of himself. And in answering thus, has he, whoever he may be, replied to the objections of our critic, to the skepticism of Mr. Howells ? Not in the least. “ De amore nullum argumentum ” might be, if it is not, a Latin proverb. Were he as full of reasons as the sea is of sands, these gentlemen might continue shaking their heads, and refuse to be convinced. Perhaps it will be Mr. Howells’s punishment somewhere to learn to like New York. But why should Mr. Howells be punished ?
In conclusion, perhaps apology should be made for dwelling so long, in the course of our journey through social New York, upon the commoner phases of existence, when the way was open to us, by wandering a little from the highroad, to find that which would enliven and diversify the journey. Fifth Avenue and Wall Street, no less than Hester Street and the Bowery, might have been found to yield perspectives full of the interests that reward life. These things are interesting because they are so many exemplifications of life, — the one thing, with its correlative death, that is permanently interesting. New York, for us of the western world, sums up more of life — holds in solution more of the consecrated element — than any other place; hence is more interesting. Her brow is not stainless : Dishonor sits there with Renown. In this New York is but the prototype of our modern civilization. Let us love her if we can. If we cannot, there is danger lest, lacking soil in which to spread our roots, we end by withering in those higher attributes that bring to bloom in the individual the blossom of the race.
J. K. Paulding.
- If there is a sense in which this statement requires a qualification, it lies herein: that the large foreign population of all our greater cities renders them less representative of the American type of character than the smaller cities and country districts.↩