New York 1900-1950

D.W. Brogan offers a panoramic view of the Big Apple's architecture, society and economic history.

Mulberry Street, on the Lower East Side, circa 1900To a legal purist, New York City as we know it today, was only three years old as the last year of the 19th century ran out. For it was in 1897 that 'greater New York' was constituted and given a federal type of government. It was a system of five boroughs, the two old centres of Manhattan and Brooklyn, the new suburbs of Queens (on Long Island side by side with Brooklyn), Richmond on Staten Island down the Bay and the Bronx, then a vague hinterland stretching northward from the Harlem River. The municipal structure is much the same today, but Manhattan has lost its old pre-eminence; Brooklyn and the Bronx exceed it in population; some of its traditional industries are leaving it. Its inhabitants curse its noise, its dirt, its winter winds and summer dripping heat; but for them Manhattan is New York, as it is for the rest of the world. And, characteristic point, it is the only American city that boasts of being little. 'Little, Old New York,' like 'Dear, Dirty Dublin,' is a term of endearment that its most harassed inhabitants give it with irritated affection. And so it is with the Manhattan of 1900 that we should begin.

'England is an island': in this phrase the great French historian, Michelet, explained all that most puzzled his fellow-countrymen in the behaviour of the English. Manhattan is an island still, though, like Britain, it is less of an island than it was. The traveller coming to Manhattan in 1900 would have found that of the two great arms of the sea and the river, the North River (the Hudson) was not bridged at all and the other, the East River, the arm of Long Island Sound running up the east side of Manhattan, was only bridged in one place – by that new wonder of the world, the Brooklyn Bridge, opened to an awe-struck public in 1883. Then, for the first time, were Manhattan and Brooklyn linked, and now tunnels and more bridges make the crossing of the frontier very easy indeed. Yet, a sign that even in America not everything changes, it is still a frontier. There are plenty of Manhattanites (or, as they would say, New Yorkers) who have never been in Brooklyn; and though most citizens of Brooklyn have been in Manhattan, it is rather in the spirit of a solid British tourist paying an obligatory visit to sinful Paris than in the easier, more uncritical way that a South Londoner crosses the Thames.

At first sight, this is strange. Brooklyn has its skyscrapers; its colleges, museums; it has the St. George Hotel, the biggest in the five boroughs; it has its admirable daily newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle once edited by the greatest poet of Manhattan, Walt Whitman. But in Manhattan are the theatres, the City Hall, the federal courts, as well as other temptations to the dwellers across the river. Yet the two communities are very different and it will take more than bridges or tunnels to unite them.

In 1900, one could account for the difference by insisting that Brooklyn was the “city of homes”, while it was notorious that in Manhattan, as in Paris, the very word was unknown. Brooklyn was also the 'city of churches'. It was only a few years since the great Henry Ward Beecher had been its leading citizen. In 1900, the solid citizen of Brooklyn, with his own house, his sober way of life, could reasonably look down on Manhattan with its mixture of millionaires’ palaces and some of the worst slums in the world. He could look down, too, on a city that openly defied the Puritan folkways with saloons open on Sundays and vice, gilded and raw, in rough equilibrium with the demand – a demand fed, a fair-minded Brooklynite would admit, by inhabitants of every city in the United States except Brooklyn.

For Manhattan was, in 1900 as it is today, the undisputed amusement capital of the United States. Its legitimate theatres, vaudeville theatres, restaurants, hotels, were the reluctant pride of the whole United States, except for remote, aloof and self-satisfied San Francisco. If good Americans, when they died, went to Paris, while they lived they came to Manhattan and, then as now, the tourist traffic was one of the great economic resources of the island. But there is a big difference today between the weight of various types of amusement and the role of New York in the world.

In the first place, the theatre, the opera and vaudeville were all flourishing in other American cities in 1900; the death by a thousand cuts imposed by the movies had not yet come upon them. Now they are mere outposts of New York or Hollywood, taking the goods these rivals condescend to provide. Today, not only the United States are tributary to Manhattan and Hollywood, but the whole world. In 1900, the heart of old New York, then round 14th Street, was vaguely heard of outside America. Now the new amusement centre round 42nd Street (though moving fast to the 50’s) is known, by sight and sound, all over the world. Its focus, Times Square (where Broadway crosses 42nd Street) is the world’s best known piece of urban scenery. For if Hollywood makes the movies, the favourite locale is New York. New York, in 1950, is still Manhattan, but a Manhattan known to most of the human race. What were the prints and photographs and magic-lantern slides and the first primitive films of 1900 to the daily exposure of Manhattan to tens of millions of eyes? Besides, the Manhattan that could be seen in 1900 was hardly in anything but its site like the Manhattan that we see today. The skyscraper had not yet arrived.

If you look at prints and photographs of Manhattan, say, in 1830 and in 1900, there are changes but not fundamental changes. Buildings are higher, but they do not dwarf the old buildings completely, and they are on a scale that, for three thousand years, had been regarded as human. But the great pioneer, Louis Sullivan had broken bounds and built his first skyscrapers, notably in Chicago, and within a few years, the New York we know had materialized. Since 1910, there has been a great increase in the number and, to some extent, in the styles of skyscrapers. They are no longer all clustered at the Battery, round Wall Street and the bottom of Broadway, though the famous sky-line is still there, making roughly the same impression today as it did on H. G. Wells, forty years ago. The “Flatiron” building, which was followed just before the First World War by the Woolworth building, the “Cathedral of Commerce”, with its incongruous Gothic decoration soaring up into the clear New York sky, does not differ very much from the Bank of the Manhattan Company in Wall Street, from the Chrysler building, even from Rockefeller Center and the Empire State. What is new is the multiplication of the skyscrapers, so that Wall Street and Rector Street and Lower Broadway are canyons in which Trinity Church and City Hall are dwarfed to toylike size, and even the new Custom House, built since 1900, resembles a ten-year-old toddling beside a six-foot adult.

The Woolworth Building, built in 1913
The Woolworth Building, built in 1913

Skyscrapers are not confined to Manhattan. Brooklyn has a good many, and there are more up in the once remote Bronx, great building aggregates like the hospitals. But the skyscraper is still mainly a feature of Manhattan, and the new United Nations building is merely an example of the adjustment of man to the limitations imposed on him by his decision to live on the narrow, rocky, tide-washed island.

Why did he so decide? Because in New York were the natural facilities for a great port, which has been for a good many years now much the biggest in the world. There is the island with its deep rivers round it, at the top of a naturally sheltered bay. Anyone could see that this was destined to be the great American port. But, in fact, not everybody did. Not until first the Erie Canal, and then the railways had taken advantage of the only route to the Great Lakes and the West that did not mean climbing or piercing mountains, was New York’s predominance assured. By 1900, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Charleston, all possible rivals had been outclassed. New York was and is above all a port.

But it is a different port in many ways from the port of 1900. At that time New York was a great exporter of raw materials and food and a great importer of human beings. The new Statue of Liberty, with its inscription welcoming all the homeless of the earth, had no ironical flavour then. The homeless came; in hundreds of thousands every year, in millions in some years. Today the immigrant traffic has dwindled to a trickle. Ellis Island is far too big for its business and though New York is still incredibly polyglot, the native New Yorker is no longer a curiosity. The exports now are not food and raw materials, but machines and steel. Through New York, the new workshop of the world showers riches upon mankind.

But if the tide of Euopean immigration was dammed by law after the first world war, there was another tide that could not be halted. There had, of course, always been plenty of immigration into New York from the hinterland, plenty of farm boys bored with life down on the farm, plenty of girls bored with domestic chores and dreaming of success on the stage, in the great department stores, or in the novel and exciting careers of stenography and “secretarial science”, as the typing schools put it. But the new immigrants were escaping from another servitude. It was in the twentieth century, and especially after 1919, that New York became the Mecca of American Negroes, and Harlem the city of refuge, both for the more energetic and talented and for the more shiftless and rootless. At no time can Harlem have suggested the grave and handsome Haarlem of Holland, the home town of Frans Hals. But it was into the big, once prosperous houses of Harlem that the Negroes crowded; from 125th Street north to the Harlem river, that cuts off Manhattan from the mainland, whites left and Negroes arrived. But far fewer whites left than Negroes moved in. From the beginning black Harlem was over-crowded and it still is. The older colonies of New York Negroes had their chief centre in Brooklyn, where congestion was not inevitable as it was on Manhattan, but Brooklyn was soon outstripped by the hundreds of thousands of Negroes who made their new way of life in Harlem. And, in more recent years, these immigrants from the South have been reinforced by immigrants from Puerto Rico, many of them white, but far less equipped for city life than even the rural Negroes. In the worst slum areas of Harlem, it is Spanish that you hear, not the amiable soft speech of the Deep South. And it is that area, understandably enough, which sent to Congress Vito Marcantonio who, refusing to be classified as a Communist, yet always voted the party line. It was not only the Negroes who were herded into slums. The economic forces that made it worthwhile to build the skyscrapers, made it highly unprofitable to house the poor decently. So, on the edges of the most splendid sections, were slums as bad as anything in Glasgow; indeed, when the baby-killing power of the New York summer is allowed for, these lightless, jammed “old law tenements” were probably worse. It was no wonder that the Bowery became a byword or that the Five Points produced generations of gangs if It was easy to pass laws prohibiting the erection of any more tenements of this kind; but that still left the housing of the poor a problem beyond normal treatment. Coming back to New York today – Brooklyn, the Bronx as well as Manhattan – the visitor would find nothing more novel than the great housing settlements subsidized by the Federal Government and by the city that are more and more replacing the old slums. They are skyscrapers, at any rate on Manhattan; some town planners think it is a mistaken policy to encourage poor people to live on the crowded island; but these towering constructions are heaven for their inhabitants compared to what they have known, and their heavenly character is more obvious in Harlem even than on the lower East Side.

This is not the only change in New York’s housing habits. In 1900, Fifth Avenue was still the home of millionaires. Along the avenue stood the town palaces of the great magnates. Each millionaire wanted to outshine the other. The result was a chaos of incongruous designs, remarkably inappropriate versions of the chateaux of the Loire being the favourites. Now hardly any of these shortlived monstrosities survives, and none is used as a dwelling place.

Equally on the downgrade is the typical New York middle-class house, the “brown-stone”. It is the type of house illustrated in Life with Father – high, narrow, with a bridge passing over the area. But fewer and fewer people want to run houses of that kind today; so, pending their destruction, they survive as cheap flats or boarding houses. Thus, within a few hundred yards of the Grand Central Station, in East 39th Street, you can see a few of these survivors of a more leisured age, hemmed in by offices, dubs, hotels. And there are a few still surviving round Washington Square to recall the New York of Henry James.

This transformation was made possible by a dramatic change in New York’s transport system. Its first subway is under fifty years old (1904). Its first tunnels under the Hudson date from just before the first war; its first, and so far, only bridge over the Hudson from after the second (1931). Subways pushed out on to Long Island and on the mainland. The “EL” (elevated railway) rattled along. Brooklyn spread and so did its neighbours, helped by the extension of what its customers boast is the worst suburban railroad in the world, the Long Island. And the ending of Manhattan’s isolation was marked by the building of the two great stations, Grand Central and Penn Station.

Grand Central Station

As Manhattan grew less residential, it grew more splendid. The new hotels shot up into the sky for a few brief years till they were pulled down. Only the other day, went the Murray Hill, as reminiscent of Henry James and Edith Wharton as Brown’s or the Meurice The Astor still holds out above the din of Times Square, but it is on Park Avenue, built over the railroad tracks leading to Grand Central, that the modern American hotel and apartment house reach their most magnificent flowering. Another cluster of hostelries can be found round Central Park, that oasis now nearly a century old, that for long provided Manhattan with almost its only greenery. In more recent years, a very determined attempt has been made to turn odd lots into little parte, to plant trees where the hardier ones at least can grow, and to make of the island less of an “asphalt jungle.” Of course, in the other boroughs there is plenty of space for magnificent parks. In the Bronx is the great zoo; in Brooklyn the finest collection of cemeteries in the world, outside Los Angeles.

If the hotel and amusement industries still flourish, not so much can be said for two other New York standbys. The single biggest New York business is “the garment industry”. More New Yorkers work in the “needle trades” than in any other business. Originally almost all were Jews; the rank and file is now largely Italian. And in their sacred quarters, the narrow streets are still packed with trollies loaded with garments, and shadowed by the skyscrapers, the “loft buildings”, where the garments are made. But it is an expensive business to make clothes where every square foot of floor space costs a fortune and where the labour force is so thoroughly unionized and knows its rights so well. Thus there is a drift of the industry away from New York, to Connecticut, to mid-western St. Louis, to Texas even. New York is still the place where the American woman is dressed; but perhaps Manhattan is slipping.

Much the same might be said of another great New York industry, banking and finance. For Wall Street (which, of course, means much more than that short street), the grand climacteric was October, 1929, the collapse of the great bull market. Ever since that day, the final decisions on the most important points of banking policy have mqre and more been made in Washington, by the Federal Reserve Board, by the Treasury rather than at “23 Wall,” the office of J. P. Morgan & Co. Even apart from government control, the prodigious growth of the great corporations, Ford, General Motors, General Electric, E.I. Du Pont de Nemours has cut down the role of the banker promoter, and given autonomy to the headquarters of the great corporations in Detroit or Wilmington.

But if the greatest days of Fifth Avenue and Wall Street as centres of power and glory are over, some of the splendour brought by the magnates or, if you prefer, robber barons, remains. To them the Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum, the Frick Museum and the Museum of modern Art, owe their treasures; thanks to them a Catalonian monastery has been transported in bulk and erected on the heights above the Hudson. The Metropolitan Opera and the other musical attractions of New York, on the other hand, are less indebted to the patronage of millionaires. Taxation has made the profession of Maecenas very expensive, even in America. The great days of “the diamond horseshoe” at the Metropolitan are over and nearly everybody who goes to the Opera or to a symphony concert, now goes to hear the music.

There is one last aspect of New York that the returning visitor would note. In 1900, churches were the dominating feature of the New York landscape. Even on Manhattan, St. Patrick’s cathedral on Fifth Avenue was one of the biggest buildings. Now it lies in the shadow of Rockefeller Center, the greatest agglomeration of buildings in the world, almost as dwarfed as Trinity or St. Paul’s down town. Up on Momingside Heights, is the vast unfinished Episcopal cathedral of St. John the Divine; nearby is another great Gothic church built by John D. Rockefeller II for Harry Emerson Foslick. There are great synagogues as well as great churches; but Manhattan is not a city where ecclesiastical edifices are among the most striking or agreeable memories.

Nor is it one where educational buildings leave an impression of charm. The oldest institution for the higher learning, once King’s College named after King George II, now Columbia University, is one of the largest, richest and greatest universities in the world, but it is not a nest of dreaming spires. There is fairly good Gothic in the numerous other colleges and universities; there are some magnificent modern high schools. But no more than the modern Sorbonne, does the educational plant of New York delight the eye.

What does charm the eye, or astound it, is the sight of modern New York from any point of vantage in New Jersey, on the mainland, and from the air as the plane circles over La Guardia or Idlewild. From Manhattan, moreover, you can look across the Hudson to the Palisades on tie New Jersey side and, from some points of vantage, you can see the great Pulaski Skyway, the steel motor-road flung over the marshes like a dream of H. G. Wells. That did not exist in 1900; it is hard to believe that it exists now.

But the real and permanent note of New York is struck by the mile after mile of piers jutting out into the rivers. There, at 14th Street, was the old Cunard pier, now moved uptown. From the windows of the new blocks of apartments round Washington Square, the great ships as they glide past seem almost within touching distance – the Queens, the Ile de France, the Nieuw Amsterdam, the Liberté (ci-devant Europa); and, at one time, the magnificent Normandie, since burned and wrecked in the Hudson. Nowhere else in the world are there so many great ships. And this is as it should be for the world’s greatest port, where Verrazano, Florentine servant of Francis I of France, was the first white man to set eyes upon the island of Manhattan.