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Fifth Avenue At Four
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The Water Ways
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For Mere Culture
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More Articles About New York City
Index Of Articles About New York City
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
What is so gay as a day in New York, especially if it be in October! The city is perhaps seen at its best during that month. The inhabitants, returned from their summer vacations, have a brightness and an alertness about them, they step along the streets energetically as though in good health and spirits, and they pass the time of day with cordiality, even vivacity. Business enter-prises of the winter have started (or at least one thinks they have though they are going on always); summer changes have perhaps been made; there is apparently a newness and a smartness about the streets and shops and moving wheels.
Above all it is the season of light which may possibly account for some of the smart look of things. The skies are clear, the air is warm, and the sunlight falls perhaps for many days without clouds or rain. It is just ordinary Atlantic Coast sunshine, and dull enough compared with that of the table-lands of Wyoming or the deserts of Arizona or the sierras of Old Mexico; but by contrast with London light London where the sun seen through smoke so often looks like a hot copper cent it is really quite wonderful. New Yorkers have a way of boasting about it as though it were something of their own manufacture (which suggests the inclusive mind); but, nevertheless, it should be put down to their credit that they have tried to preserve it by prohibiting the use of soft coal within the city limits.
Perhaps as a result of the soft-coal prohibition New York is a clean city. Not always clean underfoot. In a democratic city where the streets belong to everyone to use and to no one to keep clean, where men traffic and team and are always in a hurry, it is impossible to prevent accumulations of litter. During the summer months it takes no herculean effort to keep the streets decently swept; but in winter, with much ice and snow, and a limited and unreliable labor supply, the difficulty is greatly increased. London or Paris perhaps does that sort of thing better than New York, because it has better facilities for doing it; but, nevertheless, New York is, all told, the cleaner city. Paris is gray with dust and London grimy with soot, but the buildings of New York are as bright almost as the day they were erected. Look up at the clean walls, windows, and cornices! How newly washed seem the chimneys, towers, and domes! The roofs, when you see them from the upper story of some sky-scraper, have a scrubbed look about them; and even the trees in the larger parks, for all that pipes are harrying their roots and gases their branches, have a brightness quite unknown to the somber growths of Hyde Park or the Champs Elysιes.
And how the color does crop out at every turn is brought out perhaps with some extra sharpness because of the clear light! Everything shows color. And seldom do you find the same tone repeated. The buildings along-side of which run the elevated roads from the Battery to the Harlem River, are often alike in structure but seldom in hue. They differ each from the other by a tone or a shade. Stone, brick, cement, terra-cotta no one could name or count the hundreds or even thousands of different tints or shades they show. To the unobservant the high mass of the Flatiron, the spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral, and Diana's Tower of the Madison Square Garden are alike in hues; but neither in local color nor in texture are they the same. When the straight shafts of sunset are striking them and the light upon them is reflected, the hues may be in one saffron, in another pink, in the third salmon-colored. Just so the morning sun falling upon the tall towers of the Brooklyn Bridge leaves a different stain from that upon the turrets of the Park Row Building or the great glass walls of the Singer Tower.
Everywhere one goes, up or down the city, this prodigality of color shows. Sometimes it appears in large patches like the red mass of the Produce Exchange, the gray mass of the sky-scrapers at Fifty-Fifth Street and Fifth Avenue, or the green mass of the Central Park; but more often the coloring is in spots here and there, and counts only as variation in the prevailing note. For there is a prevailing note, a blend in this riot of hues. It requires distance, however, to see it. Close to view many of the colors in houses, signs, vehicles, costumes, fly at you rabidly, and are perhaps so intense that you turn away with dazed eyes only to see the complementary color in the very next object. Under the bright October sun every hue jumps to its highest pitch and apparently every shadow sinks to its lowest depth. The effect is violent.
But October with its bright light and high color has also its lilac or purple haze that blends all colors into one tone and makes of many pieces a pictorial unity. The haze does not belong exclusively to the woodlands, though in the Central Park it lurks along the driveways, rests upon the Mall, and floods in and out among the trees and rocks and flowers; while beyond Riverside Drive it hangs above the Hudson, shrouding and yet revealing the distant Palisades. It is also to be seen almost any day as one stands at the top of Murray Hill and looks down Fifth Avenue toward Madison Square. It fills the whole lower avenue, surrounds the towers and steeples and cornices, and draws its mauve-hued veiling across the sharp prow of the distant Flatiron, making of that much maligned structure a thing of beauty. It is not different in the streets of the lower city. Neither here nor there does the dust of traffic rising from the streets obliterate or obscure it. On the contrary, the more dust and automobile smoke, the heavier is the atmosphere, and the more perfect the ensemble.
New York is seldom free from a haze or mist of some sort. But it is a very thin veiling compared with that produced by the moisture and smoke of London. So it is that the Londoner within our gates is almost continuously out of focus. He complains of "loud" colors, wonders at the absence of aerial perspective, and thinks it all signifies and symbolizes our crude civilization; whereas, it may merely suggest that he himself has not yet acquired a comprehensive point of view. He is perhaps looking at objects and colors in detail rather than in their relationship. Seen as one should look at a Monet landscape, for instance, the city is a marvel of color and light. That is its distinct and positive beauty. Of course, it is somewhat shocking to keep reiterating this, since we have all been reared in the belief that civic beauty lies in classic buildings, in roof lines, in squares, ovals, statuary, and the like; yet the heretical still insist that beauty may be in such intangible evanescent features as color, light, and air, with arches, columns, and towers little more than the catch points of perspective the objects upon which light and color play.
This lilac or purple haze of October may run through November and December, with day following day of sunshine, and the winter come late to the city. It is not an unusual experience. Yet as January comes in, the nights and days are decidedly colder and the autumn haze has perhaps shifted into a pale blue. The air seems thinner, sharper, more eager; and the tops of the tall buildings lift out of the dust of the street into clearer and brighter regions. All the roof and tower and cupola gew-gaws seem to sparkle in the sun, the drifts of steam from the hotels and high apartment houses are dazzling white, down in the street people in heavy coats hurry by, and cabbies and flunkies in bear-skins sit on their boxes looking preternaturally red in the face.
At times it can be very cold in the city with its touch of the salt sea in the air far colder than in the country, notwithstanding the popular belief to the contrary. The steel buildings, the blocks and blocks of stone, brick, and cement, the flagstone sidewalks, are receivers and retainers of cold rather than of heat. In the forest in winter a wood road will be warmer than the open, but in the city a steel-and-stone street, swept by the wind, may be colder than the wind itself. And how the wind can blow through the city streets! The tall buildings seem to catch it on their upper walls and spill it like a sail down into the thoroughfares, where it moves in violent twists and spirals. The foot-passengers in the neighborhood of the Flatiron sometimes have unpleasant experiences with it; and farther up-town, though Society on the inside of a brougham goes through the Plaza to the Park with unruffled feathers, yet the man on the box has to "hold fast." It is the same story in the lower city. People worry along the streets with their heads down, holding their hats with a firm grip; the peddlers and newsboys creep into the great doorways and stamp their feet; and the big truck horses go by with steaming breath and waving manes.
In freezing weather there can be no water used on the streets, and the dust accompaniment to the high wind can be readily imagined. It sometimes blows in small clouds to the infinite disgust of everyone. There is nothing to do about it except to get indoors and watch, through the windows, the pavement swept smooth in spots .and heaped with eddies of dust in other places. Fortunately such days are few. They are not pleasant no, not even in New York though there may be some consolation in thinking that they occur in other cities (Vienna and Rome, for instance) quite as often as here. It is even charged that Chicago, with its appellation of "the Windy City," goes beyond New York in this respect something which every New Yorker is too modest to deny.
Inevitably comes the snow; and that in a city is always regarded as something of a misfortune. Up in the Central Park and along Riverside Drive it looks very beautiful. The children, the skaters, and the coasters, with those who have horses and sleighs, enjoy it, and people who have offices up aloft in the sky-scrapers and see it flying past the windows in great gusts and clouds are sometimes elated by it; but down in the street where it falls and lodges it is neither inspiring nor welcome. It mingles with the dust, is churned dirty by hoofs and wheels, and, if it melts, soon makes a slush underfoot. The surface cars with their electric brooms push it into the gutters, the "white wings" of the street-cleaning department heap it into huge mounds for carriages and trucks to wallow through and break down again, and carts work at it for days and weeks trying to get it away to the docks and so into the rivers. A week after a heavy snow-fall a dozen or more of the principal streets may be clear, but the side streets have barricades of snow along their curb lines perhaps for a month or more. Nothing but a warm rain and a spring sun clears up the thoroughfares effectively. In the meantime, through January and February and into March, with the alternations of temperature, the snow melts and freezes, making the cross-walks and streets disagreeable and occasionally quite impossible.
And rain! It does not rain every day or every week by any means, but when the wind comes out of the east, the storm clouds are almost always following close upon its heels. Then the signs and weather-vanes and windows of the city creak and rattle in the wind, and the pipes and gutters gurgle with the rain. If it follow cold weather perhaps the rain freezes as it falls, coating with ice the pavements and stoops of the houses, the high sides of the sky-scrapers, the tall masts of the shipping in the rivers. The huge suspension bridges turn into fairy creations of spun glass, the trees in the parks glitter like old-fashioned chandeliers; while down in the streets horses slip and motors slide and the pedestrian has difficulty in keeping his feet. As the rain continues the ice gradually melts, the trolley wheels buzz and sputter electricity, the elevated roads spit long sparks of blue light from the third rail, the carriages go by with a splash, and the rubber-shod, rubber-coated cab horse slowly pounds out a hollow clop-clop, clop-clop, clop-clop.
Perhaps a night and a day and a night the rain falls in waving sheets that slash against the high windows of the office buildings, and break into water-dust against turret and tower. The streets are flooded, the tide-water, driven in by the wind, is up to its highest pitch, the cellars along West Street are drowned out, and every pipe is working overtime in getting rid of the flood. Gradually all the dirty snow of many weeks' accumulation seems to slip from the turtle back of the island and slide toward one or the other of the rivers. The city is washed clean. Before morning the wind shifts into the south, the clouds break; and when the sun comes up perhaps New York awakes to find that spring has arrived overnight.
Spring apparently comes earlier to the city than to the country. The small parks shut in by high buildings, and thus protected in measure from the winds, respond quickly to the first warm sun. Even in the Central Park the grass shows green in the little swales a week before it starts into life up in Westchester, and the stems of the maple put on a ruddy glow some days sooner than over in New Jersey. Around the southern* slopes of the rocks the crocuses and dandelions push up, and in the lowlands pussy willows begin to burst with impatience. Nature turns uneasily in her sleep in the early days of March for all that there may be some patches of snow still lying in the hollows. The bluebirds and song sparrows come back by ones and twos and threes, and the blackbirds and robins in flocks, to add to the sense of stirring life. New York itself seems to emerge as from a bath with a cleaner and fresher aspect.
The cold blue haze of winter is now seldom seen. In its place there is a warm, silver-gray atmosphere that is more apparent, more of an envelope, more of a harmonizer of local hues. It seems to come out of the moist ground, out of the rivers, out of the harbors, and is possibly the residuum of spring mists and dews. The days of March and April are not wanting in sunshine, yet they also bring gray clouds and falling rain. The rain is welcomed in the parks, along the driveways, and in the less cleanly portions of the city. And it is interesting to watch as it falls into the streets, or is seen in bright diagonal lines against the tall buildings, or splashes into the rivers and makes a bubbling surface, or hangs like a fringed mantle over the Palisades, over Brooklyn Heights, over the hills of Staten Island. How very beautiful the high ridge of sky-scrapers looks shrouded in that silver-gray mist, their tops half-disappearing in the upper blend of rain and clouds, and around their bases the docks and shipping half-emerging from the lower mists! What wonderful patterns, what mysterious appearances, these high buildings take upon themselves with their masses of light and dark floating in the heavy atmosphere of rain!
When the sky clears, the blue seems more intense than ever, the white clouds are dazzling in light and perhaps heaped into enormous mounds of cumulus; and the sunlight falls clear and bright on the white walls of the Metropolitan Tower, and upon Diana of the Bended Bow above the Madison Square Garden. The long wet streets steam in the sun, the soaked trees in the parks steam, even the wet cab horses, as they jog by, steam too. Gradually the city dries out, returning to its normal condition; but the Flatiron, which acts as a barometer for the people passing on upper Fifth Avenue, indicates that there is still considerable humidity in the air. A gray mist surrounds it. The time has come for jonquils and tulips in Union Square, and spring in New York is not very different from spring elsewhere.
Gradually, and quite imperceptibly, the season slips on. The cumulus clouds heap higher and higher along the southern horizon, the grass turns a summer green down at the Battery, the trees break into full leaf up in the parks. The flower shops along the avenues are over-flowing upon the sidewalks with bursting beauty; the East Side fire-escapes in spots are green and white and yellow with plants growing in cans; and up toward the Bronx and Pelham Bay, over in the borough of Queens, down on the hills of Staten Island, the wild flowers grow in the fields and woods, just as they did in the days when Peter Minuit bought the island of Manhattan from the Indians for sixty guilders, payable in goods of Dutch manufacture.
And so the summer comes in is ushered in usually about the middle of June by three or four days of heat. If accompanied by moisture in the air, its results are somewhat disturbing. The newspapers print lists of the heat prostrations, and the reporters delight in picturing the horrors of the hot wave with that wealth of adjective and height of caption peculiar to modern journalism. But the dangers are somewhat exaggerated. Those who use ordinary precautions are in no peril. As for the quality of the heat, it is not different from that which occasionally visits Paris or Berlin or Vienna. Still, it is not to be denied that in New York men and horses do drop here and there when the mercury mounts very high; and those who do not drop are not having the most enjoyable time of their lives. Hot weather in New York is not more defensible than elsewhere, and those who can do so generally leave the city behind them in the summer season.
But if the city is not so pleasant in July as in November, it is often more beautiful. Heat brings out color in its richest tints. The blue and the gray hazes disappear, and now the distant Flatiron, seen down Fifth Avenue, seems to float in a rosy atmosphere. During the long summer afternoons the high sky above it shows a pallid blue suffused with pink. Warm colors are in the clouds, and are reflected from the white buildings, the tall towers, the harbor waters, even from the roadways and drive-ways along the rivers.
It is on such summer evenings as these, when the western sky is flushed with hot hues, that the spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral, seen from Sixth Avenue, take on pink and red and yellow tones; and the high tower of the Times Building runs from a red glow at sunset through pink, mauve, and lilac, until, with twilight gone, it settles into a blue that belongs exclusively to the summer night. These are the evenings, too, for the sky-scrapers of the lower town to light up with strange hues along their peaks, and reflect fiery lights from their countless windows. The sun is a wonderful alchemist, and it works as busily and as potently on the face wall of a sky-scraper as on the canyon walls of the Colorado or the snow caps of Monte Rosa.
Unfortunately, the hurrying New Yorker is not in a mood to enjoy these summer color-changes. He is disturbed in his comfort, he fumes and frets; and as a result, he exaggerates both the heat and his own condition. He is not "roasted" or "melted," as he writes the family. In reality he often has a cooler and pleasanter summer in town than the family sojourning in a box of a hotel in the mountains or by the sea-shore. His house is usually large and airy, his office is high up in the region of the winds, and he has a thick-walled club where he seeks refuge in the evenings. With the huddled and packed crowds on the East Side it is somewhat different. They never go away, never get a vacation of any kind, except for a day on a recreation pier or on an excursion steamer down the bay; they have neither cool houses nor breezy offices. During the hot weather they live in the street, sleep on the roofs, and endure the heat in silence. They suffer without doubt, and yet their miseries cannot be put down solely to the climate. People when "cabined, cribbed, confined," cannot be very happy or comfortable though the bending skies above be those of Olympus.
Aside from the very rich and the very poor there are the many thousands of neither high nor low degree, who endure the dog-days in the city, in shop and factory and office, perspiring and grumbling perhaps, but neither fainting nor faltering. By day they move along the shady side of the street, and by night they haunt some roof-garden or open-air vaudeville; or perhaps sit quietly on park benches watching the water play in the fountains, or the gentle swaying of the tree branches in the warm air, or the dark purple shadows of the foliage cast on the pavements by the electric lights.
The various conditions of humanity, each in its own way, manage to live through the seasons as they come and go. Of course New York has its many short-comings and does not lack for the knowledge thereof. It is charged with this, and indicted for that, and condemned for the other thing. But its climate is neither a failure nor a crime. It is merely a series of contrasts, like so many other things that one meets with in and about the city.