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More Articles About New York City
Index Of Articles About New York City
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IF New York has little repute as a city of culture, it has perhaps still less as a city of brotherly love. Its head may be thought shrewd enough in business matters, but whoever accused the city of having a heart or a soul? Who, for instance, thinks of it as wasting any effort or energy on the unfortunate, the unsuccessful, the in-competent? The prevalent belief is that those who can-not swim go down in the big maelstrom, and no one in the city puts out a hand to save them. But, once more, the prevalent belief is wrong.
It is doubtful if any other city in the world does as much for humanity through goodness of heart as this same city of New York. Its charities are extraordinary in their number and their extent. The New York Charities Di-rectory, which contains a classified and descriptive list of the philanthropic, educational, and religious resources of the city, is a six-hundred-page volume entirely filled with the addresses and officers of the various institutions. Tolman and Hemstreet's Better New York is a three hundred-page book giving the places where help of one sort or another is obtainable. From it one gathers the impression that there is hardly a block in the city that does not contain a place of refuge of some name and nature for the sick, the weary, or the out-of-work. This is all more or less organized charity, administered by societies, or by the city itself. Add to it the giving and the helping not put down in books, the good-intentioned efforts of thousands of people in an individual capacity, and the charity work of the city takes on vast proportions. It seems as though almost every other person in the city was being helped, or "uplifted," or given "a chance" for life and happiness.
That much of this charity is mistaken in purpose and does more harm than good may be quite true. Half the cities in the country, by their indiscriminate charity, have pauperized their poorer citizens, just as half the cities themselves have been pauperized by the gifts of millionaires. The proper way to help humanity is not to feed it, clothe it, and carry its burdens, but to insist upon its help-, in-, itself. However, that is not matter for present discussion. The point that would be made is that New York, foolishly or otherwise, gives to charity in figures that are almost incredible; helps the needy with more hands than a Hindu god; and does it through pure kindness of heart, through sympathetic feeling for humanity— a wish to make others better and happier.
It must not be inferred from this that all New York's helping is of a foolish and unconsidered nature. On the contrary, the bulk of it is carefully planned and exactly carried out in accordance with the best sociological principles. The sick and disabled are always to be looked after, cost what it may, and consequently the hospital is always a necessity; but its management is to be economic as well as therapeutic. Just so with the criminal and vicious classes, the insane, the foundlings, the aged, the crippled. They must be housed in jails or penitentiaries, prisons or asylums, homes or retreats; but while liberality must prevail the cost is to be exactly counted, and the results obtained are to be accurately reported. This is not a matter of charity alone, but of government, of the best municipal administration.
One expects scientific management in the large hospitals, of which the borough of Manhattan has some seventy-five or more —some of them endowed, and many of them ad-ministered by trustee boards composed of prominent citizens. They command the best surgical and medical talent in the land, and they are more or less free to patients of any race or color. Such institutions as St. Luke's, Roosevelt, the New York, the J. Hood Wright Memorial, the Presbyterian hospitals, need neither apology nor description; they are famed for their excellence.
Bellevue and the various hospitals on Blackwell's Island belong to the city, belong in the Department of Public Charities, and are just as efficiently administered as the Roosevelt or Presbyterian types in Manhattan.
The visitor to them will find little that he may take exception to. The buildings answer their purpose well, the service is efficient, the machinery the most modern. There are homoeopathic as well as allopathic hospitals, maternity and tuberculosis hospitals, alcoholic and nervous-disease hospitals, with hospitals for the incurables and convalescent, and a training school for nurses.
The efficiency shown in these city hospitals is carried out in the other institutions on Blackwell's Island. The workhouse is large, clean, and decent; the asylums are comfortable and commodious; and as for the penitentiary with its twelve hundred inmates, it is healthful, sanitary, and orderly in every way. That much is to be said also for the institutions farther up the river, where the delinquents and the young degenerates are housed, taught to work, and, in measure, reformed.
The islands where these institutions are located are in summer the coolest and the greenest spots in the city, and at any season they are beautiful in their settings. All of which puts the notion into one's head that the city has given up to its crippled and aged, its thugs and thieves, its paupers and prisoners, the most livable and lovable portions of the town, keeping for itself only some flat and rather hot districts on the upper avenues. This looks like a great deal of self-denial in favor of the outcast; but, unfortunately, the motive will not bear critical analysis. It is to be feared that the New Yorkers put the prisoners and the paupers on the islands because no one else wanted those spots. They were waste places that could be spared very readily; and besides, over there "the slovenly unhand-some corse" could not come betwixt the wind and the nobility. People do not want their public institutions too close to them.
As for islands near a city, they have never been popular resorts, except for picnic parties. Humanity of the hermit variety occasionally exists upon them; but the true city-dweller is a person of gregarious tastes and loves to flock along a dusty street rather than a water front. Moreover, the islands are inaccessible, hard to come and go from, and, also, they are" dreadfully lonely." But they are good healthful places for the indigent and the aged, and admirable spots in which to bring sinners to repentance. Hence their appropriateness for prisons and hospitals. Let the blind and the halt have them. So long as the free citizen can smell gasolene and see asphalt on Fifth Avenue, he will not miss the sea breezes and green grass of the islands.
The New York people have always been leaving the best places behind them in their rush for the spot that is for the moment the most frequented or fashionable. In the ancient days they abandoned the Battery, one of the finest residential sites in the city, to crowd around City Hall Park and Warren Street. Then they retreated, step by step, along the shopways and avenues, from Bleecker Street through Union( and Madison squares and Bryant Park to the Central Park, where for the moment they are pausing to catch breath. As for the Riverside Drive, it has been recently discovered, and declared beautiful; but many people think it "quite impossible" as a place of residence because one's friends will not come out there to call! Morningside Park, again, is pretty, good enough for a group of college buildings to face upon, or for a Harlem promenade, but much too far from the Plaza.
Such fancies have bothered New Yorkers in the past, and are doing so to-day. Under the circumstances it is not to be wondered at that no one wants the islands, and that they have been given over to various undesirable citizens who are kept in more or less restraint by a water front and a stone wall. Instead of being parked and used by the public, like the beautiful Margarethen-Insel at Buda-Pesth, they have been utilized and rendered forbidding by the city or national government. Up the river following the prisons and asylums there is a decent little island doing service as a potter's field, and not far from it, on another island, the city is building a veritable mountain out of street refuse. Down the bay the smaller islands are given over to immigrants and quarantine patients, or guns and forts, or smells and factories.
It is something of a disgrace to New York in general, and the borough of Richmond in particular, that Staten Island, altogether the most beautifully located ground in or about the greater city, should be almost surrounded at its water's edge by smoke-belching factories. No one wishes to question the value and necessity of factories, even though they do smoke and smell disagreeably; but why have them at the harbor entrance where all the world comes in or goes out? And why should they occupy the most at-tractive site in the greater city when there are so many other places that would answer their purpose just as well ?
Of course, these factories go along with the commerce of the port and contribute to it, and on gray days they are picturesque enough with their tall chimneys trailing steam and smoke into the mist; but some of the residents of Staten Island would gladly exchange the profits and the pictures they make for less soot and a clearer air. As it is, another kind of exchange is being made. Many of the in-habitants are moving away, and to-day, on the west side of the island, one may see deserted mansions with sagging roofs, leaning columns, and broken windows, the very paint being eaten from them by the smoke-gases of oil and chemical factories coining from across the Kill von Kull and Arthur Kill.
But for this almost complete circle of nuisances Staten Island would be an ideal spot for suburban residences, for little towns, perhaps for a great city. In its extreme length it is thirteen miles and in its greatest width eight miles, there being, all told, some sixty square miles of it. It is greatly diversified by hills, some of them four hundred feet high; and from their ridges and summits wonderful views are obtained. To the east is the Narrows with the Upper and Lower bays, and all that that implies in passing ships and sails. Here the transatlantic steamers, the coasters, the schooners, the round-the-Horn ships come and go all day long. Far out, beyond Sandy Hook and the light-ship, the black smoking funnels and the gray sails can be seen rising from the sea as they come or sinking below the verge as they go. Over the Narrows, over Coney Island, over Long Island, the view extends; but ever the eyes keep returning to the distant sea, the trail of smoke, the glint of sails along the rim. To the south are the hills of Navesink and the low shores of New Jersey, to the west the marshes, and to the northeast the distant New York.
The interior of Staten Island is one of the most positive contrasts one can meet with in the greater city. It is difficult to realize that the woods and ponds, the farms and gardens and country places, that one sees over there, are really a part of New York. It is like a country district in the Mohawk. Valley, with plowed fields, meadows, cattle, and timbered hilltops. The woods and fields are not trimmed or swept or bridle-pathed or terraced or laid out for tennis and golf. It is not a park; it is what is left of primeval nature. Daisies are growing in the lowlands, violets are blooming along the wood roads, and wild roses are nodding and bending along the fences. The brooks find their own way to the sea, the squirrels hunt their own provender, and the song birds build their nests quite unobserved.
For not a great many people penetrate into the interior of Staten Island. It is the borough of Richmond and has something more than seventy thousand inhabitants; but New Yorkers hardly yet regard it as part of the city, because it is five miles from the Battery and has to be reached by a ferry-boat, time twenty-two minutes. Occasionally the man in the motor goes chasing through it at breakneck speed, seeing nothing except the signboards of the automobile club; but those who come over to the island for a quiet stroll along the wood roads and through the fields are very few. The city dweller likes to think about such things when reading his evening paper by the fire, and to hear him talk on occasion one might imagine that in the city he was in durance vile; but at heart he does not care too much for nature. He likes people better than stumps, and, consequently, takes the suburbs-and the islands in homoeopathic doses.
Staten Island from a steamer's deck coming up the bay looks almost like fairyland. Everything about it is bright and sparkling, the greenswards of Forts Tompkins and Wadsworth — about as gun proof as so many golf bunkers — are graceful, and the quarantine station seems a haven of refuge cut out of a picture book. Moreover, that part of the island is comparatively free of factories and the air is passing clear. Even the barren little quarantine islands lying down in the Lower Bay have a romantic or picturesque look seen through that air, and under that brilliant sunlight. Yet, strange to relate, there has always been a fight on hand to keep these islands and waters of the harbor entrance from being polluted or infected or destroyed. At one time scows dumped refuse there; now sewage, factory drainage, and smallpox patients lay claim to them. And still they survive as things of beauty to gladden the eye of the returning traveler and make him proud of his native land.
The islands in the Upper Bay are better known, but not much more frequented than those in the East River. Bedloe's Island catches its daily tale of tourists who go there to see the Statue of Liberty by Bartholdi; but few natives of the city have ever set foot upon it. It used to be a place of execution — a suggestion of how the forefathers of the present citizen regarded the beauty spots in the harbor. Now it is only famous for its statue, which would have looked so much better almost anywhere else. It should have been planted squarely at the extreme end of the Battery, where the ships coming up the harbor could have passed almost under it. Then its colossal proportions would have been like those of an Osiride figure in front of an Egyptian temple—an effective feature in introducing the massive architecture back' of it. Placed where it is there is only a mild wonder about its size, because it is two miles off from the Battery, and a mile or more from the steamer channel.
Governor's Island is a picturesque spot, seen from Brooklyn Heights or the Battery, and yet another. place that the citizen leaves undisturbed. The United States government occupies it for military purposes, and admission to it is to be had only by a written pass. It is covered with trees, officers' quarters, parade grounds, and guns. There are some harbor defenses located there, and on the western side is old Castle William, a cheese-box fort made of sandstone, which is now used as a prison, presumably because it is good for nothing else. The island is not a martial-looking camp. To-day it is quite as peaceful as its neighbor, the gunless Battery of bellicose birth.
The best known and most frequented of all the islands has not now the slightest characteristic of an island. It is the fag-end of a sand spit pushed out into the Lower Bay, and is called Coney Island ' possibly because in the memory of man no conies were ever known there or elsewhere in the eastern United States. Originally there was quite a strip of this sand spit extending along the south shore of Long Island and cut here and there by inlets. Now it is divided into different localities with names like Manhattan Beach, Rockaway, and Brighton Beach. 'The western extremity of it only is known as Coney Island. Years ago it was resorted to as a bathing beach, but in more recent times it has passed into a show place where all sorts of freaks and fads are seen .and queer spectacular entertainments are given. It is the home of Mardi Gras; it is the Pike, the Midway, and the Great White Way all combined. It nods by day but wakes up at twilight with thousands of electric lights in dazzling forms, and scores of variety shows to please the multitude. Its easy access by railway from New York, and its cool nights in summer, make it a favorite stamping ground for the gilded youth of the city, who go to it in crowds and mobs —sometimes over a hundred thousand a day. But there is nothing very unique about it. Every city of any size has some such place where young heads are for a time made less conscious of their emptiness.
Over in Jamaica Bay to the east of Coney Island there are plenty of genuine islands, belonging to the greater city, that are not doing service of any kind. Eventually these little sand-and-mud areas in the bay may be turned into dock foundations, and a new port for New York built around them; but just now the natives dig clams on them, and hunters in long boots sometimes gun over them for snipes and ducks. They are still in a state of nature, though within the city's limits and not twelve miles from the high ridge of sky-scrapers on Lower Broadway.
Always contrasts, contrasts, contrasts. In New York they never seem to cease and determine.