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Around New York City:
The Approach From The Sea
The Streets In The Morning
Downtown New York
The New City
The Ebb Tide
Fifth Avenue At Four
Shops And Shopping
New York By Night
Homes And Houses
The Tenement Dwellers
The Water Ways
Docks And Ships
For Mere Culture
The Larger City
Traffic And Trade
More Articles About New York City
Index Of Articles About New York City
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The throng of people, derived from many sources, that comes up Broadway in the afternoon, begins to disintegrate at Twenty-Third Street. The greater part of it is shunted over diagonally upon Fifth Avenue — apparently pushed over by the stout policeman who stands in the center of the street and holds out a commanding left hand at the cabs and a compelling right hand at the crossing crowd. There it joins with the throng coming up Fifth Avenue, and the united force, with some interlocking and side-stepping, moves on past the new Fifth Avenue Building, and then divides. Half of it goes on into the theater region of Broadway, and the other half crosses and continues up the avenue. It is toward Fifth Avenue that those who walk up town usually turn. The reason is obvious enough. It is the most interesting of all the New York streets, especially in the afternoon, when people are out driving, or are moving rapidly along the side-walks for exercise or shopping.
It is a wonderful crowd that pours along Fifth Avenue in the late afternoon —wonderful in the sense that you really do wonder who they are and where they all come from. It is different from the lower Broadway crowd in that more than half of it is made up of women and children, and even the male portion of it shows a different type from those who buy and sell on the exchanges. Many of the people here are in business, too; but it is a retail affair, and has to do with shops and shopping. With these up-town business men are mingled many customers from without, or retired gentlemen from the clubs or residence districts, or people with more time than money who wander about the streets for amusement. As for the women, they are more difficult to place and pigeon-hole. Some represent society and fashion from the drawing-rooms, some represent maids from the nursery and the back stairs, many are from out of town, many are just out of school, not a few belong to the neighboring shops. Aside from the men and women who are more or less native to New York, aside from people of business or leisure, there is always a great host of strangers on parade. From Maine to California, from China to Peru, from Teheran to London, they gather, gather, gather, on Fifth Avenue. It is truly a wonderful throng. It is more cosmopolitan, more stirred and intermixed, than any seen in Paris or Cairo or Hong-Kong — a gathering inter-national in blood, if not in name.
That statement would seem to arrogate much importance, much world-interest attaching to New York; but, on the contrary, it is merely meant to suggest the very apparent blend of races. In London or Berlin or Rome one meets on the promenades a passing people that is positively English, German, or Italian, so far as the type is concerned. But not so in New York. The American type is there to those who have been long enough in the country to see it; but it does not predominate. And there are many varieties of it, many blends of it, looking so much like the original that they are confusing. Four schoolgirls coming down the street may all walk and talk and giggle alike, and have dresses that are made by the same dressmaker; they may even look alike in general resemblance one to another, but the dark eyes of one may hark back to an Italian grandfather, the light hair of another to a Germanic origin, the tall figure of the third to English ancestry. If the fourth girl happens to be an American unto the ninth generation, she will, even then, hardly be more than a variety peculiar to a section of the country. The Boston, the New York, and the Baltimore girls have distinct individualities of their own; and the great west in the last fifty years has developed still another personality vaguely called "the western girl." A composite photograph of them all would no doubt reveal some-thing looking like the average graduate of Wellesley or Smith College; and yet that in itself would prove nothing, would fail to fix the American type or make it recognizable.
The type is, indeed, elusive; which is to say that it is not one formula that we see in the moving throng but a thousand, not one distinct face but faces reminiscent of the whole white race. The giggling schoolgirls may remind you only of schoolgirls, but the dark-haired, dark-eyed young woman with the sharp profile behind them makes you think of Bucharest and Rumanian types, or possibly Moscow and Russian Jewesses. - The dandified young man with her who carries a club-cane for arm exercise, and wears spats on his shoes, and has a very high shirt-collar, looks as though he might be a Dane or a Swede. Yet you are not greatly surprised to find them both talking English in a way that. shows them born in America. A group of students from Columbia University has the same variety. It is not that a Brazilian, a Japanese, a Russian, or an Italian mingles with the group, — that is a common enough sight here or elsewhere,—but somehow a tang of Brazil, Russia, or Japan seems in the blood and in the faces of our so-called native-born Americans. The result is a masque difficult to penetrate, a riddle hard to answer; and yet a mystery that has its interest.
Is it true then that the American people is so inter-married and interbred that the parent stock is no longer to be found? Not exactly. New York is New York, and, racially, it does not stand for the whole United States. On the street — on Fifth Avenue in the afternoon — the crowd does not even represent the New Yorkers.
Ask yourself, if you will, how many in all that hurrying mixture of folk, charging in corporals' guards up and down the sidewalks, were born here in the city. You know that not one in ten can claim such birth. Nearly a quarter of the whole present population is Jewish, which gives a hint as to what the total foreign population may be. As for the Americans within the city, think of the thousands who have struck it rich or poor in Michigan or Texas or Montana, and have come to New York to spend or win money; of the hundreds of thousands from all over America who have drifted here for one reason or another. The throng is in New York, of New York, and it practically makes New York, without being native-born, or typical of the city proper, or of the country at large.
What then does this mob in the street really stand for? Nothing that can be told in a sentence. It is a flux, an uneven mingling of many elements, a quantity with value, purpose, and destiny as yet quite undetermined. Our foreign friends who come to us from time to time and go home to write us up in the magazines, have neither difficulty nor hesitancy in telling us just what it means, and assuring us that we are all going to glory or the other way, as the case may be; but the New Yorker who has had the phenomenon under observation all his life is frank to confess that he does not know what will come out of it. The careless stranger in Gotham who strolls along the streets is perhaps more rational than either of them, and, in consequence, is more happy. He does not bother with the problem at all. He is content to see humanity, male and female after its kind, file by, and to be interested in it largely as a curiosity. That is the easier, if not the more intelligent, way.
Costume is often a badge of nationality where the face is a mystery, yet it is not frequently in evidence. Occasionally a Turk, or a Persian, or a high-class Chinaman moves along Fifth Avenue in native dress, with native dignity; but the great throng is usually inconspicuous in that respect — dressing decently, sometimes extravagantly, and almost always picturesquely, but in the prevailing American or European style. The men cling to blacks and grays and browns, whereas the women often appear in brilliant colors, especially in the spring of the year, at the Easter season. That most of those seen in lively colors belong to the shop-girl and domestic circles does not de-tract in the least from the color effect of the avenue. Those who count themselves in society and leaders of fashion sometimes dress just as extravagantly, but they do not show themselves on the sidewalk on Easter Sunday.
The mixture of nationalities, if responsible for the types that one meets on the avenue, is also, in a secondary sense, responsible for the varied coloring. Certainly there is great variety, and the stroller who is out for color, local or otherwise, finds enough to bewilder him. Group succeeds group hurrying by, and no two of them quite alike in any respect. Girls, troops of girls, in grays, in browns, in blues, greens, pinks, and mauves, quite unconscious of everything but their own talk; old women in silks and bombazines, with querying glances up, around, and about; butlers and haberdashery clerks and men-milliners somewhat puffed up with their own importance, trying to assume the blazing ties and swagger airs of their masters or patrons; old clubmen with white waistcoats and top hats; fat people with apoplectic faces; shopkeepers and agents and salesmen in stripes and checks; churchmen in clerical garb; nuns in black; emigrants in caps, staring round them with a wild surmise, — all move and intermingle in the currents. And with them, pushing against them, running into them, are children and maids and baby carriages in fluffy colors, messenger boys, telegraph boys, newsboys, bundle carriers, smart youths with Boston terriers, peddlers with arms full of puppies, and sometimes schoolboys on roller skates to add to the confusion and the consternation.
With all its "tackle trim and sailing free," in exalted spirits and by no means to be snubbed or subjected to indignities, it is, nevertheless, a good-natured throng like its down-town prototype. It seldom complains. Cabs and automobiles threaten its heels or toes as they cut through into the side streets, but the crowd merely dodges and swerves; brusque young men, walking rapidly, push ahead and flourish sticks or umbrellas close to following faces, but there is no protest; platforms are mounted and descended over new construction work, and the whole moving mass may be shunted into the street and around an excavation or a mass of heavy stone or iron being hoisted aloft, but nothing is said. Not even the snow and mud and water on the cross-walks in winter bring forth more than a mild protest. For a people easily excited, and sometimes given to violent punishments for minor offenses, it certainly keeps its temper well.
The street from gutter to gutter is just as full of vehicles as the sidewalks are of moving people. And the same variety rules, the same wonderment is excited in the one as in the other. Carriages of all sorts crowd along in processional line. Victorias, landaus, broughams, road wagons, occasionally an old-fashioned "buggy," mingle with motor-buses, cruising cabs, countless makes and colors of automobiles, delivery wagons, express wagons, furniture vans, short-haul trucks, motor-cycles, ordinary bicycles. Policemen, mounted or standing, are in the center of crowded cross-streets to hold up the line of carriages for a moment and allow a stream of foot-passengers to pass over; but as a rule everyone does his own scrambling, keeps from under the horses' feet, and gets about or across as best he can. The cabs pay little attention to foot-passengers, and the automobiles pay still less. They all move as fast as the police will allow, and sometimes a little faster. The mounted police occasionally stop motor-cars in other places, but not frequently on Fifth Avenue. The congestion of travel there in the afternoon does not admit of speeding; and besides, a certain amount of hurry is recognized as a necessary evil.
It is usually a more well-to-do class of people seated in the carriages and cabs than walks upon the sidewalk, and perhaps it represents fashion or society better, since neither of them cares much for going about on foot in. New York. But it is not more American than the class on the sidewalk, and it may not be any better bred or better born. It is gay-looking, however, and makes quite an impression. Automobiles, driven perhaps by stout, red-faced men with handsome, overdressed, rather flashy young women on the back seat; victorias with elderly people in black; broughams with single occupants, and the men on the box dressed up to the color of their horses' coats; hansoms and auto-cabs with young people leaning on the closed doors; omnibuses with top-loads of passengers; huge cars with a crowd of out-of-towners stretching their necks, "seeing New York," and having misinformation shouted at them through megaphones at the same time; four-in-hands with blowing horns and guests on the seats that try to look indifferent, as though long accustomed to coaching; vehicles, big and little, conspicuous and inconspicuous, very smart and very shabby, all sweep along in line, up or down the avenue, the occupants bowing to acquaintances, talking to one another, giving orders to the footman, stopping to run into shops, full of energy, full of life, apparently happy, as though living were a joy. Occasionally the carriages huddle up along the curbs and stand still to let a fire engine or a hospital ambulance rush by, which intimates to them that there is some unhappiness in the world; but the faces are sober for only a moment. People on Fifth Avenue are more or less on parade, and what-ever their griefs or sorrows this is not the place to give them voice or look.
It seems an unending, interminable crowd that moves by foot and horse and automobile along the avenue in the afternoon. The men go down town in the morning and the women are left at home to their own devices. They manage to worry through the early hours in domestic or social duties, but by the afternoon they must get out, must have air. Many of them seek it on the avenue en route to the Central Park, perhaps stopping to shop or call on the way. They are met on the avenue by the busy and the idle of the other sex, and added to by children and nurses, by simple young folk of fashion, by clerks and messengers and touts, by shopmen and agents and travelers and foreigners. Hence the great crowd and its in-finite varieties.
Hence also some of the great noise that wells up from the street and reverberates along the walls of the high buildings. There is no limit placed upon individual license in this respect, and the havoc that is wrought among people with highly strung nerves is not to be calculated. It seems something of an American habit to make as much noise as possible. Engines, tugs, steamboats, motor-cars, trolleys, bicycles, ambulances, all carry gongs or whistles and ring or blow them like mad on the slightest provocation. There never was an evil crying so loudly for reform as this. One has small patience with it because so much of it is unnecessary.
And the automobile atmosphere! — the smoke arising from the laziness or carelessness of chauffeurs, and the dust from the constant friction of travel! Much of this is again unnecessary, and warrants a certain amount of bad temper on the part of those living along the avenue. If there is one person more than another in this year of grace who needs to feel the strong arm of the law, it is the careless and speed-mad automobile driver. The smoke that afflicts Fifth Avenue is of his manufacture, and there is no need for it. The cities of Europe do not have it; they would not allow it. So, too, the matter of dust might be remedied by proper street-sprinkling, though there is difficulty in this, because the water freezes on the asphalt in winter and makes traffic dangerous. Still, the patience of the long-suffering people keeps such abuses alive. It tolerates intolerance and apparently acquiesces in lawless liberty.
The background that this noise reverberates from, that this dust and smoke keep hiding and revealing, that these people and carriages and horses and flunkies and foot-passengers are cast upon, is novel enough, perhaps unique in the world's history. Fifth Avenue is said, with some ostentation, to represent more wealth than any other street in the world. The statement is trite, and has small value for us. It formerly meant that those who owned the residences around Murray Hill were the richest people in the world; but many of those residences have been abandoned, the people have gone farther up town, and Fifth Avenue, below Fifty-Ninth Street, is fast turning into a street of shops. It is the background of shops, hotels, and residences, mingling and running together, that really seems unique.
The cause of the mixture is not far to seek. The shops follow the hotels and, to some extent, subsist upon them. Wherever the hotel guests are quartered there are the eagles gathered together. Naturally there is a lively demand for rentable buildings about Thirtieth and Thirty-Fourth streets. Every hall bedroom or crack in the wall in that locality is a valuable asset and rents as an office or at least a showcase. Trade also follows the fashionable residence district. Ten years ago this district lay on the west side of the city, but since then it has been shifted to the east side. The better class of shops no longer follow Broadway but Fifth Avenue, overflowing on the side streets in small concerns that cannot pay the heavy rentals of the avenue itself. What the avenue is destined to become everyone knows since the Altman store was erected between Thirty-Fourth and Thirty-Fifth streets. The Tiffany and Gorham buildings, and the sky-scrapers that are going up in their neighborhood, merely carry out the Altman idea that Fifth Avenue below the park is no longer a street of residences, but a place where a vast retail trade is carried on.
The flow of business keeps pushing up the avenue, meeting with a check in the Public Library at Fortieth Street, but stopping for only a moment. It is felt again, almost immediately, at Forty-Second Street and beyond. Once more, at Fiftieth Street, there is an interruption. The imposing Cathedral of St. Patrick seems to call a halt, while beyond it the Union Club, and opposite it the row of Vanderbilt houses with the University Club, make quite a barrier. It is said that the property-owners thereabouts will not sell for store purposes and that they will protect that spot of the avenue as a residence quarter. The tale has been told before, and answers perhaps for the present generation of land-owners; but what those who inherit will do no man can say. In the past they have generally preferred fresh fields and pastures new, and allowed the old places, beset by a circle of tall buildings, to be torn down and rebuilt for trade. As for the Cathedral-Vanderbilt reservation, a business incentive bubbles up just beyond it in two lofty fashionable hotels, and sooner or later large department stores will come up to meet them. Then the reservation will be between the jaws of the hills — the sky-scrapers above and below it — and residence there will be no longer desirable.
The Plaza at Fifty-Eighth Street is another gathering place for high hotels that nod and beckon at the shops to come on. It is an imposing square, opening as it does upon the Central Park, and illuminated as it is by that superb statue of Sherman by Saint Gaudens. In itself it is perhaps a better suggestion of how the new city will look when completed than almost any other portion of New York. The tall buildings hold together as a group and are, in measure, harmonious as to scale. To be sure, they make the square look small and the trees of the Central Park are dwarfed by them; but that could hardly be avoided. The squares and streets of the city could not be widened to meet the scale of the sky-scrapers. They will look smaller and narrower, losing somewhat in grandeur, as the buildings continue to ascend. The only compensation that one can squeeze out of it is that the streets will become more picturesque, just as the narrow passageways of Cairo are now more picturesque than the boulevards of Paris.
Beyond the Plaza the avenue runs on, the Central Park on one side of it and a long row of ornate residences on the other. It is not likely that business will break into this row for many years to come, if at all. It is more valuable as a residence than as a business quarter, fronting as it does upon the park. As such it is closely held by people of wealth, who have erected residences that, too often, proclaim wealth without as well as within. Some of the houses there are ostentatious, to say the least. There is apparent in them a striving for the magnificent which frequently results in the ridiculous. The architectural pretense of one thing when it is clearly apparent that it is another thing; the wrong use of columns, keystones, arches, windows; the over-ornamentation of fine stone that would look so much better unadorned, all suggest that the average millionaire and his wife have difficulty in spending their money sensibly, and that their architect is something of a goose in the bargain.
The excuse for the architect is that he is interfered with and not allowed to carry out his plans; but aside from that he too often fails to rise to the occasion. Never, since the days of the Renaissance, has he had such a chance, with such new problems to solve, and such unlimited means to solve them with, as just now in New York. In sky-scraper, storehouse, armory, hotel, apartment-house, dwelling-house, there have been a thousand opportunities for the genius to proclaim himself. Many times the work has been done in a new and original way; but many times, too, it has been a copy of an older building, or a conservative variation of a known success. Over-decoration, rather than want of proportion, has usually been its crying fault. The householder has only a façade, say, thirty feet in width, with which to establish the identity of his house from that of his neighbor. He must use something individual and original on the outside, and that something is almost always ornamentation — chasing or carving in stringcourse or window-frame or doorpost. But it is seldom just, or true, or quite right;, it is often overdone, or trivial, or out of scale.
Yet with all that is bad or indifferent, with all that is abortive or absurd in Fifth Avenue houses, there is still a leaven of good, and much that may be justly regarded with pride as the promise of better things. The striving for results is not a thing to groan over in despair. It at least shows an attempt at originality, a discontent with present attainment, if you will, which is always the preliminary step to new creation. Out of much travail, perhaps, shall come a newer architecture — a nobler art.