- Historic Sites
I. America’s Junction
All through the 1920s eager young emigrants left the towns and farms of America and headed for New York City. One of them recalls the magnetism of the life that pulled him there.
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
And still they come.
From west of the Appalachians, from the prairies of the middle border, from the shortgrass country, and from the South, young Americans troop to New York in search of fullfillment—or perhaps to get away from something.
Garrison Keillor left Minnesota for New York because, among other reasons, he wanted to be a New Yorker writer and because in his hometown, Anoka, everybody knew everything about one another. Alfred Uhry, the recent Pulitzer Prize winner as author of the current Off-Broadway hit Driving Miss Daisy, knew from the time he was a little boy that for him the action was not in Atlanta but in New York. For some the great objective is to be a buyer at Macy’s. M.B.A.s head for the corporate life. Brenda Spencer graduated from Purdue and now directs Spencer Realty on Madison Avenue in New York. But she has a box of keepsakes to remind her of her old Indiana home.
Back in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Betsie Howie dreamed of an acting career when she was only twelve years old. At age sixteen she made it to Manhattan. There at last report she was tending bar at Phebe’s Place on the Lower East Side while waiting for the big break.
I cannot claim to have been so precocious. But it may have been as early as my high school years, just before the 1920s, that I foreclosed all options except one: In God’s good time I would go to New York. Sitting in the public library on the southeast corner of the “Square” in Carrollton, Illinois, I would open up the latest issue of Life, the illustrated magazine of humor. Passing rapidly by the advertisements for Cliquot Club ginger ale and Egyptian Deities cigarettes, I turned eagerly to the department devoted to the Broadway theater. There I felt myself truly in New York. I could almost smell it and taste it.
As early as my high school years, I foreclosed all options except one: In God’s good time I would go to New York.
Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew were appearing at the Astor in a diverting comedy of business life. Al Jolson was at the Century in Sinbad, which had recently moved from the Winter Garden, where the Passing Show of 1918 now offered “solace for the t.b.m.” (tired businessman) in the customary form of girls, music, and scenery.
I tried to imagine what a Winter Garden was—something like a greenhouse? Was the subway a real train like the Chicago & Alton trains that connected Carrollton with the larger world? Was Staten Island covered with skyscrapers like the pictures I had seen of the Flatiron Building? And how, I wondered, did one pronounce Staten? At any rate, I wanted to go to the nation’s greatest city and compete. Just how this was to be accomplished was not clear. The first order of business was to get there.
This much is certain. By the time I was an upperclassman at the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois, New York had become an idée fixe. As Floyd Dell, the editor and novelist of the 1920s (born in Barry, Illinois), expressed it, New York “was, I vaguely felt, my world.” And when Neysa McMein (born in Quincy, Illinois, not far from Barry), cover-girl artist and queen of the Algonquin Round Table, stepped into the great hall of New York’s Pennsylvania Station, she was sure, according to her recent biographer Brian Gallagher, “that her significant life had already begun.” Exactly.
Perhaps in no other period of its history, not even the Civil War era, did New York experience so many disturbances, tensions, and social and economic bouleversements as in the 1920s. The war effort of 1917-18, called the Great War in the belief that there would never be another like it, had profound and lasting effects upon the life of the city. Through New York poured the men to fight and the money to finance the war. Nearly four and a half million tons of cargo in support of the American Expeditionary Force passed through the port. Transports filled with 1,600,000 men with full equipment loaded at the North River piers or in Brooklyn and moved down the Upper Bay, heading for the open sea, to be picked up by their escort of gray, rake-line destroyers. Hundreds of thousands of visitors saw the departures. They were there again to greet the soldiers returning home, keyed up with victory, feeling a new sense of power, filling the hotels, restaurants, and theaters. So they touched and were touched by the energy and excitements of New York as a part of their experience with war.