- 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
In July 1922, on the day after my twenty-second birthday, I arrived at Pennsylvania Station carrying a suitcase stamped with my initials in gold letters and giving the further information “N.Y.C.” One of my early employers remarked dryly, “I see that Gerald has come to stay.” My qualifications for the great adventure can be itemized as follows:
Beyond boy work such as mowing lawns and shocking wheat, I had had one summer’s experience in the adult world as a reporter on the Illinois State Journal in Springfield.
The decade brought a new kind of excitement to the city, and the new architecture expressed its spirit.
I knew the dates for the major literary events in seventeenth-century England.
I had written some stories for the college newspaper, the Daily Illini.
Some mildly satirical sketches of faculty personalities had been accepted by the undergraduate literary magazine. This presented no difficulty since I was the editor.
I had completed a year of graduate school.
I had five hundred dollars.
I pause here to define New York. Under a charter adopted in 1897 that became effective the following year, the five counties that constituted the city were consolidated into boroughs under a new governmental structure known as Greater New York. But Greater New York as a name never caught on.
The “New York” I first saw in 1922 was Manhattan Island—that is, the old County of New York, the borough with the largest population, 2,271,892. It was the port city, a beehive of world trade and finance, the home of the very rich and the very poor, a cultural capital pulsating with life and energy. It was this ever-changing island whose skyline was known the world over.
From New Jersey, from Brooklyn Heights, or from the promenade deck of an ocean liner on the Hudson River, one could pick out notable buildings reaching for the sky: the Flatiron, that twenty-story engineering marvel of 1902; the Singer Tower of forty-one stories, finished in 1908 and the tallest building in the world until the Metropolitan Life Tower of fifty stories was completed the next year. After 1913 the sixty-story Woolworth Tower, designed by Cass Gilbert (born in Zanesville, Ohio), was for years the world’s tallest skyscraper.
By the late twenties the midtown area was catching up with lower New York with such soaring structures as the fifty-six-story Art Deco Chanin Building on Forty-second Street at Lexington Avenue, which summed up, according to Paul Goldberger, the present architecture critic of The New York Times, “the energetic, confident spirit of the Jazz Age in New York,” and the seventy-seven-story Chrysler Building, whose Art Moderne spire was the first to surpass the Eiffel Tower.
The decade brought a new kind of excitement and elegance to the city, and the new architecture expressed its spirit. This was true not only in the prominent towers that have been named but in hotel construction, in such new additions to the theater district as Town Hall and the Ambassador and Henry Miller theaters, and in the new conceptions of high-rise living represented in such apartment towers as the Savoy-Plaza and the Sherry-Netherland.
But these prodigies were not for me. As though a paper trail led to Greenwich Village, I found a place to stay in quiet, secluded Bank Street on a block where Willa Cather once lived. Some of the most publicized and highly colored reasons why young people were drawn to the Village did not apply to me. I was not a political radical like Max Eastman, a friend who later regretted his youthful association with The Masses and found safe harbor with Reader’s Digest. Many of my new contacts and acquaintances were old-fashioned socialists, and I believe I collected one or two certified anarchists. The emancipated young women who wore Dutchboy bobs, batik scarves, smocks in chartreuse or puce, and open-toed sandals were often, I knew, sexually active, and for heavy philosophic reasons as well as the usual ones. Their reputation was set forth by a Village poet: