- 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
They did not seduce me, or I them. I was seriously and devotedly in love with an Illinois coed in the class behind mine. Lettie Gay, the daughter of a stock and grain farmer, was born in Rockport, which is different from Rockford, Illinois. She was charming of person and independent of mind. She knew what farm life held in store for women. Her career goal was to become a hospital dietitian, for she had made the shrewd observation that hospitals were located in urban centers. So we had an understanding that perhaps in a year, when I had become a famous author, she would be coming to New York too.
What I did find appealing about the Village was the low houses, their human scale, the fanlights and elegant fronts in the Federal style, often enhanced with wisteria vines; the cheap rents; the narrow, crooked streets that discouraged through traffic. There was, too, the human scene, the mixture of peoples, the artists and writers in flannel shirts and corduroys, the impact of foreign culture upon a small-town Protestant youth, especially when our Italian neighbors celebrated the Feast of San Gennaro, honoring with floats, much noise, and happiness the principal patron of Naples. Blue-collar wage earners, old families, and distinguished professors lived amicably among the long-established Irish, who still thought of the area as the Ninth Ward.
For local color there were the organ grinders and their monkeys, the pushcarts, and the street cries of the “old clothes” man. And the smells. Along Bleecker Street near Tenth Street there was the trailing aroma of fresh-ground Colombian coffee. Farther east I encountered cheeses I had never heard of: scamorza, ricotta, mozzarella, provola affumicata. Strings of garlic hung from the doorways of the Italian grocery stores. For a special Sunday breakfast there was French-style coffee and lovely brioches to be found at the Rochambeau restaurant, Sixth Avenue and Eleventh Street.
Through these adventures I felt the first stirrings of a new interest in the American experience that was ultimately to become a dominant theme in my life, especially that branch of the historical discipline having to do with the lives of ordinary people. Certainly New York offered abundant material for observation of the city’s outsize economic life. It possessed the most important harbor on the American continent and held the position of the largest manufacturing center in the United States. The total number of employed persons in the city in 1920 was 2,531,412, a figure that included more factory workers than those of Chicago and Philadelphia combined. This supremacy was due not to great complexes of heavy industry but to an immense volume of light manufacturing and subcontracting carried on in small plants, a vast reservoir of skilled and unskilled labor, and superior marketing, transportation, banking facilities, and organizing talents.
The largest employer was the apparel industry, which produced more than half the clothing worn in the entire country. Clothing ranked first in value of product. Other important industries were printing and publishing, food products and tobacco, millinery and lace goods, furs, bread and bakery products, drugs, chemicals, leather goods, and jewelry. By 1930 Brooklyn had passed Manhattan in population, and the other boroughs were rapidly closing the gap; but Manhattan was far ahead in the number of employed workers.
Since I had the leisure, being jobless, I began to do some research on the beginnings of Greenwich Village, its antecedents, its development into New York’s equivalent to Paris’s Latin Quarter. As I roamed the streets, I checked out where Henry James was born, where Mark Twain once lived, little Patchin Place with its ailanthus trees, its old gas lamp, its literary associations.
I regret to say that I have no memory of ever being in Barney Gallant’s celebrated Village Club, probably because it was too expensive for my purse. Barney’s nightspot was run on these sound principles: Don’t tip when entering, don’t call the waiter George, don’t pinch the cigarette girl, and do not ask to play the drums. This restaurateur was an ornament to the Village and a tolerant man. “Every man,” he said, “should be his own Jesus.”
All of this brought joy and a sense of the life of the city, at least a picturesque part of it. But I had missed so much. This was a standard sentiment. Floyd Dell recorded how Sinclair Lewis (born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota) and Vachel Lindsay (born in Springfield, Illinois) spoke of “the days of the ‘real’ Village.” I asked Lewis Gannett, the newspaperman, author, and for years daily book reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune, about this. He explained: “The great days of the Village were just before you got here.”