- 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
But I could not linger and cultivate nostalgia. I had to be up and about. Only a few steps from Bank Street the city struck a palpable blow to the senses. There was the roar of the West Side subway under Seventh Avenue, the rumble of the elevated trains with their creaky old wooden cars above Sixth Avenue, grinding for the stop at Eighth Street. There, I recall, I once heard an El conductor shout as he swung open the little iron gate at the end of the car, “Let the nuts off,” as the train slowed down for the stop at the green-gabled station house that linked the Village with uptown and downtown. On every important street there was still the insistent clang of the trolley bell, the clatter and bang when the trolley cars crossed major intersections. Adding to the confusion, many light trucks, express wagons, and drays were still horsedrawn, slowing down the taxis and provoking the honking and gunning of private automobiles.
The triumph of the automobile was clearly in sight. Motorized double-decker buses had appeared on Fifth Avenue in 1907, and between 1910 and 1920 the number of horses in New York City dropped from 128,000 to 56,000. The Bronx River Parkway—the first limited-access highway in the world—was opened for automobile traffic in the fall of 1925, and it became feasible and pleasant to take a spin up to Valhalla for a look at the famous Kensico Dam. The vehicular tunnel between New York and Jersey City—today’s Holland Tunnel—was begun in 1920 and opened in 1927, giving further evidence that the automobile suburbs had arrived and so signaling a decline in New York’s population, human and horse. The Borden Company and Sheffield Farms still ran milk routes in New York in the twenties, delivering the familiar heavy glass bottles house to house and apartment to apartment. For this start-and-stop distribution system the milk wagon was still drawn by a horse. I have a vivid personal reason for remembering this. One day on West Eleventh Street I approached a Borden horse with trust and affection, where-upon the ungrateful beast took a bite out of my overcoat. It never occurred to me that I had a legitimate claim against Borden. This lapse clearly shows that I was not yet a fully assimilated New Yorker.
Once, as the El pulled up to the Greenwich Village stop, I heard a conductor shout, “Let the nuts off.”
Pedestrians filled the walkways, jaywalking if necessary, streaking diagonally toward whatever urgent business or pleasure they were pursuing. I, who had no kind of rendezvous, no appointment, was soon going at the same frenetic pace. And that is the way it was. Action. Movement. The electricity of the city. There was noise, inconvenience, even danger. But there was also a countervailing sense of drama, of ebullience, of coping, of being at the center of civilization in the United States.
I sold a few small pieces. Rollo Ogden at The New York Times paid me five dollars each for paragraphs used on the editorial page for the feature “Topics of the Times.” How I ever gained access to the editor of the Times I cannot now imagine. The metropolitan editor of the New York World bought some light features based upon my observations of street scenes. The Globe printed a story about a statue of Gen. James Wolfe that once stood where Greenwich Avenue joins Eighth Avenue.
A good deal of book reviewing came my way. Amy Loveman at the Saturday Review of Literature took an interest in my work. Carl Van Doren, his wife Irita, and his brother Mark, who were successively literary editor of The Nation during the twenties, called upon me from time to time when something that was nonfiction and nonpolitical came in. What I liked doing best and I think I did best was biography. Perhaps without knowing it, I was responding to Thomas Carlyle’s dictum “History is the essence of innumerable Biographies.”
Meanwhile, I had landed a job.
The cultural diversity New York offered to its citizens and the world is strikingly illustrated in the remarkable number of newspapers that then flourished, or at least existed, in this town. There were seventeen English-language daily newspapers in general circulation in 1923, priced at two or three cents, each with a distinct personality, each with its own constituency, many publishing Sunday editions. There was also a vigorous foreign-language press, publishing in German, French, Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Russian, Spanish, and Yiddish. The Herald hired me at a salary of thirty dollars a week. At long last, I was at work on a metropolitan newspaper with a desk of my very own in the city room.
I was given soft news stories to cover, public dinners with advance handouts available so what I got were free meals and boring evenings. I did some rewrite on the Hall-Mills case, one of the most sensational murder trials in American history, in which a socially prominent Episcopal rector and his choir leader were found shot to death under a crabappletree on an abandoned farm near New Brunswick, New Jersey.