- 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
Also in line of duty I received the first bottles of wine I ever owned. They were given to me by a Prohibition agent. The gift was two bottles of New York State wine, the donor the spectacular Izzy Einstein, who adopted more than a hundred disguises to trap violators of the Volstead Act. Izzy loved publicity and so looked with a kindly eye upon newspaper reporters. Once on assignment I traveled to Tottenville, Staten Island, on the dinky cars that connected the far side of the island with the ferry at St. George. I was beginning to know my way around the city.
Looking up and down Fifth Avenue in the early 1920s from a midtown site, one still saw it as the street of fashionable stores. Below Forty-second Street, in addition to Altman’s and the then-new Lord & Taylor store, were Best & Co., the Gorham Building, Gunther’s (New York’s best-known furrier), and Tiffany & Co. at Thirty-seventh Street. Franklin Simon and Bonwit Teller were also below Forty-second Street. Elegant china and glassware were featured at Ovington’s at Thirty-ninth Street. A block north on the east side stood the new home of Arnold, Constable & Co. Woolworth’s five-and-ten on the northeast corner was a hint of commercial things to come, for north of Forty-second Street Fifth Avenue was already being taken over by banks and trust companies.
Facing north and looking beyond the banks, one saw the big vertical sign of Thorley, the “House of Flowers,” a landmark at Forty-sixth Street, and the Scribner Building on the east side between Forty-eighth and Forty-ninth streets, where I came to have both friends and business to attend to. Saks & Co., from Herald Square, was a new arrival on the avenue. Black, Starr & Frost at Forty-eighth Street later became familiar when I wrote its advertisements, though its merchandise was not for the likes of me. On special occasions I enjoyed what was surely one of the world’s best ice-cream sodas at H. Hicks & Son at 675 on the avenue.
Not all the nineteenth-century capitalists or their heirs had yet been driven off the avenue by the advance of trade. Mrs. F. J. Shepard (Helen Gould) was still at No. 579. Robert W. Goelet lived just across from Black, Starr & Frost, and Mrs. Ogden Goelet occupied No. 608. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s great château filled a whole block from Fifty-seventh to Fifty-eighth streets on the west side. Little remains today of the street of the twenties. Looking in both directions along the avenue, one saw the new system of traffic control, six quite ornamental bronze towers twenty-five feet high with an illuminated clock on the north and south faces. The towers were centered in the street at Fourteenth, Twenty-sixth, Thirty-fourth, Forty-second, Fiftieth, and Fifty-seventh streets. They replaced temporary wooden structures of similar style and purpose put up in 1920 that I only dimly remember. At the top of the new towers there was space for a policeman, enclosed in glass, who directed traffic manually. Public transportation was provided by the Fifth Avenue Coach Company, which cost a dime to the other routes’ nickel and whose new motor buses provided an amenity that is still fondly remembered—open-air seats on the upper deck.
We were married by a clerk in the Municipal Building who graciously removed a big cigar from his mouth.
After work I often waited for the Herald to come up from the press room before going home. Turning the pages on November 1, 1922, I would have seen these headlines among others:
BRIBES OF $100,000 OFFERED DRY AGENTS
MUSSOLINI CONFIDENT OF AMERICAN SUPPORT
MRS. HALL REVEALS NOTHING BUT SHARP WITS IN INTERVIEW
Feodor Chaliapin, the great Russian basso, arrived the evening before on the White Star liner Olympic and gave a guarded account of his views on the Russian situation. Arrow detachable collars were twenty cents, and William Musgrave Calder, U.S. senator from New York, had spent $5,835 on his campaign. (He was not reelected.) And here on November 5 was a sports item that sounds all too familiar: CORNELL SMOTHERS COLUMBIANS 56 TO 0.
On November 12 it was reported that fake rabbis were selling sacramental wine and two days later that Barron Collier (born in Memphis, Tennessee), the deputy police commissioner, had introduced the novel idea of painting lines on the pavement at street intersections and areas with known traffic problems. Pedestrians would have to learn to follow the little runways “or tell it to the judge.”