- 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
When my future wife, Lettie Gay, got her degree in the Department of Home Economics at Illinois, she joined the numerous others cited in this chronicle by telling her faculty adviser, Professor Harriet Barto, “I want to go to New York.” In April 1923 Lettie made it to Manhattan as a dietitian with a live-in job at New York Hospital. This venerable institution, whose charter goes back to the time of George III, was then located just west of Fifth Avenue in the block between Fifteenth and Sixteenth streets. Now, with forty-five dollars a week in my pay envelope and Lettie’s eighty-five dollars a month, marriage seemed possible. So we were united on November 28, 1923, in a civil ceremony at the Municipal Building on Chambers Street by a clerk who graciously removed a big cigar from his mouth as a gesture to the importance we attached to the occasion.
Our wedding trip consisted of walking across Brooklyn Bridge. Past the gold-domed home of the New York World we went, past the clatter and clang of the trolley-car sheds. As the bridge walkway curved upward and we reached the crest, we paused and took in the 360-degree panorama of New York. There was a lift of the heart. We were a thousand miles from home. We were frightened and confident all at the same time, hungry but healthy. Champagne could not have added to the sparkle of the moment as we savored O. Henry’s Bagdad-on-the-Subway. Our address in the Brooklyn Heights section was 50 Garden Place, a semiapartment in a rooming house, bathroom one flight up, refrigerator one flight down.
We continued to explore New York. The ferry ride to Staten Island at five cents was generally regarded as the greatest tourist bargain the city afforded, and we knew it well. On another occasion we subwayed out to Coney Island and feasted Midwestern eyes on the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. We rode uptown on the open-top Fifth Avenue bus to Riverside Drive, past the Charles M. Schwab mansion filling an entire block north of 73rd Street with trees and lawns and a forbidding iron fence. At West 122nd Street we stopped to visit Grant’s Tomb, a formal Roman-style mausoleum, which, I proudly noted, contained a regimental flag deposited there by my great-uncle Samuel Hewes of Quincy, Illinois, and then on to hear the New York Philharmonic orchestra at Lewisohn Stadium. Or we went downtown past Newspaper Row, turning left on Fulton Street for a dinner at Sweet’s restaurant on Schermerhorn Row near the fish market, or to buy some candlesticks on Alien Street east of the Bowery, which we knew as Brasstown.
A stroll on the Lower East Side, home of the huddled masses, made vivid the concept of the melting pot to a young immigrant of colonial descent whose European antecedents were so remote as to be practically nonexistent. Here, in crowded tenements and fetid alleys, waves of newcomers with their ethnic baggage and little else had arrived and settled together in supportive groupings. First they came from the countries Of northern Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century, then in successive waves from Russia, southeastern Europe, and Italy. The influx crested in 1907, when 1,285,349 persons with their cardboard cartons, battered suitcases, or knotted pillowcases were admitted through the receiving station on Ellis Island to experience the trials and triumphs that were to be theirs in our society. To see the teeming streets, to hear the strange accents, to sense the energy and dynamism of this mingling of peoples, was a lesson in humility—and history.
Although my adventurous companion and I had little background in either art or music, we shared an eagerness to receive what the city could give us, and so we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and heard Mme. Frances Aida in Faust at the Metropolitan Opera. When the Boston Symphony Orchestra came to Carnegie Hall, we were there, high up near the roof with the serious music students absorbed in their scores and gesturing with the conductor.
Turning to the Broadway theater, we saw Jane Cowl in Romeo and Juliet, Jeanne Eagels in Rain, and The Old Soak, by Don Marquis.
I have no idea now where we found the money to nourish these cultural experiences. We were certainly not a part of the evening-wrap trade. However, tickets in the top gallery could be had for fifty cents or a dollar, and I beat a path to Gray’s drugstore in Times Square, home of Joe Lebang’s cut-rate ticket agency.
Sometimes we went dancing at the Astor Hotel Grill when “Meet me at the Astor” was part of the New York social vocabulary. My diary shows that we dined and danced in the Village at the Pepper Pot, 148 West Fourth Street, where the candlelight flickered eerily and a sculptor created threedimensional forms from the candle drippings. Here we encountered the very essence of Bohemia in the person of Bobby Edwards, the Village troubadour, who crooned topical rhymes while strumming on a ukulele that he had made from a cigar box. Occasionally he was accompanied on his rounds of Village night spots by his cat, Dirty Joe. And he sang of the contemporary scene: