By John Beverley Robinson
Back in New York after five years of absence!
My first impression as I climb up into daylight out of the dark underground labyrinth of the Pennsylvania station, is of silence, almost of solitude; and this impression persists during my stay. To be sure, the Pennsylvania stations stands in a somewhat sequestered spot, not being contiguous to any of the principal lines of transit: only the Seventh avenue cars pass it, a little traveled line, coining no one knows whence, and going no once knows whither.
This alone however seems insufficient to account for the surrounding stillness; until presently it dawns on me that the real reason is that all the world has meanwhile gone on rubber tires. A few rattling wagons still remain, but soon these too will have passed away.
Other changes conduce to the effect of quiet. Trolley cars no longer bang their gongs at you. Automobiles hoot at you more circumspectly, realizing perhaps that a sudden honk is just as likely to make you jump under the wheels as away from them. People are getting accustomed to automobiles; and, what is more important, automobiles are getting accustomed to people; so that, in spite of the great number of both, accidents have not increased in anything like proportion.
In Fifth avenue, the only thoroughfare without car tracks, there are usually six lines, two going uptown, two going downtown, and one standing at each curb, yet you can see young girls calmly walking across, waiting between the lines for a break in the next line, with perfect coolness. If you get rattled in crossing you are apt to confuse the chauffeurs, who don't know whether you mean to advance or retreat. The rule is: Wait for a fairly good opening and then go deliberately across, without sudden withdrawal. If you observe this rule you will very seldom be run over.
What with the diversion of traffic and regulation of what is left one can cross easily where it was formerly almost impossible, as at Broadway and Twenty-third street. Lower Broadway is not a quarter as crowded nor a tenth part as noisy as it was in the seventies of the last century, when they had to build a bridge over it at Fulton street to make crossing at times possible.
Yet again the subway system has multiplied enormously, and half the street traffic travels underground. There is a new Broadway subway from Rector street to Forty-second, being only a fragment of what it will be, but even as a fragment it is always full of people. It has a branch that crosses one of the many bridges and lands you in Brooklyn, ultimately in Coney Island. The idea of taking a train at Forty-second street in New York, and being whisked to Coney Island in forty minutes for five cents, and no more hold-ups for tribute by the B. R. T.!
The way that the crowds fill every line, subway, surface and elevated, is astounding. There are never any scats— the management would lie wake o' nights if there were. Shouts, the manager of the old subway, announced proudly the other day that there was only one chance in 1,666,666 of being killed in the subway. Whereupon a playful newspaper responded that he might have said that there was only one chance in 1,666,666 of getting a seat in the subway.
It is curious to see the girl conductors that have been put upon several lines, dressed in khaki bloomers or in short navy blue skirts, but always with caps like those worn by the men conductors. The doors of the new cars are made to open and shut by compressed air, so that all the girl has to do is to press a button to open and again to shut them.
The thing however that makes New York alone in the universe as a spectacle by daylight, is the swarming crowd of tall buildings that more and more line the streets, not merely in the business districts, but everywhere; probably tripled in number since I was last here. A notable new one is the Bush building in Forty-second street, giving a cathedral-like effect from a distance as one approaches it. Not one person in a hundred who was not an architect, and not all architects, would notice that the aspiring lines which run unbroken upward are skillfully rendered with dark and light bricks so as to give the effect of relief in the cleverest way imaginable.
Nothing yet has been built—nothing probably ever will be built—to surpass the wonderful Woolworth building. Wonderful not only for its height, although in height it exceeds all other habitable structures, but for its beauty! Other fine towers there are—no one can speak of the Metropolitan except with admiration—but for sheer, downright beauty and graceful charm, there is not a tall building anywhere that approaches the Woolworth.
To judge by the flag display there is no doubt as to where the seat of war is in New York. For the most part, flags are but sparsely shown; but all Fifth avenue is abundantly hung with bunting, while Wall street, and the streets abutting upon it are fairly aflutter.
My second impression was that New York was bigger, more brazen and more brutal than ever; and this impression too persisted and was' intensified throughout my stay.
Now if it were any other town and I were to speak thus of it, my life would hardly be safe; but say it to any dyedin-the-wool New Yorker, and he will answer: "By Jove, you're right!" and will proceed to tell you stories of things you hadn't known before, and worse than anything you had found out for yourself.
But landing in New York after many years away from it, I was able to realize the impression that it makes upon a stranger. Fierceness, sourness, ferocity, in the faces! Coldness, shortness, in the replies to your inquiries, if indeed you are fortunate enough to receive a reply at all! A dangerous feeling in the whole atmosphere 1 A friend told me of the comment of a youth recently arrived
from Norway. "Why," he asked, "do the people all look so frightened?" Showing that my characterization of it as "dangerous," made before I had heard this story, was not so wide of the mark.
Of course, after you have hunted up your friends and adjusted yourself to a circle of acquaintances, this feeling is obscured; all the same, you will find it hard to get on friendly terms with anybody. You may buy your newspaper at the same stand for a month and the boy will look at you with dull astonishment, if you forget yourself so far as to say "good.morning!"
I went into a bank to look up a friend whom I had known since boyhood—he happened to be the vice-president. I handed my card in at one of the windows, asking for my friend. "What do you want?" the young man behind it shouted. He did not really shout, but his tone and manner were as if he had shouted. I explained again, still holding my card out to him. He glanced at it. "We haven't anyone of that name here," he snapped—so mad that he couldn't think straight. Nervous tension. I suppose; but think of a place where the nervous tension is like that!
It is all business. Pay your money and get out! No smile anywhere. No human interest anywhere. Nothing of the friendliness and homelikeness of the atmosphere of St. Louis. It makes one understand the vision of the apocalyptist, of a great scarlet city, red with the blood of the saints—the saints in this case being all who have a mind broader than a ticker-tape; such saints as Gustavus Tuckerman and Zoe Akins and Clark McAdams and Nancy Coonsman and George Blackburn, and all the rest of the saints and angels that foregather in St. Louis in general and in the Artists' Guild in particular.
- John Beverley Robinson, “Gotham Revisited,” Reedy’s Mirror 27, no. 28 (July 12, 1918): 433.