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Primary Sources: Opinions of New York

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New York City, with its splendid natural harbor, bustling commercial attitude, and crowds of people, is a magnet for writers. While it truly became the center of a global economic order in the years after World War II, it has been a nexus of trade, growth, development, and change since its earliest days.

Travel back in time and read selected nineteenth-century writers' opinions of Manhattan, its inhabitants, and its urban development.

Washington Irving (1809)

No sooner was the [Dutch] colony once planted, than like a luxuriant vine, it took root and throve amazingly; for it would seem, that this thrice favoured island is like a munificent dung hill, where every thing finds kindly nourishment, and soon shoots up and expands to greatness.

Excerpt from Irving, Washington. A History of New York. Quoted in Lopate, Philip, ed. Writing New York: A Literary Anthology. New York: Library of America, 1998, p. 2.

The New-York Evening Post (January 8, 1824)

We do not think that we can be charged with exaggeration when we state that there is not a city in the world which, in all respects, has advanced with greater rapidity, than the city of New York, in the last ten years. Whichever way we turn, new buildings present themselves to our notice. In the upper wards particularly, entire streets of elegant brick buildings have been formed on sites which only a few years ago were either covered with marshes, or occupied by a few straggling frame huts of little or no value... [Last year,] the number of vessels arriving at this port aggregated 1,217, of which 1,097 were American, 91 British, and the remainder Dutch, French, Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese and other nationalities, having on board 4,999 passengers and laden with the products of our sister states, of the European nations, the West Indies and the new republics of South America. On the 1st of January 1824, there were 326 vessels in our harbor.

From The New-York Evening Post. January 8, 1824. Quoted in Burns, Ric, and James Sanders. New York: An Illustrated History. New York: Knopf, 1999, p. 61.

Mrs. Frances Trollope (1832)

...I have never seen the bay of Naples, I can therefore make no comparison, but my imagination is incapable of conceiving any thing of the kind more beautiful than the harbour of New York.... We seemed to enter the harbour of New York upon waves of liquid gold, and as we darted past the green isles which rise from its bosom, like guardian sentinels of the fair city, the setting sun stretched his horizontal beams farther and farther at each moment, as if to point out to us some new glory in the landscape.

...Its advantages of position are, perhaps, unequalled any where. Situated on an island, which I think it will one day cover, it rises, like Venice, from the sea, and like that fairest of cities in the day of her glory, receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth.

The southern point of Manhattan Island divides the waters of the harbour into the north and east rivers; on this point stands the city of New York, extending from river to river, and running northward to the extent of three or four miles. I think it covers nearly as much ground as Paris, but is much less thickly peopled. The extreme point is fortified towards the sea by a battery, and forms an admirable point of defense; but in these piping days of peace, it is converted into a public promenade, and one more beautiful, I should suppose, no city could boast. From hence commences the splendid Broadway, as the fine avenue is called, which runs through the whole city.... during the seven weeks we stayed there, we always found something new to see and to admire...

Excerpt from Trollope, Frances. Domestic Manners of the Americans. 1832. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Philip Hone (1839)

When the committee of the vestry of Trinity Church began with the edifice, it was intended to repair and remodel the interior only, leaving the venerable exterior and the noble dark-looking spire in their original integrity. But in the progress of the work the building was found to be in such a state of decay as to be rendered irreparable, and the time-honored temple of the Lord, the parish church of New York, the nucleus of Episcopacy, was doomed to destruction. I found on my return to the city a shapeless heap of ruins on the spot where my imperfect devotions have been performed for the last thirty-seven years. It occasions melancholy reflections to see the dark mass of ruins still overlooking the magnificent temples of Mammon in Wall Street, and to think of the changes which have occurred there during the time the venerable spire which is now removed has thrown its shadow over the place, "where merchants most do congregate."

Excerpt from Hone, Philip. The Diary of Philip Hone. Quoted in Lopate, Philip, ed. Writing New York: A Literary Anthology. New York: Library of America, 1998, p. 41.

Charles Dickens (1842)

...We were now in a narrow channel, with sloping banks on either side, besprinkled with pleasant villas, and made refreshing to the sight by turf and trees. Soon we shot in quick succession, past a lighthouse; a madhouse (how the lunatics flung up their caps and roared in sympathy with the headlong engine and the driving tide!); a jail; and other buildings: and so emerged into a noble bay, whose waters sparkled in the now cloudless sunshine like Nature's eyes turned up to Heaven.

Then there lay stretched out before us, to the right, confused heaps of buildings, with here and there a spire or steeple, looking down upon the herd below; and here and there, again, a cloud of lazy smoke; and in the foreground a forest of ships' masts, cheery with flapping sails and waving flags. Crossing from among them to the opposite shore, were steam ferry-boats laden with people, coaches, horses, waggons, baskets, boxes: crossed and recrossed by other ferry-boats: all travelling to and fro: and never idle... The city's hum and buzz, the clinking of capstans, the ringing of bells, the barking of dogs, the clattering of wheels, tingled in the listening ear....

This narrow thoroughfare, baking and blistering in the sun, is Wall Street: the Stock Exchange and Lombard Street of New York. Many a rapid fortune has been made in this street, and many a no less rapid ruin... Below, here by the water-side, where the bowsprits of ships stretch across the footway, and almost thrust themselves into the windows, lie the noble American vessels which have made their Packet Service the finest in the world. They have brought hither the foreigners who abound in all the streets: not, perhaps, that there are more here, than in other commercial cities; but elsewhere, they have particular haunts, and you must find them out; here, they pervade the town.

Excerpt from Dickens, Charles. American Notes. New York: Modern Library, 1996.

Nathaniel Parker Willis (1843-45)

There had been a heavy fog on the water all the morning, and quite a fleet of the river-craft had drifted with the tide close on to the Battery. The soft south wind was lifting the mist in undulating sweeps, and covering and disclosing the spars and sails with a phantom effect quite melodramatic. By two o'clock the breeze was steady and the bay clear, and the horizon was completely concealed with the spread of canvass. The grass in the Battery plots seemed to be growing visibly meantime, and to this animated sea-picture gave a foreground of tender and sparkling green; the trees looked feathery with the opening buds; the children rolled on the grass, and the summer seemed come. Much as Nature loves the country, she opens her green lap first in the cities. The valleys are asleep under the snow, and will be, for weeks.

Excerpt from Willis, Nathaniel Parker. Open-Air Musings in the City. Quoted in Lopate, Philip, ed. Writing New York: A Literary Anthology. New York: Library of America, 1998, p. 83.

Walt Whitman (1856)

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west -- sun there half an hour high -- I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join'd scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme,
The similitudes of the past and those of the future,
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river,
The current rushing so swiftly and swimming with me far away,
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,
The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide....

Excerpt from Whitman, Walt. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." Selected Poems by Walt Whitman. Harold Bloom, editor. New York: The Library of America, 2003.

Harper's Monthly (1856)

New York is notoriously the largest and least loved of any of our great cities. Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years altogether. A man born forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew. If he chances to stumble upon a few old houses not yet leveled, he is fortunate. But the landmarks, the objects, which marked the city to him, as a city, are gone.

From Harper's Monthly. 1856. Quoted in Burns, Ric, and James Sanders. New York: An Illustrated History. New York: Knopf, 1999, p. 71.

George Templeton Strong (March 18, 1865)

... Crossed at Wall Street ferry, and explored sundry new districts of Brooklyn. Visited "Fort Greene," a noble public square with fine views in every direction. I hereby prophesy that in 1900 A.D. Brooklyn will be the city and New York will be the suburb. It is inevitable if both go on growing as they have grown for the last forty years. Brooklyn has room to spread and New York has not. The New Yorker of Thirty-fifth Street already finds it a tedious and annoying job to make his way downtown to business and home again. How will the New Yorker of One-hundredth Street get about forty years hence?... When I was a boy, the aristocracy lived around the Battery, on the Bowling Green, and in the western streets below Chambers; in Wall Street, Cedar Street, and Beekman Street, on the east of the town. Greenwich Street, now a hissing and a desolation, a place of lager beer saloons, emigrant boarding houses, and the vilest dens, was what Madison Avenue is now... Between 1828 and 1832, emigration to the regions of Fourth Street, Bond Street, and Lafayette Place set in, and the centres of fashion were moved again, for we are a nomadic people, and our finest brownstone houses are merely tents of new pattern and material...

Excerpt from Strong, George Templeton. The Diary of George Templeton Strong. Quoted in Lopate, Philip, ed. Writing New York: A Literary Anthology. New York: Library of America, 1998, pp. 234-5.

Emma Lazarus (1883)

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Lazarus, Emma. "The New Colossus." Quoted in Jackson, Kenneth T. and David S. Dunbar. Empire City: New York Through the Centuries. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, pp. 314-315. Poem is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Henry George (1883)

...The application of intelligence to social affairs has not kept pace with the application of intelligence to individual needs and material ends. Natural science strides forward, but political science lags. With all our progress in the arts which produce wealth, we have made no progress in securing its equitable distribution. Knowledge has vastly increased; industry and commerce have been revolutionized; but whether free trade or protection is best for a nation we are not yet agreed. We have brought machinery to a pitch of perfection that, fifty years ago, could not have been imagined; but, in the presence of political corruption, we seem as helpless as idiots. The East River bridge is a crowning triumph of mechanical skill; but to get it built a leading citizen of Brooklyn had to carry to New York sixty thousand dollars in a carpet-bag to bribe New York aldermen....

The progress of civilization requires that more and more intelligence be devoted to social affairs, and this not the intelligence of the few, but that of the many. We cannot safely leave politics to politicians, or political economy to college professors. The people themselves must think, because the people alone can act.

George, Henry. Social Problems. Quoted in Jackson, Kenneth T. and David S. Dunbar. Empire City: New York Through the Centuries. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, p. 310.


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