Tales of a Great City


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Tales of a Great City


Vince Sweeney, a Staten Island historian, defines a ferry as a function rather than a boat: transportation regularly crossing some body of navigable water for the conveyance of persons, vehicles and animals. The first public Staten Island ferry of which we know started in 1708. It ran between William St. in Manhattan and the Watering Place (now Tompkinsville) on the east shore of Staten Island. Oarsmen powered the first ferries. Later, someone devised a horse-driven treadmill to propel the boats.


In 1810, Cornelius Vanderbilt, a handsome, profane Staten Islander, borrowed $100 from his mother to run a ferry from Stapleton, another east shore town, to the foot of Whitehall St. Seven years later, he launched the first steam ferry in New York, the Nautilus, and charged an extortionate 25-cent fare?children half price. By contrast, the nickel fare was sacrosanct for most of the 20th century, rising to 25 cents and then 50 cents only under the pressure of the city's fiscal crises. On July 4, 1997, the present Mayor decreed there would be no more fare.


Five mornings a week, I walk to the terminal in St. George to catch a ferryboat. From its bow, Manhattan's towers gleam on the horizon like the fabled City of Cibola, or El Dorado, or like a vision of the City of God. The boat rumbles from its slip: a flock of "the pitiless, the eye-pecking gulls" gather astern to wheel and soar, serene and observant, over its bubbling wake. Thus, as the boat passes the great copper statue on Bedloe's Island, the opening lines of Hart Crane's "The Bridge" suddenly resemble sense:


How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty?

My grandfather saw the same statue from an immigrant ship in 1906. He was then 18. He was not unmoved. Within a century of his arrival, his experience?of a long sea passage, closing with the vision of a mighty woman, "whose flame is the imprisoned lightning"?has become uncommon, if not unknown. Men and women no longer come here in steerage. They land from airplanes, something of which my grandfather probably had no knowledge in 1906, a practical technology even now not yet a century old. Crane writes:


O sinewy silver biplane, nudging the wind's withers!
There, from Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk
Two brothers in their twinship left the dune;
Warping the gale, the Wright windwrestlers veered
Capeward, then blading the wind's flank, banked and spun
What ciphers risen from prophetic script,
What marathons new-set between the stars!

Similarly, we have changed how we carry freight across the seas. Now the great container ships glide past St. George to Elizabethport and the Bay of Newark, where the containers stand stacked for transfer to train and truck. Of the hundreds of ships that once daily lined Manhattan's shores with a forest of masts, only a few cruise liners, barges and memorials like the Intrepid and the Peking now swing at anchor.


Today at Whitehall, swift currents and contrary winds bump my boat into its slip. Nearby, a pile driver alternates puffs of steam with hammer blows as it drives a wooden pile into the harbor floor. It is probably the last working steam-powered machine in Manhattan, if not the city. Nothing more surely measures progress than the obsolescence of steam, the driving force of the Industrial Revolution. The city's last steam locomotives, the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal Railroad's oil-burning switchers, serving the waterfront north of the Navy Yard, dropped their fires in 1962; probably the last steam ferryboat, the Verrazzano, in 1981.


New York is older than Philadelphia or Boston, yet only a handful of pre-Revolutionary buildings have survived (St. Paul's Chapel, on lower Broadway, is the only one in Manhattan). As I walked uptown the other day, I unfairly contrasted the city with John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s Colonial Williamsburg. Manhattan's past exists side-by-side with the present, and though fragmented, often remains oddly alive. Williamsburg was barely even a ghost town when Rockefeller began restoring what had been Virginia's colonial capital. Today, the hamlet is beautifully restored and maintained. It presents a careful, corporate and inoffensive vision of colonial history. For some reason, I think of Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic, a wonderful, funny, insightful book, which describes how an Alabama school district avoided offending anyone over the War Between the States by dropping it down the memory hole: their history curriculum begins after the end of Reconstruction in 1877.


Downtown's tortuous, irregular streets are those laid out by the Dutch and the English?except Broadway, which was an Indian trail running north from the Battery before the white men came. Some street names have changed, usually for political reasons: Crown St. was renamed Liberty. But most remain the same. The indispensable AIA Guide to New York City notes that "Pearl Street was once the edge of the island where mother-of-pearl (oyster shells) littered the beach... Wall Street, the most famous, was the site of the northern boundary of New Amsterdam, where a wall...was erected against the English and the Indians." Of course, there have been no beavers on Beaver St. for nearly 300 years. One wonders about Maiden La. Nor has anyone played bowls in Bowling Green, the city's oldest park, since the end of the 18th century. In 1771, the royal government erected a gilt-bronze equestrian statue of King George III and a black iron fence with ornamental crowns. After the first New York reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776, up at the Commons, just south of today's City Hall, a mob of Patriots came downtown, toppled the statue, and broke off the crowns. The statue was dismantled and carried away to be melted for shot. A fountain has taken its place. The fence remains.


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Downtown's tangled streets contrast with the grid of right angles and straight lines imposed on most of Manhattan by a board of street commissioners in 1811. Their plan was memorialized on the Randel Map, named after John Randel Jr., the engineer and surveyor who created it and drew it by hand.


Nearly 20 years ago, Harry Kleiderman pulled me into the Manhattan borough president's Topographical Bureau. Harry worked there. He was tough, profane and worldly, and I liked him a lot. His romanticism escaped only in kindness to his friends, love of history and fidelity to the memory of Tammany Hall. The Hall had gotten him his jobs: he had been a pick-and-shovel man for the borough Dept. of Works (now part of the Dept. of Transportation), a confidential secretary to a municipal court justice, and then a clerk in the Topographical Bureau. We gossiped about politics. Then Harry asked whether I wanted to see the Randel Map. He opened the cabinet with the reverence one might reserve for the Ark of the Covenant. The map had been made in several parts and was mounted on rollers so cracks would not form along fold lines. Harry unrolled part of it.


Randel had drawn and named the streets with India ink and watercolored the land forms. There was the Collect Pond and Manetta Creek and Kips Bay, and the rolling hills of Chelsea that would all soon vanish beneath the pavements and landfills of the city. The map was perfect and exquisite. The Topographical Bureau and its predecessors maintained it as if it were the Holy of Holies because in a worldly way, it is: it is the root of all land use in Manhattan. I lightly touched its edge for a moment. It is made of a heavy parchment, to endure for the ages. The Randel Map is one of the few objects I have touched that is so rare and unusual as to be literally priceless. Then Harry rolled it up again and closed the drawer.


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This paper's namesake, the New York Press, was a flourishing daily newspaper from 1887 to 1916, when it merged into the New York Sun. In 1890, the Press published a guide to the best of Manhattan's illicit pleasures: Vices of a Big City.


Vices professed a high moral purpose: warning both natives and tourists against places and neighborhoods where one might find the near occasions of sin. The newspaper did this by providing an exhaustively detailed list of whorehouses, concert saloons, dance houses and the like, organized both geographically and by specialty. The odd combination of moral rhetoric and obsessive detail, down to addresses, gives Vices the flavor, as Richard Rovere wrote, of "a kind of Real Estate Board brochure apprising out-of-town criminals of the superior facilities offered by New York."


Indeed, Vices is the kind of thing that "exposed the lasciviousness and corruption of metropolitan life in such a manner as to make them all but irresistible," with knowing appraisals of the entertainments to be found at Harry Hill's Dance House, Billy McGlory's Armory Hall and the French Madame's on 31st St., where "the performance is of such a nature as to horrify any but the most blase roue." They rated even dives like Bertrand Myers' concert saloon at 207 Bowery, "crowded with women nightly, who smoke cigarettes and drink gin," or the "very low" whorehouses on Water St. between James St. and Catherine Slip.


Vices also describes what was probably the city's first openly gay bar, Frank Stephenson's Slide, at 157 Bleecker. Unfortunately, the rhetoric is overheated, as Luc Sante notes: it was described as "the lowest and most disgusting place. The place is filled nightly with from one hundred to three hundred people, most of whom are males, but are unworthy the name of men. They are effeminate, degraded, and addicted to vices which are inhuman and unnatural." One imagines the homosexual visitor simply ignored the rhetoric and took the next bus for Bleecker St.


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Such guides were probably unnecessary to an old friend of mine, now dead. I suspect he knew by instinct where to find what he wanted. In a world of talk, he conversed, and his conversation was the sort of thing one could only find in a great city. His blithe good nature had survived several unsuccessful marriages and their consequent financial disasters; his endurance in certain intimate matters had enhanced his standing in every sense with several mutual acquaintances. One evening while we were at the bar of the Regency Whist Club, he said that he disdained tap water as a beverage. This was while the city's water was still known as the Croton cocktail, before the present Mayor compromised land use and sewer regulations around the city's Catskill reservoirs to ingratiate himself with upstate Republican politicians and real estate developers.


I was young and rude, and we had been tossing down double vodkas as though Prohibition were returning on the next train. My inhibitions surrendered to an impulse to tell the old man this was a strange affectation. More precisely, I told him it sounded like bullshit to me. My friend arched an eyebrow and then reminisced about a night in Madrid when, while dining with Prince Nicholas of Romania, he had refused water. "The Prince agreed with me," he said, "and announced that he himself never allowed any tap water to touch his lips."


My friend continued, "I then said to him in French, the language we were speaking, 'But, sir, how do you manage to clean your teeth?' The Prince immediately murmured, 'Ah, pour me laver les dents j'ai un petit vin blanc tout special.'"


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