New York City – The Approach From The Sea

After the rain and fog of London, after six or seven days of knocking about on an ocean liner in wet September weather, how welcome to the homeward-bound traveler is the glimpse of American sunlight that perhaps comes to him off Nantucket. It is not European sun-light. It seems brighter, more sparkling, more luminous. The sky, too, is higher, arches into a loftier dome, shows a finer, paler quality of blue; while the clouds are different from any seen north of the Alps. In the late afternoon great heaps of cumulus lift in pink turrets and towers along the southern horizon, thin veils of stratus are drawn across their sunlit tops, and high above them, white as snow, gleam the feathery forms of the cirrus. It seems a fairy cloud land illuminated by a silver sun.

The first exclamation of the stranger in America is over the sunlight and the sky. New York is a thousand miles south, two thousand miles west, of London, and its light has a clean clear quality about it that is impressive. But no one exclaims over the first glimpse of American land. The ship’s company looks at it listlessly, for it is only a flat strip of dull yellow, lying low down upon the water to the north, with occasionally a dimly seen lighthouse rising from it. Almost any land in the world — England, France, Spain, Mexico, Peru — lifts out of the sea with a more commanding relief than America at the approach to New York Bay. The cliffs of Cornwall or the Pillars of Hercules one can grow enthusiastic over; but the sand spits of Long Island or New Jersey make no impression — except, of course, upon the returning native.

Even the hills of Navesink and Sandy Hook, with its smartly. painted buildings, are somehow passed by in silence. No one comments or grows emotional over them. But when Swinburne and Hoffman islands and the shores of Staten Island rise into prominence, there is a visible interest stirred throughout the ship. The pent-up steerage crowds against the rail and chatters excitedly; and even the complacent first-cabin ventures a few remarks on the green grass, the bright-colored houses, the warm sky.

As the ship moves up into the Narrows, passing in the distance the white towers of Coney Island and close at hand the green and gray of Fort Tompkins and Fort Hamilton, the interest spreads. The rails above and below are manned with peering people. The houses, the gardens, the trees, the flowers of Staten Island are almost within stone-throwing distance; and they all look so preternaturally bright and beautiful that many adjectives are forthcoming. Even the not-too-observant foreigner begins to notice the sparkle of light on the water, the clearness of the air, the variety of the foliage, the gayety of the coloring.

Presently the vibration of the vessel ceases, but the ship still moves with her own impetus slowly up into the quarantine grounds. Tugs and yachts and small boats gather about her, like fisher folk around a stranded whale; but they do not try to board her. The tug coming out from the shore flying a yellow flag carries the health officer of the port; and he must make his inspection before any one is allowed to go on board. Once more the port rail is crowded with heads protruding to get a glimpse of the great man coming up the ship’s ladder. How very small he looks and what a long way down he is! The monster proportions of the ship tend to dwarf everything about her — people and tugs, trees and houses, hills on the shore and distances on the water. From the thin air and the clear light one is led to believe that a conversation could be carried on with the people on the Staten Island shore; but they are something over half a mile away. And from the name “The Narrows,” given to the strait through which the ship has just come, one might gather the impression that it is really a narrow strip of water, whereas it is a mile wide.

The medical inspection is soon through with, people from tugs and yachts and steamboats begin to climb up the vessel’s side, sending and receiving shouts of recognition from expectant friends. Perhaps an excursion steamer comes hurrying down the bay with a band of music, flying flags, and several hundred cheering throats to welcome home some congressman or senator whose greatness the ship’s company had not suspected until now. Once more the ship gets under way and steams into the Upper Bay. Everybody is now on the alert. The shores are beginning to show many docks, factories, warehouses, elevators, all the queer buildings to be found about the entrance of a great harbor; the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe’s Island rises in huge proportions; and presently there is a hum that runs along the ship and all eyes are set and staring dead ahead, up the bay.

Slowly, as the vessel turns on her course, the towering sky-scrapers of lower New York, and the spider-web tracery of the Brooklyn Bridge come into view. Faint and far the city lies, like a distant sierra. Nothing is distinct as yet. It is only a suggestion, but, like Mont Blanc seen from Geneva, what a sense of height it gives one! It is not a city on a hill gaining grandeur from its elevated position; on the contrary it rises almost sheer from the water’s edge, — almost like Venice from her lagoon islands. No one who has come up to Venice by water in the evening light is likely to forget the loveliness of that city by the sea with its fairy palaces lifting out of the blue-green tide, its high silver domes of the Salute, its lofty campanili, its wondrous color. It is one of the sights of the world. But New York is all dome, all campanile, all towering splendor as you see it from the Upper Bay; and it has an even greater wealth of color than Venice, a sharper light, a more luminous shadow. It will not stand close analysis so well as the City of the Doges; but at a distance it is superbly picturesque, grandly beautiful.

With this far city in view and the mind groping at its proportions, trying to imagine its height and girth, the steamer, once more,, begins to look small; the Statue of Liberty seems rather like an ordinary statue; even the Upper Bay after the open ocean, seems cramped, shut in. The stranger does not quite understand it. He has to be told over again that the statue on the island stands a hundred and fifty feet above its pedestal, being the largest (and about the worst) of its kind in the world; that the Upper Bay is five miles wide by five or six long, that the ship has been travelling a dozen miles through land-locked waters, and that New York in the distance is still some miles away. Figures are frequently wearisome, if not something of a nuisance; but they are, nevertheless, quite convincing to the sceptical, and absolutely indispensable to the exotic American.

Gowanus Bay and the lower end of Brooklyn, Bayonne and the lower end of Jersey City, are passed quite unnoticed by the passengers. Things of a more immediate interest are claiming the attention. Outward-bound steamers are passing with flags flying and handkerchiefs waving, huge full-rigged ships, riding high out of water, are being towed down and out to sea, barks and brigs and coasting schooners are following after, and lumbering in the rear come spiteful little tugs wrenching at long rows of garbage scows, or hustling along oil lighters, or snorting about dredgers or elevator boats. Everything whistles at you as it passes, by way of salutation; and perhaps the white yacht that is along-side escorting the steamer up to her dock, gives a sharp shriek in return. Meantime the distant city grows in size, lifts higher, seems to peer through its blue atmosphere; while over it, over the harbor and over the bay, the clear September sunlight is falling, dancing, flashing from dome and lofty window and wave facet, wringing color out of every ferry-boat, tug, building, greensward, and scrap of foliage within the great panorama.

When Governor’s Island, with its round little fort, and the Battery, with its charming spot of green, are reached, some of the details of the tall buildings begin to reveal themselves. The outliers facing on Battery Park can be seen from foundation wall to roof line, and counted, in twenty or more stories, by the mounting windows. But these are only the foot-hills. Further back and lifting higher are the central peaks, the main sierras.

The architectural wonders of the world seem insignificant when measured by their scale. The sky line of London, for instance, is cut by church domes and steeples that look down on the low-lying town; but the highest church steeple here is that of Old Trinity, two hundred and eighty-four feet in height, which fails to rise into sight. It is submerged by its surroundings, with the Singer Tower in the lead six hundred and thirty-five feet up in the air. Such structures are appropriately enough called “sky-scrapers.” The tops of them reach into the blue, cut into it, seem to “scrape” against it. Almost everyone is impressed or startled or outraged by the first sight of them. Even the visiting foreigner finds his lively expectation outdone by the reality.

Up into the North River the black muzzle of the steamer points, holding her way amid increasing numbers of tugs, ferry-boats, brick schooners, oil lighters and car barges. Gradually the bunched appearance of the tall buildings begins to change. The group partially disintegrates, certain of the taller peaks draw off and stand alone, the lower city begins to show its profile. This is the view of the city that 1r. Henry James de-scribes as like “some colossal hair comb turned upward, and so deprived of half its teeth that the others, at their uneven intervals, count doubly as sharp spikes.” The simile has a modicum of truth about it. The want of teeth here and there shows that the growth is not complete, that the city is still in a building stage; but that the present sky-line is unattractive can hardly be admitted. On the contrary, if seen late in the afternoon when the great foundation walls are sunk in shadow, when the sun is setting over New Jersey and its yellow light flushes the tops of the high buildings and turns the window-panes to flaming fire, this profile view of the lower city is magnificently grand. There never was quite such a mountain barrier made by human hands and stretched along the eastern sky at sunset. Even in the full light of noonday, with dark shadows flung down the great walls and high lights leaping from cornice to gilded dome, or at dusk when each house of many thou-sand electric lights has its windows illuminated,. there is still a grandeur of mass, of light, of color, that is most imposing. That there is incongruity, want of proportion, want of Greek harmony about it, is quite true. But perhaps even so severe a critic as Mr. James will admit that the problem of New York to-day is quite different from the problem of Athens in Periclean times. Athens, or at least the beautiful part of it, was built to gratify the vanity of the Athenians; New York has been built to handle the commerce of the western world.

Commerce, travel, traffic, seem to proclaim themselves from every craft that floats in the harbor and from all the docks along the shores. The impulsive ferry-boats, carrying their thousands of commuters to or from New Jersey, keep darting back and forth from their slips, impudently challenging our great liner with short, hoarse whistles that indicate they mean to cross our bows. They have to “make a train” and are not to be stopped. Long scows loaded with freight-cars are being shoved and pushed around the Battery and up to Mott Haven, where the cars are transferred to New England railway tracks; pile-drivers in tow go staggering up the fiver to the new docks in process of building; great strings of canal boats, half a dozen long and three abreast, are trailing away toward Raritan Bay; coal barges in squadrons keep filing past. Everything is moving in the interest of commerce.

Much of this commercial show, in scale and value, falls far short of the imposing row of office buildings staked out from the Battery to the Plaza. Enough of it is petty or mean-looking, as, for instance, the rows and rows of pile-docks with long ramshackle pier-sheds upon them. True, they serve their purpose fairly well. With the necessities for many and quick landings the wooden dock that gives instead of breaking with the blow is better than the stone dock that might crush or bend the plates of a vessel; but not even a very “good American ” will argue that they are better-looking and make a finer appearance than the stone ones. If the truth were told the wooden piers are a shabby, poverty-stricken, and patched border for so wealthy a city to be wearing on its outer garment. They contrast sharply with the huge steamers, the colossal bridges, and the high towers of the sky-scrapers — the first contrast perhaps to catch the eye of the visitor.

To be sure, one soon forgets or fails to see these discordant items. There is such a bewildering rush at every one of the senses as the steamer moves up past the Courtlandt Street ferry-slip, that the forlorn docks and the dirty scows are relegated to the background. Color asserts itself. It blares from the many-hued pier-sheds, from the white and gold excursion steamers, from the red and cream colored funnels of the ocean liners, from the magenta ferry-boats, from the terra-cotta, brick, and stone buildings. It is too near for any large unity or harmony. It comes in patches with some sharpness of impact, and is at first (perhaps by contrast with the dull blue and green of northern Europe) somewhat gay, but agreeably so. There is a stimulus, a tonic effect about it that gives intimation of the intensity of life that prevails in the city and the harbor. It is not the deep half-tone, the broken hue, the dull morbid color indicative of decay; on the contrary, it has clearness, even sharpness in it, and comes to you like the clarion call of a trumpet.

And the noise! The shrieks of passing steamers, the discordant notes of harbor craft, the puffing and wheezing of tugs, the din of escaping steam, clanging bells, howling men are in the air. The deck rails of the steamer are manned, and all the passengers above and below are in a buzz of excitement, a roar of noise. The end of the pier and the windows of the pier-shed are bulging with expectant friends, eagerly awaiting the docking of the big liner, and all making a noise again. Flags are flying, handkerchiefs are waving, everybody is talking, a large proportion is shouting.

The warping-in process, slowly effected by the aid of tugs and windlasses, is accompanied by volleys of recognitions sent to the steamer from the dock, and returned in kind. And such a kind! The manner in which the language is mangled, to say nothing of the idioms interpolated, gives one quite a shock. Such a beautiful bay and harbor, such wonderful sunlight and color, such a marvel of a city in its making; but what abominable voices, and what atrocious grammar! You know that the ungrammatical and the slangy are always in evidence on such occasions, and that the well-bred majority is quiet and unobtrusive; but, nevertheless, it gives you a queer feeling. It is another one of the contrasts.

And are those yellow-faced, unkempt, ill-dressed stevedores who are sagging heavily over the gang-planks the typical workmen of New York? Is that howling mass, waving its arms and parasols in the background, representative of the city’s upper classes? Not necessarily. A mob is a mob anywhere, and is usually gathered together for the purpose of doing those things in company that the individual would be ashamed to do alone. Not that there is anything reprehensible about the crowd that gathers to welcome an ocean-steamer, but, good American that you are, you wish it were not quite so demonstrative, not quite so “loud.” You have misgivings that perhaps your foreign acquaintance on the steamer will accept these people as typical of the soil, and you have a notion that the real American is somewhat more refined, more dignified than these; in fact, not very different from any other educated person. To be quite frank, you are somewhat taken aback to find so many of your countrymen not so high up socially or intellectually as the blue sky or even a down-town sky-scraper.

The gang-planks are in place and the rush to get ashore begins. There is no cause for hurry, because the baggage has to be taken off and examined before people can leave the pier; but that does not give anyone pause. To see the scrambling mass moving along the gang-planks one might think the ship afire, and everyone anxious to quit it in the shortest possible time. Off they surge, bonnets and bags and umbrellas, new clothes, top hats, and alpenstocks, dogs, maids, and stewards, each one pushing and hustling his neighbor, but good-natured about it, smiling, laughing, all of them delighted to get ashore.

In half an hour the whole ship’s company is within the pier-shed getting bags and boxes together for the customs examination. Everybody is moving, gesticulating, calling, perspiring. Passengers and their friends, with stewards, telegraph boys, customs officers, policemen, expressmen, are swirling about like so much flotsam. It looks like a mad mob, but there is a method in the madness. The moment one’s boxes are together a special officer can be obtained to examine them. A landing card is presented at the desk of the chief and he immediately details a subordinate to accompany you. None of them takes off a cap. Your officer may nod a”Good morning! ” but it is very perfunctory. He wants to know at once where your baggage is, and if it is all together in one place. Then the trouble begins.

That is, trouble may begin if one tries to dodge questions or hide anything, or even has a suspicious look. If one knows no guile he need fear no evil. For the average customs officer has no malice prepense. He is anxious to get through with the examination and get you and your bags off the premises; but he has heard somewhat about the path of duty being the path of glory; and, besides — a plain-clothes inspector may be watching him. At any rate, it will be necessary to open up those “few presents” and show the bottom of things. Perhaps when he has finished there is nothing but bottom left and most of your apparel is scattered about on the dock; and then again it is possible that you will be passed on as pleasantly, with withers unwrung, as though in England or in France.

But the ordeal is through with and help is at hand. Ununiformed, unlicensed, unnumbered porters offer to aid in restoring the lost equilibrium. The belongings are put back, squeezed in, trampled into place, and the bags locked and strapped. Then the porter trundles them down toward the street entrance of the long dock and, incidentally, stops in the vicinity of carriage agents and cabmen. A bargain is struck for a conveyance. The price is of an exalted sky-scraping nature, but it is not the proper time to quarrel with cabmen. They know it, and charge according to their knowledge. Neither is it the place to get the best cab accommodations. The horses are street-car derelicts, the harness gives evidence of disintegration, the carriage and the shabby unshaven driver are usually the worse for wear.

One resolves not to be bothered by such small matters. The frayed lining of a coach is not to influence your opinion about your native town. A look out of the carriage window (or over it, for there is no glass left in it) is pleasanter and more philosophical. Alas! the view without is quite as had as the look within. West Street is crowded with trucks, drays, carts, cabs, cars, trolleys that tangle into knots and bunches and then somehow untangle; the pavement is broken by car tracks and an occasional hole into which wheels drop with a thud and come out with a jerk; the dingy, battered-looking buildings that line the east side of the street, the cheap and gaudy signs, the barrel skids across the sidewalks, the lampless lamp posts, the garbage cans, the stained awnings, are all somewhat disturbing. And the roar and rattle and clang that seem to accompany the movements of that mob of humanity! Was there ever such a din known to men, since the walls of Jericho fell down ?

Once out of the West Street maelstrom the carriage, perhaps, slips into a long, narrow side street, made up of many four-story buildings, all quite alike, and all apparently inhabited by people who rub unclean hands on doors, walls, and shutters, and do not bother about washing either the windows or themselves. Dull-looking women sit on the low stoops and survey the street in which dirty children are playing, often in connection with standing drays or ash barrels or coal heaps. As for the street itself, it is perhaps a series of Belgian block bumps, with an occasional break-away into asphalt. Wherever it crosses another street or avenue there are double car tracks with the clanging gongs of surface cars, and perhaps overhead the rattle and roar of a rusty-looking elevated railway.

There is no cessation of clatter, and apparently no end to the mean buildings that line the way. Tenements, factories, shops, saloons, — whatever they are or are not,—at least just here they hold the record for uniform rectangular meanness. It is a little shocking the way all this is driven in upon one after some months in Paris or London. Perhaps you have ignored it, if not denied it, many a time in speaking of New York over there in Europe; and, true enough, there is some improvement over earlier days; but who could imagine it was still so bad! Yet this is the West Side of the city; the East Side is perhaps worse. You begin to wonder about the narrow strip of comparative decency running up Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, and Broadway. Perhaps in your absence even that has become submerged beneath the high waves of immigration.

Gradually the buildings grow larger and more important, the streets cleaner and more filled with people, the vehicles more numerous, ,the noise more insistent. Apartment houses begin to rise, shops and stores develop imposing show-windows, cars are coming and going, crowds are circulating in strings and knots. Presently the carriage rattles into Broadway and the shabby but unabashed driver begins edging his way across it, with one eye on the autocratic policeman who stands in the center of the street and regulates traffic. Through and across that net-work of cars and people the route lies down a clean asphalt street to Fifth Avenue, and in a few moments your dilapidated trap brings up with a flourish of whip, in front of perhaps the most ornate hotel in the world.

Carriages in plush and velvet, ladies in silks and satins, flunkies and footmen in lacings and facings, pages in gloves and buttons, blend in a gorgeous confusion about the entrances. Within there are glimpses of marble and gilding, Oriental rugs and portieres, visitors in gay hats and marvelous costumes, smartly dressed men, hurrying porters, telegraph boys, call boys. An air of luxury and wealth, not to say riotous extravagance, seems to exude from every opening in the building. Around it are colossal structures in stone and marble, along the avenue is a great moving throng in carriages and on foot, close at hand gorgeous shop-windows catch the eye, in the distance towering Flatirons lose themselves in pale out-lines, over all there is an unceasing roar and honk and whistle, and far above is the serene blue of the American sky.

There is nothing strikingly new about this. The New Yorker has known it, known the squalor and known the magnificence, for a long time; and yet each year as he re-turns from Europe the sharp contrast is brought home to him more violently. In a few days he will accept it, without further thinking, as he has done many times before; but he knows, nevertheless, that it is there. And how there, why there, in this chief city of the great republic ? Is democracy merely a name? And is this newly established aristocracy of wealth more dominant, more arrogant, more despotic, than the old aristocracy of birth and rank?

Fortunately, those questions do not have to be answered immediately. The stranger in New York is at first more given to the exclamation than the interrogation, and as for the returned native he is perhaps momentarily dazed by the splendor and the meanness of his own town. Besides, concise and final answers are not to be accepted regarding places and people in America. Many problems are still in process of solution. Not even the Americans themselves know precisely how they will come out.