New York City – The Streets In The Morning

If those who originally planned the streets of New York had possessed enough imagination to foresee the down-town habit of the present day, no doubt they would have arranged matters differently. They fancied that the city would be a great shipping center, a seaport; and that people would need many streets running toward the water on either side. Moreover, the long backbone of Manhattan, being high ground from which there was a general slope away toward the rivers, must have suggested that the natural drainage and sewerage of the city would be along the many ribs or streets running east and west. No one thought then that in a comparatively few years half the population would, morning and evening, be moving along the ridge of the island, crowding, clutching, struggling with one another, like so many ants traveling along the narrow top of a fence rail.

A glance at the map will show the peculiar disposition of the land. And it will also show hundreds of streets running east and west from river to river; but, at its widest part (Fourteenth Street), only seventeen avenues running north and south, and the majority of these not available for through traffic. The map, when taken in connection with the accepted idea of most New Yorkers that business must be transacted within a stone’s throw of Wall Street and living must be carried on in the neighborhood of the Central Park, will explain, readily enough, why there is so much friction during the “rush” hours. Hundreds of thousands of human ants want to pass along the fence rail at the same time. The wonder is, not that some of them get hustled and pushed, and that many lose the polish of their boots and the sheen of their hats; but that more are not injured or killed outright. The transportation of a million or more people a day from one point to another along the high ridge of crowded Manhattan is no easy task. They say in London or Paris or Berlin, with a little air of superior experience, that they do things differently over there. True enough, but the chances are they could not do this kind of thing at all.

The movement of these large bodies of people along the ridge begins early in the morning. From seven until ten o’clock one may notice the drift of people in the side streets toward the main thoroughfares. Men hurry along for a block or so and then disappear down a sub-way entrance, or up the steps of an elevated station, or they turn down an avenue to wait for a surface car.

The surface lines along Third, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Avenues are always crowded with passengers from Harlem down as far as Union Square; but they are not usually taken by people who are moving toward the lower part of the city. They are not fast enough and are subject to being held up at every street crossing. The crowd in them is “getting to business” in the up-town stores and offices, or else is coming down from the region of the park to shop or travel or keep some form of engagement.

It is a good-natured, long-suffering crowd, and submits to being packed, like cattle in a box car, without a murmur. Long after the seating and standing capacity of a car is exhausted, the conductor keeps stopping for “just a few more.” No one complains. Everyone has been one of the stopped-for, and knows what it means to be left standing on a street corner, perhaps in the rain. Finally the car is filled to the bursting point, and when a quick stop or a sudden start is made, the mass within, holding on by straps, rolls and sways like a lump of jelly. As for the crowds that choke the platforms without, they roll too, but regain their equilibrium by force of sheer bulk and iron railings.

The conductor wriggles in and out among the masses, collecting fares, disarranging toilets, and elbowing people right and left; but no one says anything in remonstrance. It is not that people fail to realize the absurd and the disagreeable in all this, but because they recognize the unavoidable. What use to quarrel about what cannot be helped ? They have to be at their posts at a certain hour, and there is no other way to get there. The service is inadequate, to be sure, but how can it be bettered? It changes completely every few years in the endeavor to accommodate itself to the increased demand; but the crowd keeps growing faster than human wit can devise larger and better means of transportation. The foreign visitor who stands agape at this packing of cars has not the smallest idea of the problem presented. It is not the moving of a few thousand people at leisure, but the carrying each day of nearly two million passengers in the borough of Manhattan alone, and the bulk of them during the “rush” hours at morning and evening. The squeezed and jammed and jellied public knows something about this, and, sensibly enough, agrees to accept the inevitable.

The volume of this up-town crowd of buyers, travelers, clerks, managers, typewriters, and shop girls that fill the surface cars in the early morning is by no means insignificant. It is really enormous, almost as great as the crowd that gathers in the neighborhood of Wall Street. For it is an exaggeration to say that all business is done down town: There are many large banks, insurance companies, printing-offices and wholesale houses, .to say nothing of the retail shops, in the upper city. Then too, most of the railroading, manufacturing, and shipping is carried on along the upper east and west sides.

And though all the surface cars in the morning going down town are filled to overflowing, the returning cars are not entirely empty. There are stray currents of humanity that help restore the lost balance — people who for one reason or another move in an opposite direction to the main streams. Harlem and beyond are not deserted when the Stock Exchange opens. Some business, some traffic is going on all over the city, at all times.

However, the main currents in the early morning set toward Wall Street and they find the lines of most resistance but of least time by way of the elevated roads and the subways. The crush on these through lines is similar to that on the surface cars. Train after train hums and rattles its way into the station to find a long wall of humanity lined up on the platform ready to board it. There is a clank of gates or the slam of an iron door, a few apologetic-looking people respond to the guard’s call of “Passengers off first”; then there is an “All aboard,” followed by a steady stream of people pouring in at each end of each car. The gates slam shut, the signal cord is jerked violently, the train with its electric power responds with another jerk, and is quickly under way. After half a dozen stops the train is filled, and if it is an express it runs through to The Bridge or Rector Street or South Ferry; if it is a local, it continues adding passengers, until the aisles and platforms are crowded, and people are hanging by straps as in the surface cars.

It is the same good-natured, tolerant crowd, whether met with on the surface and elevated roads, or in the subways. It stands jostling, pushing, elbowing with the utmost composure, each one knowing very well that he himself cannot get in or get out without doing the same thing. It even tries to be indifferent, looks out of the window or, more often, hides its face in the morning paper, if the crush is not too violent for the use of its hands. But the morning paper is not taken very seriously. The head-lines are read, and by the time Franklin Street and Park Place are reached many a journal has found its way to the floor, and is left there by its owner. The passengers now begin to file off. At Courtlandt and Rector half the occupants have disembarked to the refrain of “Step lively, please”; and when the Battery and South Ferry are called there are few to respond. The guards make a frantic effort to gather up the stray papers, the ventilators are reversed with a slam, and presently the train is going north at high speed for an-other load of passengers.

The disembarked hastens downstairs to the street or scrambles upstairs out of the subway, as the case may be, and there it meets and mingles with the larger moving throng of the lower city. Whence came this greater throng? How did it arrive here? What was its method of transit? To answer such questions one has only to remember that the island of Manhattan does not begin to furnish houses and homes for all the people that do business in the city. There is a great host living on the outskirts, in the suburbs, within a radius of thirty miles of the City Hall, that comes and goes each day with more regularity than the tides in the harbor. This does not mean merely the contingent living to the north of the city in Westchester, or along the sound in Connecticut, though the representation from there is vast enough in proportions to fill the trains from Forty-Second Street down to the lower city. The streams of humanity flowing from that water-shed are very large and yet apparently they dwindle into insignificance compared with what pours in from Long Island.

Up through Brooklyn and along the great bridges there is continuous travel by trolley, motor, and foot, from early in the morning. Before nine o’clock the tide is at its flood. Around the New York exit of the Brooklyn Bridge the currents from many directions meet and mingle to make a veritable whirlpool of humanity that circles and eddies, foams and dashes, gets mixed up in a roaring swirl, then collapses in froth, dissipates, and finally trickles away in small streams to various points of the compass. Of course there is a blocking of traffic, and occasionally an accident, due to the rush off or on the cars, that produces confusion, excitement, loud protest, or angry denunciation. But this, though a not unusual occurrence, always leaves the pushed and hustled crowd more or less indifferent. Everyone knows that the thorough-fares are insufficient during ” rush ” hours; but they do not know how matters can be helped.

There is less of a crowd at the Williamsburgh Bridge because it is not the most direct route to the lower part of the city. It is one of the ways by which those who do business in the middle Broadway region travel, and it contributes its sum to the mass that each morning moves into the city; but it lends not directly to the congestion of the lower town. Still, though it is not a direct way, it adds something, like the ferries beneath it that keep coming and going from shore to shore. Time was when the ferries at South and Wall and Fulton streets were the only means of getting into the lower town from Brooklyn, and they were then, in the morning hours, often loaded with people to the gunwales; but since the building of the new bridges and the opening of the Battery tube, they have been used but little. Eventually their occupation will be gone completely.

The crush at the Brooklyn Bridge has been greatly reduced since the opening of the Battery tube in 1908. This has, for the time, diverted much of the South Brooklyn travel.

Thousands upon thousands swarm into the city from Long Island. Bridges creak and ferries strain and tunnels roar with the weight of them; and the rasp and shuffle of their feet along the decks, along the bridge approaches, and along the flagged streets help make that deep undertone of the city to which the electric cars add the high note. Yet Brooklyn and beyond is only one source of intake. The shores of the Upper Bay, Staten Island, Coney Island, send up their quota by steamer and ferry-boat; while from the Hudson, reaching far into the state, steamboats and railways are bringing down and disembarking more thousands to swell the throng. But the body of commuters that comes in from New Jersey is, perhaps, the greatest of them all.

Probably four hundred thousand people is a moderate estimate for those who daily travel into New York from across the Hudson. It is nearer, no doubt, to half a million. The local trains on all the railways through New Jersey are crowded from seven to ten in the morning, and the double-decked ferries that push and snort and whistle their various ways from shore to shore look black with massed humanity. Again, as on the East River side, there are long tunnels under the Hudson, carrying passengers in swift electric cars; and these are lessening the crush on the ferries for the time being, but it will not be long before both tunnels and ferries are once more inadequate. The population in New Jersey that comes and goes daily to New York is increasing by thousands each year, and the greater the ease in getting to town, the better the traveling facilities, the more people there are willing enough to live in the country in preference to the crowded quarters of the upper city.

The traffic over and under the Hudson is already enormous, and what it will become a few years hence no one can even imagine.

One meets with the same throng crossing the Hudson River that he finds in the subways and the elevated trains. It is not over-polite. There are men who get up invariably to give their seats to women, and others who always apologize for crowding or jostling a neighbor; but there are many who do neither the one thing nor the other. It is not so much want of manners as thoughtlessness. They are not thinking about their neighbors. They have their minds fixed on the day’s work and are quite unconscious of anything in their surroundings, except the time that is being made. They stand or herd together on decks and platforms, like bands of sheep in a corral, waiting silently until the boat or train is in, the gates are opened, and they can hustle up the runways and get into the street. Delay is about the only thing that frets them, and to miss a boat or a train is usually considered legitimate excuse for profanity.

Danger and disaster frequently follow upon this high-pressure speed, this unending hurry; but the average commuter by boat or by tunnel will not allow himself to contemplate the idea of anything happening to him. He dodges like a mackerel in a school attacked by blue-fish, and thinks it will not be his turn just yet. The train comes to a stop in the subway or on the elevated and instantly a hundred windows go up and a hundred heads are thrust out, each one anxious to know what the delay is about. The block system may run up danger signals by the score, but the impatient mob within wants to know “why he (the engineer) doesn’t go ahead.”

It is just so on the rivers. Fogs shut down and shut out everything a boat’s length away, the bells are ringing and the whistles blowing; but the mob on the decks, straining its eyes into the gray pall ahead, occasionally casts a glance toward the pilot-house and wonders why the boat is running under a slow bell. Every few minutes, even in fair weather, there is some craft crossing your bows or whistling shrilly that it intends to cross, and for you to “slack up.” When your pilot whistles back that he rejects the proposal, that he will not “slack up,” and the other craft can stop or take the consequences, there are plenty of people on the decks to murmur approbation. That is the proper spirit. No stop for anything. A collision? Well, — they would rather run that risk than get to the office late.

Through the ferry-houses, up the side streets, the moving, wriggling throng from New Jersey is shunted. It does not now bother with surface cars, for it is easier to get up toward the Broadway ridge by foot. It follows the sidewalks, fills them full to the curbstones, and winds on over gratings, around upright showcases, along iron steps, intent upon arriving at a certain place at a certain hour, and not intent upon anything else. Obstructions, such as packing-cases being loaded on a truck, or a belated ash-man rolling a barrel across the sidewalk, divert the throng, but does not stop it. It turns out into the street, goes around, and then resumes its accustomed flow. Hawkers of knick-knacks, toy venders, fruit and flower peddlers, newsboys, yell and shout at it, but it does not swerve. It does not care for noise; but let some stranger, meeting another stranger, stop on the sidewalk to shake hands and talk for a moment, and instantly everyone. is angry. The stream is backed up by meeting with a snag, and the chances are favorable for the snag-makers being pushed into the gutter. At any rate, they are quickly made to realize with Mr. Brownell that, “Whoever is not in a hurry is in the way.”

It is the realization that the crowd itself is “in the way” that leads many of its units to drop out of it at side streets and make longer routes by less frequented thoroughfares. Often the longest way round proves the shortest way to the office; and there are many desertions from the throng that winds up Courtlandt or Chambers Street. However, the main body goes on and finally pushes into Broadway. There it mingles and is lost in the greater procession, some of which is going north, some south, and some plunging in front of trucks and trolleys in the attempt to get on the other side of the street. It is a swift and compelling procession. You move with it and at its set pace, otherwise someone will be treading on your heels. In fact, to do as the crowd does, is almost compulsory.

The objective point of the crowd is undoubtedly at Broad and Wall streets, though there is no lack of activity along Broadway between Fulton Street and the Custom House, or for that matter along Park Row or on Broadway above the Post-Office. Still, there is an eddy in the region of the Stock Exchange where men drift about in circles as though they had reached their destination; and towards this eddy people on the side streets seem alternately drawn in and sent out by dozens and scores and hundreds.

Those who come and go in and about “the Street,” are not necessarily heavy operators on the exchanges. They may be only clerks and messengers, office factotums. Some of them may have no business at all and are drawn there only by the movement of the throng. It is even believable that a part of the eddy is made up of driftwood — derelicts that have been stripped and deserted and are now floating idly about in the strom. The unfortunates that wander penniless in the Casino Gardens at Monte Carlo make up a considerable percentage of the so-called “gay throng” there, and Wall Street has its numerous shorn lambs called “capitalists” or “brokers” that still stand in the street and bleat.

They are all men. The women do some trading in stocks, too, but usually it is over the ‘phone from up town. Petticoats in the lower city during business hours are, of course, seen, but infrequently as compared with coats and trousers. And usually they belong to stenographers and typewriters who are employed in the various offices. The majority. of women living in upper New York never go down town from year end to year end. The whole lower part of the city is given up to men and their business. They are nearly all what are called middlemen, and their business is betwixt and between. Few of them are, in any sense, original producers. They are doing something “on commission “; trading in stocks or cotton or petroleum, buying and selling for a percentage of the account. Even if they are selling tickets on steamers and railways, or writing life insurance policies, or practicing law up a sky-scraper, they are still men working for fees and salaries — middlemen who adjust and make possible, but do not produce.

So it is that the down-town crowd, as it winds hither and yon along the thoroughfares, is a peculiar crowd. On the surface it has little of the stronger if rougher element in it, — no mechanics in their shirt-sleeves, no stevedores, no miners, no mill-hands, no laborers. The immense foreign population of New York is not here in evidence, the negro is seen only occasionally, and such native types as the Yankee, the Southerner, the Missourian, the Californian, are not recognizable. In fact, it is a select, gentlemanly-looking, somewhat whey-faced multitude that one meets with in the Wall Street region. Its hands are white, its body is fragile but active, its head is large and somewhat feverish. It works chiefly with its head. It thus wears out its nerves and is threatened continually with hysteria; but its tenacity and endurance are remarkable. It holds on, worries through, and in the end gains its point.

As these people pass you on the street, dressed fashion-ably, moving alertly, saluting each other half flippantly, you wonder if they can be the business men of New York who pile up such wonderful statistics in banking, trade, and commerce. Yes; some of them. Of course, the great majority of them hold subordinate positions. They are book-keepers, managing clerks, salesmen, little brokers, hangers-on. The heads of corporations and large institutions — the so-called “captains of industry” — get to their offices by different ways than the sidewalks, and spend little time wandering along Broadway or elsewhere; but their lieutenants and under-officers, those who will some day become captains, show in the crowd.

It may occur to you that these rather effeminate-looking, city-bred folk can know not a great deal about the larger aspects of manufacturing, commerce, and agriculture; that they must be ignorant of the practical workings of railways, steel mills, and copper mines; and that their trading in securities, their sale of grain and cotton, their handling of cattle, iron, and oil is all more or less of a guess and a gamble. Yes; but it might be dangerous for you to presume upon that. The New York broker knows the financial side of America very well indeed; he is an excellent promoter and the cleverest ‘of all commission men. It sounds righteous, and it is just now politically proper, to call him “a gambler”; but it is not an accurate term. Nor is it generically true. There are gamblers in New York, and on the exchanges, beyond a doubt; but there are also thousands of straight-forward men of finance without whom we should fare badly. The country needs its Wall Street to handle its enterprises of great moment.

Are these then the representative men of New York? Yes and no. They are one kind of New Yorker, — the kind that figures with undue prominence perhaps in the newspapers, — but there are many kinds of people in the city. You shall not be able to point out the type, but you shall see many types. Among them the man in Wall Street is certainly to be reckoned with. He plays a very important part in the commerce and trade of the city. All told, perhaps the bankers of New York are the most powerful group of men on the western continent, and they certainly lend an atmosphere to the down-town district, if not to the whole city.