THE RISE AND FALL OF FUN
1. THE CHILDREN OF NECESSITY
The word "square" does not have the same meaning in Manhattan as in Paris or London or Rome. Belgrave Square and the Piazza della Repubblica are rectilinear spaces that serve as punctuations or pauses in the street plan. Here the business and the pace of the city slows, cars are forced to the periphery, and pedestrians are invited to wander across broad spaces, often around and amidst a garden. Think of the Place des Vosges, that quintessential seventeenth-century square in the heart of Paris, with its grand brick-faced houses and elegant cafés looking out over a park where schoolchildren in uniform play on swings. This is the Paris of Madeline, and of our dreams.
New York City has, or rather had, several such gracious spots, in the districts developed in the nineteenth century-Washington Square, in Greenwich Village; Gramercy Park, in the East Twenties. But most of the places New Yorkers call squares are, in fact, axial points where Broadway crosses another north-south avenue. Some of those places, including Union Square, at 14th Street, and Madison Square, at 23rd, also featured charmingly landscaped parks, with fine houses gathered around the perimeter; but because they were also traffic hubs, these places eventually became large-scale commercial centers, so that New Yorkers now think of them as places to shop rather than to stroll. And as Broadway continues north it slices straight through the adjacent avenue, putting an end both to parks and to pedestrians. The square immediately to the north of Madison is Herald Square, which consists of a triangle of weeds, a statue of Horace Greeley, and an enormous number of cars. The next square after that is Times Square, which is neither square nor safe to cross by foot, and which is possibly the least serene place in the Western Hemisphere-"a ganglion of streets that fuses into a traffic cop," as the essayist and urban bard Benjamin de Casseres put it in 1925. Is it any wonder that our dreams of Paris are so different from our dreams of New York, when the one has the Place des Vosges, and the other Times Square?
Why does Manhattan have traffic jams where other cities have plazas? A reasonable guess would be that the sheer force of growth wiped the old gathering spots off the map. That would be reasonable; but it would be wrong. The curious truth is that Manhattan looks the way it does because it was designed that way. Possibly the unlikeliest aspect of this fact is that Manhattan was designed at all. Whereas political capitals, whether Washington, D.C., or Rawalpindi, have often developed according to a blueprint, mercantile centers normally expand willy-nilly from some original core, according to the ambitions and appetites of the people who shape them. And this was certainly true at first of Manhattan, which expanded northward from the tip of the island. The narrow, crooked lanes around Wall Street offer a reminder of what the entire city once looked like.
But Manhattan's street plan is, in fact, a monument to political control of private behavior. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Manhattan was a flourishing port city of perhaps 100,000 souls which extended about as far north as the stream that is now Canal Street. The farmland beyond was controlled by large landlords, who often carved out private streets for their own convenience. It was by no means clear whether the power to map out the rapidly growing city belonged to the municipal governing body, the Common Council, or to private landowners. In 1807, the city appealed to the state to settle the issue, and the state agreed to appoint a commission that would have "exclusive power to lay out streets, roads and public squares," and to "shut up" streets already built by private parties.
Whatever the original intention, the commissioners chose to interpret their charge as a mandate to utterly transform the map of the city. In 1811, they published one of the most audacious documents in the history of urban planning. It was a work that bore the stamp of the new republic-though it was Benjamin Franklin's rationalism and unsentimental materialism, rather than Thomas Jefferson's sense of romance and grandeur, that infused this extraordinary design. In remarks accompanying the plan, the commissioners noted that they had wondered "whether they should confine themselves to rectilinear and rectangular streets, or whether they should adopt some of those supposed improvements, by circles, ovals and stars, which certainly embellish a plan, whatever may be their effects as to convenience and utility." Note the stacked deck-on the one hand, "embellishments" of "supposed" value; on the other, "convenience and utility." "In considering that subject," the commissioners continued, "they could not but bear in mind that a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and that strait-sided, right-angled homes are the most cheap to build, and the most convenient to live in. The effect of these plain and simple reflections was decisive."
So the commissioners straightened out Manhattan's twisty street plan into a relentless, unvarying grid-twelve avenues, placed at unequal intervals and running on a roughly north-south axis, and 155 streets crossing the avenues from the settled northern border of the city far up into the wilds of Harlem. As there were to be no ovals or stars, so there were to be no plazas, no public gathering spots. The commissioners went on to observe, "It may be, to many, a matter of surprise that so few vacant spaces have been left, and these so small, for the benefit of fresh air, and consequent preservation of health. Certainly, if the city of New York were destined to stand on the side of a small stream, such as the Seine or the Thames, a great number of ample places might be needful." Pity Paris or London, languishing beside "a small stream," while in Manhattan the health-giving sea dispelled the vapors attendant upon urban life. And then the commissioners returned to their commercial preoccupations: the very fact that Manhattan was an island, they noted, ensured that the price of land was "uncommonly great"; so "principles of economy" would have to be given more weight than might otherwise have been prudent. Thus, no plazas.
Generations of urban thinkers, from Frederick Law Olmsted to Lewis Mumford, have reeled in horror at a master plan that obliterated topography in favor of the endless multiplication of identical units, and could find no larger rationale for doing so than cost. And yet everything about the plan bears the stamp of this new democratic republic: its simplicity and horror of adornment; its blunt practicality; its faith in the marketplace as a democratic instrument, equally open to all. The grid was a blow against the large landholder with his private streets; even the decision to identify the avenues and streets by number rather than name was an act of "lexicographical leveling," removing from the great families the privilege of memorializing themselves in the city's street plan. The grid was an abstraction, but an abstraction placed at the service of the citizen-intended not to thwart the city's appetites and ambitions, but to facilitate their satisfaction.
The commissioners did permit several interruptions in the pattern. There would be "places," such as Union Place, formed at the conjunction of various streets and thus "the children of necessity," and "squares," large areas to be set aside for parade grounds or marketplaces, though not for strolling or the taking of fresh air. Besides these, only one exception to the relentless principle of the grid would be permitted: Broadway. This boulevard was already the city's main street, crossing over the canal and running all the way to Grace Church at 10th Street (where it formed the southern boundary of Union Place). The path continued as the Bloomingdale Road; as it slanted northward, this roadway cut at a sharp angle through the avenues, forming triangles which, though children of necessity as well, apparently seemed to the commissioners too unimportant for further comment.
the "squares" never had a chance before the city's growth, and before the simple principle-which the commissioners seem to have anticipated-that land would be converted to its most valuable use. Neither the parade ground nor the marketplace was ever built. And as New York became, first, the great port city of the eastern seaboard, and then the nation's chief source of capital, the city's boundary pressed out into the numbered streets of the new grid. The grid did not, of course, lend itself to the idea of a "city center"; instead, the center moved steadily north, from the area around City Hall, to what is now SoHo, to Washington Square. In 1832, a developer gained control over the waste area the commissioners had laid out as Union Place, and renamed it, in the great tradition of real estate marketing, Union Square. By the late 1840s, Union Square was lined with fine houses and shops. The opening up of Madison Avenue in 1847, with its headwaters at Madison Square at 26th Street, made possible a new elite neighborhood; and soon the rich were moving northward along Madison and Fifth.
New York City underwent a radical transformation in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. An economic boom turned lower Manhattan into one of the world's great commercial centers, with buildings that, for the first time, towered above the highest church steeples. Eight- and ten-story office buildings went up at the tip of the island; the offices of the city's great newspapers clustered around City Hall; wholesalers and small-scale manufacturers moved into cast-iron buildings in the area around Houston Street, and printers and publishers gathered around Astor Place, just below Grace Church. The tremendous growth of downtown propelled everything else northward. As recently as 1840, virtually the entire population of the city was jammed below 14th Street; by 1870, more than half the city lived to the north, mostly in the rapidly developing East Side.
The city's theaters and amusements, which in the late eighteenth century centered around City Hall Park, headed north along with the population generally. This happened both because the fine stores and office buildings and government offices that occupied lower Manhattan could afford to pay more in rent than theaters and restaurants could, and also because culture followed its consumers. (The poor remained downtown, in what is now called the Lower East Side, or lived along the wharves on either side of the island, where much of the city's manual labor was employed.) Nevertheless, in mid-century the city had no real entertainment district. New York was a city of pedestrians, and people lived where they worked; most neighborhoods, save the most exclusive, necessarily had a mixed character, with factories, taverns, shops, and private homes all on the same street, and often in the same building.
But the rise of mass transportation changed the face of New York. The first elevated railroad, immensely noisy and dirty and inefficient but still positively miraculous at the time, was completed in 1870; it carried passengers up the West Side from Dey Street, far downtown, to 29th Street.
A Sixth Avenue line followed in 1878, and then Third Avenue, and then Second. Public transportation meant that New Yorkers could live in one neighborhood, work in another, and enjoy themselves in a third. Basil March, the hero of William Dean Howells's 1890 novel, A Hazard of New Fortunes, lives with his wife in the dignified precincts of Washington Square, but commutes by "el" to his office at the raffish magazine he edits in the East Forties. Though he also explores the city on foot and by coach, March always seems to take the el when he wants to go "uptown," where yet newer worlds await him. By Howells's time, the East Side had been developed up to 125th Street, though the West Side remained largely pastoral.
An incidental effect of this new capacity to take large numbers of people from one place and deliver them to another was that those peculiar junctures created by the periodic intersections of Broadway with an avenue suddenly presented themselves as nodal points in the city-not squares, but traffic convergences. Broadway itself never had an el, but it was flanked by els, and the avenue itself was served by horse-drawn "omnibuses" and by "horsecars," which were horse-drawn trolleys whose wheels ran along tracks in order to make for a smoother and swifter ride. And so the entertainment district consolidated around juncture points along Broadway. Theaters were still scattered around the city-along Second Avenue, and 125th Street in Harlem, and in Brooklyn-but by the 1870s, the city's first true entertainment district had emerged, at Union Square.
What was new about Union Square was that it supported not just the theater but an entire industry brought into being by the theater, as well as all the other forms of pleasure associated with theatergoing. In and around the square were legitimate theaters, such as Wallack's, as well as "variety houses"-featuring what would later be called vaudeville-such as the Union Square Theater and Tony Pastor's New Fourteenth Street Theatre; Steinway's piano shop; theatrical agencies; theatrical printers; show publications like Leslie's Sporting and Dramatic News; Sam French's play publication store; the costume house of Roemer and Kohler; and the studio of Napoleon Sarony, photographer to the stars. Union Square's southern boundary, 14th Street, was known as the Rialto, because it was so heavily frequented by theater people; among the show folk themselves, the area immediately in front of the Union Square Theater, at the southeastern corner of the square, was known as the Slave Market, because it served as an open-air hiring hall. Indeed, the society novelist Richard Harding Davis wrote that "it is said that it is possible to cast, in one morning, any one of Shakespeare's plays, to equip any number of farce companies, and to 'organize' three Uncle Tom's Cabin combinations" from the crowd on 14th Street.
Tony Pastor, the vaudevillian, was known as the Impresario of Fourteenth Street. Pastor was a living summation of nineteenth-century urban entertainment. An Italian born in 1834 (or thereabouts), the son of a grocer, Pastor was an uneducated urchin who sang at temperance meetings, played tambourine in a minstrel company at Barnum's Museum on lower Broadway in 1847, and knocked around through half a dozen circuses in the 1850s, working as a singer, clown, acrobat, tumbler, dancer, and horseback rider, often all in a single show. In the early years of the Civil War, Pastor began a career as a balladeer in "concert saloons," descendants of the English music hall where the acts were often flimsy excuses for the alcohol, and the "waitress girls" considered the serving of drinks the beginning rather than the end of their job. Pastor became a beloved figure, famed for a stock of 1,500 tunes, and for his good-humored ribaldry. He sang about soused Irishmen and farcical Negroes and avenging wives and long-suffering husbands.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Devil's Playground by James Traub. Copyright © 2004 by James Traub. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.