Sunday, July 28, 2013

74. Go Ahead: The Mania and Disease of Progress

     New Yorkers walk fast.  When our friend Barbara from Maine came here, knowing Boston and Washington already, her first remark was, "The pace of New York!"  Yes, we don't stroll, we scurry.  God help the visitor who gets between a New Yorker and his train or bus; the result will be mayhem -- not intended, not sadistic -- but mayhem nonetheless.  Other big cities are no different, as for instance Paris and Rome.  But in this country no one surpasses New York in fast walking.  And it was always so.  By 1830 visitors were observing the a New York merchant walked as if he had a good dinner ahead of him and a pack of creditors behind him.

     Why this hurry?  Many reasons, no doubt.  Above all, New Yorkers are doers and they want to get on with it.  This too goes way back.  Nineteenth-century New Yorkers -- like nineteenth-century Americans generally -- were infatuated with Progress, with the idea of marching ever onward toward More, toward Bigger, Better, and Faster.  They called it Go Ahead, and it was in their blood and bone.  The founding of the United States was seen as the launching of a new form of government better than  anything the Old World could offer; wonders were anticipated.  And our early history coincided with the appearance of steamboats and locomotives, the telegraph, and machines to do just about anything.  No wonder New Yorkers worshiped Go Ahead and applied it to every aspect of their lives.

     Go Ahead was the poor grocery clerk who started out buying a keg of beeswax and ended up with a fortune.  It was the fabricator of dyspepsia pills spreading out into real estate, and the dapper doctor who (sequentially) married three ladies of property.

     Go Ahead was clipper ships fighting their way around Cape Horn to California or Canton, their black hulls topped by clouds of sail, beating into blizzards, keening winds, and flying gray shrouds of water.  Or agents of commission merchants sent out to hot distant places and often dying of yellow fever, their bodies shipped home in hogsheads of wine.  No matter; Go Ahead meant that clippers and agents would keep on going out.

     Go Ahead was flint-willed Cornelius Vanderbilt grumbling about weak-kneed subordinates and going all the way to Nicaragua to bounce, scrape, haul a steamboat up a rock-filled jungle river and open a new route to the Pacific.  And Dan Drew and Isaac Newton, graduates of the cattle yard and freight barge, constructing for their People’s Line floating palaces the like of which the world had never seen: gas-lit saloons curtained in French satin damask and topped by a stained-glass dome, Corinthian columns flanked by Gothic arches, and over the bed in the bridal room a painted altarpiece with Cupid holding two doves – vast, swift palaces for Everyman that were hailed the length of the Hudson by cheering crowds, tolling bells, and a lusty little cannon in Albany.  So what if this was a mishmash of styles?  It was a stunning mishmash such as New Yorkers had never before seen, and nothing was too good for Everyman; there were palace hotels already, and soon there would be palace railway cars as well: democracy in action.

File:Isaac Newton (steamboat) 05.jpg
The stateroom saloon of the Isaac Newton,
a palace steamboat.

File:Pullman car interior.jpg
A Pullman palace car.  Upholstered seats, ample lighting,
ornate decoration.

     Go Ahead had nothing to do with pretty sunsets, quiet reflection, tact.  It was thundering omnibuses, rattling wagons, the smite of horseshoes on paving stones, drivers’ oaths, jams, locked wheels in the eye-stinging, teeth-gritting dust or juicy black mire of Broadway.  It was flux: Wall Street banks reaching out for old brick residences that became offices, as women and greenery vanished and new buildings blocked out the sun, while in the cellars of old ones, instead of sacks of potatoes and fine wines, pudgy brokers sat beside skinny ones, getting rich.

Broadway, 1860.

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Broadway today.  Cars instead of carriages, 
but otherwise is there any real change?
Alex Proimos


     Go Ahead was the dry goods trade bursting its seams on Pearl Street, spilling out to the north and the west, tearing down seedy boardinghouses and elegant homes to put up white marble warehouses crammed with flannels and muslins, succeeding where moralists had failed by driving the whores out of Church Street.

File:Grid 1811.jpg
The Commissioners' Plan of 1811
(a provisional 1807 version).  The
darkened lower part indicates
the city at that time.  Central
Park was not anticipated.

     Rectilinear, it didn't like curves.  As it pushed the city's frontier northward (the only direction it could go in on this cigar-shaped island), it chopped down orchards, obliterated ponds, filled in valleys, and lopped off hills.  Why?  Because in 1811 the City Fathers in their infinite wisdom had decreed for all the island of Manhattan a gridiron of flat, rigid rectangles, fixing forever the pattern of the city's streets.

     And it was messy.  Digging up old cemeteries for development, it shoveled out onto pavements shreds of graveclothes, bones, and as one shocked bystander reported, bits of half-fleshed skull with tufts of bright blond hair.  At building sites it coughed up clouds of plaster, sent avalanches of timbers, brickbats, and slate down upon walkways hopefully now denied to pedestrians, and when blasting rock outcroppings, dropped a four-hundred-pound boulder through the roof and three floors of a mansion to lodge between two ceiling beams in a gentleman’s parlor.  (No, I'm not making this up.) 

     Did New Yorkers complain of all this flux and to-do?  No, they applauded it.  They applauded the spirit of Young America, and wasted no tears on the loss of a few trees -- two hundred, more or less -- when St. John's Park was cleared to make room for the Hudson River Railroad's freight depot.  And if the last of the old Dutch buildings got demolished, they shed no tears for them either, or for anything that could be labeled Old Fogey.  This was a new land with new ideas, new streets and buildings, new inventions, new territories, new customs, new religions.  Yes, Go Ahead even spilled over into sermons delivered in the city's most fashionable churches, where there were fewer and fewer exhortations of "Repent, ye sinners," and more and more evocations of humanity's endless rise to beautiful proportions.  Coming to want religion without God or sin, Americans embraced a brisk, forward-looking brand of faith that seemed less Old Fogey, more vibrant and cheery, more attuned to Young America and all it was up to.  After all, they were told, New York was a locomotive pulling the rest of the nation into the dazzling world of tomorrow.

     Nineteenth-century New York did have three stellar accomplishments, still with us, that embody the age of Go Ahead: the initiation of a modern water supply system in 1842, the opening of Central Park (though still unfinished) in 1859, and that of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, all of them financed by the city without outside aid (though Brooklyn helped with the bridge).  Thanks to the first two, respectable citizens could romp in shower stalls and baths sleek as eels, and disport in an urban Arcadia free of fast drivers, hucksters, and hurdy-gurdy men.

File:New York City. Plan for Entrance to Central Park (3678964534).jpg
Entrance to the Park at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, 1863.
Cornell University Library
     And thanks to the marvel of the Bridge, Brooklynites could surge over its arched span to markets, shops, and jobs in Manhattan, and New Yorkers could make excursions by foot or carriage not to Brooklyn (what was Brooklyn to them?) but into space, calm, and light.  And if, soon after its opening, crowds pouring over the Bridge from either end met in the middle in a tight jam, and people screamed and were trampled, and twelve people died, no matter: there was nothing like it; they called it the Eighth Wonder of the World.

File:1883 Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper Brooklyn Bridge New York City.jpg
Building the Bridge, 1883.

File:Brooklyn Bridge Postdlf.jpg
The Eighth Wonder of the World.

Our present and our future?
     Today we still embrace Go Ahead, want More, Bigger, Better, and Faster.  Yes, the new World Trade Center won't be quite so high, and we'll let other nations like Malaysia, China, and Dubai vie for building the tallest structure in the world.  But our whole economy is based on growth.  We want to produce more, sell more, earn more, consume more, even if the world's resources are shrinking.  Here in Manhattan, even as foreclosures and homelessness soar in the outer boroughs, luxury towers are being planned and built in record numbers.  An 84-story high-rise at 432 Park Avenue near 56th Street is going up, but already, with only ten floors completed, buyers are snapping up apartments for astronomical prices in what will be the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere; the top penthouse, with six bedrooms and seven baths and a library, not to mention ten-foot-square windows offering breathtaking views, is under contract for $95 million.  And who are the buyers?  Their identity is confidential, but half are reportedly foreigners:  Russian and Latin American tycoons, Arab sheiks, Asian billionaires.  So Go Ahead today isn't just the obsession of New York and this nation, it has been embraced by the world, or more accurately, by the world's superrich and all who cater to their needs and caprices.  Go Ahead is global.

     Furthermore Mayor Bloomberg, fearful lest New York fall behind Shanghai and Chicago in development, is advocating a rezoning proposal to replace aging commercial buildings with giant new office towers in East Midtown, a 73-block area around Grand Central Station up to 57th Street between Madison and Third Avenues.  Critics point out that the proposed new towers would overwhelm beloved monuments like Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building, and do nothing to make the city more livable; what is needed to make the city more competitive, they insist, is not more tall glass towers but improved mass transit, pedestrian-friendly streets and parks, and vibrant neighborhoods.

     But is Go Ahead feasible today?  Two hundred years ago we had a whole continent to explore, claim, settle, and exploit, but today our continent and all continents are environmentally threatened.  We can continue on our merry way or we can change, but the change would have to be comprehensive and profound.  Will we do it?  So far, I hear a lot of talk but see very little meaningful action; people resist change, when it impinges on their habits and comfort.  Our President has embraced nuclear power and fracking, dreams of reducing our dependence on Middle Eastern oil.  A delicious dream, but at what cost?  Will we summon up the political will to try alternatives?  I'm not an optimist but would love to be proven wrong.  Time will tell.

     Gas in the subway: The S.O.B.'s are at it again.  Speaking of progress, or the lack of it, consider this notice from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to its subway riders:
Thank you for riding the MTA.
At this time we would like to thank you for participating in a joint study conducted by the NYPD [New York Police Department] and Brookhaven National Laboratory, sponsored by the Department of Defense.
During the month of July riders will be randomly exposed to Per-fluorocarbon gas in five boroughs and on 21 subway lines in an effort to study airflow throughout the MTA subway system.
Per-fluorocarbons are colorless, odorless, and powerful man-made greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. They are emitted as a by-product during aluminum production, are used as solvents in the electronics industry, and as refrigerants in many cooling systems.
We still do not fully understand the health effects of Per-fluorocarbon gas exposure, though exposure to Per-fluorocarbons are linked to the early onset of menopause. Studies in animals have found these gases significantly alter liver and thyroid function, increase the risk for tumors, and cause failure in reproductive organs.
These gases are being dispersed as a test for your protection against an unwanted chemical attack.
Thank you for riding with the MTA and have a safe day.

     So for their own protection subway riders were exposed on July 9 to a gas that may cause an early onset of menopause, and that has had deleterious effects on animals in lab tests, and they will be (or already have been) exposed to it two more times in July.  Once again, the public is being used as guinea pigs by our government.  I am aware of this thanks to (who else?) WBAI, though it was first announced last April, and numerous blogs and websites are also covering it.  I'll say no more for the moment, except to remind viewers that this is not the first time we've been used as guinea pigs by our government and the military without voluntary and informed consent.  See post #60, Is America Becoming a Fascist State? (May 12, 2013).  If this isn't itself an "unwanted chemical attack," I'd like to know what is.  But have a safe day.

     Wienie update:  Mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner (so aptly named!) has now admitted that he sent sexually explicit e-mails to at least three women after he resigned his seat in the House, thus repeating the very transgressions that provoked his resignation.  Standing loyally beside him at the press conference was his wife, that necessary appendage to all confessions by repentant sinners.  He obviously has a high opinion of his private parts, since he shares photos of them so eagerly with women he knows only online.  And now he wants voters to give him a third chance, which for me is one too many.  I cannot vote for a candidate who so consistently exhibits adolescent behavior and lack of judgment.

     A humorous aside:  I once knew a woman who worked for a man named Weiner (no relation to Anthony).  One day he received a serious business letter mistakenly addressed to "Mr. Frankfurter."  She thought it hilarious; her boss did not.

     Coming soon:  Next Wednesday, Boss Tweed: How About a New Sewer? (the first of the big city bosses, and how he made this city work).  Next Sunday, How America Goes to War: 1861, New York (feverish and compulsive patriotism, plus thoughts about how we do it now).

©  2013  Clifford Browder


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