Rosalind Fursland, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham and member of the Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity, shares her experiences of New York City. Her thesis, ‘A City of Two Tales: Reality And Unreality In New York City, 1910-1929′ considers writing, art, photography, music, dance and theatre in the city’s different districts. Read part I here, and part II here.
At approximately 10am on our second day, we burrowed down into the stifling underground world that was New York’s subway system. Hot polluted air seemed to blast from every angle, musicians added to the commotion on the platform, and haphazard carriages raced by, each grinding to an equally abrupt halt beside us.
I remembered photos I had once seen of New York’s underground dwellers, the so called ‘mole people’; a community shrouded in somewhat sensationalised urban legend and rumour. In the 1990s, they were said to have occupied the empty spaces in abandoned subway, flood and sewage tunnels, and were depicted as sort of Morlocks of the modern age. Between 1994 and 1995, war photographer Teun Voeten spent five months living with tunnel dwellers who were using the city’s subterranean infrastructure for warmth and shelter. He documents their lives and stories in his fascinating book Tunnel People (2010). In 1996, the tunnels were closed and most inhabitants were evicted and rehomed by New York’s homeless authorities.
Tuen Voeten, Tunnel People: Kathy in her bunker with all her cats – the bunker used to be storage space for Amtrak
Although built only a decade or so later, the subway feels somehow brasher and less refined than the London Underground. The carriages are old and clunky and move away with such haste that whilst in the process of trying to sit down, you are more likely to land directly on the stranger next to you. Each time, the action of leaving a station resembles the jolt of a horse being released from the starting gate, meanwhile stops along the way are observed by the carriages with a seeming reluctance. As we packed in like penguins, I recalled a scene from the silent movie Speedy (1928), in which Harold ‘Speedy’ Swift (Harold Lloyd) takes his girlfriend Jane (Ann Christy) to Coney Island via the subway. There is very little room for them to sit down, resulting in Speedy’s comedic attempts to win seats for himself and Jane.
Speedy (1928): watch here
I lost count of the number of times we lost our way in various subway-related blunders, but today we whisked our way perfectly down to 42nd Street, where we emerged like dazed rabbits into the bright lights of theatreland. I had never seen so many skyscrapers. Humans swarmed everywhere, ant-like on the sidewalks. This was a truly futuristic landscape.
As early as the 19th Century, the area surrounding Broadway was known as ‘the Great Whiteway’ and as soon as electricity became widespread, Midtown became a dazzling beacon, casting many of the poorer areas of the city into contrasting darkness. Even in the modern age, when humans are rarely amazed by the wonders of technology, this was one of the most striking spectacles I had ever seen. The lights mingled with the overbearing stature of the skyscrapers to make the humans crowding the pavements seem wholly insignificant.
To the contemporary population when skyscrapers first burgeoned around the turn of the century, the new vista must have been mesmerising and intimidating in equal measure. In her short story ‘Behind the Singer Tower’, Willa Cather imbues the new landscape with a pubescent sense of awkwardness:
‘The city itself, as we looked back at it, seemed enveloped in a tragic self-consciousness. Those incredible towers of stone and steel seemed, in the mist, to be grouped confusedly together, as if they were left after a forest is cut away. One might fancy that the city was protesting, was asserting its helplessness, its irresponsibility for its physical conformation, for the direction it had taken. It was an irregular parallelogram pressed between two hemispheres, and, like any other solid squeezed into a vise, it shot upward.’
Just as the majesty and the lights began to emerge as a super-human entity, we were brought back down to earth with a sight symbolic of modern day America. The vision of a lone workman changing a lightbulb on what was probably the largest flashing McDonalds sign in the world; and reminding us that it is the work of ordinary mankind which underlies many of the world’s greatest wonders.
We rounded the corner and arrived at Times Square, sometimes known as the ‘Crossroads of the World’, a nexus where Midtown’s commercial and theatrical centres collide. Here advertising poses as art and gaudy billboards ostentatiously flash and demand attention. We climbed to the highest step at the centre of the square and sat gingerly eating Dunkin’ Donuts as a selfie stick battle unfolded around us. At this point I remembered reading a poem by Vachel Lindsay entitled ‘A Ryhme About an Electrical Advertising Sign’ (1917), in which Lindsay compares the synthetic lights of New York with the stars in the sky.
I look on the specious electrical light
Blatant, mechanical, crawling and white,
Wickedly red or malignantly green
Like the beads of a young Senegambian queen.
Showing, while millions of souls hurry on,
The virtues of collars, from sunset till dawn,
By dart or by tumble of whirl within whirl,
Starting new fads for the shame-weary girl,
By maggotry motions in sickening line
Proclaiming a hat or a soup or a wine,
While there far above the steep cliffs of the street
The stars sing a message elusive and sweet.
Now man cannot rest in his pleasure and toil
His clumsy contraptions of coil upon coil
Till the thing he invents, in its use and its range,
Leads on to the marvelous CHANGE BEYOND CHANGE
Some day this old Broadway shall climb to the skies,
As a ribbon of cloud on a soul-wind shall rise.
And we shall be lifted, rejoicing by night,
Till we join with the planets who choir their delight.
The signs in the street and the signs in the skies
Shall make me a Zodiac, guiding and wise,
And Broadway make one with that marvelous stair
That is climbed by the rainbow-clad spirits of prayer.
After studying this magnificent scene from the ground, we made our way to the Rockefeller Centre for ‘Top of the Rock’, where a high-speed elevator with a glass-ceiling propelled us to the observation deck. The dazzling city unfurled before us as it glittered more from each level as we ascended. The silvern eagles of the Chrysler Building’s art deco turret were barely visible beyond the mass of skyscrapers which now overshadow it, while the Empire State Building glowed a majestic red.
The opening stanzas of James Oppenheim’s poem ‘New York, from a Skyscraper’ (1909) perfectly encapsulate the sensation of gazing across New York from the heights:
UP in the heights of the evening skies I see my City of cities float
In sunset’s golden and crimson dyes: I look, and a great joy clutches my throat!
Plateau of roofs by canyons crossed: windows by thousands fire-unfurled
O gazing, how the heart is lost in the Deepest City in the World!
O sprawling City! Worlds in a world! Housing each strange type that is human—
Yonder a Little Italy curled—here the haunt of the Scarlet Woman—
The night’s white Bacchanals of Broadway—the Ghetto pushcarts ringed with faces—
Wall Street’s roar and the Plaza’s play—a weltering focus of all Earth’s races!
‘Top of the Rock’
Back on the ground the following day, we made a literary pilgrimage to the Algonquin Hotel, where we asked to see the round table at which Dorothy Parker and her well-informed set of ‘vicious circle’ contemporaries had regularly dined.
The Algonquin ‘wits’, many of whom were journalists and authors, met here from 1919 until 1929 and were known to discuss current affairs reflective of the zeitgeist, while exchanging quips which were frequently reported in the ‘overheard’ columns of newspapers.
Although the layout of the Algonquin has now largely changed, the round table still remains… albeit encircled by some rather out-of-keeping studded white chairs. A painting of the members of the Algonquin Round Table also adorns the wall above. Considering we’d just walked in from the street, the hotel staff were extremely generous with their time, giving us a full history of the table. We were also fortunate enough to meet the hotel cat, Matilda who roams the lobby – a tradition stemming from the 1930s.
The Algonquin Round Table and portrait above
We spent a lot of time in Midtown; exploring the New York Public Library and beautiful Bryant Park with its outdoor reading room, cycling the length of Central Park from Columbus Circle, getting lost in the ramble, boating on the lake and hopping between the multitude of museums and art galleries during their free opening hours.
Midtown is, and has long been, the face of New York; the landscape which is most emblematic of this city. From the rise of the skyscrapers, the skyline became one of the most identifiable in the world; nevertheless, there is more underlying this city than its urbane Midtown façade.
 Willa Cather, Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970) (p. 43).
 Vachel Lindsay, Collected Poems of Vachel Lindsay (Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2008) (p. 146).
 James Oppenheim, The Book of New York Verse (New York, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, 1917) (p. 306).
[Next instalment: Lower East Side]