Scribner's Magazine, Volume 26, October 1899
Inconsistent hyphenation and spelling in the original document have been preserved. Obvious typographical errors have been corrected.
VOL. XXVI OCTOBER, 1899 NO. 4
Copyright, 1899, by Charles Scribner's Sons. All rights reserved.
THE WATER-FRONT OF NEW YORK
By Jesse Lynch Williams
Down along the Battery sea-wall is theplace to watch the ships go by.
Coastwise schooners, lumber-laden,which can get far up the river under theirown sail; big, full-rigged clipper shipsthat have to be towed from the lower bay,their top masts down in order to scrapeunder the Brooklyn Bridge; barques,brigs, brigantines—all sorts of sailing craft,with cargoes from all seas, and flying theflags of all nations.
White-painted river steamers that seemall the more flimsy and riverish if theyhappen to churn out past the dark, compactlybuilt ocean liners, who come so deliberatelyand arrogantly, up past the Statueof Liberty, to dock after the long, hard jobof crossing, the home-comers on the decksalready waving handkerchiefs. Pluckylittle tugs (that whistle on the slightestprovocation), pushing queer, bulky floats,which bear with ease whole trains of freightcars, dirty cars looking frightened and outof place, which the choppy seas try toreach up and wash. And still queerer, oldsloop scows, with soiled, awkward canvasand no shape to speak of, bound for no oneseems to know where and carrying youseldom see what. And always, everywhere,all day and night, whistling and pushing inand out between everybody, the ubiquitous,faithful, narrow-minded old ferry-boats,387with their wonderful helmsman inthe pilot-house, turning the wheel andlooking unexcitable....
That is the way it is down around PierA, where the Tammany Dock Commissionmeets and the Police Patrol boat lies,and by Castle Garden, where the rivercraft pass so close you can almost reachout and touch them with your hand.
The "water-front" means somethingdifferent when you think of Riverside andits greenness, a few miles to the north,with Grant's tomb, white and glaring inthe sun, and Columbia Library back onCathedral Heights.
Here the "lordly" Hudson is not yetobliged to become busy North River, andthere is plenty of water between a white-sailedschooner yacht and a dirty tugslowly towing in silence—for there is noutter excuse for whistling—a cargo ofbrick for a new country house up at Garrisons;while on the shore itself insteadof wharves and warehouses and ferry-slipsthere are yacht and rowing clubhouses and an occasional bathing pavilion;and above the water edge, in placeof the broken ridge of stone buildingswith countless windows, there is the realbluff of good green earth with the well-keptdrive on top and the sun glinting onharness and handle-bars.
Now, between these two contrasts youwill find—you may find, I mean, for mostof you prefer to exhaust Europe and theOrient before you begin to look at NewYork—as many different sorts of interests388and kinds of picturesqueness as there aremiles, as there are blocks almost.
For instance, down there by the starting-point.If you go up toward the bridgefrom South Ferry a block or so and pulldown your hat-brim far enough to hidethe tower of the Produce Exchange, youhave a bit of old New Amsterdam, just as ithas been for years, so old and so Amsterdamish,with its long, sloping roofs, gablewindows, and even wooden-shoe-likecanal-boats, that you may easily feel thatyou are in Holland, if you like. As amatter of fact, it is more like Hamburg,I am told, but either will do if you get anadded enjoyment out of things by notingtheir similarity to something else and appreciatemountains and sunsets more by quotingsome other person's sensations aboutother sunsets and mountains.389
But if you believe that there is also aninherent, characteristic beauty in the materialmanifestations of the spirit of ourown new, vigorous, fearless republic—andwhether you do or not, if you careto look at one of these sudden contrastsreferred to—not a stone's throw fartherup the water-front there is a notable sightof newest New York. This, too, is goodto look at. Behind a foreground of tallmasts with their square rigging and mystery(symbols of the world's commerce, if youwish), looms up a wondrous bit of thetowering white city of 1900, a cluster ofmodern high buildings which, notwithstandingthe perspective of a dozen blocks,392are still high, enormously, alarmingly high—symbolsof modern capital, perhaps, andits far-reaching possibilities, or they mayremind you, in their massive grouping, ofa cluster of mountains, with their brightpeaks glistening in the sun far above thedark shadows of the valleys in whichthe streams of business flow, down tothe wharves and so out over the world.
Now, separately they may be impossible,these high buildings of ours—thesevulgar, impertinent "sky-scrapers;" but,as a group, and in perspective, they arefine, with a strong, manly beauty all theirown. It is the same as with the young nation;we have grown up so fast and so farthat some of our traits, when consideredalone, may not be pleasing, but they appearin a different light when viewed as a wholeand from the right point of view.
Or, on the other hand, for scenes not representativelycommercial, nor residential394either in the sense that Riverside is, butmore of the sort that the word "picturesque"suggests, to most people: Thereare all those odd nooks and corners, hereand there up one river and down the other,popping out upon you with unexpectedvistas full of life and color. Somehow theold town does not change so fast aboutits edges as back from the water. It seemsto take a longer time to slough off the oldlandmarks.
The comfortable country houses alongthe shore, half-way up the island, first becomeuncomfortable city houses; thentenements, warehouses, sometimes hospitals,even police stations, before they arefinally hustled out of existence to makeroom for a foul-smelling gas-house or anotherbig brewery. Many of them are stillstanding, or tumbling down; pathetic oldthings they are, with incongruous cupolasand dusty fanlights and, on the river side,an occasional bit of old-fashioned garden,with a bunker which was formerly a terrace,and the dirty remains of a summer-housewhere children once had a good time—andstill do have, different-looking children,who love the nearby water just asmuch and are drowned in it more numerously.It is not only by way of the recreationpiers that these children and theirparents enjoy the water. It is a deep-rootedinstinct in human nature to walk outto the end of a dock and sit down andgaze; and hundreds of them do so everyday in summer, up along here. Now andthen, through these vistas you get a goodview of beautiful Blackwell's Island and itsprison and hospital and poorhouse buildings.Those who see it oftenest do notconsider it beautiful. They always speakof it as "The Island."
For those who do not care to prowlabout for the scattered bits of interest orwho prefer what Baedeker would call "amagnificent panorama," there are plentyof good points of vantage from which tosee whole sections at once, such as theStatue of Liberty or the tops of high buildings,or, obviously, Brooklyn Bridge,which is so very obvious that many Manhattanesewould never make use of thisopportunity were it not for an occasionalout-of-town visitor on their hands. Noone ought to be allowed to live in NewYork City—he ought to be made to live inBrooklyn—who does not go out there andlook back at his town once a year. Hecould look at it every day and get neweffects of light and color. Even in sky-linehe could find something new almostevery week or two. In a few years therewill be a more or less even line—at leasta gentle undulation—instead of these raw,jagged breaks that give a disquietingsense of incompletion, or else look as if agreat conflagration had eaten out the restof the buildings.
The sky-line and its constant changecan be watched to best advantage fromthe point of view of the Jersey commuteron the ferry; he also has some wonderfulcoloring to look at and some uncommon,weird effects, such as that of a late autumnafternoon (when he has missed the5.16 and has to go out on the 6.26) andit is already quite dark, but the city is stillat work and the towering office-buildingsare lighted—are brilliant indeed with manyperfectly even rows of light dots. The darkplays tricks with the distance, and the wateris black and snaky and smells of the night.All sorts of strange flares of light and puffsof shadow come from somewhere, and altogetherthe commuter, if he were not soaccustomed to the scene, ought not tomind being late for dinner. However,the commuter is used to this, too.
That scene is spectacular. There isanother from the water that is dramatic.Possibly the pilots on the Fall Riversteamers become hardened, but to mostof us there is an exciting delight in creepingup under that great bridge of ours anddramatically slipping through without havingit fall down this time; and then lookingrather boastfully back at it, swoopingsilently, confidently across from one city tothe other, as graceful and lean and characteristicallyAmerican in its line as our cupdefenders, and as overwhelmingly powerfuland fearless as Niagara Falls. However,much like the Thames embankment is thebit of East Fifty-ninth Street in a yellowfog, and however skilful you may be inmaking an occasional acre of the Bronxresemble the upper Seine, this big bridgeof ours cannot very well remind anyone ofanything abroad, because there aren't anyothers.
For the little scenes that are not inspiringor awful, but simply quaint and lovable,397one goes down along the SouthStreet water-front. Fulton Market withits memorable smells and the marketeersand 'longshoremen; and behind it the slipwhere clean-cut American-model smacksput in, and sway excitedly to the washfrom the Brooklyn ferry-boats, which isnot noticed by the sturdy New Havenline steamers nearby. On the edge of thestreet and the water are the oyster-floats,half house and half boat, which look likesolid shops, with front doors, from thestreet side until the seas hitting them they,too, begin to sway