America To-Day, Observations and Reflections/Letter IV

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America To-Day, Observations & Reflections  (1900)  by William Archer
Letter IV


Absence of Red Tape—"Rapid Transit" in New York—The Problem and its Solution—The Whirl of Life—New York by Night—The "White Magic" of the Future.

New York.

Whatever turn her fiscal policy may take in the future, I hope America will keep an absolutely prohibitive duty upon the import of red tape, while at the same time discouraging the home manufacture of the article. The absence of red tape is, to me, one of the charms of life in this country. One gathers, indeed, that the art of running a Circumlocution Office is carried to a high pitch in the political sphere. But there it is exercised with a definite object; it is a means to an end, cunningly devised and skilfully applied; it is not a mere matter of instinct, inertia, and routine. The Tite Barnacles of Dickens's satire were perfectly honest people according to their lights. They were sincerely convinced that the British Empire would crumble to pieces the moment its ligaments of red tape were in the slightest degree relaxed. Their strength lay in the fact that they represented an innate tendency in the nation, or at any rate in the dominant class at the period of which Dickens wrote. In America there is no such innate tendency. The Tite Barnacles do not imagine or pretend that they are saving the Republic; they simply make use of a convenient political machinery to serve their private ends. Therefore their position, however strong it may seem for the moment, is insecurely founded. It rests upon no moral basis, it finds no stronghold in the national character. Outsiders may think the average American citizen strangely tolerant of abuses, and indeed I find him smiling with placid amusement at things which, were I in his place, would make my blood boil. But he is under no illusion as to the real nature of these things. An abuse remains an abuse in his eyes, though he may not for the moment see his way to rectifying it. The red tape which is used to embarrass justice or "tie up" reform commands no reverence even from the party that employs it. Cynicism may endure for the night, but indignation ariseth in the morning.

The American character, in a word, does not naturally run to red tape. Observe, for instance, the system of transit in New York: it is admirably successful in grappling with a very difficult problem, and its success proceeds from the absence of by-laws and restrictions, the omnipresence of good-nature and common-sense. The problem is rendered difficult, not only by the enormous numbers to be conveyed, but by the stocking-like configuration of Manhattan Island. The business quarter of New York is in the foot, the residential quarters in the calf and knee. Therefore there is a great rush of people down to the foot in the morning and up to the knee in the afternoon. The business quarter of London is like the hub of a wheel, from which the railway and omnibus lines radiate like spokes. In New York there is very little radiation or dispersion of the multitude. Practically the whole tide sets down a narrow channel in the morning, and up again in the evening. At the time, then, of these tidal waves, it is a flat impossibility that transit can be altogether comfortable. The "elevated" trains and electric trolleys are overcrowded, certainly; but you can always find a place in them, and they carry you so rapidly that the discomfort is rendered as little irksome as possible. A society has been formed, I see, to agitate against this overcrowding; but it seems to me it will only waste its pains. Let it agitate for an underground railway, by all means; and if, as I gather, the underground railway scheme is obstructed by self-seeking vested interests, let it do its best to break down the obstruction. Until some altogether new means of transport are provided, the attempt to restrict the number of passengers which a car or trolley may carry is, I think, anti-social, and must prove futile. The force of public convenience would break the red-tape barrier like a cobweb. The trains and trolleys follow each other at the very briefest intervals; it does not seem possible that a greater number should be run on the existing lines; and, that being so, there is no alternative between overcrowding and the far greater inconvenience of indefinite delay. Fancy having to "take a number," as they do in Paris, and await your turn for a seat! New York would be simply paralysed. It is needless to point out, of course, that where steam or electricity is the motive power there is no cruelty to animals in overcrowding.

The American people, rightly and admirably as it seems to me, choose the lesser of two evils, and minimise it by good temper and mutual civility. At a certain hour of every morning, the "L" railroad trains are as densely packed as our Metropolitan trains on Boat-Race Day. There are people clinging in clusters to each of the straps, and even the platforms between the cars are crowded to the very couplings. It often appears hopelessly impossible for any newcomer to squeeze in, or for those who are wedged in the middle of a long car to force their way out. Yet when the necessity arises, no force has to be applied. People manage somehow or other to "welcome the coming, speed the parting guest." Every one recognises that cantankerous obstructiveness would only make matters worse, nay, absolutely intolerable. The first comer makes no attempt to insist upon his position of advantage, because he knows that to-morrow he may be the last comer. The sense of individual inconvenience is swamped in the sense of general convenience. People laugh and rather enjoy the joke when a too sudden start or an abrupt curve sends a whole group of them cannoning up against one another. It must be remembered that the transit is rapid, so that there is no irritating sense of wasted time: and that the cars are brilliantly lighted, and, on the whole, well ventilated, so that there is no fog, smoke, or sulphurous air to get on the nerves and strain the temper. The scene as a whole, even on a wet, disagreeable evening, is not depressing, but rather cheerful. For my part, I regard it with positive pleasure, as a manifestation of the national character. Less admirable, to be sure, is the public acquiescence in the political manœuvring which blocks the proposed underground railway. Yet the opponents of the scheme have doubtless something to say on their side. It appears, at any rate, that the profits of the "L" road are not exorbitant. It is said to be only through overcrowding that it pays at all. The passengers it seats barely suffice to cover expenses, and "the profits hang on to the straps."

Idealists hope that when the underground comes the elevated will go; but I, as an outsider, cannot share this hope. In the first place, I don't see how the mere substitution of one line for another is to relieve the congestion of traffic; in the second place, the elevated seems to me an admirable institution, which it would be a great pity to abolish. Even æsthetically there is much to be said for it. The road itself, to be sure, does not add to the beauty of the avenues along which it runs, but it is not by any means the eyesore one might imagine; and the trains, with their light, graceful, and elegantly proportioned cars, so different from our squat and formless railway carriages, seem to me a positively beautiful feature of the city life. They are not very noisy, they are not very smoky, and they will be smokeless and almost noiseless when they are run by electricity. The discomfort they cause to dwellers on the avenues is, I am sure, greatly exaggerated. People who do not live on the avenues suffer in their sympathetic imagination much more than the actual martyrs to the "L" road suffer in fact. Imagination makes cowards of us all. For my part, I endured agonies from the rush, whirl and clatter of New York before I left London; but here I find nothing that, to healthy nerves, is not rather enjoyable than otherwise. Neither up town nor down town is the traffic so dense, the roar and bustle so continuous, as that of London; while the service of trains and cars is so excellent and so simply arranged that it costs much less thought, effort, and worry to "get about" in Manhattan than in Middlesex. In saying this I may perhaps offend American susceptibilities. There is nothing we moderns are more apt to brag of than the nervous overstrain of our life. But sincerity comes before courtesy, and I must gently but firmly decline to allow New York a monopoly of neurasthenia, or of the conditions that produce it.

One great difference is, I take it, that while New York exhausts it also stimulates, whereas the days of the year when there is any positive stimulus in the air of London may be counted on the ten fingers. Muggy and misty days do occur here, it is true; but though the natives tell me that this month of March has been exceptionally unpleasant, the prevailing impression I have received is that of a lofty and radiant vault of sky, with keen, sweet, limpid air that one drank in eagerly, like sparkling wine. More than once, after a slight snowfall, I have seen the air full of dancing particles of light, like the gold leaf in Dantzic brandy. One of the most impressive things I ever saw, though I did not then realise its tragic significance, was the huge column of smoke that rose into the clear blue air from the Windsor Hotel fire. I happened to come out on Fifth Avenue, close to the Manhattan Club, just as the tail of the St. Patrick's Day procession was passing; and, looking up the avenue after it, I was aware of a gigantic white pillar standing motionless, as it seemed to me, and cleaving the limitless blue dome almost to the zenith. The procession moved quietly on; no one appeared to take any notice; and as fires are ineffective in the daylight, I turned down the avenue instead of up, and saw no more of the spectacle. But I shall never forget that "pillar of cloud by day," standing out in the sunshine, white as marble or sea foam.

At night, again, under the purple, star-lit sky, street life in the central region of New York is indescribably exhilarating. From Union Square to Herald Square, and even further up, Broadway and many of the cross streets flash out at dusk into the most brilliant illumination. Theatres, restaurants, stores, are outlined in incandescent lamps; the huge electric trolleys come sailing along in an endless stream, profusely jewelled with electricity; and down the thickly gemmed vista of every cross street one can see the elevated trains, like luminous winged serpents, skimming through the air.[1] The great restaurants are crowded with gaily dressed merry-makers; and altogether there is a sense of festivity in the air, without any flagrantly meretricious element in it, which I plead guilty to finding very enjoyable. From the moral, and even from the loftily æsthetic point of view, this gaudy, glittering Vanity Fair is no doubt open to criticism. What reconciles me to it æsthetically is the gemlike transparency of its colouring. Garish it is, no doubt, but not in the least stifling, smoky, or lurid. The application of electricity light divorced from smoke and heat—to the beautifying of city life is as yet in its infancy. Even the Americans have scarcely got beyond the point of making lavish use of the raw material. But the raw material is beautiful in itself, and in this pellucid air (the point to which one always returns) it produces magical effects.

The other night, at a restaurant, I sat at the next table to Mr. Edison, and could not but look with interest and admiration at his furrowed, anxious, typically American and truly beautiful face. Here, if you like, was an example of nervous overstrain; but the soft and yet brilliant light of the restaurant was in itself a sufficient reminder that the overstrain had not been incurred for nothing. Electricity is the true "white magic" of the future; and here, with his pallid face and silver hair, sat the master magician—one of the great light-givers of the world. A light-giver, I think, in more than a merely material sense. The moral influence of the electric lamp, its effect upon the hygiene of the soul, has not yet been duly estimated. But even in a merely material sense, what has not the Edison movement, as it may be called, done for this city of New York! Its influence is felt on every hand, in comfort, convenience, and beauty. The lavish use of electricity, both as an illuminant and as a motive power, combines with its climate, its situation, and its architecture to make New York one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Why good Americans, when they die, should go to Paris, is a theological enigma which more and more puzzles me.

Postcript.—Since my return to England, I have carefully reconsidered my impression that the rush, whirl, and clamour of street life is greater in London than in New York. Every day confirms it. On our main thoroughfares, the stream of omnibuses is quite as unbroken as the stream of electric and cable cars in New York; our van traffic is at least as heavy; and we have in addition the host of creeping "growlers" and darting hansoms which is almost without counterpart in New York. I know of no crossing in New York so trying to the nerves as Piccadilly Circus or Charing Cross (Trafalgar Square). The intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, at Madison Square, is the nearest approach to these bewildering ganglia of traffic. It must be owned, too, that the Bowery, with its two "elevated" tracks and four lines of trolley-cars, is a place where one cannot safely let one's wits go wool-gathering, especially on a rainy evening when the roadway is under repair. Let me add that there is one place in New York where the whirl of traffic ("whirl" in a literal sense) is unique and amazing. I mean the covered area at the New York end of Brooklyn Bridge where the transpontine electric cars, in an incessant stream, swoop down the curves of the bridge and sweep round on their return journey. The scene at night is indescribable. The air seems supersaturated with electricity, flashing and crackling on every hand. One has a sense of having strayed unwittingly into the midst of a miniature planetary system in full swing, with the boom of the trolleys, in their mazy courses, to represent the music of the spheres.

  1. I find the same idea (a sufficiently obvious one) finely expressed by Mr. Richard Hovey in his book of poems entitled Along the Trail:

    Look, how the overhead train at the Morningside curve
    Loops like a sea-born dragon its sinuous flight,
    Loops in the night in and out, high up in the air,
    Like a serpent of stars with the coil and undulant reach of waves.