The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 110/Through Broadway
The incessant demolition of which Broadway is the scene denotes to the most careless eye that devotion to the immediate which De Tocqueville maintains to be a democratic characteristic. The huge piles of old bricks which block the way—with their array of placards heralding every grade of popular amusement, from a tragedy of Shakespeare to a negro melody, and from a menagerie to a clairvoyant exhibition, and vaunting every kind of experimental charlatanism, from quack medicine to flash literature—are mounds of less mystery, but more human meaning, than those which puzzle archæologists on the Mississippi and the Ohio; for they are the débris of mansions only half a century ago the aristocratic homes of families whose descendants are long since scattered, and whose social prominence and local identity are forgotten, while trade has obliterated every vestige of their roof-tree and association of their hearth-stone. Such is the constant process. As private residences give way to stores and offices, the upper portion of the island is crowded with their enlarged dimensions and elaborate luxury; churches are in the same manner sacrificed, until St. Paul's and Trinity alone remain of the old sacred landmarks; and the suburban feature—those "fields" where burgomasters foregathered, the militia drilled, and Hamilton's youthful eloquence roused the people to arms—is transferred to the other and distant end of Manhattan, and expanded into a vast, variegated, and beautiful rural domain,—that "the Park" may coincide in extent and attraction with the increase of the population and growth of the city's area. Thus a perpetual tide of emigration, and the pressure of the business on the resident section,—involving change of domicile, substitution of uses, the alternate destruction and erection of buildings, each being larger and more costly in material than its predecessor,—make the metropolis of the New World appear, to the visitor from the Old, a shifting bivouac rather than a stable city, where hereditary homes are impossible, and nomadic instincts prevalent, and where local associations, such as endear or identify the streets abroad, seem as incongruous as in the Eastern desert or Western woods, whose dwellers "fold their tents like the Arabs, and as silently steal away." The absence of the law of primogeniture necessitates the breaking up of estates, and thus facilitates the methods whereby the elegant homestead becomes, in the second or third generation, a dry-goods store, a boarding or club house, a milliner's show-room or a dentist's office. Here and there some venerable gossip will rehearse the triumphs of refined hospitality, or describe the success of a belle or the brilliancy of a genial leader in politics or social pastime, which, years ago, consecrated a mansion or endeared a neighborhood,—whereof not a visible relic is now discoverable, save in a portrait or reminiscent paper conserved in the archives of the Historical Society. And in this speedy oblivion of domestic and social landmarks, how easily we find a reason for the national irreverence, and the exclusive interest in the future, which make the life of America, like the streets of her cities, a scene of transition unhallowed by memorials.
Yet, despite its dead horses and vehicular entanglements, its vile concert saloons, the alternate meanness and magnificence of its architecture, the fragile character of its theatrical structures, and their limited and hazardous means of exit,—despite falling walls and the necessity of police guardianship at the crossings, the reckless driving of butcher-boys and the dexterity of pickpockets,—despite the slippery pavement, and the chronic cry for "relief,"—Broadway is a spectacle and an experience worth patient study, and wonderfully prolific of life-pictures. With a fountain at one end, like a French town, and a chime of bells at the other, like a German city, the intermediate space is as representative a rendezvous as can be found in the world.
The first thing that strikes an experienced eye in New York's great thoroughfare is the paucity of loiterers: he sees, at a glance, that the flâneur is an exotic here. There is that in the gait and look of every one that shows a settled and an eager purpose,—a goal sought under pressure. A counting-room, office, court, mart, or mansion is to be reached punctually, and therefore the eye and step are straightforward, intent, preoccupied. But this peculiarity is chiefly obvious early and late in the day, when business and professional men are on their way to and from the place of their daily vocations. Later, and especially about two hours after noon, it is the dress and number of the other sex that win attention; and to one fresh from London, the street attire of ladies—or those who aspire, with more or less justice, to that title—is a startling incongruity; for the showy colors and fine textures reserved across the sea for the opera, the salon, and the fashionable drive, are here displayed on shopping expeditions, for which an English lady dresses in neutral tints and substantial fabrics,—avoiding rather than courting observation. The vulgar impression derived in Broadway from an opposite habit is vastly increased by modern fashions; for the apology for a bonnet that leaves brow, cheek, and head fully exposed,—the rustle and dimensions of crinoline,—the heavy masses of unctuous false hair attached to the back of the head, deforming its shape and often giving a coarse monstrosity to its naturally graceful poise and proportions,—the inappropriate display of jewelry and the long silk trains of the expensive robes trailing on the dirty walk, and continually caught beneath the feet of careless pedestrians,—all unite to render the exhibition repulsive to taste, good sense, and that chivalric sympathy inspired by the sight of female beauty and grace, so often co-existent with these anomalies. Broadway has often been compared to a kaleidoscope,—an appellation suggested by the variety of shifting tints, from those of female dress to those of innumerable commodities, from dazzling effects of sunshine to the radiance of equipage, vivid paint, gilded signs, and dazzling wares. And blent with this pervading language of colors are the local associations which the articles of merchandise hint. Consider how extensive is their scope,—Persian carpets, Lyons silks, Genoa velvets, ribbons from Coventry and laces from Brussels, the furs of the Northwest, glass of Bohemia, ware of China, nuts from Brazil, silver of Nevada mines, Sicily lemons, Turkey figs, metallic coffins and fresh violets, Arabian dates, French chocolate, pine-apples from the West Indies, venison from the Adirondacs, brilliant chemicals, gilded frames, Manchester cloth, Sheffield cutlery, Irish linens, ruddy fruit, salmon from the Thousand Isles, sables from Russia, watches from Geneva, carvings from Switzerland, caricatures and India-rubber garments, saccharine temples, books in tinted covers, toys, wines, perfumes, drugs, dainties, art, luxury, science, all lavishing their products to allure the throng,—phenomena common, indeed, to all streets devoted to trade, but here uniquely combined with a fashionable promenade, and affording the still-life of a variegated moving panorama. It is characteristic, also, that the only palatial buildings along the crowded avenue are stores and hotels. Architecture thus glorifies the gregarious extravagance of the people. The effect of the whole is indefinitely prolonged, to an imaginative mind, by the vistas at the lower extremity, which reveal the river, and, at sunset, the dark tracery of the shipping against the far and flushed horizon; while, if one lifts his eye to the telegraph wire, or lowers it to some excavation which betrays the Croton pipes, a sublime consciousness is awakened of the relation of this swift and populous eddy of life's great ocean to its distant rural streams, and the ebb and flow of humanity's eternal tide. Consider, too, the representative economics and delectations around, available to taste, necessity, and cash,—how wonderful their contrast! Not long since, an Egyptian museum, with relics dating from the Pharaohs, was accessible to the Broadway philosopher, and a Turkish khan to the sybarite; one has but to mount a staircase, and find himself in the presence of authentic effigies of all the prominent men of the nation, sun-painted for the million. This pharmacist will exorcise his pain-demon; that electrician place him en rapport with kindred hundreds of miles away, or fortify his jaded nerves. Down this street he may enjoy a Russian or Turkish bath; down that, a water-cure. Here, with skill undreamed of by civilized antiquity, fine gold can be made to replace the decayed segment of a tooth; there, he has but to stretch out his foot, and a chiropodist removes the throbbing bunion, or a boy kneels to polish his boots. A hackman is at hand to drive him to the Park, a telescope to show him the stars; he has but to pause at a corner and buy a journal which will place him au Courant with the events of the world, or listen to an organ-grinder, and think himself at the opera. This temple is free for him to enter and "muse till the fire burns"; on yonder bookseller's counter is an epitome of the wisdom of ages; there he may buy a nosegay to propitiate his lady-love, or a sewing-machine to beguile his womankind, and here a crimson balloon or spring rocking-horse, to delight his little boy, and rare gems or a silver service for a bridal gift. This English tailor will provide him with a "capital fit," that German tobacconist with a creamy meerschaum. At the artificial Spa he may recuperate with Vichy or Kissingen, and at the phrenologist's have his mental and moral aptitudes defined; now a "medium" invites him to a spiritual séance, and now an antiquarian to a "curiosity shop." In one saloon is lager such as he drank in Bavaria, and in another, the best bivalves in the world. Here is a fine billiard-table, there a gymnasium;—food for mind and body, gratification to taste;—all the external resources of civilization are at hand,—not always with the substantial superiority of those of London or the elegant variety of Paris, but with enough of both to make them available to the eclectic cosmopolite.
The historical epochs of New York are adequately traceable by the successive pictures of her main thoroughfare,—beginning with the Indian village and the primeval forest which Henry Hudson found on the island of Manhattan in 1609, and advancing to the stockade fort of New Amsterdam, built where the Battery now is, by Wouter Van Twiller, the second Dutch governor, and thence to the era when the fur trade, tobacco-growing, and slavery were enriching the India Company, when the Wall was built on the site of the so-called financial rendezvous, to protect the settlement from savage invasion, and a deep valley marked the present junction of Canal Street and Broadway. The advent of a new class of artisans signalizes the arrival of Huguenot emigrants; the rebellion of Leisler marks the encroachment of new political agencies, and the substitution of Pitt's statue for that of George III. on the Bowling Green in 1770, the dawn of Independence, so sturdily ushered in and cherished by the Liberty Boys, and culminating in the evacuation of the British in 1783, the entrance of Washington with the American army, and, two years after, in the meeting of the first Congress. These vicissitudes left their impress on the street. Every church but the Episcopal was turned by the English into a riding-school, prison, or stable; each successive charter was more liberal in its municipal privileges. The Boston stage long went from the Fort to the Park, and so on by the old post-road, and was fourteen days en route; pestilence, imported from the West India islands, depopulated the adjacent houses; water was sold from carts; and dimly lighted was the pedestrian on his midnight way, while old-fashioned watchmen cried the hour; and when, in 1807, Robert Fulton initiated steam navigation, the vast system of ferriage was established which inundated the main avenue of the city with a perpetual tributary stream of floating population from all the outlying shores of the Hudson and East Rivers, Staten and Long Islands, and the villages above Manhattan. A lady who lived in New York forty years ago, and returned this season, expressed her surprise that the matutinal procession of rustics she used to watch from the window of her fashionable domicile in the lower part of Broadway had ceased, so completely had suburban citizens usurped the farmers' old homes. The beautiful pigeons that used to coo and cluster on the cobble stones had no resting-place for their coral feet on the Russ pavement, so thickly moved the drays, and so unremitted was the rush of man and beast. In fact, the one conservative feature eloquent of the past is the churchyard,—the old, moss-grown, sloping gravestones,—landmarks of finished life-journeys, mutely invoking the hurrying crowd through the tall iron railings of Trinity and St. Paul's. It is a striking evidence of a "new country," that a youth from the Far West, on arriving in New York by sea, was so attracted by these ancient cemeteries that he lingered amid them all day,—saying it was the first time he had ever seen a human memorial more than twenty years old, except a tree! And memorable was the ceremony whereby, a few years since, the Historical Society celebrated the bicentennial birthday of Bradford, the old colonial printer, by renewing his headstone. At noonday, when the life-tide was at flood, in lovely May weather, a barrier was stretched across Broadway; and there, at the head of eager gold-worshipping Wall Street, in the heart of the bustling, trafficking crowd, a vacant place was secured in front of the grand and holy temple of Trinity. The pensive chant arose; a white band of choristers and priests came forth; and eminent citizens gathered around to reconsecrate the tablet over the dust of one who, two hundred years ago, had practised a civilizing art in this fresh land, and disseminated messages of religion and wisdom. It was a singular picture, beautiful to the eye, solemn to the feelings, and a rare tribute to the past, where the present sways with such absolute rule. Few Broadway tableaux are so worthy of artistic preservation. Before, the vista of a money-changers' mart; above and below, a long, crowded avenue of metropolitan life; behind, the lofty spire, gothic windows, and archways of the church, and the central group as picturesquely and piously suggestive as a mediæval rite.
Vainly would the most self-possessed reminiscent breast the living tide of the surging thoroughfare, on a weekday, to realize in his mind's eye its ancient aspect; but if it chance to him to land at the Battery on a clear and still Sabbath morning, and before the bells summon forth the worshippers, and to walk thence to Union Square in company with an octogenarian Knickerbocker of good memory, local pride, and fluent speech, he will obtain a mental photograph of the past that transmutes the familiar scene by a quaint and vivid aerial perspective. Then the "Middle Road" of the beginning of this century will reappear,—the traces of a wheat-field on the site of St. Paul's, still a fresh tradition; Oswego Market, opposite Liberty Street, is alive with early customers; the reminiscent beholds the apparition of Rutgers's orchard, whose remaining noble elms yet shade the green vista of the City Hospital, and which was a place for rifling bird's-nests in the boyhood of his pensive companion, whose father played at skittles on the Bowling Green, hard by the Governor's house, while the Dutch householders sat smoking long pipes in their broad porticos, cosily discussing the last news from Antwerp or Delft, their stout rosy daughters meanwhile taking a twilight ramble, with their stalwart beaux, to the utmost suburban limit of Manhattan, where Canal Street now intersects Broadway,—then an unpaved lane with scattered domiciles, only grouped into civic contiguity around the Battery, and with many gardens enhancing its rural aspect. Somewhat later, and Munn's Land Office, at the corner of what is now Grand Street, was suggestive of a growing settlement and the era of speculation; an isolated coach-factory marked the site of the St. Nicholas Hotel; people flocked along, in domestic instalments, to Vauxhall, where now stands the Astor Library, to drink mead and see the Flying Horses; and capitalists invested in "lots" on Bayard's Farm, where Niblo's and the Metropolitan now flourish; the one-story building at the present angle of Prince Street was occupied by Grant Thorburn's father; beyond lay the old road leading to Governor Stuyvesant's Bowerie, with Sandy Hill at the upper end. In 1664, Heere Stras was changed to Broadway. At the King's Arms and Burr's Coffee-House, near the Battery, the traitor Arnold was wont to lounge, and in the neighborhood dwelt the Earl of Stirling's mother. At the corner of Rector Street was the old Lutheran church frequented by the Palatine refugees. Beyond or within the Park stood the old Brewery, Pottery, Bridewell, and Poor-house; relics of an Indian village were often found; the Drover's Inn, cattle-walk, and pastures marked the straggling precincts of the town; and on the commons oxen were roasted whole on holidays, and obnoxious officials hung in effigy. Anon rose the brick mansions of the Rapelyes, Rhinelanders, Kingslands, Cuttings, Jays, Bogarts, Depeysters, Duers, Livingstons, Verplancks, Van Rensselaers, De Lanceys, Van Cortlands, etc.; at first along the "Middle Road," and then in bystreets from the main thoroughfare down to the rivers; and so, gradually, the trees and shrubs that made a rus in urbe of the embryo city, and the gables and tiles, porches and pipes, that marked the dynasty chronicled by old Diedrich, gave way to palatial warehouses, magnificent taverns, and brown stone fronts.
The notes of old travellers best revive the scene ere it was lost in modern improvements. Mrs. Knight, who visited New York in 1704, having performed the journey from Boston all the way on horseback, enjoyed the "vendues" at Manhattan, where "they gave drinks"; was surprised to see "fireplaces that had no jambs" and "bricks of divers colors and laid in checkers, being glazed and looking very agreeable." The diversion in vogue was "riding in sleighs about four miles out of town, where they have a house of entertainment at a place called the Bowery." In 1769 Dr. Burnaby recognized but two churches, Trinity and St. George, and "went in an Italian chaise to a turtle feast on the East River." In 1788, Brissot found that the session of Congress there gave great éclat to New York, but, with republican indignation, he laments the ravages of luxury and the English fashions visible in Broadway,—"silks, gauzes, hats, and borrowed hair; . . . . equipages rare, but elegant." "The men," he adds, "have more simplicity of dress; they disdain gewgaws; but they take their revenge in the luxury of the table";—"and luxury," he observes, "forms a class dangerous to society,—I mean bachelors,—the expense of women causing matrimony to be dreaded by men." It is curious to find the French radical of eighty years ago drawing from the life of Broadway inferences similar to those of the even more emphatic economical moralist of to-day. In 1794, Wansey, a commercial traveller, found the "Tontine near the Battery" the most eligible hotel, and met there Dr. Priestley, breakfasted with Gates, and had a call from Livingston; saw "some good paintings by Trumbull, at the Federal Hall," and Hodgkinson, at the theatre, in "A Bold Stroke for a Husband"; dined with Comfort Sands; and Mr. Jay, "brother to the Ambassador," took him to tea at the "Indian Queen";—items of information that mark the social and political transition since the days of Dutch rule, though the Battery still remained the court end and nucleus of Manhattan.
But it is not local memory alone that the solitude of Broadway awakens in our aged guide; the vacant walk is peopled, to his fancy, with the celebrities of the past whom he has there gazed at or greeted,—Franklin, Jay, Tom Paine, Schuyler, Cobbett, Freneau, and Colonel Trumbull, with their Revolutionary prestige; Volney and Genet, with the memory of French radicalism; Da Ponte and the old Italian opera; Colles and Clinton and the Erie Canal days; Red Jacket and the aborigines; Dunlap and Dennie, the literary pioneers; Cooke, Kemble, Kean, Matthews, and Macready, followed so eagerly by urchin eyes,—the immortal heroes of the stage; Hamilton, Clinton, Morris, Burr, Gallatin, and a score of political and civic luminaries whose names have passed into history; Decatur, Hull, Perry, and the brilliant throng of victorious naval officers grouped near the old City Hotel; Moreau, Louis Philippe, Talleyrand, Louis Napoleon, Maroncelli, Foresti, Kossuth, Garibaldi, and many other illustrious European exiles; Jeffrey, Moore, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, and the long line of literary lions, from Basil Hall to Tupper; Chancellor Kent, Audubon, Fulton, Lafayette, Randolph, the Prince of Wales, and the Queen of the Sandwich Islands, Turkish admirals, Japanese officials, artists, statesmen, actors, soldiers, authors, foreign savans, and domestic eccentricities, who have perambulated this central avenue of a cosmopolitan American city. Could they have all been photographed, what a reflex of modern society would such a picture-gallery afford!
The old Dutch traders, with the instinct of their Holland habitudes, clung to the water-side, and therefore their domiciles long extended at angles with what subsequently became the principal avenue of the settlement; and until 1642 Pearl Street was the fashionable quarter. Meantime, where now thousands of emigrants daily disembark, and the offices of ocean steamships indicate the facility and frequency of Transatlantic travel, the Indian chiefs smoked the pipe of peace with the victorious colonists under the shadow of Fort Amsterdam, and the latter held fairs there, or gathered, for defence and pastime, round the little oasis of the metropolitan desert where carmen now read "The Sun." No. 1 was the Kennedy House, subsequently the tavern of Mrs. Koch,—whose Dutch husband was an officer in the Indian wars,—and was successively the head-quarters of Clinton, Cornwallis, and Washington, and at last the Prime Mansion; and farther up was Mrs. Ryckman's boarding-house,—genial sojourn of Irving, and the scene of his early pen-craft and youthful companionships, when "New York was more handy, and everybody knew everybody, and there was more good-fellowship and ease of manners." Those were the days of ropewalks and "selectmen," of stage-coaches and oil-lamps. The Yankee invasion had scarcely superseded the Knickerbocker element. The Free Academy was undreamed of; and the City Hotel assemblies were the embryo Fifth Avenue balls. An old Directory or a volume of Valentine's Manual, compared with the latest Metropolitan Guide-Book and Trow's last issue, will best illustrate the difference between Broadway then and now.
But it is not so much the more substantial memorials as the "dissolving views" that give its peculiar character to the street. Entered at the lower extremity by the newly-arrived European, on a rainy morning, the first impression is the reverse of grand or winsome. The squalor of the docks and the want of altitude in the buildings, combined with the bustle and hubbub, strike the eye as repulsive; but as the scene grows familiar and is watched under the various aspects produced by different seasons, weather, and hours of the day, it becomes more and more significant and attractive. Indeed, there is probably no street in the world subject to such violent contrasts. It is one thing on a brilliant and cool October day and another in July. White cravats and black coats mark "Anniversary week"; broad brims and drab, the "Yearly Meeting" of the Friends; the "moving day" of the householders, the "opening day" of the milliners, Christmas and New Year's, sleighing-time and spring, early morning and midnight, the Sabbath and week-days, a cold spell and the "heated term,"—every hour, season, holiday, panic, pastime, and parade brings into view new figures and phases,—diverse phenomena of crowd and character,—like the shifting segments of a panorama. The news of victories during the war for the Union could be read there in people's eyes and heard in their greetings. Sorrowful tidings seemed to magnetize with sadness the long procession. Something in the air foretold the stranger how beat the public pulse. The undercurrent of the prevalent emotion seems to vibrate, with electric sympathy, along the human tide.
A walk in Broadway is a most available remedy for "domestic" vexation and provincial egotism. "Every individual spirit," says Schiller, "waxes in the great stream of multitudes." Stand awhile calmly by the rushing stream, and note its representative significance, or stroll slowly along, with observant eye, to mark the commodities and nationalities by the way. The scene is an epitome of the world. Here crouches a Chinese mendicant, there glides an Italian image-vender; a Swedish sailor is hard pressed by a smoking Cuban, and a Hungarian officer is flanked by a French loiterer; here leers a wanton, there moans a waif; now passes an Irish funeral procession, and again long files of Teutonic "Turners"; the wistful eyes of a beggar stare at the piles of gold in the money-changer's show-window; a sister of charity walks beside a Jewish Rabbi; then comes a brawny negro, then a bare-legged Highlander; figures such as are met in the Levant; school-boys with their books and lunch-boxes, Cockneys fresh from Piccadilly, a student who reminds us of Berlin, an American Indian, in pantaloons; a gaunt Western, a keen Yankee, and a broad Dutch physiognomy alternate; flower-venders, dog-pedlers, diplomates, soldiers, dandies, and vagabonds, pass and disappear; a firemen's procession, fallen horse, dead-lock of vehicles, military halt, or menagerie caravan, checks momently the advancing throng; and some beautiful face or elegant costume looms out of the confused picture like an exquisite vision; great cubes of lake crystal glisten in the ice-carts hard by blocks of ebon coal from the forests of the primeval world; there a letter-carrier threads his way, and here a newsboy shouts his extra; a milk-cart rattles by, and a walking advertisement stalks on; here is a fashionable doctor's gig, there a mammoth express-wagon; a sullen Southerner contrasts with a grinning Gaul, a darkly-vested bishop with a gayly-attired child, a daintily-gloved belle with a mud-soiled drunkard; a little shoe-black and a blind fiddler ply their trades in the shadow of Emmet's obelisk, and a toy-merchant has Montgomery's mural tablet for a background; on the fence is a string of favorite ballads and popular songs; a mock auctioneer shouts from one door, and a silent wax effigy gazes from another. Pisani, who accompanied Prince Napoleon in his yacht-voyage to America, calls Broadway a bazaar made up of savagery and civilization, a mile and a half long; and M. Fisch, a French pasteur, was surprised at the sight of palaces six or seven stories high devoted to commerce and les figures fines et gracieuses, la démarche légère et libre des femmes, les allures vives de toute la population. The shopkeepers are urbanely courteous, says one traveller. "Horses and harness are fine, but equipages inferior," observes another; while a third remarks, after witnessing the escapade of vehicles in Broadway: "American coachmen are the most adroit in the world."
It has been said that a Paris gamin would laugh at our fêtes; and yet, if such a loyal custodian as one of the old sacristans we meet abroad, who has kept a life-vigil in a famous cathedral, or such a vigilant chronicler as was Dr. Gemmelaro, who for years noted in a diary the visitors to Ætna, and all the phenomena of the volcano,—if such a fond sentinel were to have watched, even for less than a century, and recorded the civic, military, and industrial processions of Broadway, what a panoramic view we should have of the fortunes, development, and transitions of New York! The last of the cocked-hats would appear with the final relics of Dutch and Quaker costume; the celebration of the opening of the Erie Canal would seem consummated by the festivals that signalized the introduction of Croton, and the success of the Atlantic Telegraph; the funeral cortége of Washington would precede that of scores of patriots and heroes, from Hamilton and Lawrence to John Quincy Adams and General Wadsworth; Scott would reappear victorious from Mexico, Kossuth's plumed hat wave again to the crowd, grim Jackson's white head loom once more to the eager multitude, and Lafayette's courteous greetings win their cheers; St. Patrick's interminable line of followers would contrast with the robes and tails of the Japanese,—the lanterns of a political battalion, with the badges of a masonic fraternity,—the obsolete uniform of the "Old Continentals," with the red shirts of the firemen and the miniature banners of a Sunday-school phalanx,—the gay citizen soldiers who turned out to honor Independence or Evacuation Day, with the bronzed and maimed veterans bringing home their bullet-torn flags from the bloody field of a triumphant patriotic war,—the first negro regiment raised therefor cheerily escorted by the Union League Club, with the sublime funeral train of the martyred President. Including party demonstrations, popular ovations, memorable receptions and obsequies,—Broadway processions, historically speaking, uniquely illustrate the civic growth, the political freedom, the cosmopolitan sympathies, and the social prosperity of New York.
The mutations and ameliorations of Broadway are singularly rapid. It is but a few years since the eye of the passenger therein often caught sight of pleasant domestic nooks,—bulbs in bloom, a canary, gold-fish, or a graceful head bent over a book or crochet-work, at the cheerful window,—where now iron fronts and plate-glass of enormous size proclaim the prosperous warehouse. One of those sudden and sweeping conflagrations, which so frequently make a breach in the long line of edifices, destroyed within a few months the tall white walls of the American Museum, with its flaring effigies of giants, dwarfs, and monsters, and its band of musicians in the balcony, so alluring to the rustic visitor. The picturesque church of St. Thomas and the heavy granite façade of the Stuyvesant Institute, the "Tabernacle," the Art-Academy, and the Society Library buildings have given way to palaces of trade, and been transferred to the indefinitely extensive region of "up town." Stewart's lofty marble stores redeemed the character of the east side, long neglected in favor of the more crowded and showy opposite walk; and his example has been followed by so many other enterprising capitalists, that the original difference, both of aspect and prestige, has all but vanished.
Among the most noticeable of the later features are the prevalence of flower-venders, and the increase of beggars; as well as the luxurious attractiveness of the leading confectioners' establishments, which, in true American eclectic style, combine the Parisian café with the London pastry-cooks and the Continental restaurant,—delectable rendezvous of women who lunch extravagantly. Another and more refined feature is the increase of elegant Art stores, where Gerome's latest miracle of Oriental delineation, a fresh landscape of Auchenbach, or a naive gem by Frere, is freely exposed to the public eye, beside new and elaborate engravings, and graphic war-groups of Rogers, or the latest crayon of Darley, sunset of Church, or rock-study by Haseltine. These free glimpses of modern Art are indicative of the growing taste for and interest therein among us. Pictures were never such profitable and precious merchandise here, and the fortunes of artists are different from what they were in the days when Cole used to bring his new landscape to town, deposit it in the house of a friend, and personally call the attention thereto of the few who cared for such things, and when the fashionable portrait-painter was the exclusive representative of the guild in Gotham.
The Astor House was the first of the large hotels on Broadway; and its erection marks a new era in that favorite kind of enterprise and entertainment of which Bunker's Mansion House was so long the comfortable, respectable, and home-like ideal. Yet it is noteworthy that inns rarely have or keep a representative character with us, but blend popularity with fashion, as nowhere else. One may be associated with Rebeldom, another with trade; this be frequented by Eastern, and that by Western travellers; and nationalities may be identified with certain resorts. But the tendency is towards the eclectic and homogeneous; individuality not less than domesticity is trenched upon and fused in these extravagant caravanseries; and there is no fact more characteristic of the material luxury and gregarious standard of New York life, than that the only temple erected to her patron saint is a marble tavern!
Broadway has always had its eccentric or notable habitués. The Muse of Halleck, in her palmy days, immortalized not a few; and many persons still recall the "crazy poet Clarke," the "Lime-Kiln man," the courteous and venerable Toussaint,—New York's best "image of God carved in ebony,"—tall "gentleman George" Barrett, and a host of "familiar faces" associated with local fame or social traits. The representative clergy, physicians, lawyers, merchants, editors, politicians, bards, and beauties, "men about town," and actors, were there identified, saluted, and observed; and of all these, few seemed so appropriately there as the last; for often there was and is a melodramatic aspect and association in the scene, and Burton, Placide, or the elder Wallack walked there with a kind of professional self-complacency. Thackeray, who had a quick and trained eye for the characteristic in cities, delighted in Broadway, for its cheerful variety, its perpetual "comedy of life"; the significance whereof is only more apparent to the sympathetic observer, because now and then through the eager throng glides the funeral car to the sound of muffled drums, the "Black Maria" with its convict load, or the curtained hospital litter with its dumb and maimed burden. And then, to the practised frequenter, how, one by one, endeared figures and faces disappear from that diurnal stage! It seems but yesterday since we met there Dr. Francis's cheering salutation, or listened to Dr. Bethune's and Fenno Hoffman's genial and John Stephens's truthful talk,—watched General Scott's stalwart form, Dr. Kane's lithe frame, Cooper's self-reliant step, Peter Parley's juvenile cheerfulness,—and grasped Henry Inman's cordial hand, or listened to Irving's humorous reminiscence, and met the benign smile of dear old Clement Moore. As to fairer faces and more delicate shapes,—to encounter which was the crowning joy of our promenade,—and "cheeks grown holy with the lapse of years," memory holds them too sacred for comment. "Passing away" is the perpetual refrain in the chorus of humanity in this bustling thoroughfare, to the sober eye of maturity. The never-ending procession, to the sensitive and the observant, has also infinite degrees of language. Some faces seem to welcome, others to defy, some to lower, and some to brighten, many to ignore, a few to challenge or charm,—as we pass. And what lessons of fortune and of character are written thereon,—the blush of innocence and the hardihood of recklessness, the candid grace of honor and the mean deprecatory glance of knavery, intelligence and stupidity, soulfulness and vanity, the glad smile of friendship, the shrinking eye of fallen fortune, the dubious recognition of disgrace, the effrontery of the adventurer, and the calm, pleasant bearing of rectitude,—all that is beautiful and base in humanity, gleams, glances, and disappears as the crowd pass on.
Richard Cobden, when in New York, was caught and long detained in a mesh of drays and carriages in Broadway, and he remarked that the absence of passionate profanity among the carmen and drivers, and the good-natured patience they manifested, were in striking contrast with the blasphemous violence exhibited in London under like circumstances; and he attributed it to the greater self-respect bred in this class of men here by the prospect and purpose of a higher vocation. It is curious to observe how professional are the impressions and observations of Broadway pedestrians. Walk there with a portrait-painter, and he will infer character or discover subjects of art in every salient physiognomy. The disparities of fortune and the signs of depravity will impress the moralist. The pictorial effects, the adventurous possibilities, the enterprise, care, or pastime of the scene, elicit comments in accordance with the idiosyncrasies or aptitudes of the observer. What gradations of greeting, from the curt recognition to the hilarious salute! What variety of attraction and repulsion, according as your acquaintance is a bore or a beauty, a benefactor or a bankrupt! The natural language of "affairs," however, is the predominant expression. From the days of Rip Van Dam to those of John Pintard, it is as a commercial city that New York has drawn both her rural and foreign population. And her chief thoroughfare retains the distinctive aspect thereof, as the extension of the city has eliminated therefrom all other social elements,—fashion being transferred to the Fifth Avenue, indigence to the Five Points, and equipages to the Central Park. Police reports abound with the ruses and roughnesses of metropolitan life, as developed in the most frequented streets, where rogues seek safety in crowds. A rheumatic friend of ours dropped a guinea in the Strand, and, being unable to stoop, placed his foot upon the coin, and waited and watched for the right man to ask to pick it up for him. He was astonished at the difficulty of the choice. One passer was too elegant, another too abstracted, one looked dishonest, and another haughty. At last he saw approaching a serious, kindly-looking, middle-aged loiterer, with a rusty black suit and white cravat,—apparently a poor curate taking his "constitutional." Our friend explained his dilemma, and was assured, in the most courteous terms, that the stranger would accommodate him with pleasure. Very deliberately the latter picked up the guinea, wiped it carefully on his coat-sleeve, and transferred it to his vest-pocket,—walking off with a cheerful nod. Indignant at the trick, the invalid called out "Stop, thief!" The rascal was chased and caught, and, when taken to the police office, proved to be Bristol Bill,—one of the most notorious and evasive burglars in London. Many like instances of false pretences are traditional in Broadway,—where there are sometimes visible scenic personages, like a quack doctor whose costume and bearing were borrowed from Don Pasquale, and Dr. Knickerbocker in the elegant and obselete breeches, buckles, and cocked hat of the olden time.
A peculiar hardihood and local wit are claimed for what are called the B'hoys. A cockney, in pursuit of knowledge under difficulties, was walking up Broadway with the hospitable citizen to whose guidance he had been specially commended by a London correspondent.
"I want," said the stranger, "to see a b'hoy,—a real b'hoy."
"There's one," replied his companion, pointing to a strapping fellow, in a red shirt and crush hat, waiting for a job at the corner.
"Ah, how curious!" replied John Bull, examining this new species with his double eye-glass,—"very curious; I never saw a real b'hoy before. I should like to hear him speak."
"Then, why don't you talk to him?"
"I don't know what to say."
"Ask him the way to Laight Street."
The inquisitive traveller crossed the street, and, deferentially approaching the new genus, lisped, "Ha—ah—how d' do, ha? I want to go to Laight Street."
"Then why in hell don't you go?" loudly and gruffly asks the b'hoy.
Cockney nervously rejoined his friend, saying,—"Very curious, the Broadway b'hoys!"
To realize the extent and character of the Celtic element in our population, walk down this thronged avenue on a holiday, when the Irish crowd the sidewalks, waiting for a pageant; and all you have ever read or dreamed of savagery will gleam, with latent fire, from those myriads of sullen or daredevil eyes, and lurk in the wild tones of those unchastened voices, as the untidy or gaudily dressed and interminable line of expectants, flushed with alcohol, yield surlily to the backward wave of the policeman's baton. The materials of riot in the heart of the vast and populous city then strike one with terror. We see the worst elements of European life cast upon our shore, and impending, as it were, like a huge wave, over the peacefulness and prosperity of the nation. The corruptions of New York local government are explained at a glance. The reason why even patriotic citizens shrink from the primary meetings whence spring the practical issues of municipal rule is easily understood; and the absolute necessity of a reform in the legislative machinery, whereby property and character may find adequate representation, is brought home to the most careless observer of Broadway phenomena. But it is when threading the normal procession therein that distrust wanes, in view of so much that is hopeful in enterprise and education, and auspicious in social intelligence and sympathy. It may be that on one of our bright and balmy days of early spring, or on a cool and radiant autumnal afternoon, you behold, in your walk from Union Square to the Battery, an eminent representative of each function and phase of high civilization;—wealth vested in real estate in the person of an Astor, peerless nautical architecture in a Webb; the alert step and venerable head of the poet of nature, as Bryant glides by, and the still bright eye of the poet of patriotism and wit, as Halleck greets you with the zest of a rural visitor refreshed by the sight of "old, familiar faces"; anon comes Bancroft, a chronicler of America's past, yet moving sympathetically through living history the while; Verplanck, the Knickerbocker Nestor, and the gentlemen of the old school represented by Irving's old friend, the companionable and courteous Governor Kemble; pensive, olive-cheeked, sad-eyed Hamlet, in the person of Edwin Booth, our native histrionic genius; Vandyke-looking Charles Elliot, the portrait-painter; Paez, the exiled South American general; Farragut, the naval hero; Hancock, Hooker, Barlow, or some other gallant army officer,—volunteer heroes, maimed veterans of the Union war; merchants, whose names are synonymous with beneficence and integrity; artists, whose landscapes have revealed the loveliness of this hemisphere to the Old World; women who lend grace to society and feed the poor; men of science, who alleviate, and of literature, who console, the sorrows of humanity; the stanch in friendship, the loyal in national sentiment, the indomitable in duty, the exemplary in Christian faith, the tender and true in domestic life,—the redeeming and recuperative elements of civic society.