James Gibbons Huneker (1857-1921) was his generation's foremost music critic and "arts journalist." He was a flâneur and a prolific writer (22 books). "Today," writes the computer and cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter, a fan of Huneker, "many people would find Huneker's prose overblown, but...I still love his style of writing and his rich metaphors," and his "unrestrained emotionality." There is indeed a learnedness, a passion, what maybe can only be called soulfulness in Huneker's prose that is very far from the kind of self-effacing, New Yorker-style prose that those of my generation were taught was the standard of proper writing, and even further from the snarky, faux knowingness of so much of what appears on the internet. As an antidote to both, sometimes I need to read a few pages of Huneker in the same way some people need a stiff drink.
Robin had no idea when she suggested including "The Lungs" that Huneker is one of my favorite writers. (To learn more about him, you may wish to read this piece I wrote about him.) In what follows, I have made what I hope are apposite and clarifying comments on Huneker's essay. My comments are set off by brackets and are in italics. Huneker divided his essay into two parts. I here present part one, with part two to follow soon.
The Lungs (1914)
A broad chest usually means healthy lungs. Now, Manhattan Island is notoriously narrow-chested. Her scanty space across is not redeemed by greater length. Crowded with humans and their houses, there is consequently little space for the expansion of her normal breathing powers. Her lungs, i.e., her parks, are contracted and not enough of them; there never will be. But more than some people think.
New Yorkers, even the most convinced cockneys, know little of their city, or of its lungs. Not only provincial, but parochial, they are only acquainted with the square or little park that adorns—it’s a poor park that doesn’t bring a sense of adornment—their native ward. Imagine my amazement when I learned after nearly thirty years’ residence here that there were one hundred and eighty-two parks in the five boroughs. [To the question "How many parks are there in New York City?" the FAQ on the web site of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in 2014 gives as the answer "more than 1,700 parks, playgrounds, and recreation facilities." Only God knows what they can possibly mean by this. Are "recreation facilities" located within parks counted as separate entities for purposes of arriving at "more than 1,700"? I assume so. Is each one of Central Park's perimeter playgrounds included in this number? Again, I assume so. Wikipedia lists 189 parks in the five boroughs. Clearly, we've added more than seven parks to the net total since Huneker wrote "The Lungs." But just as we today are not sure what to count as a "park," so neither were people in Huneker's day.] I read it in a newspaper and couldn’t understand why I hadn’t discovered the fact, for I’ve always been a rambler and my happy hunting-ground usually has been the East Side.
However, seeing is believing, and last summer, with my eyes made innocent by several years’ residence in Germany, Austria, Holland, Belgium, France, and England, I determined to verify certain vague suspicions that had been assailing my consciousness: that perhaps New York was not inferior in attractiveness to London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, or Brussels. Perhaps many who go down to the sea in steamers, their pockets filled with letters of credit, might be equally shocked when confronted by the sights and sounds of Manhattan. Perhaps—but let us start on a little tour into intimate New York, without a megaphone or a ready-made enthusiasm; above all, let us be meek and avoid boastful rhetoric; also dodge statistics. Go to the guide-books, thou sluggard, for the latter!
When a writer tackles such a big theme as New York he as a rule fetches a deep breath in the lower bay, steams as far as Staten Island, and then lets loose the flood-gate of adjectives. How the city looks as you enter it is the conventional point of attack. I am sorry to say that whenever I have returned from Europe, the first peep of lower Manhattan, with its craggy battlements, its spires splintering the very firmament, and the horrid Statue of Liberty, all these do so work on my spirit that I feel like repining. Not because I am home again—not, my friend, because the spectacle is an uplifting one, but, shame that I must confess the truth, because my return means back to toil, back to the newspaper forge, there to resume my old job of wordsmith. Why, the very symbol of liberty, that stupid giant female, with her illuminating torch, becomes a monster of hated mien, her torch a club that ominously threatens us: Get to work! Get to work!
Therefore I’ll begin at Battery Park, leaving the waterways, the arteries and veins of the city, for a future disquisition.
The image stamped on my memory is the reverse of the immobile. A plastic picture. The elevated roads debouching here are ugly, but characteristic. I’m afraid I can’t see in our city anything downright ugly—it is never an absolute for me; as Dostoievsky said, there are no ugly women. The elevated road structure is hideous if aesthetically considered, and that is precisely the way it should not be considered. It rolls thousands daily to this end of the town; they usually take the ferries or subways, a few stroll under the scanty trees, or visit the Aquarium, so we must be critically charitable, too. [All four of the Manhattan elevated lines--Ninth, Sixth, Third, and Second Avenues--had their southern termini at Battery Park, the inland rim of which was a vast ganglion of elevated platforms and stairs, with the attendant cacophony of trains. By the 1950s, when Battery Park had been remade by Robert Moses, all this was gone.]
Oh, how tired I am of being told that Jenny Lind made her debut in this same Castle Garden, “presented” by the late Phineas T. Barnum! [It's amazing how the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind's September 11, 1850, concert at Castle Garden became such a part of the city's lore, not much less so today than when Huneker wrote. And yet, upon closer inspection, it seems no more remarkable a musical event than any one of a hundred others that took place at what by all accounts was the charming offshore, al fresco venue of Castle Garden (not yet connected by landfill to the Battery). Both Walt Whitman and George Templeton Strong, indefatigable concertgoers in antebellum New York, left records of their experiences at Castle Garden, where the likes of Marietta Alboni, Henrietta Sontag, and Adelina Patti surely shone as bright as or brighter than Jenny Lind.] Wasn’t it a historical fort before it became a hall of immigrants and the abode of the fishes? This much may be said for the latter—it is a real aquarium, and, excepting the absence of an octopus or two, the collection rivals those at Brighton, England (where there are octopi); Naples, Hamburg, and elsewhere. More exciting than the fish, the seal, or the porpoises are the people. Thousands elbow through the rather narrow aisles and stare as solemnly at the finny inhabitants as they are stared at in return. The sightseeing coaches give their passengers a quarter of an hour’s grace to “do” the show, while ragged boys dance about them, obsequiously pilot them, mock them, quite after the manner of the ragged boy on the Marina at Naples. [The New York Aquarium occupied Castle Clinton, which had been remodeled for the purpose by McKim, Mead & White, from 1896 to 1941. Moses--punitively, it is said, after he'd been thwarted in his effort to build a Brooklyn-Battery Bridge (which would have destroyed much of Battery Park)--sent the New York Aquarium, which had once been as great an attraction as the city boasted, to Coney Island in 1957.]
|The New York Aquarium in Battery Park, 1917.|
A veritable boon is this open Battery Park when the gang of wage-earners have fled the lower reaches of the city, when the dishes have been washed, when the janitors and caretakers of the tall buildings bring their wives and children to catch the breeze from the bay. On moonlit nights there are few situations more romantic. Here is freedom for the eye, for the lungs. There are not enough benches, but the walking is good, and to stand on the edge of the "wharf" and watch the bright eyes of ferries, the blazing eyes of the Jersey and Brooklyn shores, and the eyes of Staten Island as the unstable floor of the water mirrors (a cracked mirror) the moonlight and distorts the tiny flames about it, is to enjoy a spectacle fit for men and women who are not afraid to love their birthplace. I like it better when the weather has a nipping freshness and the day is grey-coloured and full of the noises of broken waters, and the cry of birds.
[Seventy-two years before New Cosmopolis, Huneker's peripatetic equal, the writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis, wrote, in his Open-Air Musings in the City, of the Battery:
The Battery on Sunday is the Champs-Elysées of foreigners. I heard nothing spoken around me but French and German. Wrapped in my cloak and seated on a bench, I watched the children and the poodle-dogs at their gambols, and it seemed to me as if I were in some public resort over the water. They bring such happiness to a day of idleness--these foreigners--laughing, talking nonsense, totally unconscious of observation, and delighted as much with the passing of a rowboat, or a steamer, as an American with the arrival of his own 'argosy' from sea. They are not the better class of foreigners who frequent the Battery on Sunday. They are the newly arrived, the artisans, the German toymakers and the French bootmakers--people who still wear the spacious-hipped trowsers and scant coats, the gold rings in the ears, and the ruffled shirts of the lands of undandyfied poverty….They sit and smoke on the long benches. They run hither and thither with their children, and behave as they would in their own garden, using it and enjoying it just as if it were their own. And an enviable power they have of it!]
|The Battery by C.F.W. Mielatz.|
The seamy side of Battery Park is the poor castaway who has sought its coolness after a hot day of panhandling. But—given a certain amount of leeway—he is harmless. When a woman, the case assumes the pathetic. Begging is semisecretly indulged in. You drop your nickel and escape. If it be daytime you make for South Street to pay that long-deferred visit to Coenties Slip and Jeannette Park.
Perhaps you have seen C.F.W. Mielatz’s coloured etching of the slip; if you have, the optical repercussion will be all the stronger when looking at the place itself. The fine old musty flavour of the slip, the canal-boats near the little Jeannette Park—a backwater with its stranded humanity stolidly waiting for something to turn up—and the lofty, lowering warehouses bring memories of London docks; docks where slunk Rogue Riderhood in search of rum after he had landed his dead cargo; docks from which sailed, still sail, wooden ships with real wooden masts, canvas sails, and sailors of flesh and blood, bound on some secret errand to southern seas where under the large few stars they may mutiny and cut the captain’s throat; or else return to live immortally in fascinating legends of Joseph Conrad. I almost became sentimental over Coenties Slip, probably because Mielatz had etched it, and also because I had been reading Conrad. Art always reacts on nature, and the reactions may be perfectly sincere.
|Coenties Slip, 1909, by C.F.W. Mielatz. The tall structure in the rear is the tower of the Produce Exchange, which stood at 2 Broadway.|
[Charles Frederick William Mielatz was born in Brandenburg, Germany, in 1864, grew up in Chicago, and died in New York in 1919--a very close contemporary of Huneker. Mielatz was a fine etcher of, mostly, New York City scenes. The New York Herald (June 4, 1919) called him "Perhaps the best known etcher in the country"--though to date very little has been written about him. His last years overlap with the early years of John Sloan, whose etchings of the New York scene may be said to follow in a line from Mielatz's. His New York images are immensely evocative, as Huneker suggests.
By the time of Huneker and Mielatz there was no longer a slip at Coenties Slip. It had been filled in 1835. The fill became, in 1884, Jeannette Park.
|Jeanette Park in 1915, the year of New Cosmopolis. (From Museum of the City of New York.)|
Coenties Slip and Jeannette Park today are rather different from the way they were in Huneker's time. In the late 1960s and early 1970s most of the old waterfront buildings familiar to Huneker and Mielatz were pulled down for massive modern office complexes. On the south rose Four New York Plaza (1968) on the Water Street side of the block, and Two New York Plaza (1970) on the South Street side of the block. On the north rose 55 Water Street (1972) which, with 3.7 million square feet of floor area, was the largest office building in the world when it was built. In between, on the site of the Jeannette Park that Huneker wrote about, a new public space was created by the well-known Modernist landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg in 1972. It comprised both the city-owned site of Jeannette Park as well as a new Privately Owned Public Space. In 1985, a Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by the architects William Fellows and Peter Wormser and the writer Joseph Ferrandino, was added to the space, which was rechristened Vietnam Veterans Plaza. The memorial, a glass-block slab bearing etched inscriptions from servicemen's letters home, is quite affecting, especially when it is illuminated at night. Jeannette Park, by the way, was named for a sailing ship that sank during an 1881 expedition to the North Pole sponsored by New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr., who named the ship after his sister.
From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, when many of the old buildings familiar to Huneker were still standing but superannuated for commercial purposes, an artists' colony emerged around Coenties Slip. Such artists as Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana, James Rosenquist, and Jack Youngerman (and his wife, the French actress Delphine Seyrig) kept their homes and studios in the neighborhood, many of them right on Coenties Slip. The artists left amid the area's large-scale redevelopment beginning in the late 1960s, many of them moving to SoHo. By the time the artists settled in the neighborhood, Robert Moses had remade Jeannette Park as one of his signature recreational parks, with tennis and handball courts.
|Sanborn map showing Coenties Slip and Jeannette Park in 1913.|
|Map of Coenties Slip and Vietnam Veterans Plaza today. (Image used with permission of PropertyShark.)|
It is worth noting that a couple of new parks lie immediately nearby. Coenties Slip Park, between Water and Pearl Streets, opened in 2006, the design of George Vellonakis, the Parks Department's landscape architect. It contains a sculpture, Coenties Ship, by Bryan Hunt. An escalator between the north and south wings of 55 Water Street leads to a park--a Privately Owned Public Space--also opened in 2006. Called the Elevated Acre, it was designed by Rogers Marvel, the recently dissolved firm that has had a major impact on the city's public environment and who will be the subject of a future post on this blog.
When Huneker wrote and Mielatz etched, Warren & Wetmore's Seamen's Church Institute stood at the northwest corner of South Street and Coenties Slip. Built in 1907, the building had since 1913 borne atop its southeast corner the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse. When the Seamen's Church Institute was demolished for 55 Water Street in 1967, the memorial lighthouse was preserved and reerected at the South Street Seaport Museum, where it stands to this day on Fulton Street just east of Pearl Street.
|Warren & Wetmore's Seamen's Church Institute, surmounted by the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse, southeast corner of Coenties Slip and South Street, photographed in 1925. (Photo from Museum of the City of New York.)|
However, I thought it time to ask a policeman the direction of Corlears Park. He didn’t know. No one knew, until an old chap who smelt of fish and whisky said: "It’s Cor-lears, you want?" I had misplaced the accent, and the ear of the average longshoreman in South Street for quantity would please a college professor of Greek.
I went my winding way, finally enlightened. I like the London bobby, for he is obliging and instructive, but I also like our policeman. He is gruffer than his English contemporary—a shy sort of gruffness. I found myself at Canal Street and the Bowery—I don’t know why—and was told to continue eastward. If I had taken a Grand Street car to the ferry my journey would have been simplified, but then I should have missed East Broadway and a lot of sights, of which more anon.
I dived into the east. It was a noisy, narrow lane rather than a street, and the inhabitants, mostly babies, were sprawling over the sidewalks. Often I followed the line of the gutter. Then I reached an open space and was disappointed. It was Corlears Park, and the absence of shade was painful. This lack of trees is a fault to be found in the majority of municipal parks and playgrounds. Night, if you don’t feel too scared or lonely, is the proper time to enjoy the Hook. The view of the East River is unimpeded. The water is crowded with craft. A breeze always fans one. Women and children, principally Italians and Jews, sit or walk. Cats are friendly. So is the small boy who knocks off your straw tile with his stick. A venerable steamboat, rotting and dismal, the relic of a once proud excursion career, is warped to the wharf. It has flowers on its upper deck, and pale, sick people sit on the lower. You are informed by the inevitable busybody who traipses after strangers that the old boat is now for tuberculosis patients, living or dying, in the neighbourhood. What an ending for man and machine! Hecker’s huge structure dominates the upper end of the park, as does Hoe’s building over in Grand Street. The chief thing is the cleanliness and spaciousness. The same may be found at Rutgers Park, but without a water-front, always an added attraction.
|Corlears Hook Park, before 1908. (Photo from Museum of the City of New York.)|
[Corlears Hook Park, which was less than a decade old when Huneker wrote about it, is still there, but has been drastically reconfigured, as have the streets all around it. Originally square, and bounded by South Street, Jackson Street, Cherry Street, and Corlears Street, the park is now rounded off on its eastern (water) side, as the FDR Drive cuts through (east-north), marking a separation (discussed in Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes) between Corlears Hook Park and East River Park (built in the 1940s). As for the surrounding streets, virtually everything between the Brooklyn Bridge and 23rd Street to the east of Madison Street/Avenue D was razed and rebuilt with modern housing projects, mostly after World War II.
Hecker's flour mill was at the southeast corner of Corlears and Water Streets, along the east side of the park. Corlears Street once ran from South to Grand Streets but was demapped amid the neighborhood's redevelopment into public housing superblocks. The great printing plant of R. Hoe & Co. was actually located a couple of blocks to the north of the park, on the north side of Grand Street between Columbia Street and Sheriff Street (since demapped), extending all the way back to Broome Street.]
|Printing plant of R. Hoe & Co., Grand Street and Sheriff Street.|
Tompkins Square stirred memories. It lies between Seventh and Tenth Streets and Avenues A and B. When I first remember it, it was also called the Weisse-Garten, and no foreign nationality but German lived on its arid fringes.
The anarchists of those days gathered at Justus Schwab’s, whose saloon was on First Street. There I first became acquainted with Johann Most, an intelligent and stubborn man, if ever there was one, and other “reds,” the majority of them now dead. I remember, in 1887, the funeral parade in commemoration of the anarchists executed in Chicago because of the Haymarket affair. A sombre procession of proletarians with muffled drums, black flags, and dense masses of humans. I didn’t go home that night. To my surprise I found the old-fashioned bird store—where they once sold folding bird-cages (collapsible)—in the same place, on Avenue A, near Seventh Street. The park is mightily improved. There are more trees, and also playgrounds for boys and girls, a band-stand, and refreshment pavilions.
[In her autobiography, Living My Life, published in 1931, Emma Goldman wrote:
On Saturdays when I did not have to lecture, we used to visit the saloon of Justus Schwab, the most famous radical center in New York. Schwab was the traditional Teuton in appearance, over six feet tall, broad-chested, and strait (sic) as a tree. On his wide shoulders and strong neck rested a magnificent head, framed in curly red hair and beard. His eyes were full of fire and intensity. But it was his voice, deep and tender, that was his peculiar characteristic. It would have made him famous if he had chosen an operatic career. Justus was too much the rebel and the dreamer, however, to care about such things. The rear room of his little place on First Street was a Mecca for French Communards, Spanish and Italian refugees, Russian politicals, and German socialists and anarchists who had escaped the iron heel of Bismarck. Everyone gathered at Justus’. Justus, as we affectionately called him, was the comrade, adviser, and friend of all. The circle was interspersed with many Americans, among them writers and artists. John Swinton, Ambrose Bierce, James Huneker, Sadakichi Hartmann, and other literati loved to listen to Justus’s golden voice, drink his delicious beer and wine, and argue world-problems far into the night.
Justus Schwab came to New York from his native Frankfurt in 1869, age 22. In the 1870s he opened a basement saloon at 50 East 1st Street, between First and Second Avenues, and operated it until his death in 1900. The building, a 5-story, pre-Old Law tenement, still stands.
|50 East 1st Street, where Justus Schwab's basement saloon was located. (Photo used with permission of PropertyShark.)|
Johann Most was born in Augsburg and came to New York in 1882, at the age of 36. He died in 1906 in Cincinnati. Most, who held court at Schwab's saloon, was a notorious figure in late 19th-century New York, an anarchist who advocated acts of terror and assassination as a means of igniting revolution. Huneker refers to the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886, and the executions of four of its alleged perpetrators in the following year. Some of the Haymarket demonstrators were followers of Johann Most, as were Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman at the time (1892) Berkman attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick.
Huneker notes that the "park is mightily improved." In fact, when he first knew it, in the late 1880s, it had been comprehensively renovated only a decade or so earlier. The "band-stand" to which he refers was installed at that time. The playgrounds came in the 1890s, courtesy of Lillian Wald's and Charles Stover's Outdoor Recreation League, which lobbied for playgrounds around the city. In other words, it seems unlikely that the park had improved physically all that much between the time Huneker hung out in the neighborhood and the time he wrote "The Lungs," and, indeed, the park would decline precipitously through the 1920s and 1930s, until rescued by Robert Moses, who gave the square the basic character it retains to this day. (Moses introduced the lateral walkway on the line of 9th Street that has since divided the lower park, with its layout, so typical of New York City parks, of curving paths and irregularly shaped lawns, and the upper park, with its formally arrayed playgrounds.) Tompkins Square opened as a public space in 1834. It served as a state-designated military parade ground between 1866 and 1878, when it became a public park and received the aforementioned renovation.]
I entered. On the benches I found “lobbies” of old men, Germans, Israelites for the most part. They were very old, very active, contented, and loquacious. They settled at a “sitzung” the affairs of the nation, keeping all the while a sharp lookout on the antics of their grandchildren, curly-haired, bright-eyed kiddies who rolled on the grass. The boys and girls literally made the welkin ring with their games, in the enclosures. They seemed healthy and happy. There are vice and poverty on the East Side—and the West—but there are also youth and decency and pride. I should say that optimism was the rule. Naturally, in summer, even poverty wears its rue with a difference. I saw little save cheerfulness, and heard much music-making by talented children.
[The neighborhood of Tompkins Square was the heart of old Kleindeutschland, the stronghold of the city's vast German immigrant community through the second half of the 19th century. Relatively few of the residents of Kleindeutschland were Jewish ("Israelites," in Huneker's word) until late in the century, and by the time of "The Lungs" the neighborhood was very heavily a Jewish immigrant quarter.]
The Tenth Street side of Tompkins Square reminds me of upper Stuyvesant Square. It is positively well-to-do, many doctors and dentists hanging out their shingles on the quaint, pleasant-looking brick houses. A very old German Lutheran meeting-house is at the corner of Ninth Street and Avenue B, and one block lower is St. Bridget’s Church. Not afar is a synagogue or “Shool,” as they call it, and you may catch a glimpse of the stately Church of the Holy Redeemer on Third Street near Avenue A, with its cartridge-shaped spire (easily seen from Brooklyn Bridge), that suggests shooting the soul to heaven if you are willing.
[The "very old German Lutheran meeting-house" was the 1847 Greek Revival building of Trinity Lutheran Church. The parish remains on the site, on the southeast corner of Avenue B and 9th Street, but now worships in a building from 1993. "St. Bridget's" is actually St. Brigid's, a Roman Catholic church in the Gothic Revival style, designed by the prolific Patrick C. Keely and erected in 1848. Someone else who called it St. Bridget's was the poet Frank O'Hara, who lived nearby at 441 East 9th Street when in 1961 he wrote his poem "Weather Near St. Bridget's Steeples":
You are so beautiful and trustinglying there on the sky
St. Brigid's still sported its distinctive high, spiky spires both when Huneker and when O'Hara wrote about the church. Those spires were removed in 1962. The New York Archdiocese chose to shutter the structurally unsound church in 2001, with plans to raze it. Miraculously, an anonymous $20 million donation allowed a thorough renovation of the building (though not a replacement of the lost spires), and the church was reconsecrated and reopened in 2013.
|Tompkins Square, looking east, 1870s. In the foreground is the bandstand, to its left in the background is St. Brigid's Church.|
Holy Redeemer, on 3rd Street between Avenues A and B, with its "cartridge-shaped spire," was once the spiritual epicenter of Kleindeutschland Catholic life. The church opened in 1852 and had a high, highly figured Baroque tower. It was, however, dramatically remodeled, and simplified, in 1913 by the architect Paul Schulz. In both instances was (and in the latter case still is) the tower visible from the Brooklyn Bridge, and from throughout Kleindeutschland. We may surmise that Huneker made his visit after the remodeling, for "cartridge-shaped" is far likelier to be used to describe the newer rather than the older tower.
10th Street along the park's northern edge does indeed possess a stately air. Indeed, the block of 10th Street between Avenues A and B was designated in 2012 as a historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. (Go here for the detailed designation report.]
Time was when the Felsenkeller, at the foot of Fifty-seventh Street, East River, was an agreeable spot of summer nights. It was an open-air cafe, and while sipping your beverage you could watch the wheels of passing steamboats. It exists no longer. You must go up to East River Park, at Eighty-sixth Street and the river, or to Jefferson Park, opposite Ward’s Island, to enjoy the water. There are little grassy hills, with rocks, at the former park that give you the illusion of nature.
[East River Park was established in 1876, grew with the addition of the old Gracie estate in 1891, and was renamed Carl Schurz Park in 1911. Thus, it had been renamed by the time Huneker wrote, though we may assume that like so many old New Yorkers Huneker found it hard to get used to new names for old things. The park in Huneker's day was not yet separated from the East River by the FDR Drive. At the foot of 86th Street was the landing for a ferry to Welfare (Roosevelt) Island. In 1941 Robert Moses remodeled the park after the FDR Drive opened, among other things creating the esplanade that continues to the south of the park as the John H. Finley Walk.
|Carl Schurz Park, looking to the northeast, in 1915. (Photo from Museum of the City of New York.)|
Jefferson Park is on the East River between 111th and 114th Streets. It opened in 1905 when its East Harlem neighborhood was heavily Italian. In 1911, the city added 1,008 small farm plots where neighborhood children could grow vegetables and flowers. Robert Moses remodeled the park in the 1930s, adding one of his signature swimming pools in 1936. The Felsenkeller at the eastern end of 57th Street was one of the German beer gardens that once were a feature of the city. Not much is to be learned of the Felsenkeller, but a letter to the New York Sun (March 10, 1939), in answer to another writer's query, indicates it was "run in connection with a bath" (a swimming pier?), and "was open only in the evening in good weather, as there were no shelters. Indeed it was a great place to spend an evening." Another letter in the same issue said "It was a delightful place, built right over the water, and patronized by refined and congenial people. However, for many years it has ceased to exist, and is now only a memory." In the New York Sun of March 13, 1939, yet another correspondent wrote that it "was situated on the south side of Fifty-seventh street and hung over the sloping ground facing the river. It was a high-class beer garden and concerts were given nightly. My recollections bring to mind a concert grand piano which stood near the entrance, which was a few steps below the street level." ("Felsenkeller" means "rock cellar.")]
I can’t say much in favor of Union Square—now hopelessly encumbered with debris—or of Gramercy Park, locked to the public (you are permitted the barren enjoyment of gazing at the bleak enclosure), or of Madison Square, with its wonderful surroundings. These be places familiar. Nor do I care to drag you over to Hudson Park, on the West Side, to Abingdon Square, to Chelsea, De Witt Clinton, Seward, to other parks of another kind duplicated everywhere, even to the scarcity of foliage and benches. Mount Morris Park, at One Hundred and Twenty-fourth Street and Madison Avenue, was, a few decades ago, not so crowded as it is to-day. The hegira up-town has made it as populous as Tompkins Square. And not so pleasant. A little café, with a back garden on the west side of the square, was once a favourite resort years ago. Schmierkäse and pumpernickel, and—Tempus fugit!
|Union Square, looking north, in 1915. (Photo from Museum of the City of New York.)|
[Perhaps only very briefly in its history, when in its earliest years it was an elegant residential quarter, was Union Square not "hopelessly encumbered with debris." Remarkably much of Union Square's immediate surroundings remain from Huneker's time, as one may see in the picture showing Union Square in 1915, the year of New Cosmopolis. In the upper right corner is the Germania Life Insurance Company Building (1910-11), now the W Hotel, at the northeast corner of Park Avenue South and 17th Street. (When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Germania Life thought it prudent to change its name to Guardian Life.) To its left is the Everett Building (1908), followed by the Century Building (1880-81), home of the excellent Century Magazine, for which Huneker sometimes wrote. The building now houses what is probably the largest Barnes & Noble store in the city--where you can purchase a copy of Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes. The high, pyramid-topped building rising in the center in the background is the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Building (1909) which, when Huneker wrote "The Lungs" had only a year earlier yielded to the Woolworth Building the title of world's tallest building. Metropolitan Life was part of what Huneker calls the "wonderful surroundings" of Madison Square. As for the plan of the square itself, it's been much simplified in the years since, with, among other things, the addition of the two ramrod-straight lateral paths at 15th and 16th Streets.
Hudson Park had since 1898 been a terraced classical park, very unusual for New York, designed by Carrère & Hastings, who also designed the adjoining Hudson Park Branch of the New York Public Library. (Seven years after "The Lungs" appeared in the Times, the poet Marianne Moore took a job at that library, which was directly across the street from where she and her mother had lived since 1918.) In 1946, Robert Moses transformed Hudson Park into the modern recreational park, now called James J. Walker Park (for the 1920s mayor who had lived across the street), it is today. Abingdon Square, Chelsea Park, and De Witt Clinton Park have something in common with one another: Each is home to a notable World War I memorial. None of these, of course, was or could have been in place when Huneker wrote "The Lungs." Two of the memorials--Abingdon Square and Chelsea Park--are by Philip Martiny, the Alsatian immigrant who became one of New York's greatest sculptors. All three are bronze statues of "doughboys." It's been said that World War I was the first of our wars to be commemorated largely through images of common, anonymous soldiers, not heroes or generals. Doughboy statues typically were placed in working-class and immigrant neighborhoods from which so many doughboys were drawn. The Martiny in Abingdon Square (intersection of Eighth Avenue, West 12th Street, and Hudson Street) was dedicated in 1921. The Chelsea Park (Ninth Avenue and 28th Street) doughboy was also dedicated in that year. In De Witt Clinton Park (Eleventh Avenue and 53rd Street), the statue is known as the Flanders Field Memorial. The work of Burt W. Johnson, it was dedicated in 1930. Mount Morris Park, now called Marcus Garvey Park, is bounded by 120th and 124th Streets and Madison Avenue and Mount Morris Park West (a little to the west of Fifth Avenue). It opened in 1840 and received its present name in 1973. At about 20 acres, it's halfway in size between Washington Square and Fort Greene Park. Its most distinctive feature is a 47-foot-high fire watchtower made of cast iron and erected in 1855-57. It's located right in the center of the park. The park today has an amphitheater (located on the west side of the park, where Huneker used to eat his schmierkäse and pumpernickel, tempus fugit!), a swimming pool, a dog run, and playgrounds. (In the original Times version of "The Lungs," Huneker says "Tempus fugit like sheol!")
Huneker indirectly walked from Coenties Slip to Corlears Hook via Pearl Street and the Bowery, turning on Canal Street to East Broadway. Right at the intersection of Canal Street and East Broadway is Seward Park, which he mentions in passing. He would have passed the first municipally built playground in the United States (1903), as well as the Seward Park Branch of the New York Public Library, opened in 1909, with the city's largest collection of materials in Yiddish. It was also once the most heavily used branch library in the city.
Part two to follow.]