New-York Daily Tribune, December 28, 1879


The Future of New-York.


Views of Frederick Law Olmsted.
Organizing the Business of a Continent---New-York's
Commercial Advantages---Defects in its Streets and
Houses---the Vicious System of Blocks---What a City Must
Have to Take Rank as a True Metropolis.


Considerable changes are occurring in the courses of trade, and some branches of business which have hitherto contributed to the prosperity of New-York are passing from it. The question what is likely to be the result on the whole is one of the deepest interest to New-Yorkers. The following observations upon this question were mainly drawn out in a recent casual conversation by a Tribune representative with Frederick Law Olmsted. The commercial advantages of New-York are touched upon. Its recent progress toward the rank of a true metropolis is referred to, and some of the evils and obstacles in the way of that progress are pointed out. The bad results of the unfortunate plan of the streets and the crowding together of houses in blocks are dwelt upon, and the tendency in large cities to concentration for business purposes and dispersion for domestic purposes is considered.

Aids and Checks to Progress.

If a wise despot had undertaken to organize the business of this continent, he would have begun by selecting for his headquarters a point where advantages for direct dealing with all parts of it were combined with advantages for direct dealing with all parts of Europe. He would then have established a series of great and small trading posts, determining their positions by regard, first, to the local resources of various parts of the country, and secondly, to facilities of transportation. Each of these would be an agency of exchange for a district, but, the several districts not being strictly defined, there would, as trade developed and individual enterprise came more and more into play, be much competition between different agencies, and by greater economy of management one would often draw away trade from and prosper to the disadvantage of, another. But except in a limited and superficial way, abnormal to the system, the interests of the central and of the local agencies would be identical, and the relation between them not one of rivalry but of cošperative and reciprocal service. The business of the general agency would be proportionate to the business of the country; its local profits to the profits of trade generally. Whatever it gained would as a rule be a gain to every community on the continent.

The general agency would, unless special obstacles interposed, soon come to be the best place for comparing, testing, appraising and interchanging information and ideas on all concerns common to the New World and the Old. It would therefore take the foremost place in affairs of fashion and luxury. It would be the headquarters of dramatic and musical enterprises. It would be a centre of interest in matters of science and art. It would be the readiest point for making collections and for comparing and testing values for a great variety of affairs not usually classed as commercial. All this would cause people to resort to it, either as occasional visitors, or with a view to residence, more than to any other place on the continent. It would thus become the best market for high ability in crafts of refinement. It would be the best "shopping place." As the resources of the continent were more and more fully exploited, it would thus tend to become a metropolis. Special advantages of climate, topography or of personal leadership and particular enterprise might give a local agency a leadership in some particular field; but the tendency, as a matter of continental economy, to concentrate leadership in general, even social leadership, at the trade centre, could be permanently overcome only by local conditions which would make life in it decidedly less secure, healthy, peaceful, cleanly and economical than elsewhere. Considerable natural disadvantages in this respect, even, might be gradually overcome.

The Great Peter of Russia and his successors, in fact, proceeded much in this way which has been supposed. The position which he selected for a general centre of exchange for Eastern Europe and Western Asia was in many respects unpromising; the harbor shallow and nearly half the year closed by ice, the land marshy and malarious, natural scenery tame and sad, and the climate most inclement. Nevertheless St. Petersburg has been made not only the centre of commercial exchanges, but the chief seat of learning, science and art, and of all intellectual and social activities, for a vast population of more varied and antagonistic races, creeds, tastes and customs than that of America.

Commercial Position of New-York.

New-York has long been the general centre of commercial exchanges for the continent. There is not the least likelihood that any other city will supercede it. Even if any other had somewhat superior local advantages for the purpose, it is not desirable in the general interests of commerce at this stage that a change should be made. The cost of the rearrangement would be too great. Such transfer of particular branches of business to other growing towns, as now occurs, is simply a modification of commercial organization by which the mutual business of New-York and the country at large is to be done with more profit on the whole to both. St. Louis, Cincinnati and Chicago are in rivalry with one another but never except in a temporary and superficial way, with New-York. Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore are more plainly in competition with New-York; yet in the main they likewise so far cošperate with her that New-York gains more than she loses by every advance that is made by either of them.

But New-York is yet hardly ready to assume the full duty and take the full profits of a metropolis. In some respects Boston leads New-York, Philadelphia in others; in still others Cincinnati at least aims to do so. And in many respects New-York is not as yet nearly as well equipped as many cities of Europe of less than half her population and commercial prosperity. Treasures of art and the results of popular familiarity with treasures of art must be gained slowly, and New-York can in a long time only partially overcome its inevitable disadvantages in this respect. Yet, as to the higher results of human labor, in general attractiveness to cultivated minds and as a place of luxury, New-York has probably been gaining of late, even during the hard times, more rapidly than any other city in the world. She has gained, for instance, the Natural History Museum, the Art Museum, the Lenox Library, the Cathedral, the railways to and the great plant for healthful recreation at Coney Island. She is decidedly richer and more attractive in libraries, churches, clubs and hotels. The display of her shops is very greatly finer than it was a few years ago. Shops more attractive in general effect are now hardly to be found in any older city. Great advances have been made also by half a dozen of her business concerns which are all large employers of the finer artisans and artificers: wood carvers, workers in metal, enamels, glass and precious stones, decorative painters. Better workmanship can now be had here in almost anything than was available five years ago. Take pottery, wood-engraving, upholstery, gas-fixtures, furniture, for example; in all these we could now make a better show than we did in the Centennial Exhibition. Without doubt that exhibition did much for New-York; possibly more than for Philadelphia. It is, at least, certain that New-York has since had better workmen, better designers, better tools and a more highly educated market; and all these things have distinctly advanced her metropolitan position.

Unfortunate Plan of the City.

Next to the direct results of a slipshod, temporizing government of amateurs, the great disadvantage under which New-York labors is one growing out of the senseless manner in which its streets have been laid out. No city is more unfortunately planned with reference to metropolitan attractiveness. True, it may be said that large parts of many old world cities have not been planned at all, but their accidental defects are compensated by their accidental advantages. The tenement-house, which is the product of uniform 200-feet-wide blocks, is beginning to be recognized as the primary cause of whatever is peculiarly disgraceful in New-York City politics, through the demoralization which it works in the more incapable class of working-people. It is a calamity more to be deplored than the yellow fever at New-Orleans, because more impregnable; more than the fogs of London, the cold of St. Petersburg, or the malaria of Rome, because more constant in its tyranny.

On the other hand, the first-class brown-stone, high-stoop, fashionable modern dwelling house is really a confession that it is impossible to build a convenient and tasteful residence in New-York, adapted to the ordinary civilized requirements of a single family, except at a cost which even rich men find generally prohibitory. Dr. Bellows once described the typical New-York private house as "a slice of house fifteen feet wide, slid into a block, with seven long flights of stairs between the place where the cook works and sleeps;" and really, the family is now fortunate which gets twenty feet and which has more than two rooms out of three of tolerable proportions with windows looking into the open air.

There are actually houses of less than fifteen feet wide, to which men, who anywhere else in the world would be in comfortable circumstances, are obliged to condemn their families. A gentleman of rare attainments and in every way a most valuable addition to any community, whose private professional library and collections must have cost him $10,000, has been obliged to compress his family into a five-floored stack, the party walls of which are but twelve feet apart.

In none of those older towns in which domestic convenience has been systematically sacrificed to considerations of military expediency is a man of like value condemned to such a preposterous form of habitation. Its plan is more nearly that of a light house built upon a wave-lashed rock, than of a civilized family home. New-York has need of great attractions to draw people into quarters of this kind from such houses as they could better afford in any other American city.

The Same Defects Up-Town.

But what is worst in the lookout for New-York is that the elevated roads and the up-town movement lead as yet to nothing better; for even at Yorkville, Harlem and Manhattanville, five or six miles away from the centre of population, there are new houses of the ridiculous jammed-up pattern, as dark and noisome in their middle parts and as inconvenient throughout as if they were parts of a besieged fortress.

Nay, there is a prospect of even worse to come, for on the slopes south of Manhattanville there are new streets, some of them paved and flagged, which, out of respect to the popular prejudice in favor of continuing the regular system, are laid out on just the worst course possible, so that in passing through them you must mount an inclination of one in six, eight or ten. What this means may be guessed by thinking of the steeper grades in the lower part of the city. That of Fifth-ave, north of Thirty-fourth-st., for instance, is one in twenty-five, and it brings every omnibus and most hackney coaches from a trot to a walk. Every ton of coal dragged up such a street, every load of garbage gathered and taken from it, is to cost three or four times as much in horse-power as it would in the lower part of the town, and yet in the lower part of the town we cannot afford to prevent great mounds of garbage from lying before our doors for weeks at a time. Its daily removal is found to be too costly.

Small families who do not wish to entertain many friends may find some relief in the better of the new apartment houses. But still, what these offer, as compared with what is offered in other cities, is of most extravagant cost. They are no places for children, and to any really good arrangement of apartments the 200-foot block still bars the way. Apartment houses in the old countries, of corresponding luxury in other respects, have much more spacious courts. The court, instead of being regarded as a backyard and every inch given to it and every dollar laid out upon it begrudged, often gives the noblest and usually the pleasantest fronts to the house. What are advertised as apartment houses for people in New-York of more moderate means, such as must be looked to by teachers, artists, artisans, writers, and nearly all the rank and file of the superior life of a metropolis, are as yet only a more decent sort of tenement-house, nearly half their rooms being without direct light and ventilation. The same classes that are compelled to live in them in New-York would regard them as intolerable in Philadelphia, or in London, Paris or Vienna.

Many attempts have been made to subdivide the block so that comfortable small houses which would come in competition with the tenement-houses might be built. The result in the best cases is that family privacy and general decency in fact and appearance are attained at an outlay which in any other large city would be thought preposterous. A better arrangement than any which has been tried is probably that proposed by Mr. Potter, which consists essentially in subdividing the block by a series of lanes running from street to street; but capitalists as yet draw back from it.

Origin of the Evil.

How did the city come to be saddled with this misfortune? Probably by a process of degeneration. In the old city of Amsterdam, after which it was first named, many houses are still to be found which approach in proportions the fashionable New-York house. But from the beginning these had one great advantage. At their back, running lengthwise through the middle of the block, there was a canal. Into this the closet and kitchen drains had direct discharge. Dust, ashes and garbage could be shot down to the lower floor and then passed directly into boats and floated off to farms in the suburbs. At the base of the house, on the street, there was a narrow brick terrace, and outside the front door a little open-air sitting-room, and everything on that side was kept as neat as a pin. The streets of old Amsterdam were, indeed, as much celebrated in the seventeenth century for their cleanliness as those of New-Amsterdam have since ever been for their filthiness.

New-York is in short a Dutch town with its canals and cleanliness omitted and its streets straightened and magnified. Long after the present street plan was adopted it was the custom of its citizens to throw their slops and garbage out of the front door, and droves of hogs got their living in the gutters. Out of this state of things New-York streets have been slowly improved to their present condition and New-York houses have come to be more inconvenient, uncomfortable and unhealthy, for the money and labor spent upon them, than those of any other American city.

But when we speculate upon the future of New-York as a metropolis we must not think of it as confined by arbitrary political boundaries. As a metropolis, Newark, Newport and Bridgeport, as well as Brooklyn, Yonkers and Jersey City, are essential parts of it. For all scholarly and scientific purposes Yale College with its thousand students is already annexed to New-York, and is possibly today a more actively important element of its intellectual life than either or all of the four colleges which stand within its political limits.

In fact, the railway, the telegraph and the telephone make a few miles more or less of so little consequence that a large part of the ideas of a city, which have been transmitted to us from the period when cities were walled about and necessarily compact and crowded, must be put away.

Concentration and Dispersion.

There is now a marked tendency in most large and thriving towns in two opposite directions---one to concentration for business and social purposes, the other to dispersion for domestic purposes. The first leads toward more compact and higher building in business quarters, the other toward broader, lower and more open building in residence quarters. The old-fashioned "country houses" of city people are growing more and more out of vogue, but residences in a greater or less degree combining urban and rural advantages, neither solitary on the one hand nor a mere slice of a block on the other, wherever they can be had in healthy and pleasing localities, with quick and frequent transit to business, social, artistic, literary and scholarly centres, are gaining favor. They are springing up in hundreds of charming neighborhoods about London and Paris; Boston and our Western cities are largely formed of them. They are as yet less used by New-Yorkers than by the people of any other large town. The reason is simply that hitherto there have been no thoroughly healthy suburban neighborhoods sufficiently accessible about New-York. In time such neighborhoods will be formed. Whenever they are, the metropolitan advantages of New-York and the profits of its local trade must be greatly increased by constantly increasing accessions to its population of men who have accumulated means elsewhere, and who wish to engage in other than purely money-making occupations. Such men, living under favorable circumstances and with capital and energies economically directed to matters of general interest, are the most valuable constituents of a city; and it is by their numbers, wealth and influence, more than anything else, that a city takes the rank in the world of a metropolis.


F&M College/American Studies/David Schuyler/June 27, 1996