Title: New York Dissected
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: July 19, 1856
Publication information: Life Illustrated 19 July 1856: 93.
Source: Original issue held at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, University Archives and Special Collections. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00270
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Mark Neels, Jason Stacy, Elizabeth Lorang, and Ed Folsom
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NEW YORK DISSECTED.
Not wicked in carelessness of material construction, like the crumbly structures sometimes run up in our city by mercenary builders, that prove death-traps to the inmates; nor in purpose, like an Inquisition or a panel-thief's haunt; but in the unrighteous spirit of ostentation that unconsciously directs it, and in the manifold and frightful social evils flowing from it.
It may not at first appear that the architecture of New York has any very distinct connection with any thing good or evil. But there is a connection, and one startlingly close and efficient. The domestic architecture—the dwelling-house architecture—of the city (for our Architectural Wickedness exists mainly there), even though perhaps not absolutely in itself the efficient cause of evil, is the most striking type of that condition of social morals which is the fertile hot-bed for evils the most enormous.
A house to live in is the third great necessity; food and clothing only being before it. And furthermore, it is in some sense true that a man is not a whole and complete man unless he owns a house and the ground it stands on. Men are created owners of the earth. Each was intended to possess his piece of it; and however the modifications of civilized life have covered this truth, or changed the present phase of it, it is still indicated by the universal instinctive desire for landed property, and by the fuller sense of independent manhood which comes from the possession of it.
In New York, closed in by rivers, pressing desperately toward the business center at its southern end, and characterized by an unparalleled fierceness in money-chasing, land is dear. This of course makes the possession of it a basis for an increased ostentation of it; for the dearer a thing is, the more pride in showing it, and wonder in staring at it.
Next; ways of thinking, throughout society, are more or less formed on the patterns set by the rich. And accordingly it may be stated, as a general principle, that in New York city, among all ranks, except the poorest, there is a habit of occupying houses outrageously and absurdly too expensive, whether in prime cost or in rent, for the resources of the occupant. The wealthy began by building such houses for themselves. Then they, as land-owners, or builders as speculators, went on to build blocks and ranges of similar edifices, to lease to people of less wealth; and these again were not slow to hire them on the great American principle, that I am as good as anybody; which, however, is unfortunately taken to include this: that I may therefore have whatever anybody else has, whether I can afford it or not.
This ambitious folly, however, is operative only among the better classes. The great mass of the poor live in insufficient tenements, because the competition on the narrow island for dwelling-places is so keen that dwellings both "cheap and nasty," to use an expressive late English Saxonism, pay large rents; and if the landlords get their rent, what matter whether the house be a house or a sty? And the poor tenants, knowing that landlords can always find occupants, and consequently not being able to coerce improvement by threatening to remove, must live in such dens as they may. What too many of those dens are, the reports of the Legislative Tenement Committee, now engaged in examining the leased dwelling-houses occupied by our city poor, most impressively show; but with this branch of the subject we have not now to deal.
In no other city in the whole world does rent occupy so large a proportion of expenses as in New York; in no other city in the world would so many years' income be required from the man of whatsoever pecuniary and social standing to purchase for himself a piece of ground and a house, whereon and wherein to live
London is the most expensive capital in Europe. From it economical Englishmen flee to the continental cities, large and small, to live in equal comfort at less expense. Rents in London are from one half to one fourth of New York rates. A house corresponding with our "first-class brown-stone front English basement" tenements, on a twenty-five foot lot, renting for $2,000, may be had in London for about £200; roughly, $1,000. A "second-class" house may here rent for $800 to $1,200. The corresponding house in London costs but about $500. A very large number of houses are rented in New York for from $600 to $800; say at an average of $700. In London such houses would be rented at about $200.
"Twenty years' purchase," that is, the total of rent for twenty years, is in London considered a fair rate for valuing the house and lot; so that one twentieth of the value, or five per cent. on it, is paid for rent. In New York, twelve and ten years' rent would buy many houses; that is, eight or ten per cent. on the value is paid for rent.
Such is a succinct statement, illustrated by statistics and comparison, of our domestic architectural habits in New York city. Next comes the development of those consequences of them which make us call it Wicked Architecture.
They may be stated in brief and in mass as, Difficulty of Marriage and Settlement in Life. Mr. Brown, we will suppose, is a substanstial, well-to-do old gentleman. His house is a four-story one, if you please, brown-stone front, and all that sort of thing.
Mrs. Brown tells her daughters, "Now, girls, it's all very well to have a loving husband, and to love him; but it's a great deal better to have substantial comfort and a sufficient pecuniary income. Have a good husband, and love him, if possible; but marry well, at any rate. That's sound, common sense; I've lived longer than you have; and I know better what's flummery and what isn't."
The girls are well prepared by their city training for such advice as that, and they take it.
A worthy young clerk or just-established junior partner, perhaps a thriving mechanic, even—if it be not a profane presumption!—asks leave of old Brown to seek one of his daughters in marriage.
Mr. Brown. "Mr. Driver, you are doubtless a very excellent young man. But can you maintain Melinda Ann in the style to which she has been accustomed?"
Driver rather confusedly begins to talk about present narrow circumstances, good prospects, future wealth, earnest devotion, etc.
Mr. Brown. "Yes, yes. I know. But it appears to me, young man, that you'd a little better wait awhile until you are certain of this position. As a friend, Mr. Driver," etc.
Driver leaves. This specimen (from actual life, by the way) abundantly expresses the state of expectation on the one hand, and the necessary hesitation on the part of all but the already rich on the other, to which we refer. Illogical old Brown! Did you begin at the large end of the horn? You would have been wiser to remember the pride with which you and Mrs. B. stood within the first little two-story whole house that you rented; the cheap struggling year through which you crawled like a caterpillar up to the riches that now gild you so grandly!
Well. Very large numbers of young men, some of no principle and some of a little, well-intentioned enough, but not fortified very strongly against fierce temptations, stand in this relation to the maidens from among whom they should select their wives.
Either they marry, or they do not. If not, they at best live single and imperfect lives, losing the healthy beautifying power which God intended them to find in the family relations, isolated units in a world whose essence is association. But if they are not strong enough for that, facts show that in great numbers they lose the very nucleus and essence of all usefulness and power—purity of soul—and, degrading themselves by submission under the tyranny of ignoble lusts, fall into one or the other of two states—or into both of them—of which we can here say but very little; in brief, into the practice of haunting those abodes which are the gates of hell, or into an illegitimate and unblest association with some one woman, necessarily of coarse and impure mind, of low character and social standing, and of downward tendency in every channel of Life. The mothers who send beloved sons into the city to live, would feel little hope and much and painful fear, could they know how large a proportion of the business men and active male population of the city generally, under the age of twenty-five years, are either in the constant practice of visiting houses of ill-fame, or are living in a quasi household with a kept mistress. Upon this point we can not enlarge. Suffice it to say that there is no man of general and thorough acquaintance in New York who can not point out, if he chooses, five, or ten, or twenty young men, almost—and perhaps quite—to his personal knowledge so circumstanced!
But suppose that, in spite of all, our young friends marry. They can not afford a house. And consequently, as the little girl aptly said when asked where her parents lived, "They don't live; they BOARD."
Few are aware of the extent of boarding-house life in New York. Whole neighborhoods of boarding-houses now stand, for instance, around St. John's Park;1 in Houston and Bleecker streets; in many other localities formerly as aristocratic as "Fifth Avenoodledom."2 Thousands of young or "moderately well off" people, absolutely unable to find the right residence for them, hire a house quite too large, and eke out the rent by sub-letting one, two, three, or more rooms, or entire floors, to such lodgers as they can find. This custom prevails everywhere. Fifth Avenue, Fourteenth Street, from river to river, Twenty-second and Twenty-third Streets and indeed nearly every other respectable portion of the city, are dotted with houses thus portioned off. Judicious and extensively informed observers estimate the proportion of dwelling-houses which are either professedly boardinghouses, or in which one or more rooms are thus sub-let to "one or two respectable young gentlemen," "a married couple without incumbrance," etc., as seven out of every ten. Counting in this class of residences those hotels which are occupied mostly by permanent boarders, it is probable that nearer three quarters than two thirds of all the adult inhabitants of New York city, of the middle and wealthy classes, live in boarding-houses.
What is this boarding-house life? Simply a place to keep a man's trunk and his wife while he is at work, and where he has breakfast, tea, and sleeping-room. All day long. these thousands and thousands of wives, many of them with their children, are left alone, without responsibility, with little or no employment; they may read or study; probably with a master; and, if so, under the inevitable risks of such avocations; they spin street yarns in Broadway; shop; dine at Taylor's or Thompson's; make calls; talk scandal; sleep. There is no chance for the gathering of the wretched husband's family. There is no chance for the development of the unhappy wife into a mature and noble woman—the
"Perfect being, nobly planned,
To warn, to comfort, to command,"3
of the poet. Listlessness; emptiness; sloth; nerves; dyspepsia; flirtations; prodigality; vain show; perhaps—often, might we not say?—immorality, nay, infamy. These are the accomplishments which the boarding-house life most tends to develop.
We must hasten. Of whatever remedies are applicable to this state of things, many are too profound and remote even to be stated in a newspaper article. That which we shall mention—we can do little more—is one which combines the recommendation of practicability and profit. It is simply the erection of tenement-houses, so arranged that each floor is a complete isolated habitation by itself. There are already a few such buildings, and they are eagerly sought for. In London they have been introduced within the last few years, and meet with great favor. By the arrangement of two tenements on each floor, space is given for a well, which will afford light and ventilation to the midmost of the tier of rooms; and the two end apartments may be used for the social daylight uses of the family. Such tenements as these, judiciously located and handsomely finished, could be rented at reasonable rates; would restore to many of these wretched "married bachelors" a place for their household goods, a home and a hearth of their own, if not forever, at least in independent separation for the time being; would furnish the unoccupied mind and listless bodies of their wives with the stimulus and responsibilities which they need, and which God meant for them: and last—and least—yet most necessary of all, could, as may be demonstrated, yield a remunerative per-centage on the investment to the capitalist.
Perhaps we may add, that if any persons desire further information in this matter of tenement homes, it shall be given as far as practicable upon application at the office of this paper.
1. Originally part of a 62-acre farm owned by a seventeenth-century Dutch immigrant, St. John's Park passed through the hands of several owners before finally being bequeathed to Trinity Church, which then built St. John's Chapel on the land and designated the rest as a private park. The park was meant to attract upscale residential development, and the church in turn granted access to the grounds to its neighbors. By 1807, the park and the surrounding neighborhood were known as Hudson's Square, and the park served as the locale for church festivals in the spring and ice skating in the winter. In 1867, confirming Whitman's observations about the growing value of property in lower Manhattan, Trinity sold the park to the Hudson River Railroad for $1 million. The railroad then built a $2 million freight depot on the grounds to serve the West Side Line. In 1927, the terminal was demolished to make way for the building of the Holland Tunnel. The remnants of the park are, today, off limits to pedestrians. See "St. John's Park," New York Times, March 9, 1867; Linda Shookster, "St. John's Park: NY's First Ice Skating 'Rink,'" OldNewYork, http://oldnewyork.blogspot.com/2005/12/st-johns-park-nys-first-ice-skating.html; Christopher Gray, "St. John's Chapel—A Chapel the City Fought to Save," New York Times, April 27, 2008. [back]
2. While it is not clear who first coined this term to describe the philosophy of the wealthy inhabitants of Fifth Avenue, the term does not appear to be Whitman's creation. For instance, an early reference to it appears in the pages of the 1854 edition of The United States Democratic Review, where the author wrote, “We do not mean to deny but that modern Frankenstein might have produced a poet laureate, by making his skeleton out of a satin corset, with Eau de Cologne for blood, a nervous system of silk, a ball of almond soap for a heart, and a bottle of hair-dye or cosmetic for a moral centre: these placed in a covering of Gros de Naples for a skin, with a pair of curling tongs for a thyrsus, and we have the pet of the Fifth Avenoodledom" (2:33, 341). [back]
3. Whitman quotes, albeit with some alteration, William Wordsworth (1770–1850), who wrote, “A perfect woman, nobly planned, / To warn, to comfort, to command, / And yet a Spirit still, and bright / With something of an angelic light." These verses had been reprinted in several books and magazines by the time Whitman wrote, and had most recently appeared in a compilation of Wordsworth's memoirs in 1852. See George Searle Phillips, Memoirs of William Wordsworth (London: Partridge and Oakey, 1852), 197–8. [back]