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Walt Whitman, “Our City”

 

 

Walt Whitman, ‘Our City’

 

 

Our City

NEW YORK is a great place — a mighty world in itself. Strangers who come here for the first time in their lives, spend week after week, and yet find that there are still hundreds of wonders and surprises, and (to them) oddities, which they have not had a chance of examining. Here are people of all classes and stages of rank — from all countries on the globe — engaged in all the varieties of avocations — of every grade, every hue of ignorance and learning, morality and vice, wealth and want, fashion and coarseness, breeding and brutality, elevation and degradation, impudence and modesty.

Coming up Broadway, from the Bowling Green, an observer will notice, on each side, tall, quiet looking houses, with no great aspect of life or business. These are mostly boarding houses; and notwith­standing their still look, they no doubt contain within their walls no small number of occupants. Here the sidewalks and the street pre­sent hut few passengers. After passing Trinity Church, however, the crowd thickens, and the ground stories of the buildings are prin­cipally occupied as shops. Along this section of Broadway are sev­eral crack hotels. If you pass at the latter part of the day, you will see little groups of well dressed men, picking their teeth lazily, and enjoying an after dinner lounge. Near here, there are two shops which deserve especial notice. Judging by their capacious windows, they are for the sale of knicknacks, and fancy articles of all descrip­tions, from a chess board or an escritoire to a toothpick. From a glance at these treasures, a person can hardly help reflecting how many thousand wants, altogether imaginary, one may he led to have through the refinements of civilization.

Directly afterward, you will notice two crowds gazing at the prints in the windows of a book store. This is Colman’s. If you chance to stop there for the same purpose as the rest, look out for the contents of your pockets. We mean this in a double sense; for if you are not incited to purchase some of the alluring literary beauties to be had at Colman’s, it is quite possible that you may he otherwise relieved of your cash by some of the swells who there do congregate.

Then you come to where the Park thrusts out as a kind of wedge between Broadway and the beginning of Park Row. If you take the left, you have to make way against a great current of fashion, idleness, and foppery. Suppose you turn to the right.

Down you walk — first stopping to gaze a moment at St. Paul’s, which, with its steeple the other way, seems as if it wanted to walk off from amid so much tumult and din — and at that very respectable small city, the Astor House. A few rods, and you are in front of an ambiguous structure, of a dirty white color, and which you internally set down in your mind as the most villainous specimen of architecture you ever beheld. This is the Park theatre — or, as some of our people, with a very untasty habit of copying whatever is foreign, term it, the Old Drury. You will not wonder, when you hear that the manager has been very unsuccessful of late, maugre all his ener­getic and liberal catering. What benignant spirit could ever plume his wings on the top of such a temple?

By and by, you arrive at an open space, whereabout, if you look sharp, you will behold the name of one of the wonders of the city — that is, the “New York Aurora.” In all probability your ears will be greeted with the discordant notes of the newsboys, who generally muster here in great force. A door or two further is Tammany Hall, the Mecca of democracy — the time honored, soul endeared holy of holies, to all who go for anti monopoly, and the largest freedom of the largest number.

The City Hall on the left, with its redundance of marble tracery and ornament, will not probably strike you as being anything very extensive — so pass we on.

Now you come into the region of Jews, jewelry, and second hand clothing. Here and there, the magic “three balls” hold out hope to those whose ill luck makes them grasp at even the smallest favors.

Passing the Pearl street crossing, and the Chatham theatre, you are in the large triangle which people call Chatham square. In the middle are dray carts, coaches, and cabs: on the right loom up small hills of furniture, of every quality, with here and there an auctioneer, standing on a table or barrel top, and crying out to the crowd around him, the merits of the articles, and the bids made for them.

Then up the Bowery, which presents the most heterogeneous melange of any street in the city: stores of all kinds and people of all kinds, are to be met with every forty rods. You come by and by to the Bowery theatre; this is one of the best looking buildings in the city.

If you keep up the Bowery, you will lose yourself at last in the midst of vacant squares, unfenced lots, and unbuilt streets.

If you turn to the right, you will come into some of the dirtiest looking places in New York. Pitt, Ridge, Attorney and Willett streets, and all thereabout, are quite thickly settled with German emigrants.

If you wind your steps leftward, you will have a chance of promenading to suit any taste you may he possessed of. You can lead off into some of the most aristocratic thorough-fares, or some of the lowest, or some of a medium between both.

 

— Walt Whitman, The New York Aurora, March 8, 1842

 

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Walt Whitman’s 1842 walk took him from the Battery (where I often start my walks) — the southernmost point of Manhattan — uptown to the area of Delancey Street on what is now the Lower East Side. I have walked the same route so many, many times.

I take the same delight — and experience the same perpetual wonder — in the City that Whitman did. He is my Doppelgänger. I feel such kinship with him.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2020