Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Four Decades in the Life of a City

I AM drawn to writers with deep roots in the place where they live. To Thoreau who, in his own words, ``traveled a good deal in Concord.'' To Dickens in London, and Dostoevsky in St. Petersburg. For New York, the city where I live, and have always lived, my choice is less well-known: the 19th-century diarist, George Templeton Strong. Though a distinguished lawyer and civic leader, it is as diarist that Strong will best be remembered. He began his diary in 1835, at age 15, when a sophomore at Columbia College. Two-hundred and fifty thousand people then lived in the city.

Strong made his final diary entry on June 25, 1875, less than a month before his death. For a diary to cover a 40-year period is remarkable. Samuel Pepy's diary, for example, only extends over 10 years.

About these ads

The Strong diary, a treasure of the New York Historical Society, is bound in four morocco leather volumes. It contains more than 2,250 pages and runs over 4 million words. As a labor of love, Columbia University professors Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas prepared an edited version of the diary published in four volumes in 1952. Professor Nevins noted in his preface that Strong kept his diary up to date, ``seldom indulging in John Quincy Adams's practice of deferring it until a day of l eisure enabled him to write in the arrears. His impressions were thus kept vivid....''

Strong writes of the perils of 19th-century urban life. To present-day New Yorkers they seem familiar. Thus, the morning journey to work: ``Streets much blocked and circulation impeded. All along Broadway the line of omnibi labors, and the carts move slow. Had my fingers mashed in an omnibus door as I was leaving the vehicle this morning....''

Walking on city streets at night could be dangerous: ``Most of my friends are investing in revolvers and carry them about at night, and if I expected to have to do a great deal of late street-walking off Broadway, I think I should make the like provisions; though it's a very bad practice carrying concealed weapons.''

The city's streets are dirty: ``March wind raw and dirt-laden. The sands raised by the winds of Sahara are cleaner than our street dust.''

I live three blocks from Central Park. I walk in the park each day on the way to the subway. It is fascinating for me to read about the building of the park. In 1859, Strong traveled to the city's new northern boundary to visit the construction site: ``Improved the day by leaving Wall Street early and set off to explore the Central Park, which will be a feature of the city within five years and a lovely place in AD 1900, when its trees will have acquired dignity and appreciable diameters.

``We entered the park at Seventy-first Street, on its east side, and made for `The Ramble,' a patch just below the upper reservoir. Its footpaths and plantations are finished, more or less, and it is the first section of the ground that has been polished off and made presentable. It promises very well. So does all the lower park, though now in most ragged condition: long lines of incomplete macadamization, `lakes' without water, mounds of compost, piles of blasted stone, ... groves of slender young tran splanted maples and locusts, undecided between life and death, with here and there an arboricultural experiment that has failed utterly and is a mere broomstick with ramifications. Narrowness is its chief drawback. One sees quite across the Rus in Urbe at many points. This will be less felt as the trees grow.''

New Yorkers love to welcome famous people. Last year's visit of Nelson Mandela to the city is a good example. Many distinguished people visited the city during the period covered by the diary: Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Abraham Lincoln, Jenny Lind, and Louis Kossuth.

About these ads

In 1860, Strong, who had a good sense of humor, recorded the arrival of the Prince of Wales at a reception: ``In came the royal party at last, with the Reception Committeemen, who had been assigned the pleasing duty of escorting them. We were presented to His Royal Highness seriatim. I had supposed that shaking hands with a Prince of Wales was indecorous, and that a bow was the proper acknowledgment of introduction to so august a personage; but when the Prince put out his hand, or extends and proffers his fingers like anybody else, it seems ungracious to decline the honor and say, `Sir, I am so well bred as to know my place, and I am unworthy to shake hands with a descendant of James I and George III and a probable king of England hereafter.' I think of having my right-hand glove framed and glazed, with an appropriate inscription.''

Poverty was no stranger to New York City in the 19th century. In the following diary entry, written in 1851, Strong asks himself how Englishmen of means and talent can fail to help the poor of their cities, where ``[M]en and women and children in multiplying thousands lie rotting alive, body and soul at once, in those awful catacombs of disease and crime....'' He was honest enough with himself to write: ``And the same question is to be asked, and must be answered, here in New York.... [W]e have our Five Points, our emigrant quarters, our swarms of seamstresses to whom their utmost toil in monotonous daily drudgery gives only bare subsistence, a life barren of hope and of enjoyment; our hordes of dock thieves, and of children who live in the streets and by them.''

Strong then asks himself another question, one which New Yorkers, it seems to me, should be asking themselves today. ``And what am I doing, I wonder?'' He continues: ``I'm neither scholar nor philanthropist nor clergyman, nor in any capacity a guide or ruler of the people, to be sure - there is that shadow of an apology for my sitting still. But if Heaven will permit and enable me, I'll do something in the matter before I die - to have helped one dirty vagabond child out of such a pestilential sink woul d be a thing one would not regret when one came to march out of this world....''

But in the 19th century, as now, New York could also be a joyful place to live. Strong loved music. Nothing could be more spectacular than a summer evening of outdoor music at Castle Garden at the foot of the Battery. ``Last night we were at Castle Garden again. Sat on the terrace and inhaled the sea-breeze, listening only at distant intervals to the not heavy music of `Ernani,' and looked out on the bay and the stars above and the stars below - for the night was dark and nothing was to be seen an hundr ed yards off except the multitudinous lights great and small, near and distant, scattered over the surface of the bay, like another series of constellations below us.''

Strong wrote of his diary that ``three centuries hence ... these hieroglyphics will be discovered in an obscure garret'' and sold at auction as a ``Curious old MS. partly undecipherable, apparently the `Diary' or `Journal' (vide Klootzenberg's Dict: Antiq: for explanation of Old English Terms) of an inhabitant of the ancient city of New Amsterdam during the XIX century.'' How fortunate that Strong undertook to write his ``Curious old MS.'' which so vividly portr ays four decades in the life of a great city.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.