15 OCTOBER 1954, Page 10

The Lullaby of Broadway

By D. W. BROGAN IT may turn out, in the long run, that the statesman who has done mdk for the greatest happiness of the greatest number in the past week has been the Foreign Secretary. But in the short run r have no doubt who deserves the medal; it is the Rt. Hon. Herbert Morrison, MP. For Mr. Morrison is in New York celebrating The New Leader and indulging in other praiseworthy activities. But more than that, much more than that, he. has induced the Mayor of New York to prohibit hospital ambulances from sounding their sirens incessantly and insisting on driving through the red lights. He had induced the New York administration, that is to say, to do something to make Manhattan inhabitable.

I have just spent a summer in New York so I know what I'm talking about. I have of course been often in New York in the summer, but I have usually stayed with friends in the suburbs or in private homes or high up in hotels. And I have not stayed for long continuous periods. Then remembering the delight I took in New York when I was young and didn't need any sleep and could, in any case, sleep any time and any- where I liked, I used to laugh in an offensive and superior fashion at the people from Dubuque who said that ' New York is a fine place to visit but I wouldn't live in it at any price.' For, alas, I am now an old man from Dubuque. Even with Mayor Wagner's order enforced, I still think New York is no place to live. I am still inclined to agree with a Dutch friend of mine who insists that Manhattan Island was not designed by Nature for human habitation. • First of all, Nature by making Manhattan long, narrow and. rocky, limited the possibilities of the architect. It justified if it did not enforce the building of skyscrapers and so pro- duced the fantastic vision of the topless towers of Manhattan —and congestion unparalleled in any other city in the world. The mere nuisance of parking is enough to make life on Man hattan un-American, for it makes many loyal citizens commit the great crime of not having a car. Unfortunately it does not make enough of them make this gran rifiuto and the cars are only too much with us. This, in turn, presents insoluble problems of traffic control that, in turn, produce an infernal din. For the red light is a red light to a bull when it holds up an American engaged in the pursuit of happiness by car. His reaction is to sound his horn. This relieves his feelings- and splits the ear drums of the innocent bystanders. Theo- greatest sinners in this field of crime are the police. Their prowl cars are fitted with sirens painfully like those we didn't get used to in London during the war. It is the habit of the police to sound them all the time, not only when dashing ahead, but when stalled in a first-class traffic jam. So I saw a police car, just off Times Square, with four or five cars ahead of it, sirening away and adding to the din of that boiler factory. There are other noises; there are the fire engines being con- stantly called out on false alarms (vide Press). There are motor-cycle cops escorting notables or just having fun. There are the vast trucks changing gear (and hooting); there were the ambulances. And I lived in an apartment house across the street from a hospital on one side, from a fire station on the other, at the crest of a slope on which all the trucks in Manhattan changed gears. I have never known anything like it and I have lived in very noisy parts of Rome and Paris, know well the clatter of dustbins in the dawn in the Rue du Mont-Thabor, the changing of gears as the Avenue Niel slopes up to the Arc de Triomphe, the noise of the hotels at the stations in Marseilles and Hamburg. But they are unheard melodies compared with the incessant din of Manhattan. For Manhattan never goes to sleep; there are hours of tranquillity in Paris and in Rome; there are none in Manhattan. The endless muffled roar, split repeatedly by sharper noises, is the music of Manhattan. I don't like it.

Another disadvantage of Manhattan is its rocky soil. This is excellent for excavating subways in, but that is about all. Mr. Alistair Cooke has, I think, assured us that there are more trees on Manhattan than in London. There may be; there are a lot more than there used to be. But what kind of `trees ? I don% think there is a single first-class tree on the island. Walk through the Central Park ' as old New Yorkers called it. It is a model of ingenuity; it does great credit to Frederick Law Olmsted's talents, but there is not in it a single great tree, a great trge of the kind you can see in abundance in the royal parks or Clapham Common or, for that matter, in Kelvingrove in Glasgow—or on Boston Common. ' Only God can make a tree,' and he left Manhattan out of his programme.

Then New York is filthy. London is.not very clean. I have seen enough miscellaneous rubbish on the pavements of Bond Street in the morning and without excuse. But if Fifth and Park Avenues are clean, most .of the rest of Manhattan isn't. Then there is the filth of the subways. Perhaps just because it is easy to dig subways on the rocky island, the subways built don't seem to have been the product of much thought or the object of much care. Apart from the dirt, there is the violence of the braking. It is perhaps no worse than the violence of the braking in London buses. But the driver- of the bus has to put his brake on violently to stop running down some foolish pedestrian or thoughtless driver. The drivers of New York subways seem to jam on the brake for fun, as the police cat drivers sound their sirens for fun. I have had the crystal (anglice glass) of my watch (an American watch, it is true) jolted out of its frame by the violence of a stop in the subway. Of course the subway lines vary in cleanliness and modernity. There is quite a good and clean line to Queens, although I pnly know it as a way of getting from Times Square to the Yale Club. But most New York subway lines and trains are horrible and in hot and humid days (of which New York has a high number) places of cruel but only too usual punishment.

Then New York lacks charm simply because it is con- nually being torn down. The Washington Square of Henry Tames has almost totally disappeared. There are cases of old Mayor's York left, as well as monuments of other days like the Mayor's residence, Gracie Mansion, or the elegant old City Ball. But Manhattan is less an abiding city than an encamp- ment. Places like East 39th Street, which in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence was remotely up-town, knew a few years of brownstone respectability in the manner of Life with Father and then sank through a period of shabby genteel decay to spring to life again in new office buildings. ' Old' monuments like the Murray Hill Hotel and the Waldorf disappear over- night. New buildings spring up overnight. I was shown a Skyscraper made, apparently, of copper building blocks on Park Avenue, and was told that the frame had been put up in a day. I don't quite believe that, but I don't quite disbelieve it either. That not very ancient monument, the Grand Central §tation, is now to have a skyscraper on its top, thus adding further to congestion and, even more important, spoiling the view of Manhattan from the Yale Club roof. It is impossible to go d is recherche du temps perdu .in New York. The past is abolished. Even the Astor is constantly threatened; even the Plaza is not quite safe. The time has not yet come when a skyscraper will be pulled down because it is inadequate before it is finished, but it will come.

For all of the astonishing amount of money and brains spent on New York, therb are few satisfactory buildings. There are fine noble prospects' like the view up Fifth Avenue to the Park, or the view, in the early morning, of the clustering apartment houses round the Park, almost as exotic as the view of Whitehall from St. James's Park. But in detail, few-New York buildings are much to look at and of course it is impossible to look at many of them because human beings have not, so far, got eyes on the top of their heads.

It is perhaps the buildings that express New York's protests against mere modernity that best show the transient character 5 of New York building. The Episcopal cathedral of St. John the Divine will be, when finished, the largest gothic cathedral 3 in the world. There is quite enough of it in existence to show It Will be one of the ugliest. Gothic doesn't suit Manhattan any more than it suits New Haven; the climate, hard, extreme, full of light, doesn't give gothic the background it needs as 5 Paris or London does. Perhaps Spanish gothic, Toledo rather t than Chartres, ought to have been the model. At any rate a it is plain that Ralph Adams Cram was a better writer about a a slightly mythical Middle Ages than he was an architect. Perhaps the only good results of St. John—and of Riverside Church—is to make St. Patrick's Cathedral, grim, thin, meagre a as it is, look rather good (apart from the horrid new doors). Renwick knew his business as it was understood in the days of the gothic revival.

d And lastly, the New York climate, electric in winter, spurring on to excessive energy in every department of life, can be t. Murderous in summer; it is maddening, not enervating, and this it affects the inhabitants. There are no words less worn down It by over-use in a New York summer than thank you.'

I thought all these things as my ship, battered by Carol and about to get the back of her hand from Edna, prepared to sail. The ship's juke box played that agreeable piece of schmalz, The Sidewalks of New York' As we moved out, Pondered on the desirability of giving it back to the Indians. But as the great towers shot up into the darkening sky, as I remembered how I had seen them at all hours from dawn to Midnight, from ship and plane, I decided against that too drastic measure. After all I want it to be there when I get back next year.