New York Night The Mystique and Its History

Format: Paperback
Pub. Date: 2001-08-28
Publisher(s): Scribner
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A critic and historian presents more than 350 years in the night life of America's most vital and fascinating city--featuring the famous, the notorious, and the unknown people who walked its streets and created its history.

Author Biography

Mark Caldwell is the author of The Last Crusade: The War on Consumption 1862­1954 and A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America. He teaches at Fordham University and divides his time between Manhattan and the Hudson Valley.



Night, in its perpetual journey around the earth, speeds over the East River and reaches the foot of 42nd Street at 73 degrees, 58 minutes, and 4 seconds west longitude. It then pursues the sunset across midtown -- and the 74th meridian -- to where 42nd meets the Hudson, at 74 degrees, 7 seconds. On the evening of March 31, 2005, night dropped on the FDR Drive shortly after pedestrians' cell phone clocks blinked 5:19 P.M. Then it hurtled across the island roughly one and a half times faster than the speed of sound -- just over 1,100 miles an hour -- taking about eight seconds, swallowing one east-west block every half second.

Collaborating with land, water, and buildings, this astronomic nightfall, every day different and striking no other place on earth at just the same angle, dictates the look and feel of the oncoming dark hours. New York daylight is cold and hard-edged; at sunset it disappears almost without warning into fluid shadow. Office buildings empty. Fluorescent cubicles blaze on, and in the early darkness of late fall and winter afternoons the towers become geometric clouds of imprisoned light, winking off as the hours pass, as if lonely for their occupants, gone home to their apartments, suburbs, and exurbs.

Such is the classic evening rush hour scenario, still enacted in New York as it has been since the beginning of the 20th century and before. Yet it's no longer a universal rite, if it ever was: the city's nightfall harmonies are and always have been rich, with notes of day suspended into evening. Office hours flow into nightshifts; arriving crowds whirlpool into outbound multitudes as reverse commuters return from the suburbs to Penn and Grand Central Stations. Many of New York's largest industries -- theater, restaurants, newspapers, and broadcasting -- begin a crescendo of activity with each dusk. Seen through their vast windows, lofts may bask in expensive residential lighting or cringe beneath the harsh bluish tubes of a sweatshop. The lamp in an apartment building window may be illuminating an architect on charette or a writer on a deadline. The silky forms laughing and chattering behind the tinted glass of a club or restaurant are probably cutthroats engaged in the first skirmishes of the evening, when a hundred thousand gang wars for love and success are waged at their fiercest.

Stores close, the smaller ones with a crash of steel security gates, and the quieter stretches of commercial avenues turn into rows of illuminated grillwork. Behind the red crosses that mark the hospitals and the green globes of the police stations, shifts change. Radio traffic reports and local TV news arc into frenzy. The acrid fumes of diesel combustion, the flash of wheel sparks, and the chemical-industrial reek of brakes follow the commuter trains out into the suburbs. The later the hour the swanker the passengers: the loud workers peak at four or five, to be followed by the sweet-voiced bourgeois at six, seven, and eight.

Workdays repeat themselves; night reinvents itself with every sunset. After the commute, and as full darkness is accomplished, first restaurants come to life, then theaters, bars, and clubs, then after-hours dives -- all of them venues for drama, rewritten every second it plays. Glamour, lust, license, and crime emerge from the shadows and parade under the lights, high life and low life, polished veneer and sweaty beastliness. Toward dawn, as if released at the rasp of iron hinges, succubae and incubi fly out: nightmare thoughts, in check during the day, point with skeletal fingers to remorse, death, and vanity, their victims everywhere -- tossing alone in bed, staring at the ceiling beside a snoring stranger, or plodding home after the bartender jerks on the lights and watches the deflated customers file out.

Approached at night by air, road, or water, Manhattan is a spectacle, fireworks that rocketed up and froze in place. Towers rise in black masonry or glass and metal against the sooty satinness of the New York sky, an effect immortalized in the black-and-white prints favored by urban photographers of the 1940s and 1950s. As you walk or ride, the towers seem to change places, dipping and gliding in a formal dance, moving before and behind each other. As they rise they dissolve, columns of windows stacked in thousands, bursting aloft against the black East and Hudson Rivers -- a liquid, invisibly mobile frame to countless pinpoints of light.

Empty side streets give way to avenues where crowds sweep like squalls, then blow away into nothingness. Yet Manhattan's dominant north-south axis makes even random movement seem purposeful. No other city is so polar, with uptown and downtown its lodestars, apparently fixed yet always shifting according to where you are, and eclectic in connotations as diverse as the city's demographics. "Downtown" somehow captures the clashing atmospheres of Wall Street and Greenwich Village, while Harlem and Carnegie Hill, mutually skittish neighbors, nonetheless share a distinctive uptown building style and sense of street space.

All the world's celebrated night cities have their own ways of rearing up from earth to illuminate the sky. Chicago's skyline is as vertical as New York's, architecturally stronger, and seen from aloft even more dramatic. But its character is entirely different -- a jagged knife edge of light bolting up between the black vacancy of Lake Michigan and the level panorama of road lights stretching away into the Midwest. Paris, first to hang lanterns above its streets on moonless nights, first to set off fireworks for public display, remains unique in the warm brilliance flowing along its boulevards at night, bathing its public buildings and bridges, and shimmering along the Seine. In London, the Thames at night urges itself on, a cold void in the city's midst; light ranges from garish Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square to serene neighborhoods of knitted, sibilant greenery and thick-curtained windows.

But New York's verticality exerts power everywhere. Even a stranger senses the interplay of levels: subways below the street, audible and smellable through their ventilation grids, more subways and conduits below the subways, communications racing invisibly through cables and between antennae and cell towers making spidery appearances on rooftops. A New Yorker, self-conscious about not looking upward, nonetheless feels the vertical pull almost as instinct. Aviation and photography have together created an archive of skyline images that, absorbed into consciousness, project the grandeur of an aerial view onto every corner and street, burnishing even the most desolate neighborhoods into ebullience.

A percussive clash between light and dark is what Henry James might have called the "note" of the contemporary New York night (though he lived to see Manhattan's earliest skyscrapers and detested them). In Manhattan, darkness rests at eye level, refreshed by the downglow from illuminated signs ten to 100 feet above the sidewalk. Streetlights, from stanchions that range from stark masts to neo-retro filigreed posts, discharge blasts of pink, blue, and yellow. Windows pile up to skyscraper crowns, some brooding, others floodlit and alive with fantastic traceries of mercantile Gothic exuberance. Whether clear or overcast, the Manhattan night sky behind them looks preoccupied, physically near the rooftops and pinnacles, yet also infinitely remote. Romantic moonlight is a rural thing. The city moon is aloof, hung far away in self-contemplation.

From a plane at 30,000 feet, passing on the way to somewhere else, New York looks like an organism too huge to survive, a Portuguese man-o'-war with tentacles and a tangle of semitransparent organs seeming to cost more in hugeness than they deliver in function. But we survive in spite of our gigantism thanks to the technology of connection: tunnels, cables, and tubes carry water, information, people, electric current, voices, steam, gas, sewage, images, shutting down only for repair, spelled by backups that usually somehow hold us together even though no human fully controls them. Policing, garbage collection, entertainment, medical emergencies, even lawbreaking: all demand transit, from trains and subways to police cruisers, trucks, fire engines, ambulances, and getaway cars. No one escapes: through wire, pipe, and wave, the city, the nation, and the world snake in and entangle everyone.

In the uncannily perfect fall weather of early September 2001, New York balanced on a pinnacle never so tall, rich, or cosmopolitan, so domineering as a global talisman. The city's euphoria, like the investment boom that stoked it, was a product both of substance and fantasy. The World Trade Center had dominated the sky over New York for almost exactly a generation, just long enough that a million or so New Yorkers had never known our skyline without the twin towers. When the planes struck and they toppled, gouging out chasms in both the earth of lower Manhattan and the consciousness of the city, they left us, at first, at a loss to cope. When they collapsed they diminished -- for the first time in more than three centuries -- a skyline forced relentlessly upward since 1697, when Trinity Church raised its first steeple above Wall Street. It was a hammer blow against a keystone of the city's pride. But in the 21st century any town that wants to make a statement can throw up a record-breaking tower; and the catastrophe presents an opportunity to reevaluate the urban texture.

And indeed new possibilities suggest themselves if one traces the urban spine backward through time. Strangely, as each new year slides offstage, revealing the city of the year before, and postwar skyscrapers disappear, the skyline seems to soar higher and higher in appearance. The twin towers, no matter how sobering their loss, were uninspiring boxes, popping up as if from a gigantic industrial extruder in the basement. They looked best at night, when they seemed to dematerialize, leaving two columnar stacks of light. And as one goes back, few towers, however remarkable in themselves, diminish Manhattan's urgent verticality as they vanish one by one, restoring the skyline to the appearance of its past. The bulky Worldwide Plaza evaporates from its bastion on Eighth Avenue in 1989, the refrigerator-like shoulders of the Morgan Bank Building sink back among the 17th-century artifacts still buried under Wall Street in 1988, and the Chippendale AT&T (now Sony) building on Madison Avenue is gone by 1983. Accelerating backward, the Pan Am (now MetLife) tower flips below ground in 1963, and then the skyline loses the Chase Manhattan headquarters on the Battery (1960), followed by Mies van der Rohe's fabled Seagram Building (1958), Lever House (1952), and the UN Secretariat (1947).

Yet what's left in the 1940s, with the products of a postwar building frenzy gone, looks startlingly leaner, bolder, stronger, and taller than ever afterward. In a mid-1940s night photo taken from the Municipal Building on Centre Street (just after the World War II dimout had been lifted), lower Manhattan is breathtaking -- a bold, stark, and brave exertion of force against the sky. Three brutally handsome towers, all still standing today, dominated the skyscape: the slim Cities Services (now AIG) Tower at 70 Pine Street, spinning upward to a floodlit spire; then the massive Bank of the Manhattan Company at 40 Wall Street, with its huge pyramidal crown; lastly, the Farmers Trust Tower at 20 Exchange Place, a powerful square column with beveled corners and topped by three arches and a stepped pediment.

Together, surrounded by lesser but similar structures, they make the night city of the 1940s look boundless, their eccentric forms assured, inevitable, rocketing upward beyond the columns and church spires that once defined urban tallness. The walls are stone, the windows carved into their facades. In 1940 their lights would have been warm, incandescent rather than cold, gaseous fluorescent. As one circled the Battery by water, the towers in the foreground stood up, aloof, threatening, then seemed to deflate and sink into their streets as they receded. They posed a bold backdrop against the postwar crowds packed further north into the Stork Club, El Morocco, and their rivals, and to the wide-flung skyscrapers of midtown: the Metropolitan Life tower at 23rd Street, with its Light That Never Fails, the Empire State at 34th, Chrysler at 42nd, General Electric at 51st, the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center. Nearer the street elevated railways, soon to vanish, still grated north and southward along Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues. By day they cast deep shadows on the streets below. At night their tracks, stanchions, and stairways, visible embodiments of the darkness passing over the city, raised a roof of black noise over loiterers and revelers. Crowds streamed on and off the trains and down to the sidewalks. It was no accident that the ground-floor storefronts along Third Avenue became a favored site for gay bars; the Sixth and Ninth Avenue lines, passing just to the east and west of Times Square, disgorged and reabsorbed the crowds that thronged it.

And the Times Square of the early 1940s and late 1930s, despite lingering depression and the shadow of war, looked more alive and quicker-pulsed than the doggedly restored, upbeat spectacle of the present. This "old" Times Square gloried in its circus savor, its pasteboard, hand lettering, poster-cluttered theater entrances, its daubed-on paint, the popping electric bulbs of its frenetic, herky-jerky animated signs. During the World War II dimout unlit signs appeared, made of quarter-sized sequins stitched onto painted block letters (these made their debut and survived into the 1980s, reaching their tawdry best when the sequins began falling off). Even the paper and cardboard litter of the wartime and early postwar square was more pleasing than today's Styrofoam and wind-dizzied plastic bags.

Even back in the mortal poverty of the 1930s, a reaction against despair generated glorious extravagances like the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, and the vast, scintillating Art Deco International Casino north of Times Square. But during the 1920s, nighttime New York was at its zenith, more various and unpredictable than ever before or since. Prohibition-ridden New Yorkers were mad to squander at night the money they were raking in by day, and they parted with it in thousands of speakeasies, nightclubs, supper clubs, movie palaces, and legitimate theaters that offered an array of plays and musicals never equaled since. It was a cityscape without the RCA, Empire State, or Chrysler Buildings, yet New York still seemed towering and crowded, muscular and aspiring.

Past World War I, the city begins to resemble often sentimentalized Old New York, year by year shedding height, phones, radios, electric light, subways, railways, and streetcars. Movies drop away first, then nightclubs and restaurants catering to evening and late-night diners, leaving the theater as the 19th-century linchpin of respectable after-dark entertainment. Before 1900 there were proto-skyscrapers, many still standing now, but not nearly so high. The 30-story Park Row Building with its twin cupolas, and its 309-foot-high neighbor, the Pulitzer World Building (1890), modest-looking in photographs, nonetheless dwarfed the 284-foot steeple of Trinity Church, completed in 1846.

By 1880 the skyscrapers have sunk below the Trinity steeple, to ten or twelve stories, with windows lit by gas. In 1875 the Western Union headquarters at the corner of Broadway and Dey Streets was Trinity's nearest competitor, and was the tallest commercial structure in New York, boldly engineered to showcase the company's prestige and its place in the vanguard of technology. It was massive, and with an intricate, even frilly gray granite and red brick exterior and a great 23-foot-high hall on the seventh floor where 290 operators pattered out messages by the million 24 hours every day. A clocktower, slapped offhandedly on top, seems to have been intended as a respectful echo of the nearby St. Paul's and Trinity steeples.

Toward the Civil War, New York lowers its spine yet further and begins a two-century-long southward retreat from Inwood Hill, at the northern tip of Manhattan, to Harlem. By 1800 the developed area has shrunk back to Greenwich Village, then to present-day City Hall by the Revolution. Theaters are gone by 1730, leaving coffeehouses and a few public assembly rooms for exhibitions and dances. By 1695 all three successive Trinity Church buildings and their steeples are nowhere to be found, and by the 1660s the developed town has withdrawn downtown to Wall Street.

Below it, the settlers' Manhattan of the 1640s and 50s stretched for about 1,700 feet to the tip of the island, in a Dutch-looking village of perhaps 500 settlers, windmills, and gable-roofed houses. Yet the rivers were already beginning to thrum with shipping and trade, ferries plying back and forth from Brooklyn. A market drew shoppers and tradespeople to the open space at the foot of today's Broadway, outside the gates of Fort Amsterdam. Nobly named, the Fort was in truth a crumbling pile of dirt and wood. Nonetheless, it was the biggest structure in the new town, its flagpole the tallest thing in view, flying the orange, white, and blue colors of the Dutch West India Company. The sole nighttime gathering places were taverns, but they were numerous and filled with people socializing, exchanging news, and cutting deals.

Heat came from a hearth, light from a candle, a lamp, or sometimes a burning rush soaked in grease. Water had to be hauled up from a well as, a few yards away, excrement trickled and plopped into an earthen pit so close by it would have angered our current, yet-to-be-imagined department of health. For sweet water, untainted by the buildup of household waste, one walked north to the Fresh Water pond, fed by springs bubbling up out of Manhattan's angular bedrock and draining itself in two streams, one emptying into the Hudson and the other into the East River. In New Amsterdam and early New York it was pristine, a favorite source for drinking water, and fed the Tea Water Pump, which survived into the 1800s (the pump is long gone, but the pond is still there, buried under the Criminal Courts complex on Centre Street, its waters seeping ignominiously through the municipal sewers). Indeed 17th-century town life, not just in New York but in all save the very greatest European cities, was little more than rural life agglomerated. Trees for firewood stood within view of the front door. Cattle spent the night in town, and every morning a drover led them along the East River out to pasture near today's City Hall. Their return home each evening was one of the rituals, along with the ringing of the bell in Fort Amsterdam, that marked the onset of night.

A European ship passenger approaching Manhattan from Lower New York Bay in the 1600s at first saw little sign of human occupation. The earliest landmark to appear was the Navesink Highlands, rising helmetlike over the water. As the ship rounded it, Sandy Hook appeared, jutting into the bay from the west. But even here Manhattan still lay seventeen miles north, invisible, with no bridges or towers to herald it. Eleven miles past Sandy Hook, you came upon the Narrows, and found yourself nowhere in particular among a confusion of waterways, islets, and headlands. An occasional group of curious Indians might set out in a canoe to visit the ship and down a bumper of brandy with the crew, but nothing appeared that would strike a European as townlike. Six miles beyond the Narrows, you reached Manhattan; Brooklyn Heights rose up, not yet obscured by elevated roads or tall buildings and thus still meriting its name. Manhattan was a rocky headland, rising into a few undulating hills.

A late 17th-century Dutch visitor, Jasper Danckaerts, remarked that "as soon as you begin to approach the land, you see not only woods, hills, dales, green fields and plantations, but also the houses and dwellings of the inhabitants, which afford a cheerful and sweet prospect after having been so long upon the sea." He marveled at "how this bay swarms with fish, both large and small, whales, tunnies and porpoises, whole schools of innumerable other fish, which the eagles and other birds of prey swiftly seize in their talons when the fish come up to the surface, and hauling them out of the water, fly with them to the nearest woods or beach."

By the 1640s, the houses shrink and the taverns become darker and smaller, until they're few and humble -- like the Wooden Horse, a minute barroom built in 1641 next to the Fort. No wall or city gate, closed and locked, guarded the village after dark. By 1624 the Fort and settlers are gone, leaving a wilderness of bay, river, tree, rock, and swamp. But not a vacant wilderness at all, and not in truth a wilderness; rather, a different kind of town. Manhattan was well populated before it was New York or New Amsterdam, a forest city, home to perhaps 15,000 Indians, all branches of the Algonquin tribe, whose ancestors had roamed the area for millennia. The Lenape were the most numerous (though not the only) group, and they weren't nomads, but moved seasonally among regular encampments as food supplies increased or waned.

Thus their settlement had all the essential social features of a city, lacking only the products of the fateful European belief that land could be owned and that owners should be planted on it. At night they kept fire and light, in Quonset-hut-shaped longhouses framed by bent saplings, covered with bark and ventilated by smokeholes. Trees grew everywhere, of course, as they do in present-day Manhattan. But the species were more various -- the black locusts and sycamores New Yorkers began planting in the 1700s eventually took over and still dominate the streets today. And trees were the beginning of the city night. Pines still clustered thickly in the soil and rocks of lower Manhattan when the Dutch arrived. Their wood burned with a hot and bright (though smoky) light. Pine pitch, a highly flammable resin, made a peerless fuel for torches (probably the earliest human refinement of fire into a technology for artificial light, and thus perhaps the beginning of a night fit for activity rather than forced hibernation).

Long before Manhattan was Manhattan, long before it had a name at all, its trees made social life possible after dark, just as its land and water supplied food. An old Lenape legend of the origin of the world (first recorded by Europeans in the late 1600s) invokes these primal features in relation to the millennia of humans who would live on the island. In the beginning, the legend says, was only water, from horizon to horizon. A turtle rose from this sea. Its domed back, drying in the sun, became the earth. A tree grew in the midst. The first man sprang up from its roots; then the treetop bent toward the ground, and the first woman sprouted from its crest as the treetop touched the earth.

It's difficult to see in the Manhattan of today any trace of that primeval island. But not impossible. Perhaps the place to start is with a pair of trees: two gaunt pines growing close together, just west of Broadway, in the south graveyard of Trinity Church. Almost hidden in the corner between the walls of the church and the sacristy, they're nearly always in shadow. But at the right time, seen from the right vantage point, they make it possible to imagine the island of the Lenape and the earliest Dutch, surviving spectrally amidst four centuries of development.

Stand at the corner of Broadway and Rector Street on a clear late winter afternoon, and these pines loom starkly against the brown stones of the church. The steeple rises above, and above that an expanse of sky. When darkness falls, the pines sink gradually into the shadows between the church and attached chapel, the spire and the buttresses in sharp relief behind. Ignore the skyscrapers (easily done from here) and you see something like what would have been there in 1700. In darkness the brownstone church loses its shape; imagine it gone (the original church opened in 1697), multiply th epines in your imagination, and you see it as it was even in 1650 -- a graveyard, among the earliest in New Amsterdam.

Then, back still further, to the spring of 1643, the graves are empty, and the land is a garden belonging to the Dutch West India Company, bordering Broadway's ancestor, the Heerewegh, a dirt road whose name meant "Highway" in Dutch. The garden, once a community resource, was gradually being carved up, and part of it was in the process of falling into the grip of an obscure, ambitious, and none-too-scrupulous Dutch immigrant, Jan Jansen Damen. He would, by the mid-1640s, own all the land behind you, from Broadway to the East River. We will soon hear more of him.

Daylight in the New Amsterdam of the 1640s, when his story begins, was recognizably what it is now -- allowing only for the cycling seasonal angles of the sun, the changing composition and density of whatever hung suspended in the air, and the buildings that carve New York's unsparing northern New World sunlight into angles of cold shadow and frigid glare. Daylight differed back then only insofar as it fell not on development but on an expanse of woods, hills, rock outcroppings, and moving water. But night light was very different, and the feel of it is probably beyond recovery. The fixed stars, now mostly invisible in the ambient glow of artificial light, have shifted their positions. First gas, then electric light, powered by alien machines throbbing all night in grim bastions at the city's edge and beyond, cut deep into night and transformed it.

Geophysically the night of the planet -- sunset, darkness, circling moon, and more slowly turning stars -- is much the same now as it was in the 17th century, or as it was a hundred or a thousand years before that. But the complex of thoughts, feelings, and sensations aroused by it has changed. When the sun set in the early spring of 1643, lights flickered up behind locked doors and shuttered windows. Taverns uncorked their wines and tapped their kegs. Customers began straggling in, taking down and packing their clay pipes, and settling in for a social or solitary evening.

Men, like Damen, were probably wearing the standard Dutch costume of the period: a coat, and beneath it a waistcoat and baggy, button-studded knee breeches, closing over stockings usually made of the same cloth and held up by garters. Details of styling varied, but the breeches and waistcoat were usually of one color (officials wore black, but otherwise tints varied). Shirts, often linen, had elaborate collars, ruffs, and cuffs; shoes and boots usually rose on high heels of layered black or brown leather. But the footfalls these boots sounded in the unlit and unpaved streets of New Amsterdam weren't those of the contented, plodding burghers with big paunches and small imaginations so comfortably dreamed up by Washington Irving. Some of them were setting out for places and experiences we can barely imagine, even in a newborn century that's supposedly seen everything.

Among these was Damen. Sometime after dusk fell on the evening of Monday, April 6, 1643, he could be seen sitting near Fort Amsterdam in the Wooden Horse tavern, probably smoking a pipe, and certainly drinking. He was brooding over a dark secret. It hadn't yet become a public sensation, but his fellow citizens were already whispering rumors of its full horror among themselves. As the hours ticked on, Damen's mood grew first grim, then sulfurous, and finally dangerous. It would, as the evening ripened, trigger an explosion that struck all the notes of urban night myth: pleasure and violence, intrigue, the furtive meeting of rock-solid burgher with roaming exile, and -- in the upshot -- the bursting out of horrific secrets concealed by the sun. The New York night was underway.

Copyright © 2005 by Mark Caldwell

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