What’s Wrong With New York City
This Essay By Stanley Walker, One Of The Finest Newspaper Editors In History, Will Strike Home For Anyone Who Has Ever Lived In New York
At the end of Walker’s essay we’ll reveal something remarkable about this story.
“I like to visit New York, but I wouldn’t live there if you gave it to me.” -OLD AMERICAN SAYING.
There’s no reason for immediate panic, but Bagdad-on-the-Subway, Babylon-on-the-Hudson, the Manhattan of the high minarets, the despair of the poets and the whipping boy of the moralists, the daffy squirrel cage of which I have been an inmate most of the time for more than a generation, will be seeing no more of me for a time. I am forsaking the treadmill for some fresh air, the company of unhurried characters, the sight of sapphire skies and a generous slice of rugged individualism. This news, I am aware, will cause not a quiver on the pachydermous hide of New York City, but the reasons for the decision may be of some interest, and perhaps important, for I am by way of being an Old Resident, and therefore entitled to praise and to bellyache without restraint.
From time to time over the last four or five years various thoughtful persons, or persons to whom the wish may have been father to the thought, have expressed the idea that New York City is doomed. It is dismaying to many of us even to toy with the notion that this wonderful city, which we have loved in its shimmering and brooding moods, and where we have known much happiness and a full portion of despair, is headed down the long trail where sleep Nineveh and Tyre. And yet it may he true.
Leaving aside many intangible matters, the evidence foreshadowing the doom of New York, most of which is admitted by the town’s most sincere champions, includes the following:
The city’s financial affairs, long troublesome, grow steadily worse, and there is no solution in sight. The new mayor, **** who came into office after the twelve years of the allegedly remarkably successful administration of **** was confronted with the necessity of raising some $80.000,000 from some new source.
The cry insistently for more taxes, new revenue somehow, to remedy obsolescence, to take care of badly needed new projects. and to carry on the day-by-day municipal business. The toll upon the property owner is killing. The city, moreover, in the strictly physical sense, is choking. Its subways, crowded and indecent, need overhauling. Its bus system is disreputable. Its taxicabs seem to be headed toward extinction. The traffic on the streets becomes worse, the parking problem can’t be cured; surveys and the palliatives of the city planners have been of little aid.
Many of the city’s industries are in direct competition with industries in cities where the costs are lower, and this way, obviously, lies ruin. The great financial district has been clipped: the real seat of financial power is in Washington. The much touted idea of making New York “the world’s fashion center” has turned out to be largely hokum. The city’s garment industry has been nibbled away; California, Florida and even Texas have come into the field with notable success. The city is singularly vulnerable to attack from modern weapons.
Its water front can hardly be expected to come back to anything resembling its old glory. The housing shortage is shocking, and cannot be improved very much for a long time, if ever. The crime rate is up; muggers make the streets unsafe at night. In addition, the city’s life has become so complex, so finely geared, that it can be thrown out of kilter when any one of a dozen essential services is threatened; strikes, and the threat of strikes, have kept the inhabitants on edge, and with good reason. And some experts say that in the marvelous air age that lies just ahead of us New York probably will run second to Chicago and possibly to other cities.
All this is pretty serious business. The defenders of New York City and the New York way of life are conscious of their situation, and their most plausible answer to the black charges made against the city may be summed up this way: Yes, we have been hard hit, and worse may be coming, but New York City must always remain pre-eminent as the amusement and cultural capital, and it is here that management—which is to say brains, executive genius, industrial planning and direction—must make its home. This argument, though not entirely convincing, may turn out to he right. The evolution, however, is sure to he painful.
At the moment, and regardless of the trend of tomorrow, the sober truth remains- it has been the truth for some years, with and without wartime dislocations – that the city has become increasingly difficult as a place to live and work. It is also next to impossible to visit the place with any degree of of comfort. For all its occasional charming aspects, it is a strangling bedlam.
Although my credentials as a business and industrial expert are a bit frayed, I yield to no one in the ability to judge when surroundings are pleasant—to me—and civilized—also to me. And I think the spirit of New York City, the essential feel and character of the place, has undergone a dispiriting change, particularly in the course of the last decade.
True, the glitter remains, but it is a garish, Coney Island glitter. A surging ambition remains and permeates everything, and this may be a fine thing, but it seems to be dominated by a repellent hardness and a rapacity quite beyond anything one used to observe. Graciousness, repose, courtesy, high romance, noblesse oblige, urbanity, sportsmanship the very juices of good living—somehow the fabled city has lost some or all of them somewhere along the line. The face is false and the voice is the vapid voice of the juke box.
No doubt it will be fascinating to have a close-up seat and watch the sometimes startling processes of growth and decay going on side by side in New York, as in some monstrous, nightmarish freak of plant life, but it surely will not be much fun—except to a confirmed masochist. Therefore, with some regrets, and I suppose tentatively, I intend to say farewell for a time. The show, which so far appears to be a tragicomic farce, may proceed, but without me. I shall be sitting under a live-oak tree.
Do I grow old, and are these reflections and forebodings and resolutions the inevitable and common result of the encroachments of age? They still may be in part. New York in many respects is still a promising place for a brash, pushing, not too scrupulous youngster of either sex, and it can be comfortable and fairly amusing for a very rich old person who can foot the bill and who is at loose ends without pate de foie gras, truffles and crepes Suzette. Unhappily, I belong to neither group. I am merely a man on the twilight end of of middle age who has a deep-rooted aversion to growing old in New York City. I have seen this fate overtake too many of my friends; these husks of once amiable and hopeful gentlemen are rather terrifying reminders of what might be in store for me on some not too distant tomorrow. New York is a wonderful city; what it does to men and women, or what it encourages them to do to themselves, is usually not by any means wonderful.
When I contend that things were vastly more agreeable when I struck New York a little more than twenty-six years ago, am I suffering from delusions brought on by the sketchy recollections of a far-off time? That could be, but I think not, though it is entirely possible that the scenes of one’s younger years must remain forever more delightful than any other. Those were, in most ways, stirring times for me, and they were stirring times for the city itself.
These words were written by Stanley Walker in 1946 for The Saturday Evening Post.
We cut the story where we did because the next part would have given away the era it was written in. We have not reprinted the entire article due to its length. Walker goes on to recount his arrival and experiences in New York from 1919 – 1946.
Reading Walker’s words, one cannot help but be struck by the similarities of the problems facing New York City today and those occurring over 70 years ago.
The housing, parking, traffic and especially tax revenue situation remain problems that still vex the municipal government.
The threat of weapons of mass destruction being used against New York were present in 1946. At the time, you at least knew that the enemy was Russia and the “cold war.” Now we contend with cowardly expatriate terrorists making every part of New York a possible target and putting its citizens in a constant state of alert and lock-down. Ironically, there looms a possible re-emerging threat: Russia.
The mayoral changes are strikingly similar too. We omitted the names above, but Stanley Walker had lived through three terms of a progressive mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, who was followed by William O’Dwyer, a Tammany Hall politician in 1946. O’Dwyer ended up resigning in 1950 before his term was completed due to a police corruption scandal. O’Dwyer was also later accused of associating with organized crime figures. Today’s New Yorker’s have lived through three terms of independent Michael Bloomberg followed by Bill de Blassio, a democrat who many consider to be the worst mayor of New York City in the last 100 years.
Walker started his newspaper career as a $14 a week reporter for the Austin American in Texas. In 1919, within half an hour of arriving in New York, not knowing a soul, he had talked himself into a reporter’s job at The New York Herald. His own assessment of his writing was that “I was a very good reporter, never brilliant, but accurate, fast and reliable.” When The Herald and The Tribune merged in 1924 he was a re-write man and by 1926 was the night city editor. In 1928 at age 29 he became the city editor of The New York Herald Tribune. It is no exaggeration to say holding this title at The Herald Tribune meant you had reached the pinnacle of the newspaper world.
In the 1930s when “city editor” was mentioned, the instant response was “Stanley Walker.” For hundreds of reporters around the country Walker typified the “big city” editor. Walker lived and loved the newspaper life putting in 15 hour days, seven days a week. He gave his reporters wide latitude in what they could write about. As an editor he preferred a reporter to develop vivid human interest or offbeat stories like the streetcar conductor who was an expert in Latin, rather than covering a political speech or city budget stories. Walker had high standards, knew good writing and could coach or coax it out of his writers, elevating not just the Herald Tribune but newspaper writing in general. No higher honor could go to a young reporter than to have Walker say a story was well done. Walker remained The Herald Tribune city editor until 1935 when he left to work at a string of other outlets including The Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, New York Mirror, New York American, The New Yorker and New York Woman.
Stanley Walker left New York for his home state of Texas in 1946 and continued to contribute articles for publication and write books until the end of his life. He occasionally returned to New York to visit old friends, but found that living life on a remote ranch with his wife and children made him content and feeling healthier than being in the big city. In 1962, facing throat cancer and fear of an operation, Walker took his own life with a shotgun. He was 64-years-old.
The many books Walker wrote about New York, The Night Club Era; City Editor and Mrs. Astor’s Horse, still make excellent reading, If you can find a copy of any of these books I highly recommend them.
We have reprinted one more paragraph of Walker’s 1946 Saturday Evening Post story below which affirms what you already know: every generation feels that the previous generation lived at the best possible time.
When I arrived in New York in the winter of 1919, the old-timers told me that I had come along rather late, that I had missed tasting the best period, and that I should have been on hand for the great times from around 1900 to the beginning of the first World War in 1914. Those, they assured me, were the days. I still think they may have been right. The New York of that era, when O. Henry was living in Irving Place, when great speeches were being made before well-fed groups at Delmonico’s, when Richard Harding Davis was the town’s glamour boy, when Diamond Jim Brady was astonishing people with his generosity and vulgarity, when hansom cabs were plentiful and reasonable, when one could have a high old evening of it on a ten dollar bill, when most of the after-dark activities were carried on in the neighborhood of Madison Square, when the gallant William Travers Jerome was district attorney, well – I can’t help it; I still wish I had been there. And yet there are younger men today who swear they envy me for having lived through – they seem to think I lived furiously, hell-for-leather – though actually I was quiet enough—in the New York of the 1920s and the early 1930’s when the gangs were riding high and the people were drinking dreadful booze and doing outlandish things. That period, to them, seems one of unending enchantment. It wasn’t. But we always seem to miss the best. Some will be sorry for me because I shall have missed the marvelous 1950’s in New York. But so be it. Let every generation poison or bemuse itself according to its own whims. Surely one’s attitude toward a city changes with one’s moods, and is bound up with all manner of little personal things, and that is why waving farewell and trying to tell the truth about it is a ticklish and uncertain business. A man can change his mind so easily, and what was unlovely today may become somehow attractive tomorrow.