The Color of a Great City

dreiser 1907.jpg

I’ve been dipping in and out of Dreiser’s 1923 book The Color of a Great City, a collection of local-color newspaper sketches he had written between 1900 and 1915. He frames himself as a city walker, a young explorer, an observer in the vein of Stephen Crane or Dreiser’s contemporary Djuna Barnes — precursors, all, of someone like Joseph Mitchell, who would push such sketches into longer, sustained essays.

Just as he framed Sister Carrie (1900) as something of a period novel — though set just a decade earlier — Dreiser frames the sketches collected in Color of a Great City
as memorials to the “phases” of the city that “most arrested and appealed” to him as a young man, but were “fast vanishing or are no more”:

For, to begin with, the city, as I see it, was more varied and arresting and, after its fashion, poetic and even idealistic than than it is now. It offered, if I may venture the opinion, greater social and financial contrasts than it does now: the splendor of the purely social Fifth Avenue of the last decade of the last century and the first decade of this, for instance, as opposed to the purely commercial area that now bears that name; the sparkling, personality-dotted Wall Street of 1890-1910 as contrasted with the commonplace and almost bread and butter world that it is to-day. (There were argonauts then.) The astounding areas of poverty and of beggary even,–I refer to the east side and the Bowery of that period–unrelieved as they were by civic betterment and social service ventures of all kinds, as contrasted with the beschooled and beserviced east side of to-day.

I’m struck by a couple things, reading a passage like this one from his Foreword. Certainly the Lower East Side of the early twenty-first century would seem downright genteel when compared to the post-Five Points world he had encountered a hundred years ago. But this type of lamentation remains a familiar one. (Has Manhattan Lost Its Soul? a recent cover of Time Out NY asked, as if for the first time.) Is it simply that we’re at the tail end of a long gentrification process that spanned the entire 20th century? Or, acknowledging that economic disparities still abound in New York, even in Manhattan, is there something about the persistence of poverty — not to mention the durability of ethnic enclaves and even some old architecture —  that should cause us to question the tone of resignation in Dreiser’s Foreward and the certainty with which so many observers from his time to the present declare that Manhattan just isn’t as vital as it once was, say, ten or twenty years ago?

I find suprising things downtown every day.

UPDATE (later that day …): A very recent example of the lamentation for a more interesting, gritty, vital, and affordable New York can be found in the publicity for the new Berman and Berger edited collection, New York Calling, just out from Chicago:

New York City in the 1970s was the setting for Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, and Saturday Night Fever, the nightmare playground for Son of Sam and The Warriors,
the proving grounds for graffiti, punk, hip-hop, and all manner of
other public spectacle. Musicians, artists, and writers could subsist
even in Manhattan, while immigrants from the world over were
reinventing the city in their own image. Others, fed up with crime,
filth and frustration, simply split.

Fast-forward three decades and today New York can appear a glamorous
metropolis, with real estate prices soaring higher than its
skyscrapers. But is this fresh-scrubbed, affluent city really an
improvement on its grittier––and more affordable––predecessor? Taking
us back to the streets where eccentricity and anomie were pervasive, New York Calling unlocks life in the unpolished Apple, where, it seemed, anything could happen.

I wonder, is this lamentation constant through the last century (and perhaps even longer)? Or is it cyclical?

(Thanks to Sukhdev Sandhu for bringing New York Calling to my attention.)