New York City in 1938

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July 2021 marked the 10th anniversary of the publication of Rules of Civility. As a novel about a twenty-five-year-old woman from a working class background who’s setting out to climb the socio-economic ladder of New York in 1938, the narrative was hardly based on my personal experience. After all, I was raised in an upper middle class family in a suburb of Boston in the 1970s. But as I look back, it’s clear to me that the novel, which I wrote in my forties, was infused with the impressions of the city that I had formed when I moved here as a younger man.

When I moved to Manhattan in 1989 at the age of 24, I lived in the East Village in a six-story walkup right next door to the New York City headquarters of the Hells Angels – the notorious motorcycle club. One Saturday, I went out into the Lower East Side to get lunch. As I was walking along Houston Street I passed a nondescript two-story building – which I must have passed a hundred times before – and a man dressed in black with a long grey beard approached me.

‘Excuse me,’ he said in an accent with hints of Eastern Europe. ‘Are you the sort of person who, when you meet a person who needs help, you will help this person?’

That’s a hell of a question, I thought to myself. But don’t we all like to imagine that we’re the kind of person who might help a stranger in need? So, I told him: ‘Sure.’

‘Good, good,’ he replied. ‘Come with me.’

The old man ushered me into this nondescript building and down a narrow staircase leading to the basement. This must have been before I saw The Silence of the Lambs, because I don’t know what I was thinking; but gamely I followed him and there in the basement were fifty men, women and children gathered around two long tables laid out with food – in the dark.

What I had stumbled upon was the Sabbath meal of an Orthodox Jewish congregation. The Orthodox Jews have a strict prohibition against performing work on the Sabbath, and this prohibition extends to turning on and off electrical devices. Their practice is to switch on their lights on Friday afternoon and then leave them on for Saturday. Someone had obviously forgotten to do so, and the congregation now found themselves gathered for their weekly meal without the benefit of light.

In the Orthodox tradition there is also a strict prohibition against asking someone else to work on your behalf on the Sabbath so, the old gentleman began speaking to me in a terrifically roundabout way:

‘As you go about the room, you may see strings hanging from the ceiling, and if you are curious as to the purpose of these strings, then you should explore your curiosity…’

At this point, young men were leaping off benches:



‘What is he doing?’

But the old man gave me a smile and waved his hands at the room. ‘Go, go,’ he encouraged. ‘Go with God!’

Such is the wisdom of the elderly.

At the time, what struck me most about this incident was the realization that two such alien groups could be living peacefully in such close proximity. Over on Third Street were the Hells Angels with their leather jackets, Harley-Davidsons and reputations for barroom brawling and drug running. While here, just around the corner, was this devout gathering of Orthodox Jews. If you crisscrossed the country, I don’t think you could find two subsets of America that were further apart. These two groups differ radically in terms of their food, their fashion, their world views… In fact, the only thing they have in common is the beards.

But that, of course, is one of the splendors of New York City: that groups so disparate can coexist side by side, nodding to each other with rough familiarity when they pass in the street, while accepting with a shrug all the wide-eyed new arrivals to their neighborhood. And this has been an essential quality of the city for well over a century.

In the late 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), in conjunction with the Federal Art Project and the Federal Writers’ Project, hired a cadre of unemployed writers, artists and historians to create a travel guide for New York City. Published in 1939, this 650-page work – illustrated with photographs, paintings, drawings and woodcuts – provides a wonderful window into a moment in the life of the metropolis.

Although the Hells Angels had yet to arrive in New York, the same proximity of the disparate clearly existed. At the opening of the guide, for instance, is a list of major annual events in the city that a visitor might be interested in attending. Naturally, the list includes the city’s Easter and Thanksgiving Day parades, as well as the annual visit of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. (When I arrived in the city there was a still a sizeable contingent of New Yorkers who would gather on Second Avenue at midnight in order to watch the circus’s elephants emerge from the Midtown Tunnel on their annual walk to Madison Square Garden.) But in addition to these well-known events, the list includes the Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown, the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy and the St Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue; it includes celebrations of the Rumanian and Hungarian independence days as well as the Danish Constitution Day and the Swedish Festival of Folk Dances. Which is to say, New York in the 1930s already offered a mosaic of the world’s festivities.

Similarly, on the guide’s relatively short list of recommended nightclubs – in addition to the Stork and Kit Kat clubs – can be found the El Morocco, Casa Mañana, Café Latino, Casino Russe, Versailles and Mon Paris, each offering food and a floorshow in the international style suggested by their names.

What is important to understand is that these international festivals and nightclubs were not whimsical cosmopolitan inventions or tourist attractions. They were very much a part of the authentic fabric of the city. For by 1939, New York was already the world’s most populous Italian city outside of Italy; the world’s third-largest Irish city; one of the world’s largest Jewish communities; and so on. That’s what happens when you marry a hint of a better life with open immigration policies.

By the 1930s New York had already served for half a century as the gateway into America for the world’s tired, its poor and its huddled masses. In 1907 alone, Ellis Island welcomed 1.3 million immigrants – at a rate of about 3,500 per day. Certainly, many of the new arrivals then headed north to Boston, west to Chicago or south to Atlanta; but a significant number went no further than Brooklyn, Queens or the Lower East Side. Seeking out the neighborhoods where their countrymen dwelled, where the language and food were familiar, these new arrivals unpacked and planted their flags in the pavement not simply as Americans, but as New Yorkers.

For over 100 years, New York has been known as a ‘melting pot’, reflecting its absorption of the world’s ethnicities. But over this same time frame, New York has also been a melting pot of the passions.

From early on, New York City has been the epicenter of many aspects of American culture and commerce. It has long been a – if not the – capital of food, fashion and finance; of architecture and advertising; of painting, theater and broadcasting. When you take a single city and make it the national capital of such a wide array of human endeavors, a side effect is that every year thousands of young people with completely different backgrounds, sensibilities and talents flock there to pursue their individual dreams. From ballerinas to bankers, they arrive, share apartments and intermingle in bars and restaurants, acting as catalysts to the city’s vibrant chemistry.

The social complexity of New York City has been enriched further by the depths of the two rivers that shape its boroughs. Unlike the rivers that grace many European capitals, the Hudson River is so deep that it can easily accommodate battleships, ocean liners and freighters. In the 1930s, these would sail straight up to the docks that lined the West Side of Manhattan and unload their respective ‘cargos’ – within walking distance of the Empire State Building.

As a result, New York is one of those cities that was simultaneously a cultural and financial hub like Paris and London, and a roughshod port city in the manner of Liverpool and Marseilles. As the 1939 guide tells us, ‘out of an early morning fog come brooding, ghostly calls’ signalling the arrival of ‘coffee from Brazil, rubber from Sumatra, bananas from Costa Rica […] wine from Capri, olive oil from Spain’. While at day’s end, the attentive Manhattanite could hear the opposing blast that signaled the departure of ships bearing American ‘wheat for Bordeaux, Kansas City hides for Brazil, Virginia tobacco, Massachusetts shoes, Chicago canned meats, [and] lumber from the Pacific Coast’.

As a transportation hub where raw materials and finished goods easily crossed paths, it was natural for Manhattan to house manufacturing plants with their own dedicated railway lines. The High Line – that elevated railroad for freight, which is now both a park and an international tourist phenomenon – was opened in 1934 to service the movement of goods along the West Side.

And just as the ballerina and banker are likely to have very different personalities, I think we can assert without prejudice or fear of contradiction that the temperaments of those who worked on the West Side docks and rail yards differed significantly from those who sat in the boxes of the Metropolitan Opera… And since Manhattan is only ten miles long and two miles wide, the rough-and-tumble have no choice but to rub elbows with the refined.

In recognition of this paradox, here is how the WPA guide describes Times Square in the 1930s:

It is the district of glorified dancing girls and millionaire playboys and, on a different plane, of dime-a-dance hostesses and pleasure-seeking clerks. Here, too, in a permanent moralizing tableau, appear the extremes of success and failure characteristic of Broadway’s spectacular professions: gangsters and racketeers, panhandlers and derelicts, youthful stage stars and aging burlesque comedians, world heavyweight champions and once-acclaimed beggars.

It speaks volumes about New York City and how it perceives itself that the description above was written to entice the prospective traveller. How many cities in the world have attempted to boost tourism with the promise of ‘gangsters and racketeers, panhandlers and derelicts’?

If for no other reason than the sheer number of people passing through, New York has long been a place where there is no resident aristocracy or firmly established society. The immigrants arriving from across the globe, the young and ambitious arriving from across America, the debutantes and longshoreman, all have a rightful claim upon the city; all can take pride in having shaped it in some material way; and all can look to it for the possible satisfaction of their dreams.

The 1930s in New York, as in America, were defined by the Depression; it was a decade perfectly bracketed by the economic downturn that began with the Stock Market Crash in 1929, and the economic recovery fuelled by the march to war in 1939.

From a distance of nearly a century, we can all visualise what New York was like in this decade. Beginning with the loss of fortunes great and small and the leaping of stockbrokers from windows to the street below, there followed the runs on the banks, massive unemployment, breadlines, civil unrest, the rise of the labour movement. And, in fact, all of this is perfectly accurate; but it hardly defines Depression-era New York.

For the 1930s were also the decade of the glamorous movie musical and the madcap comedy – both of which sprang from the stages of New York. Of the ten films that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in together, nine were made in the 1930s – including The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat and Swing Time – in which the two stars sang and danced to the sophisticated songs of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, et al. The Marx Brothers made over 15 movies, but the ones that matter – Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races – were all products of the 1930s. While patently different in style, the Astaire–Rogers and Marx Brothers movies shared many elements, including glamorous settings, youthful pranksterism, happy accidents, instances of love at first sight and rags-to-riches outcomes.

This was also the era of swing music. Jazz had been building as a cultural force in a variety of forms throughout the 1920s, but in the 1930s it swept the nation in the form of the big-band sound. Orchestras led by the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson, many of which were based in New York, became renowned as their music was broadcast live from hotel ballrooms and large-scale dance halls. Having seen Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, one could shoot across town to see Count Basie’s orchestra perform at the Woodside Hotel or Roseland, and then head back uptown to the Savoy Ballroom, where there would be two orchestras set up on opposing stages so that there would never be a break in the dancing. (At its peak, the Savoy would host 700,000 people in a single year.) And when one got home, one could turn on the wireless to listen to Benny Goodman’s band broadcasting live from NBC Studios – until 3.30 a.m., so that the west coast could tune in to the fun.

What the big-band sound brought to jazz was a large orchestra and a musical style that not only accommodated but encouraged dancing, shouting and drinking. As an art form, swing was naturally gregarious and perfectly designed for late-night expressions of joy and abandon.

If one had to choose an anthem for the swing style, it might as well be ‘Sing, sing, sing’. Written by Louis Prima in 1935 and made immortal by Benny Goodman, the song is an unapologetic hellraiser. Opening with the sound of native tom-toms, it draws on the flutes of Arabian snake charmers, the sirens of police cars, the midnight mewing of alley cats. In sequences of cascading call and response, different segments of the horn section grow louder and louder as if they are drawing closer and closer, gaining speed, with every intention of running us over. Where most swing songs were around three minutes long (so they could fit on one side of a standard 78 rpm record), the irrepressible ‘Sing, sing, sing’ ran well over eight minutes. From anywhere in the middle of a three-minute song, you can sense its beginning and end. But in the middle of ‘Sing, sing, sing’, you can’t see where you’ve come from or where you’re going; all you know is where you are.

Last but not least, the 1930s were the decade of Rockefeller Center. The building of this extraordinary complex in the heart of Manhattan was launched in 1932, three years after the Stock Market Crash, and took the rest of the Depression to complete.

After the Roaring Twenties, with soaring stocks and profligate ways, one might have imagined the Depression would serve to chasten New York – prompting an era of conservatism and humility. But there is nothing conservative or humble about Rockefeller Center. Covering 12 acres of land with more than ten separate skyscrapers – including the 850-foot Radio Corporation of America (RCA) Building, then the largest office tower in the world in terms of square footage – the development was a record undertaken by private enterprise.

Architecturally, the buildings in the complex share a single style, one pronounced by vertical lines in glass and steel running straight up from the ground to the sky with only limited adornment. Looking up at the buildings from the pavements of Fifth or Sixth Avenue one experiences a variation of vertigo – from the sense that one is about to fall upward.

Here then in 1930s New York was a populace that intended to continue striving no matter where the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished the day; and they were quite willing to overreach, to stumble, and to falter along the path of their ambitions. Here was wilful optimism on a majestic scale. No wonder they put the restaurant with the rotating dance floor on the sixty-fifth floor and named it the Rainbow Room.

If you found an anthropologist from outer space and gave him three artefacts – the movie Top Hat, a recording of Benny Goodman playing ‘Sing, sing, sing’ and a model of the RCA Building – and then asked him to describe the environment from which they all sprang, there is no way he would come up with the Depression. For these three items are unambiguously upbeat.

Popular wisdom tells us that the success of the Marx Brothers and Astaire–Rogers movies during the Depression simply reflected America’s need for escape. But I find this explanation woefully inadequate. For one thing, trying times do not intrinsically lead to escapism. In the 1970s, an era of economic and political turmoil when a crime-ridden New York City teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, audiences flocked to movies with dark overtones, shocking violence, political corruption and morally ambiguous outcomes. In the wake of 9/11 and the 2008 global financial crisis, we saw a surge in dystopian movies for the young and old alike, each attempting to imagine a bleaker future than the last. But even if you insist that the success of Fred Astaire and the Marx Brothers stems from the desire to escape, how do you explain Rockefeller Center?

Rather than escapism, I believe that what the glamorous musical, swing music and Rockefeller Center all reflect is a native spirit so irrepressible that even a Depression couldn’t squelch it.

I didn’t know I was moving to New York City until the day I did it. It was a morning in June. Having just finished with an obligation in New Haven, Connecticut, I called a childhood friend in the East Village to catch up. When I told him I had $5,000 and nowhere to go, he said that was an amazing coincidence because he was living in an illegal sublet and couldn’t make the rent. Eight hours later, I was unpacking my bags in the six-story walkup next door to the Hells Angels with a youthful dream of one day becoming a novelist.