Mirror for Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present

By Bayrd Still | Go to book overview
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6. A BUSTLING CITY (1845-1860)

EYEWITNESSES LEAVE NO DOUBT that growth was the keynote of New York's development between 1845 and 1860, a growth so "rank" and "luxuriant" as to eclipse the progress of the middle thirties and so solid and enduring as to underwrite the transition from city to metropolis that had occurred by the close of the Civil War. "This is a great city, and is daily becoming greater," wrote the Manchester journalist Archibald Prentice in 1848; and his astonishment at the size and animation of the potential metropolis was almost invariably echoed by commentators of the succeeding decade. Sir Charles Lyell, the eminent Scottish geologist, was struck by the progress which had taken place between his first visit in 1841 and his second, four years later. The city, at last recovered from the depression that had plagued it between 1837 and 1843, now seethed with a universal and everlasting "bustle"--a "rush of life," as Thackeray commented in 1852--which amazed its residents and impressed its guests. 1

"The city is spreading north . . . out of all reason and measure," wrote George Templeton Strong, in the later forties; "ten years more of this growth will carry the city beyond the Lower Reservoir." Streets appeared to be daily extended northward in this "Jack the Giant-killer's beanstalk" of a city; and barricades and scaffoldings furthered the now traditional impression of ceaseless change and growth. A "continuous chain" of omnibuses crowded Broadway, creating such a "crush of traffic" that a visitor of 1850 reported that "you often have to wait ten minutes before you are able to cross the street." Gone was the condescension with which British travelers had viewed Broadway a generation earlier. By the fifties they were willing to admit that London could not provide its equal. Not even the cluttered and dirty condition of many of the city's streets and pavements, which most of the foreign visitors continued to criticize, or the obstructing festoons of telegraph wires overhead checked their admira

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