New York is a city of movement. If I walk rapidly I feel at ease, but if I stop for a moment I am troubled
Jean-Paul Sartre, 1946
Manhattan: The Great American Desert
I knew very well that I would like New York. But I thought that I would be able to like it immediately, as I had immediately liked the red bricks of Venice and the somber, massive houses of London. I did not know that for the newly arrived European there is a “New York sickness,” just as there are seasickness, airsickness, and mountain sickness.
An official car took me from La Guardia Field at midnight to the Plaza Hotel. I pressed my forehead against the window but could see only red and green lights and dark buildings. The next day I found myself, without any transition, at the corner of 58th 5 Street and Fifth Avenue. I walked a long time under the icy sky. It was a Sunday in January, 1945-a deserted Sunday. I looked for New York and I could not find it. It seemed to retreat before me, like a phantom city, as I walked down an avenue that appeared coldly formal and without distinction. I was undoubtedly looking for a European city.
We Europeans live on the myth of the large city we constructed during the nineteenth century. The myths of the Americans are not the same, and the American city is not the same. It has neither the same nature nor the same functions. In Spain, Italy, Germany, France, we find round cities, formerly encircled by ramparts which served not only to protect the inhabitants from enemy invasion but also to hide from them the inexorable presence of Nature. The cities in turn are divided into districts equally round and closed upon themselves, where buildings piled up and tightly clustered weigh heavily upon the earth. They seem to have a natural tendency to draw close together to such an extent that from time to time we must hack out new paths with the ax as we do in a virgin forest. Streets bump into other streets; sealed at both ends, they give no sign of leading out of the city. They are more than just thoroughfares, they are social milieus; you pause there, meet others, drink, eat, and live there. Sunday you dress up and go for a walk for the pleasure of greeting friends, to see and be seen. These are the streets that inspired Jules Romains with his “unanimism.” They are infused with a collective spirit which varies with each hour of the day.
Thus my European, my myopic glance, advancing slowly and prying into everything, tried in vain to find something in New York to arrest it—anything, no matter what—a row of houses suddenly barring the way, the turning of a street, some house weathered and tanned by time. For New York is a city for the farsighted: there is nothing to focus upon except the vanishing point. My glance encountered only space. It slid over blocks of houses, all alike, and passed unchecked to the misty horizon.
Celine said New York was a “standing” city. True; but it seemed to me from the very first a lengthwise city. All priorities are given to length. Traffic stands still in the side streets but rolls tirelessly on the avenues. How often do cab drivers, who willingly take passengers north and south, refuse flatly to drive them east and west! The side streets are hardly more than the outlines of the buildings between the avenues. The avenues pierce them, tear them apart, and speed toward the north. It was because of this that, a naive tourist, I sought for quartiers, a long time and in vain. In France these neighborhoods encircle and protect us: the rich neighborhood protects us from the envy of the poor; the poor neighborhood protects us from the disdain of the rich, just as the entire city protects us from Nature.
In New York, where the great axes are the parallel avenues, I could not find these neighborhoods, but only atmospheres gaseous masses extending longitudinally without well-defined beginnings or endings. Gradually I learned to recognize the atmosphere of Third A venue, where people meet, smile, talk together in the shadow of the noisy elevated without ever knowing each other, or where a German, passing near my table in an Irish bar, stopped a moment to ask, “Are you French? As for me, I am a Boche”; the reassuring comfort of the stores on Lexington; the sad elegance of Park Avenue; the cold luxury and stucco impassibility of Fifth; the gay frivolity of Sixth and Seventh; the food fairs of Ninth; the no-man’s-land of Tenth. Each avenue draws the neighboring streets into its atmosphere but a block further away you are suddenly plunged into another world. Not far from the palpitating silence of Park Avenue, where private cars pass, I am on First, where the earth trembles perpetually as the trucks go by. How can I feel secure on one of those endless north-south trajectories when a few steps away, to east or west, other longitudinal worlds await me? Behind the Waldorf-Astoria and the white-and-blue awnings of fashionable buildings I see the elevated, still reeking of the Bowery.
All New York is thus striped with parallel, incommunicable meanings. The long lines, drawn as if with a ruler, gave me suddenly the feeling of space. Our cities in Europe are built as a protection against space; the houses huddle like sheep. But space traverses New York, animates it, and stretches it. Space, the great empty space of the Russian steppes and the pampas, flows through the streets like a cold draught, separating the inhabitants of one side from those of the other. An American friend who went for a walk with me in Boston on one of the fashionable streets said, pointing to the left side, “The best people live there”; and he added ironically, indicating the right, “No one has ever known who lives on this side.” Similarly in New York, no one knows who lives across the street. All space is between them. When I flew above the great American desert of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, I was not astonished, for I had already seen the whole American desert in New York, where space, the great factor of separation between people and between things, has crept in. While I was in Los Angeles an acquaintance said, “Come see me tomorrow. I live very near you-only ten miles away.” And when I went for a walk along the Cienega, beside a road lined with autos, I was the only pedestrian to be seen for miles. I don’t mean to imply that New York is like that; it is halfway between the city for pedestrians and the city for autos. You do not go for a walk in New York; you either loiter at a drugstore or travel by express subway.
Your streets and avenues have not the same meanings as ours.
You go through them. New York is a city of movement. If I walk rapidly I feel at ease, but if I stop for a moment I am troubled, and I wonder: Why am I in this street rather than in one of the hundred other streets that resemble it, why near this particular drugstore, Schrafft’s, or Woolworth’s, rather than any other drugstore, Schrafft’s, or Woolworth’s from among the thousands just like it? Pure space suddenly appears. I imagine that if a triangle were to become aware of its position in space it would be frightened at seeing how accurately it was defined and yet how, at the same time, it was simply any triangle. In New York you never get lost; a glance suffices to show you that you are on the East Side, at the corner of Fifty-second Street and Lexington. But this spatial precision is not accompanied by any sentimental precision. In the numerical anonymity of the streets and avenues I am simply anyone-as defined and as indefinite as the triangle-I am anyone who is lost and conscious of being unjustifiable, without valid reason for being in one place rather than another, because one place and another look so much alike.
Am I lost in a city, or in Nature? New York is no protection from the violence of Nature. It is a city of open sky. The storms overflow its streets, which are so wide and long to cross when it rains. Blizzards shake the brick houses and sway the skyscrapers. In summer the air trembles between the houses, in winter the city is flooded, so that you might think you were in the suburbs of Paris when the Seine had overflowed, though it is only the snow melting. Nature’s weight is so heavy on it that this most modern of cities is also the dirtiest. From my window I watch the wind playing with thick, muddy papers that flutter over the pavement. When I go out I walk in blackish snow, a sort of crusted swelling the same color as the sidewalk, as if the sidewalk itself were warped. Even in the depths of my apartment a hostile, deaf, mysterious nature assails me. I seem to be camping in the heart of a jungle swarming with insects. There is the moaning of the wind, there are the electric shocks I receive when I touch the doorknob or shake hands with a friend; there are the roaches that run through my kitchen, the elevators that make my heart contract, the unquenchable thirst that burns me from morning till night.
New York is a colonial city, a camping ground. All the hostility, all the cruelty of the world are present in this most prodigious monument man has ever raised to himself. It is a light city; its apparent lack of weight amazes most Europeans. In this immense, malevolent space, in this desert of rock that supports no vegetation, they have constructed thousands of houses in brick, wood, or reinforced concrete which give the appearance of being on the point of flying away.
I like New York. I have learned to like it. I have accustomed myself to looking at it in massive ensembles and great perspectives. My glance no longer lingers on facades seeking a house which, impossibly, would not be like every other house. It goes at once to the horizon and looks for the buildings which, hidden in mist, are nothing but volumes, nothing but the austere framework of the sky. If you know how to look at the two uneven rows of buildings that line the thoroughfare like cliffs, you are rewarded: they achieve their fulfillment below, at the end of the avenue, in simple harmonious lines, and a patch of sky flows between them. New York is revealed only from a certain height, from a certain distance, from a certain speed; they are not the height, distance, and speed of the pedestrian. The city very closely resembles the great Andalusian plains: it is monotonous if you pass through on foot, superb and ever-changing if you motor.
I learned to love its sky. In European cities, with their low roofs, the sky drags to the earth’s level and seems tame. The New York sky is beautiful because the skyscrapers push it high above our heads. Solitary and pure, like a wild animal, it keeps watch over the city. It is not only the local covering; you feel that it reaches far out over all America. It is the sky of all the world.
I learned to love the avenues of Manhattan. They are not staid little promenades enclosed between houses; they are national highways. As soon as you set foot on one of them, you can see that it must run to Boston or Chicago. It vanishes outside the city, and the eye can almost follow it into the country. A savage sky above parallel highways: that is what New York is, first of all. In the heart of the city you are in the heart of Nature.
I had to become accustomed to this, and now that I am acclimated I can say that nowhere have I felt freer than in the midst of its crowds. This light, temporary city, which the sun’s glancing rays reduce morning and evening to an arrangement of rectangular parallelepipeds, never stifles or depresses. Here you may suffer the anguish of loneliness, but not that of crushing defeat. In Europe we love a particular neighborhood in a city, become attached to a cluster of houses, are captivated by a little corner of a street; and we are no longer free. But hardly have you plunged into New York than you are living completely in the dimensions of New York. It is possible to admire it in the eve-ning from the Queens Borough Bridge, in the morning from New Jersey, at noon from the fifty-seventh floor of Rockefeller Center; but you will never be held by any of its streets, for none of them is distinguished by beauty peculiar to itself. The beauty is present in all of them, just as all Nature and the sky of all America are present. Nowhere more than here can you feel the simulta-neity of human lives.
In spite of its austerity, New York moves Europeans. Certainly we have learned to love our own ancient cities; but what touches us in them is a Roman wall forming part of the facade of an inn, or a house that Cervantes has lived in, or the Place des Vosges, or the Hotel de Ville in Rouen. We love our museum-cities-and all our cities arc a little like museums, where we wander casually around among the dwellings of our forefathers. New York is not a museum-city; nevertheless, for Frenchmen of my generation, it has already acquired the melancholy of the past. When we were twenty, back in 1925, we were hearing about skyscrapers. They symbolized for us the fabulous American prosperity. We beheld them with stupefaction in the moving pictures. They were the architecture of the future, just as the movie was the art of the future and jazz the music of the future. Today we know about jazz. We know there is more past than future in it. It is a music of popular negro inspiration, capable of but limited development: it carries on by slowly degenerating. Perhaps it has outlived its time. The talking films also have not fulfilled the promise of the silent films. Hollywood walks in the old ruts. Undoubtedly, during the war, America established herself as the mightiest power in the world. But the era of easy living has passed. She was profoundly shaken by the war, and many economists fear another crisis. So, they are no longer building skyscrapers; it seems they are “too difficult to rent.” The man walking in New York before 1930 saw in the tall buildings that dominated the city the first signs of an architecture that would spread over the entire country. In their thrust toward the sky he saw a living symbol of the American urge toward a peaceful conquest of the world. The skyscrapers were alive. But today, for a Frenchman just come from Europe, they are no longer alive. They are already historical monuments, witnesses of a past epoch, They still rise toward the sky but my spirit no longer follows them, and New Yorkers pass at their feet without looking at them. I cannot view them without sadness: they speak of a time when we thought the last war had. been fought, when we believed in peace. Already they are slightly neglected; tomorrow, perhaps, they will be demolished. In any event, to build them in the first place required a faith we no longer feel.
I walk among the small brick houses, the color of dried blood.
They are younger than European houses, but because of their fragility they seem much older. I see in the distance the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building pointing vainly toward the sky, and it occurs to me that New York is about to acquire a history, that it already has its ruins. This is enough to adorn with a little softness the harshest city in the world.