New York: An Excerpt from Across America

Illustration by John H. Howard

Peretz Hirschbein (1880-1948), acclaimed novelist and playwright, had a passion for traveling. Across America is his 1918 chronicle of train travel that took him to big cities, small coal mining towns and fishing villages. This excerpt describes his impressions of New York.

The first city that most of our immigrants see when they arrive in America, and from which most of them build their first impressions of America—the city where long-held hopes are wiped away in an instant and where, after many trying days and nights, the hope begins to grow anew, appearing as though from under a gray veil—this is the city that is called New York.

I am familiar with many great cities across this wide world, but none of them can compare with New York.

New York is built by two hands that live in enmity with one another: one hand builds, and the other destroys. One erects brick walls, the other tears down that building and gathers stone and steel to build its illustrious ten-story sucessor. And this goes almost entirely unnoticed. You walk down a street day after day and you don’t notice how little houses are demolished and taller buildings have grown in their place. New York builds itself over and over again in stone and rock. Day in and day out they tear the ground apart with dynamite. One day it’s out your window and the next day the bedrock under your own home is torn apart until you are flung from your bed with the force of it. But you still don’t notice. It doesn’t bother you, as though you yourself have already been turned into stone. And these changes come with such speed, with such a wild gallop, that often before your eyes a little wooden house becomes a two-story building, the building becomes a church, the church becomes a theater, the theater becomes a Yiddish school, the Yiddish school becomes a stable for horses and automobiles, the stable becomes a poor little skyscraper, which looks up submissively to the tops of the “real” skyscrapers.

Impermanence peeks out from all corners. Energetic people who can’t keep still come here from faraway places, stop for a short while, and during that time whole mountains of stone and steel are formed. A house is erected and it starts to feel small, so it is torn down and a larger one is built. The trains are let loose one after the other over everyone’s head: four pillars, crisscrossing iron bars, and over them rails, and the train races along and deafens everyone, numbs their feelings, tears away at their nerves. You hardly know when it happened; you didn’t even have time to look around. It’s as if it appeared overnight. And although the train up there was meant to be for the convenience of the millions of people below, it turns out that most of them still find themselves underneath it, on the ground. When the train rushes over their heads, all they can do is pull down their hats over their ears and think quietly to themselves, “How in God’s name can I get away from here?”

New York is not a model of building but rather a model of destruction.

New York is not a city, but a phenomenon that changes its appearance with every passing hour. Not only do the winds shift here seven times a day, not only do the buildings on the ground change all the time, but also underground, in the iron bowels of the city, even there new operations are performed seven times a day. Wherever you go, wherever you stand, part of the street is torn up, and as you look down into the depths a shiver slinks up your spine. The gutters and the pipes in wide and narrow clusters weave in and out of one another. They are transformed every day—narrow ones are widened, short ones are lengthened. Immigrants from the Old World, refined now that they’re here, rush to wash their hands and faces, but the water flow can’t keep up and the drains are too narrow. Telegraph and telephone wires, pneumatic tubes through which letters tear from one edge of the city to the other… all underground.

Underground is the steel belly of the metal and stone city, the steel bowels that wind around themselves in the deep darkness, the belly that grows below at the command of the head above. And the broadest intestine of the gigantic city—this is the subway, the underground train that runs up and down the length of the city....

Is New York a reflection of America? No! Imagine New York without America—what would remain? Insanity, with the right foot trampling the left. A picture of destruction.