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Finding The Centre of New York Society: 1909

In Spite of Traditional Tendency to "Move On" It Remains Where It was Two Years Ago.
It has been for many years a dictum in that portion of New York known as society that northward the march of empire takes its way. People have built mansions and sought to preserve neighborhoods against the forward push of trade, have tried to anchor the social world to certain localities, and yet, as Galileo remarked, it moved for all that. It began to look as if the grandchildren of the present generations would see society domiciled in Harlem, and the thought gave a certain pain to sensitive souls. But now all that is stopped. The social centre of New York is just where it was two years ago. For the first time in the history or recorded history of social New York the rich and fashionable have not "moved on" at the command of that vulgar but compelling potentate, commerce.

If you wish to stand on the axle of New York society, the hub and heart of it all, you have but to go to Sixty-second Street and stand between Fifth and Madison Avenues, but nearer the latter. At the moment you reach that spot you will have as many members of the Social Register to the north as to the south. Far, far down there are the old families that cling to the neighborhood of Washington Square and in the distant north are those adventurous spirits who have wandered, in some cases, as far even as 150th Street. And all this is as it was two years ago. Never before probably in the history of the city has the northward tendency of any class, rich or poor, been stopped.

The reasons for this are plain enough when you stop to consider them. Any one who has walked in the cross streets between Madison and Lexington Avenues, in the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, must have been struck by the changes in the neighborhood. Commonplace brownstone and red brick houses are disappearing or are being modernized into quaint little residences of artistic design. Districts that were poor and shabby are taking on an air of prosperity. One by one families of fashion, young married couples, and people moving from further downtown have marched into the plebeian boarding house district, and eventually it has been captured and included in the magic circle that marks the socially elect. Some years ago "nobody that was anybody" crossed Lexington Avenue to pay a call, even if she got that far. Now it is done every day.

Another reason is that New York is becoming more and more the social centre of the country. Not that old Boston and Philadelphia and Washington families are lured by the glitter, for they are not, but when a man in a small town, or from the West, makes money he is apt to come to New York for at least a part of the Winter. He does not break with his native place, but he establishes a social footing here in New York. He is very apt to take an apartment at a hotel, especially in the new hotels from Fifty-third Street up. Thus every year the Social Register is augmented by scores of families who live piled up one on top of the other in buildings of many stories, and so helping to keep the social centre fixed.

The way of obtaining exact information as to this centre is original and entertaining. They have at the office of the Social Register a pole, placed horizontally and nicked at regular intervals for its entire length. Every notch represents a block. Then pieces of paper, of exactly equal size and weight, are cut, one for each family in the Social Register. The families belonging on a block are fastened together with a string and hung on their proper notch. The result is that the pole is covered from Sixth Street to 150th with dangling bunches of varying sizes. Then if you balance the pole and find the centre of gravity, you have the centre of New York society. This ingenious device cannot fall to mark accurately the exact spot round which the social world revolves.

Fifty years ago the social centre was at Fourteenth Street, and within a few years there still stood fine old houses in that neighborhood in which some conservative old gentleman or lady clung to the traditions and refused to follow their children and grandchildren on the northward march. One by one these houses are disappearing. The death of Mrs. Jay, a short time ago, removes the last of the generation that made Fourteenth Street and its immediate neighborhood the Mecca of social aspirants. The city then stretched northward as far as Twenty-third Street, and even straggled further, while to the south some of the old streets had preserved their residential character tolerably well. A writer of a little more than fifty years ago regretted the probable passing of Canal Street as a residence section, owing to the pressure of business interests.

Even ten years ago Fourteenth Street appeared to the fashionable taste as distinctly less desirable than Twenty-third Street, and houses were being built by prominent men as far north as Forty-second Street. A guide of 1871 calls attention to the improvement in architecture between Fourteenth Street and Thirty-fourth. New York was mightily proud of the brownstone and high "stoops." The rate of advance had been about one block a year and this is the proportion at which the march has been continued up to the present.

In 1890 which is the date at which the Social Registers began to appear in much their present form, that social dictator, the pole with its draping of small pieces of paper, showed that the social centre was Thirty-ninth Street. From that time society continued its well regulated march of one block a year until 1902, when it began to go faster and jumped three blocks a year, so that in 1905 the centre was at Fifty-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue. For the next two years it jumped again, and December, 1907, found it at Sixty-second Street, where, for the reason mentioned above, it has elected to remain. And, indeed, it is as good a place to choose as any.

The only change has been in its eastward tendency. It is, apparently, society's firm intention to stay east of Fifth Avenue, now that it has reached the Park and come to the parting of the ways. Two years ago there were 10 per cent. more socially registered residences east of Fifth Avenue than there were to the west, but this year there is 15 per cent. more. Society is gregarious, and the Park seems a drear desert to put between friends. Not only this, but there has been, a tremendous rush to that section of the city between Fifty-first and Sixty-second Streets, from Lexington to Eighth Avenue. A quarter of the Social Register people lives in this section with the tendency more and more to spread toward the east, redeeming the sordidness of that district and pushing the middle class and working class to the north.

If the movement of people of wealth has been checked or retarded there is cause for congratulation. The "torn-up" effect of New York has long been a jest and its streets have, when compared with other great cities, a curiously patched effect. Houses that were well designed for homes became unattractive when converted with the least possible effort, into, shop buildings and were inconvenient as apartments. Incongruities of architecture made the city interesting, perhaps, to the student of manners, but distressing to the artist. In large cities of the Old World things have moved less rapidly; residences have been residences and shops shops. There have been many sections corresponding to Washington Square here, districts which are in themselves beautiful and have been kept from disfiguration by the attachment of families who refuse to leave their homes merely to be nearer the centre of the social whirl. New York has, with the solitary exception of Washington Square, lacked that quality of "atmosphere" which is the charm of European cities. Just what it consists of nobody can well define, but it certainly is not to be acquired by rushing about and changing one's mind.

Perhaps the architectural chaos of New York has been a fit symbol, an outward and visible sign of its inward condition. Without undue reverence be found in fashionable New York. A great many of its people come from the West, while thirty years ago native New Yorkers and some Boston, and Philadelphia families held sway undisturbed by any interlopers from afar. How large a proportion of the families in the Social Register comes from the West cannot be determined, but their number mounts up to a respectable figure.

"New blood," said one who knows New York society well, "is a good thing, but it has its drawbacks. The difficulty in New York society has been that the new generation never began where the old left off. Families who had got their social balance, so to speak, were sure of themselves, felt able to ask whom they chose to their homes without fear of retrograding socially, and a certain solidity seemed in sight. But no. In comes a lot of new people, worthy, intelligent, but unused to the tricks and manners of the game. A kind of mellowness had been coming over society, but these newcomers, with all their virtues, were crude and the element they introduced pulled the general social life down to the same old level.

"We may hold aloof from European customs as far as we like, but when it comes to the organization of the gay world, the fact is not to be disputed that they have superior knowledge. It is a subject to which they have given long and thoughtful attention much too thoughtful, if you choose, but if you want a 'society' it is undeniable that the best sort is the kind that years of 'trying out' have established abroad. It is a cohesive whole. Everything hangs together there better than it does here. There is one Church, and you belong to it, or you don't; there is one 'society,' and you belong to it, or you don't.

"Years ago it was possible to have one leader recognized as such. Now society is too large and, in the lack of women who are eminent by reason of special talent, every woman claims precedence. You cannot have a well organized social life in that way. Abroad there are always leaders, women whose husbands hold high offices and whose "Making money is the centre of existence. He enters his father's office as office boy, or something democratic. He does this for a week or so, and masters all the details of that career. Then he keeps books for perhaps as long as a month. Then he 'manages' some department. Then he has 'worked his way up' and is made a partner. He feels that merit alone accounts for his exalted position. Some fine day he muddles things more than usual, so that even the long suffering underlings cannot straighten them out, and father or partner, rather discourages his attendance at the office. There he is , nor fish, flesh, or fowl. If he had really had hardship and experience he might have made a good business man, and if he had frankly turned his back on the office he might have accomplished something in other directions, but he has only played at everything he touched, and he has left off without acquiring anything but extreme complacency.

"Nobody denies that earning an honest living is a worthy occupation, and that work is good for all men, but it is better to break frankly with the principle of work for all than to make a travesty of it. There is a certain value in a knowledge how to spend money artistically; there is none in pretending you have worked for it when you haven't. We have a 'leisure class' over here larger than any in Europe, if you would but recognize the fact, and that class does nothing at all, while abroad they at least dabble creditably in all sorts of pursuits."

Thus, the critic of New York society.

There is wrapped up in this criticism a happy sign that at least "society" is becoming sufficiently sure of itself to become introspective. When Mrs. Trollope wrote her "Domestic Manners of the Americans," some seventy years ago, she observed that while many nations were called sensitive, the Americans seemed to have no skin at all. Touched ever so lightly, they winced with pain. This is still true of sections of the country, but New York has outgrown that stage of provincialism, and that is a long step forward.

End of Article


Website: The History
Article Name: Finding The Centre of New York Society
Researcher/Preparer/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 New York Times December 19, 1909. p. SM1 (1 page)
Time & Date Stamp:  


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