Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Church Street

An essay by George William Curtis

Church Street

Title:     Church Street
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

On the earliest of the really spring-like mornings as the Easy Chair turned into Church Street it could not help perceiving that in some romantic ways the New-Yorker has the advantage of the Londoner and Parisian. Church Street does not, indeed, seem at the first mention to be a promising domain of romance, nor a fond haunt of the Muses. Indeed, it must not be denied that it has an unsavory name; and when the city loiterer recalls Wapping, or a May morning on the Seine quais, he will smile at Church Street as a field of romance, and the Easy Chair grants him absolution. London, perhaps, does not strike the American imagination, or, let us more truly say, the imagination of the travelling American, as a romantic city. That citizen of the world reserves for himself Venice, Constantinople, Grand Cairo. Yet if after his arrival he will buy Peter Cunningham's Hand-book for London at the nearest book-store, and turn its pages slowly, he will discover that for him, an American, he is in a very romantic city indeed. Mr. Hepworth Dixon's Tower of London will show him how copious a sermon may be preached from one romantic text. Of course he can be expected to have no feeling but pity for the unfortunates who fill the streets, and whose fate it was to be born Britishers. Yet, let him reflect that it was not their fault, and except for that precise unhappy fact of being Britishers, which causes all the mischief, their parents too would have lived elsewhere.

Then the American citizen of the world, pitying England, will cross to France, to another country, a new world, and in Paris will breathe more freely as being at last in the metropolis of the globe--always excepting New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati, or Chicago, as the case may be. If he opens Galignani's Guide, the excellent and well-informed traveller will immediately discover that he is in another romantic city, and that there is something more to see and consider than the bal d'opera, and the Château Rouge; and if some Easy Chair accidentally encountered straying along the Boulevards, or seated at the door of a café, should chance to ask whether the well-informed traveller had ever taken a romantic stroll in Church Street, New York, he would be rewarded with a smile for his admirable humor. By-and-by, after the coffee was drunk and the pipe smoked out, the Easy Chair and his approving Mentor would perhaps stroll about until they came far away from the haunts of to-day to the respectable old Place Louis Quinze. It is always an attractive spot for that well-informed traveller. He looks at it with pensive emotion, and turns warmly to the Easy Chair and says:

"How delightful this is! Here dwelt the noblesse! This is the Fifth Avenue--what do I say?--the Murray Hill of old Paris! And now all is gone! Fashion is an emigré. Inquire in the Faubourg St. Germain. What a pity we have nothing of this kind in America."

"But we have," replies the Easy Chair.

The incredulous well-informed traveller again smiles a mild, melancholy smile at the inscrutable methods of Providence, which has provided no Place Louis Quinze for the Yankees and aborigines.

"We certainly have," persists the Easy Chair.

"Where, pray?"

"Well, Church Street."

The reply seems to be beating out a jest very thin; but gradually the Easy Chair contrives to explain.

The movement of life in New York is so rapid, fashion and trade sweep from one point to another with such impetuosity, that the romance of changed interest can be enjoyed in the same spot twice or thrice in a lifetime. In older cities, in Paris or London, it is not the individual experience, but history only which covers the change. The gentlemen and dames of the Louis Quinze era do not moralize over the Place from which the glory has departed, but only their descendants. The change is so gradual that it is not within their personal experience. It is a tide that rises and falls once in sixscore years, not in six hours. But the fortunate New-Yorker has his romance making for him while he sleeps. The sorry streets of to-day will disappear within a dozen years, and the instant they are gone, or seen just at the moment of the final lapse, they have passed into the realm of romance.

Here is Church Street, for instance; it is not very long, and you turn into it from Fulton or from Canal. So turned the Easy Chair, and there was the long, narrow vista walled by lofty buildings, the spacious houses of trade, built yesterday, piled with dry goods, bold with prosperous newness, but instantly suggesting the street of palaces in Genoa. And a few rods off some old Knickerbocker is gravely stalking down Broadway who has not turned aside into Church Street for many a year, and who supposes Church Street is still a place not to be named, an unspeakable Gehenna. So it was a dozen years ago. Once, also, it was the Black Broadway. It was a kind of voluntary Ghetto of the colored people. Then, again, it was an offshoot of the Five Points. There were low ranges of dingy buildings. Dirty men and women slouched along on the walks and lounged out of the windows, and their idle, ribald laughter echoed along the street that few carriages travelled. Dens of every kind were just around every corner. Slatternly women emptied slops upon the pavement, and the stench was perpetual. Dirty little children screamed and played, and sickly babies squalled unheeded. It was a street fallen out of Hogarth; the street of worst repute in the city.

And now it is a double range of stately buildings--symmetrical, massive. Horse-cars struggle on it with light carts of dry-goods dealers, with the slow, enormous teams that shake the ground. At every corner there is an inextricable snarl of wagons, and porters are heaving boxes, and young clerks are directing, and huge windows are filled with huge pattern cards, so that the narrow way is tapes-tried. "Look out, there!" cries a porter-compelling clerk to the Easy Chair, which smiles to think that only yesterday it was in Exchange Place, and Pearl Street, and elsewhere that the peremptory youth was ordering him to mind his eye. And if the employer who now sits in the spacious office opposite had known that his clerk was familiar with Church Street, he would have warned him of the gates of destruction, and have admonished him that Church Street, though a narrow street, was a broad way.

The people that push and hurry and skip along this busy avenue are alert and well dressed. The slouchers and loungers, the old slatterns with the slop-pails, the fat, frouzy, jolly, dirty women with bare red arms and loud voices, the sneaks, the thieves, and the unclean groups at the grog-shop, where are they? No sneaks now, no thieves--honorable gentlemen with clean collars everywhere. What a consolation! As you watch the passers closely, as you read the signs, it occurs to you that the population, with the universal tendency in our mental and spiritual habits that Matthew Arnold sparklingly deplores, is clearly Hebraized. Here, where this especially fine warehouse or handsome shop stands, stood the French church. It has jumped up-town a few miles. Here was the church of Dr. Potts. Could you believe that the people who go to meeting in the snug, brown little edifice in an ivy mantle at the corner of University Place and Tenth Street, which probably seems to the young clerk coeval with the city, day before yesterday, as it were, came down here among the merchants? Then they came once a week for an hour or two. What did you say was the name of the deity to whom these temples were dedicated?

And at this corner--why, if it were an April thicket it could not more sweetly bubble with song, only this music is the spirit ditty of no tone--here was the old National Theatre. Do you see that very respectable old gentleman in the office who carries an ostrich egg in his hat? for so his grandchildren describe grandpapa's baldness. He sits and reads the paper, and is presently going down to the bank of which he is a director, and of which he seems always to those grandchildren to smell, so tenacious is the peculiar odor of a bank; that is the very gentleman who in the temple of the Drama upon this spot used to lead the loud applause, and at whom in his buckish costume of those merry days and nights, the lovely Shirreff herself used to level her eyes and her voice as she trilled: "Oh, whistle and I'll come to you, my lad." Can you imagine that excellent grandparent kissing his hand rapturously to the retiring prima donna, going off to sup at the Café de l'Independence, and hieing home at two in the morning waking the echoes of Murray Street with a reproduction of that arch song, followed by a loud whistle to prove whether that vision of delight really will come to him, and bringing only the gruff Charley, obese guardian of the night? Will you find in your famous Place Louis Quinze any roisterer of the regency grown old and careful of his diet?

Here is one wall which survives from the prehistoric days of thirty years ago; it is the rear wall of the old hospital, that blessed green spot in the midst of the city, which is to be green no more, but will soon be piled with more palaces. And opposite this wall is a short street running from Church to West Broadway. A few years ago this was one of the worst of city slums. At the corner of West Broadway a wooden building still remains--a sullen, sickly, defiant cur of a building--that sits and snarls impotent over the savagery departed. And there is one tall rookery still, a tenement-house, with a system of fire-escapes in front, and the slattern slopping at the curb as in the ancient day, and a cooper's shop, and a blacksmith's, and one, two, three, how many whiskey shops? But they are all faint and feeble and submerged in the lofty buildings, and to-morrow all trace of them will be gone. And then who will remember the murder? The mysterious, awful, romantic murder. The murder that filled all the newspapers, and fed speculation at all the corner groggeries and in all offices. The murder that was done into a romance, and of which the hero--that is the murderer--was acquitted, after one of the famous eloquent criminal appeals which are so effective because their power is measured by human life. And this hero occasionally reappears in the newspapers even to this day. Somebody writes from a remote somewhere that on a steamer far away a mysterious man, after much mysterious conduct, imparts the awful truth that he is the hero. Does he sometimes return to this spot? Does he look at the site of the house where the deed was done? Does he appear in the guise of a merchant, a jobber, a retailer from that remote southwestern somewhere, and higgle and chaffer in the noble warehouse on the very site of the wretched building where he murdered his mistress? Good heavens! Do you see that man of about those years, looking about as if to find a sign or number? (As if he didn't know the very place; as if it were not burned and cut into his heart and conscience!) Do you think it could possibly be he, or is it, after all, only the honest Timothy Tape, the modest retailer from Skowhegan or Palmyra?... The typhus-fever used to rage here; the cholera was fearful. The sanitary reports say that there were always cases of the worst diseases to be found here. The city missionaries also used to find their worst cases here too, and now, what cleanliness of collar, what modishness of coat! No more sin; what a consolation!

And so, as the Easy Chair strolled along, bumped and hustled and severely looked upon by the eager throng in the narrow street, more radically reconstructed than any doubtful State, it could not help feeling that London with Her Majesty's Tower, and Paris with her deserted Place Louis Quinze, are not the only romantic cities in the world, and that a city of such rapid and incessant change as New York offers even some poetic aspects which its elder sisters want. The Easy Chair has pleaded formerly for some respect towards old historic buildings, like the old State-house in Boston, for instance, and has been indignantly laughed at for its pains. It will not deny that, unabashed by such laughter, it contemplates the old Walton House with satisfaction. It repairs, also, to the corner of Broad and Pearl streets, and, reflecting upon General Washington's parting with his officers, turns its eyes towards Wall Street, and beholds the Grecian temple which has taken the place of the old City Hall, upon whose balcony the first predecessor of President Grant was inaugurated. But the romance of Church Street is of another kind. It is the romance of striking and sudden change merely, not of historic interest, nor of personal association. Perhaps the gentle reader may not find it when he goes there. Then let him carry it.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Church Street