Every year millions of migrating birds fly over New York City, using it as a stop over while on their way north or south depending on the season. They have been coming to New York via migratory routes long before the first settlements appeared along the Hudson river. These birds have been witness to four hundred years of change in New York. The extent of change was no more evident than in the early part of the last century. The 1920’s boom between the two world wars saw skyscrapers soar as high as a peregrine falcon. If birds could talk imagine the stories they would reveal about these metal and concrete monsters. The two most iconic buildings of the period, the Chrysler (1930) and Empire State Building (1931) became the symbols of American ingenuity, prestige and power. (The latter would hold the honor of being the tallest building in the world until 1972.) The depression would sour expansion and dint American pride for a short while, but the post war years would turn New York into the greatest city in the world.
In the summer of 1945, New Yorkers filled the streets of Manhattan and Times Square to celebrate their victory over the Japanese. The war was over and the good folk of New York had done their fair share to contribute to the defeat of tyranny abroad. Years earlier New York was transformed into the busiest port in America. Some analysts and historians will argue that the bombing of Pearl Harbour was the best thing that had happened to America economically, especially New York. Tens of millions of tons of supplies and an estimated three million servicemen were shipped out alone from New York harbor. These numbers included some 40,000 soldiers per month from Piermont Pier, about 31 miles north of Manhattan. Troopships from Piermont made their way down the Hudson and out into the Atlantic for Europe. Out of an estimated 16 million Americans that fought aboard during the Second World War, 800,000+ were New Yorkers.
With this explosion and movement of troops, the manufacture of war armaments and the shipment of fuel and food to name a few, America had truly shaken off the shackles of the Depression. The United States entry into the war had awoken the sleeping giant within. Manhattan, by 1945, physically unaffected by bombing or direct warfare had grown to become the undisputed king of prosperity. Everything about New York in those years had an air of hope and optimism. The heart of New York’s financial district (Wall Street) was again brimming with confidence after years in the doldrums, its social and intellectual life was also bursting at the seams and with its arms stretched out across the Atlantic it welcomed the inflow of refugees too.
Everyone was affected by the war in those heady days of New York during the war. Someone, it seemed, always knew somebody who fought or contributed to the war effort. Defense jobs were everywhere from City institutions to the busy Naval docks of Brooklyn. The participation of women, in particular, into the workforce was unprecedented.
The British liner RMS Queen Mary arrives in New York harbour, June 1945, with thousands of U.S. troops from Europe.
Birds eye view of the U.S. Navy New York Naval Shipyard on 15 April 1945.
The glitz and glamour that was New York in the 1920’s transformed and evolved during the next two decades. Although there was a strong military feel to the city in the early 40’s, it did not stop it from having a good time. However, the city had to deal with certain concessions placed upon it, such as the national curfew of midnight. Some of the most popular attractions like Times Square and Broadway switched off their lights in a dim out meant to protect the city from air raids or naval attack. Residence and especially children also practiced air raid drills. Defense systems were fortified, in which, anti-aircraft guns encircled the city and an estimated 400,000 New Yorkers served as air raid wardens.
Sure the war had changed the appearance and feel of the city, but it wasn’t all that New York had to offer. The landscape of the city still exerted a vibrant urban culture filled with art by artists like Jackson Pollack, intellectual life with natives like Lionel Trilling and his former student Allen Ginsberg, music and entertainment. Jazz, in particular, was arguably the glue that held the city together and the frustrated minds of New Yorkers late at night and into the early mornings. However, Broadway was its epicentre, where a deluge of soldiers on Liberty Leave or the thousands of workers with a fistful of cash would venture into the city to enjoy Broadway’s best shows On The Town and Oklahoma or Time Square’s movie houses or nightclubs like The Latin Quarter. Teenage girls and adult young women would swoon over idols like Frank Sinatra. Sinatra would ultimately make a name for himself in New York during these years. He would years later remind us all what a great place it was by singing “Start spreading the news, I am leaving today. I want to be part of it, New York, New York…”
The early days of Frank Sinatra in New York during the 1940’s.
On a personal note, my favourite comedy duo Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin would first meet on a crisp March day in Midtown, Manhattan in 1945. Four years later they would be creating pandemonium in nightclubs like the Copacabana. Jerry Lewis would later recall America and New York as “a very buttoned up nation”, where Presidents wore hats and ladies wore girdles. A place of Freudian self-realisation.
Lewis may have his views, however possibly nothing better describes New Yorkers than the passage from E.B.Whites renowned essay Here is New York (1949). White describes New Yorkers as a diverse group of people who ‘give the city its tidal restlessness’; who give ‘its solidity and continuity’; and last but not least, who also ‘give it passion’.
As much as it pains me to say, not everything in this metropolis was great. Like all cities throughout the ages, New York had its dirty secrets too. If you scratched a little beneath the façade you would find crime, mob-run docks, long-standing racial tension, families living beyond their means and a welfare system that consumed millions of dollars to name a few. For those who could afford to live in the city, many remarked how cheap it was to find rent and eat out. But try telling that to the poor underclass who resorted to street begging. The mayor of New York even enforced a ban on beggars in the subway. But was it a happy city? Jan Morris, in her book Manhattan ’45, best sums it up by writing:
“Ask almost anyone who remembers Manhattan then, and they recall it with proud nostalgia, even if they were poor and lonely; and if their memories have been heightened or bowdlerized by the passage of time, much of the delight they remember was real….Few cities in the history of the world can have stood so consciously at the moment of fulfillment, looking into the future so full of reward.”
A pigeon on the Empire State Building in modern day New York.
Somewhere across the city today migrating birds and all those feral local pigeon occasionally still get a glimpse of an ever changing New York City. A new building today dominates New York’s skyline, the One World Trade Centre (1 WTC). It stands as a symbolic structure of New York’s strength and courage. New York, it seems, as it has always been, is a changing city, as it was back in 1945. New York of the mid 1940’s would emerge from the depths of despair and the Second World War as the world’s new capital. Dare I even say the world’s Nova Roma. It already had the Statue of Liberty which stood at its magnificent harbor to welcome the hoards of poor and those seeking a new life. But what else did it have to offer in 1945? With its dizzy streets and towering skyscrapers, riches beyond compare, sounds and smells, there wasn’t much more that it could offer. Wasn’t that enough?
Photo credit: All images are in the public domain except the photograph of the pigeon on the Empire State Building. It is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license. It was photographed by Zero One and I have converted it to B/W.
Notes and Further Reading:
Edward Robb Ellis, The Epic of New York City, Kodansha America,1998.
Richard Goldstein, Helluva Town: The Story of New York During World War II, Free Press, 2013.
Jan Morris, Manhattan ’45, John Hopkins University Press, 1998
Museum of the City of New York, New York 400: A Visual History of America’s Greatest City with Images from the Museum of the City of New York, Running Press, 2009.
E.B. White, Introduction by Roger Angell, Here is New York, Little Bookrooms, 2000.