Commentary Magazine


New York, 1950:
Unofficial Notes of a Census-Taker

While engaged in collecting information for the 1950 census, Julius Horwitz allowed his observations to go beyond the narrow horizons of the government questionnaire; the result is this composite sketch of New York at the half-century: a city of strangers trying to make contact with each other.

_____________

 

The first doorbell I rang was answered by an old widowed Negro woman who lived alone on the top floor of a red-brick office building in the financial district of Manhattan. It was Saturday morning, the first day of the 1950 census. The old Negro woman made me feel that the happiest people in the world are old widowed Negro women with just enough money to live on and reasonably comfortable places to live in, and who aren’t afraid of the end of life. Perhaps they’re lonely, and sometimes they may ask: did God do all this and why? But still she seemed to be the happiest person I had seen in a long time. And, past seventy, she looked for work, kept house, and wanted to make sure that the government got everything correct about her.

Around the corner from her musty Victorian apartment, under the Third Avenue El, and farther east, close to the river, lived the handful of people that were left of the once densely inhabited downtown New York. The women stay on, eighty years old, seventy, living on the top floors of office buildings, cleaning for a living—or rather for rent—and afraid to move elsewhere; others have been charwomen for so long in the financial district that they feel it’s home and hang on to the few remaining habitable buildings. These are cold-water flats, no toilets, no tubs, dirty, dilapidated, the El roaring past the living room windows, no community, nothing but the curiously exciting daytime streets of the financial district. The people had to be tracked down, literally one by one, to their sunless, cold, ugly apartments. Under the El, two tenements, side by side, but for whole blocks no people. One man alone in a room that one can only enter through a public toilet. Another man living in the very upper tip of a skyscraper, so that you had to reach his apartment by climbing a circular staircase.

_____________

 

At first Greenwich Village seemed to be filled with wives separated from husbands, husbands separated from wives, and beautiful girls separated from their families. It’s probably correct to say that Greenwich Village has the highest percentage of divorced people in America for a community where divorce isn’t a special product, as in Reno, and possibly the highest percentage of first-rate attractive girls for a community where beauty isn’t a special cult, as in Hollywood. In a single block you run the gamut of urban living. Going from door to door, being admitted carte blanche, seeing from one building to the next the extreme diversities in taste, education, income, and housing, is like taking a sociology course in a roller-coaster. Nowhere else in the world, I suspect, can you experience anything similar. You begin with a tenement, dark, dank, inhabited by low-income families, growling voices, family arguments, old wasted men, and then to a rooming house, cubicles holding copywriters, models, commercial artists, typists, radio writers, salesgirls, students, cooks, waiters, artists, dancers—and then next door is a town house, one family to five stories, rich old American family, beautiful furniture that would bring a high price at auction; then a large apartment house, twenty families, seven rooms to a family, big, square, roomy; and then a row of converted brownstones, housing writers, teachers, clerks, secretaries, a lead in a Broadway show, a singer, more houses, more professions, and then, two tenements, Irish and Italian intermingled, end the street.

How do they live? Reproductions from the Museum of Modern Art on the wall. Van Gogh is the favorite. An occasional Toulouse-Lautrec. A fake Renoir. Few originals. Dogs of all breeds. Studio couches dominate. Books, rows of books. Records. Black walls, red walls—burlap walls. Square ordinary flats furnished with installment-plan furniture. Enormous oversized rooms. North skylights. Easels ten feet high. Pianos. Miserable little rooms with a bed, a dresser, a chair. Toilet in the hallway for three people. Blond oak furniture. Conspicuous investments to be modern. Just everything thrown together. No pattern. Some come off. Others make you feel so sorry for the people that you want to say, look, leave Manhattan, go home, stop trying so hard, it isn’t worth it, Iowa must be a wonderful place to live in. No living in sin. The census doesn’t recognize sin. A man and woman together are to be recognized as husband and wife. Salesgirls from Macy’s having a party. “Hello! Look who’s here. The census-taker. The census-taker! Look, he’s a real census-taker. Are you a real census-taker?”

_____________

 

With some people you talk. A famous professor of anthropology whose little daughter wants to be in on her first census. A psychologist who never read Tolstoy. A radio announcer who is bursting to tell you that he makes $10,000 a year. A dress designer who makes $13,000 and you wonder how. A little man in tweeds with a high piping voice who insists there is no form devised to record his personality. “Look, don’t ask me any more questions, there are some people you just can’t census.”

The girls. Nobody ever seems to see the girls in Greenwich Village. Only a handful invade the neighborhood bars. But the rest remain forever in their rooms. Two girls from Nebraska sharing a flat. Editorial workers on a magazine. Copywriters. Advertising assistants. Research workers. Radio producers. Script writers. Teachers. Young, sleek, college-trained girls. But so lonely. One girl in a black dress, chalk face, body limp, room dirty, repeating over and over again: “I’m going home in the fall. I think I’m going home. I don’t like it here. I think I’m going home.” You can spot the rich girls. They never complain about the rent. But the working girls. They gripe. And they talk. They seem to be anxious to talk to somebody. A man in their apartment. But no sex. Only offers of beer. The models. Who ever sees a model but a photographer? One and a half rooms. A modern webbed chair. How little money they earn. Rent to pay. New clothes. Supper. Breakfast. Phone bills. Carfare. Income. One thousand. Two thousand. Three thousand is high. You begin to think that life is complete if you can only make four thousand a year. The girls are so damn pretty. Why don’t they go home? Marry the richest boy in town. Live in a detached house with fruit trees and a white fence. One girl permits the top of her breasts to show. “Tell them the bastard landlord is getting too much for this hole. Eighty-five dollars a month. What do I think the apartment is worth unfurnished? Thirty dollars. That’s all. Thirty dollars.” It’s a great question. “Is your apartment furnished or unfurnished? If it is furnished what do you think the unfurnished rent should be?” It’s the only opportunity to express yourself on the census form. And the girls yell the loudest. Their fields are all jammed. Editorial assistants, copywriters, receptionists, models, editors, all low-paid, dozens of girls to pounce on every vacancy. But they pay the Village rents so life will be a little less empty.

One girl, an actress, makes the world stand still. A blonde who uncomfortably gives you the feeling that the world is ice cream and cake and you’re an idiot not to realize it. A comic book princess, perfectly formed, lovely, but as innocent of the world as a cellophane-wrapped lollypop. How much did you earn last year? “Golly, I don’t know. Will it be all right to call my lawyer?” Certainly. “Hello lawyer. How much did I make last year?” An astronomical figure. Next door the rent is five dollars a week and itinerant Italian cooks and waiters come and go.

One street makes you so nervous that it’s a task to record the answers. A dirty, ugly, short little street. The inevitable dull red brick. From outside the appearance of a town house. Inside: no lights, broken wooden stairs. Most of the people you talk to in the Village have a vague or real understanding of what one is up against for the sake of living in most of the available Village apartments. But in this house the people are just trapped. They have no place else to go. The parlor floor is sealed off. Three rents for one. The first room contains a husband, his wife, four infants, in a space twelve feet by fifteen. No bath. No toilet. Shared. High rent. The next room has an ornate old bed and an ornate old woman. Upstairs, men half undressed, beds unmade, dirty shirts, dark hallways; upstairs again, on the top, a small room, a big bed, a big chest, a small bed, a husband, wife, two infants, a 100-watt bulb. Next house, railroad flats, five dark rooms, one old lady has five rooms, she lets out four rooms, won’t tell how much she pays for rent. Afraid to expose her greed. Heavy hanging drapes. The rotten odor of the used-to-be dollar whorehouses in Alliance, Ohio. The third house from the corner. People trying. Rooms painted. New furniture. Families. Clean-cut radio producers. Bright bubbling wives. A television set off pitch. An original painting on the wall. Rows of books. Classical records. And one room is so goddamn ugly you want to run out on it before your head splits open.

The Italians and the Irish form the bedrock of the Village. The Irish on the West Side. The Italians on all sides. They aren’t transient, players on a checkerboard, like the girls from Indiana. They live in dilapidated flats on Bleecker Street, duplexes on Charles Street, clean, ordinary flats, make a living, a good living; but some don’t hesitate to tell you: “The docks are rotten. Two days work a week. Break your back. How can you live. No, I don’t know what my husband makes. Maybe two thousand. But then we get relief.” The Irish dock-workers have the largest families and the most precarious incomes. The Irish and the Italians make up the bedrock. But the others from every state, including Wyoming, make up the Village. Greenwich Village. A community largely of strangers, who don’t want to be strangers, who want to dance in the street, but instead find themselves in dreary flats, drinking bottled beer.

_____________

 

The East Fifties are supposed to be one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world. It is also the poorest. On Second Avenue the landlords blocked off the railroad flats and converted each into separate units. One half rents for $11 a month; the half facing the sun for $16.

On the side streets that empty into Sutton Place the landlords converted the railroad flats into one-room modern studios, beds folding into couches, making a home for people who just can’t get into Sutton Place but wouldn’t think of living anywhere else; a curious mélange of salesladies, advertising writers, radio producers, investment agents, nurses, salesmen, actresses, people similar to those in the Village except they lack the éclat. These are the most lonely people in the world, I think.

The apartments are deserted until six. Everybody works. You have to, to pay the rent. One room. A bathroom. A kitchenette that hangs on the side of a wall. Sleek modern furniture, uncomfortable chairs. Cocktails. Highballs. The smell of gin in the hallways. What do you drink? If there were no cocktail to come home to, no telephone to pick up, the people living here would probably blow out their brains en masse. The incomes small. Not enough to cross the Avenue. The models may get a little of the dazzle. You walk in on a cocktail party. No laughter. The heavy drinking hasn’t started yet. The hostess, absolutely lovely, a model, talks to you, low, sexy, still in her act. The one-room apartment is only temporary. Sutton Place is the goal. The tenants have the souls of the people around the corner, down the street. A few are married. But so many live alone. What are they after? Will you have a drink, what do you drink—oh, you’re taking the census! Unbend, let loose. These are the people who never kept up with the Joneses. It’s a relief to walk in on a human being. A grande dame, a regal old lady, money gone, magnificent face, the most sensible apartment on the street, living alone, and when I praise her maple sewing cabinet, she tells me what it means to be past seventy and ready to die.

On the top floor I almost caused a tragedy. A woman is entertaining a well-pressed, straight-haired man. She tries to avoid the interview. Please come another time, please. But it will only take a minute. Then the question about age. She hesitates. The man excuses himself from the room. Now he knows, she says in a panic, now he’ll guess how old I am. I look at the bottle of Canadian Club on the cocktail table, the two glasses, the couch, her slim body, and I want to tell her, don’t worry, he’ll follow you, why in the hell do you think he’s here? If these people lived anywhere else they would be the real middle class but in Manhattan they have nothing. One woman is hysterical when I knock on the door. God damn it, you would come tonight. I can’t talk to you. And then I hear the quarrel inside, her husband lost his job.

_____________

 

On Second Avenue, in the chopped-up cold-water flats, you find the people who have almost completely given up. No ties. Women alone, old, never married. Men, dirty, old, coming to the door in long underwear. The rooms are dark, sparsely furnished, and you get a sense of at last finding the end of the road, the last pretense of patterned living, before the Bowery, the asylums, death. The doors are all bolted. Some have heavy chains. You wonder what the people are guarding. The rooms smell. Some are genuinely perverse. From floor to ceiling, burlap bags of old clothes, newspapers, rags, blocking off the whole room except a little space for a stove and old musty chairs where three people sit eating barley soup while you ask: Did you work last week? If so, how many hours? What state were you born in? How old were you on your last birthday? As though it all made good solid sense. And in another room you linger. Books line the mantel. The first books you’ve seen since the Village. The room is bare except for a kitchen table and two chairs. The lights don’t work. You look closer at the dusty books. Thoreau. Emerson. Kant. St. Augustine. Browning. Keats. Shelley. Plato. Lucretius. Spinoza. The little man, unshaven, in a dirty collarless shirt, waits for you to ask the work question: “I don’t work. I quit working. On my last job, a dishwasher. I have just enough money to live on. I don’t go to the movies. I don’t listen to the radio. I read—who do you think was the greatest English poet?” It’s a matter of taste, you say. “But just pick a man.” All right, I like Shakespeare in Hamlet. “What do you think of Browning?” First-rate. “What about St. Augustine? Do you know the City of God?” God is introduced. He is a churchman but he doesn’t like the church. The philosophers didn’t understand God, he tells me. I think they did, I tell him. “Who do you think has the finest style? I think Carlyle.” I answer, I don’t like to talk about style. But I like Swift. Style is the way a man feels, his mood, not a mechanical arrangement. He listens, agrees. But I have a thousand people to see. “Stay and talk,” he urges. “Let’s talk about St. Augustine. A good fleshy man.” Some other time. “Come up any time.” I will. Goodbye. And another room, the bolt sliding back, an Irish face out of a Dublin saloon, a pinched, hollow woman sitting stiffly in the dark. The man, wait a minute, I’ll put on the light. And he puts a match to the gaslight in the chandelier.

_____________

 

Sutton Place is around the corner. The loftiest living in the country.

Luftmenshen—and the others, coat manufacturers, shirt manufacturers, doctors, coat buyers, shirt buyers, dress buyers, importers, exporters, advertising executives, vice presidents, and the rich old ladies living on “$10,000-plus.” The rich somehow seemed to pick up the phrase, “$10,000-plus,” either from the newspapers or their lawyers. The “$10,000-plus” refers to the income question, and of all people who made less than $10,000 a year the exact amount of their income was required, but for the others “$10,000-plus” would do. And the $10,000-plusses live. Big, beautiful, spacious apartments, mechanically tightened together by interior decorators, sweeping views of Manhattan, bottles of expensive liquor on antique trays. It beats the Village. In Greenwich Village on a single block you can be sure of running the gamut of life, but here are the people who have licked the system.

The dress designer is busy spraying toilet water on the top of her breasts. “Am I married? No. I’m divorced. And I hope the bastard is dead.” Why the language? Her apartment is the ultimate of the Manhattan fable. A penthouse. Early American furniture gives the impression of two loot-hungry decorators making a raid on all the antique shops. An orgy of furniture. The woman is drunk in the apartment below. Everybody is drinking, but the woman is drunk. The man is trying to give me the right answers because he’s here on a permanent visa and doesn’t want to alienate the government. But the drunken woman keeps shouting: “He doesn’t have a right coming in here. He doesn’t have a right. He doesn’t have a right. . . .” Downstairs the woman is waiting for cocktails. She is dressed for dinner. The apartment is “classic” American. Her husband comes in. A handsome boy. Stockbroker. Black silk umbrella. Black homburg. Black suit. The first thing he does is phone for whisky. Whisky is the pre-dinner drink. The post-dinner drink.

Heavy carpeting. A maid. A long leather bar. Tall polished glasses. More booze. An enormous television set anchors the living room. A beautiful regular-featured blonde on the couch. The man is big, fat, old, a stockbroker. And the girls who don’t know what they do for a living, lush, in blue silk robes, who don’t dare lie to the government, who live in apartments that actually look like Hollywood sets. “Now tell me what you do for a living.” “I’m a dancing teacher.” “Good. Now, how many hours did you teach last week?” “Oh—I only teach over the week end.” “Well, how many hours?” “Oh! You know what to put down. Be a good guy and say the right thing.”

_____________

 

You have to stop counting people every so often to hurry across 57th Street to the tavern on 58th Street for a glass of cold beer. It begins to seem natural for people to pay $600 a month for a four-room apartment. To have rooms filled with the most obviously expensive stuff on the market. For television sets to pop out of elaborate secretaries that fill the side of a long wall. For women to say, over and over again, disdainfully: “I don’t work. I’ve never worked.”

One building, more than the others, seemed to house a particularly solid concentration of flat, two-dimensional people of the 20th century. A few people are there by mistake, or housing necessity, but the others seem to have come together by affinity.

One woman was definitely living in the house by error. At first she wouldn’t admit me. She had to call down to the lobby to find out if I had been cleared by the doorman. “I’m sorry to have made you wait. But you don’t blame me. You can’t trust people in this neighborhood. Such funny people. Come in. Come in. You look so tired.” She was wearing a cotton housecoat. “Sit down by the table. Put your book on the table. Such a heavy book they make you carry around. Let me get you a drink. Maybe you’d like some whisky?” It was too hot for a drink of straight whisky but I said all right to please her. She brought out a square bottle of twelve-year-old Scotch. “A whole glass?” she asked. Just a little, please. And then she saw me looking at the white tablecloth with a Hebrew prayer as its design. “You’re a Jewish boy, aren’t you?” she said. ‘Tell me the truth.” I’m a Jewish boy, I told her, that’s the truth. “A Jewish boy. You know, I’m Jewish, too. I put the tablecloth out for my father-in-law. He likes to be in a Jewish house. This building. I’d like to move away. The rent we pay.” The living room was stuffed with furniture. Very expensive conservative-modern. And birdcages. Three singing birds. “I sit here all day. Nobody to talk to. You know, they have famous people living in this house. A girl who sings over the radio.”

The house belongs to the people who can afford it—not to the young couple in a narrow one-and-a-half who can’t even afford furniture because of the high rent—but to the producers, actresses, stage stars, slick writers, advertising executives, designers, publishers, art dealers, stockbrokers, financial advisers, and the real rich, the people who live on $10,000-plus, the people who sweep in money out of the air, who make the rest of us feel like damned fools. But sit and drink their booze, examine the arrangement of the furniture, the faces of the men who produce the money, especially the women who look as tightly wound up as Humphrey Bogart on the screen, and these luftmenshen who live on air, are air themselves. No books. No decent pictures. Not even good reproductions. No art. You seldom hear music. They lead a good second-rate existence. If I had their money. . . .

_____________

 

Almost everybody is eager to answer the questions. To help all they can. The interviews are usually swift, to the point. Only with the unmarried women past thirty is there a touch of sadness, an intrusion. When you ask, were you ever married, the women, inevitably, in a tone of real regret, say, no, I’ve never been married. And you look around at their attempts to turn a one-room apartment into a home, living among strangers, hard streets, and you feel sad, and look down on your form to save them the embarrassment of looking into your eyes.

There are people proud to tell you that they have a television set. Artists insulted, pride injured, egos squirming, when you innocently ask: how many hours did you work last week? And painters who straightway answer the questions. Executives who refuse to commit themselves to work hours; executives who answer a simple question simply. Women who lie miserably about their age; women who don’t give a damn. Onetime immigrants who’ve been in America for thirty years, ashamed to say they’re not citizens. People who live in slums, apologetic when they say they have no bathtub, no toilet, no heat, instead of saying like one old Jewish woman: “Why do you ask me that? This is a slum. A dirty slum. A place to live. It’s a slum. Write that down. A slum.”

_____________

 

There are all kinds of people, of course, but wherever you go, one sentiment is so strong in all of the people that you begin to realize it comes from something basic and deep in the American character, rather than a fleeting manifestation invoked by the census. At first, superficially, it seems to come from the urge “to be counted.” Nobody wants to be left out. Everybody wants to be included in the big count. But the welcome, the readiness to invite you in, the offer of drinks, cigarettes, even dinner, the best chair, a desk—all this is their way of showing the government in Washington, D. C, that it still belongs to the people, and they can afford to be generous when it makes an extraordinary request. The pattern was repeated over and over again. Only once was there any fear expressed that the census might be used as a way of obtaining damaging information. Which is not to say that the people are unaware of dangerous possibilities in current politics, but rather to say that they are conscious of their own strength. A strength that has been observed and recorded by too many people to bear much repetition here. But there it was. A genuine concern to be included in the big count, to help make up the total American picture, hospitality, warmth, even to the extent of tuning the sound out on the television set until the end of the interview.

_____________

 

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.