Edgar Allan Poe on New York’s “inevitable doom”

New Yorkers tend to agree on one thing: any change in the look and feel of the city is never good.

Modernization, development, improvement—all are buzzwords for the end of Gotham as we know it.

In the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe felt this way too.

Poe may have died in Baltimore, but in the 1830s and 1840s, Poe hopscotched around New York, living on Greenwich Street, West Third Street, today’s West 84th Street and then a cottage in the Bronx, where his young wife, Virginia, died of tuberculosis.

Like many residents, he eased his mind with long walks and wanderings.

His outings gave him a unique view of New York’s charm (and its noise, grime, Sunday alcohol laws, and the ugliness of Brooklyn houses, but lets save that for another post).

In an 1844 letter, he bemoaned the way the city was urbanizing before his eyes—which he saw after he rowed out to Blackwell’s Island and was able to see New York from the water. [Above right, the Beekman Estate in the East 50s]

“The chief interest of the adventure lay in the scenery of the Manhattan shore, which is here particularly picturesque.”

“The houses without exception are frame and antique. Nothing very modern has been attempted—a necessary result of the subdivision of the whole island into streets and town-lots.” [Above left, the David Provoost Mansion at East 57th Street]

“I could not look on the magnificent cliffs, and stately trees, which at every moment met my view, without a sigh for their inevitable doom—inevitable and swift.”

“In twenty years, or thirty at farthest, we shall see here nothing more romantic than shipping, warehouses, and wharves.”

In another letter that same year, he described the villas along the East River. [Above right, the Riker estate at East 75th Street]

“These localities are neglected—unimproved. The old mansions upon them (principally wooden) are suffered to remain unrepaired, and present a melancholy spectacle of decrepitude.

“In fact, these magnificent places are doomed. The spirit of Improvement has withered them with its acrid breath. Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them, and they are no longer suburban residences but ‘town-lots.'” [Above left, the Rutgers mansion in Yorkville]

“In some thirty years every noble cliff will be a pier, and the whole island will be densely desecrated by buildings of brick, with portentous of brownstone, or brown-stonn, as the Gothamites have it.”

Was Poe right or what? [Above, East River at 86th Street in the 1860s, by Currier and Ives]

[Images: Wikipedia, NYPL Digital Collection]

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9 Responses to “Edgar Allan Poe on New York’s “inevitable doom””

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    Poe would die again a thousand deaths if he could see! Perhaps that is why we get to a certain age and die! So we don’t live to see what we dread!! The desecration of what we love! Perhaps it is merciful!

  2. Zoe Says:

    Wow O_O Brilliant post Phem…

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you! Poe’s take on New York makes for great reading…he’s a terrific observer and has a lot to say about politicians, noise wagons, the hovels people lived in farther uptown, and more.

  3. petey Says:

    i’ve seen the untinted version of that currier and ives, but not this one before. thanks!

  4. Edward Says:

    I’d give a year’s pay to spend a week in NYC circa 1860.

    • petey Says:

      absolutely. i try to imagine my neighborhood now as mostly woods then, not yet built up …

    • Eric Says:

      Edward read “Time and Again” by Jack Finney. It’s a time travel novel in which the main character travels back in time from the 1960’s (when the book was written) to 1880’s New York. Much of the book consists of descriptions of New York as experienced by the time traveler. Fun read and kind of a cult favorite!

  5. Ty Says:

    As a New Yorker I feel obligated to carry on this fine tradition of woe.

    Why all this barren curtain wall glass? Glass facing more glass. I remember when “architect” was a respected profession.

    I did read that the common land that Broadway bends to avoid to the Middle Road (future Fifth Avenue) was filled with rock outcroppings and scrub brush unlivable and unfarmable until Randall, the great leveler, came along.

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