Monday, August 28, 2006

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

I read a great little article the other day by Andy Newman in The New York Times. It seems that someone has unearthed thousands of letters of complaint to the mayor of New York City -- some going back to the 1700s.

Noise and smell appear to have been universal issues in the Big Apple. In the summer of 1888, Albert Oelzer wrote to the mayor to say that "a dead horse is waiting to be taken away for the last 24 hours in front of 41 Henry Street. The stench is unbearable, and people in the neighborhood, of which I am one, were forced to sleep with closed windows last night. Not a pleasant thing, I assure you."

Some urban nuisances have changed very little over the past few centuries. Neighbors play the radio too loudly. Sidewalks are dirty. Stuff falls off buildings. Some public servants are corrupt or unhelpful.

The vision of New York contained in these letters reminded me of the terrific biography of Peter the Great by Robert K. Massie, where he describes the London that Peter visited and explored in 1698: It was "rich, vital, dirty and dangerous. The narrow streets were piled with garbage and filth which could be dropped freely from any overhanging window. Even the main avenues were dark and airless because greedy builders, anxious to gain more space, had projected upper stories over the street. Through these Stygian alleys, crowds of Londoners jostled and pushed one another. Traffic congestion was monumental. Lines of carriages and hackney cabs cut deep ruts into the streets, so that passengers inside were tossed about, arriving breathless, nauseated and sometimes bruised."

The hygiene may be better today, but there are some things about city living that never change!

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