The Catholic Church opposed street lamps.
In 1831, Pope Gregory XVI banned
gas lighting in Papal states. The Church
argued God very clearly established
the delineation between night and day,
and that putting lights up after sundown
flew in the face of God’s law.
The Wickquasgeck Trail, a preserved
old Amerind trail, cuts diagonally down
and across from beneath the later
prescribed grid of contemporary Manhattan.
It snakes down from Boston.
Colonial New Yorkers referred
to it as the Boston Mail Road.
About a mile of it
was illuminated in 1880
by Brush arc lamps (making it
among the first electrically lighted streets
in the US). New Yorkers call it Broadway.
At Madison Square Park—where Twenty Fifth
intersects with Broadway and Fifth Avenue,
there is a vigilant monumental tomb,
a constantly overlooked ornate
gold clock, and an intermittently
maintained shining star of hope.
The Toy Building—once a stagecoach stop,
then a tented hippodrome, and finally a fine hotel—
is swanky again, Buon appetite Italiano!
Goditi una birra artigianale sul giardino sul tetto.
Twice, two opulent temporary
celebratory arches were raised here.
The Dewey Arch [after the Arch of Titus
in Rome]–was originally constructed
in staff (like the one at Washington Square
before it) by overly-optimistic, hearty,
patriotic, forward-looking goodwill.
The more successfully funded
torch-clutching hand of Liberty
was also once exhibited
here; for six years,
across the way, in the park.
And the even more opulent 1918
swagged Victory Arch and Columns
was erected to commemorate
those who had died in World War I.
Steps away, the old mail road turn
toward Long Island is now
an imbuing tiered fountain.
We are either assigning
meaning or stripping it away.
The Shake Shack, Danny Meyer’s
popularized inner city Chiringuito
is a bit like a glass-elegant
bare-bulbed-lit Parisian park cafe.
Residents and tourists partake
of burgers and fries
even as orphans and Civil War
soldiers ghost. Seniors glide
through their catalog of yoga poses.
One night, nearby, on a canvas-covered
wall of the building that proceeded
the Fuller Brush Building (what we
now call “The Flat Iron Building”),
“magic lantern” outdoor advertisements
were projected. Crowds gathered
there to view election-night results.
All of that proved darkly prophetic
for what was about to rise.
Vanderbilt’s carriage-trade area
up near Longacre Square—west
and a bit north of the Croton Reservoir
and Grand Central Terminus …
and eventually Pershing Square
and the subsequent viaduct––
was already going theatrically
up in spectacular lights!
SCOTT HIGHTOWER is the author of four books of poetry in the US and two bilingual (English/Spanish) collections published in Madrid. He lives in Manhattan and teaches at New York University at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study.