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Jack Smith

More hissing at the notion that some cities once were Paradise; even Eden had its snake

August 27, 1987|JACK SMITH

I have another dissent from my notion that our great cities reached their peaks in earlier times--New York in the 1920s, London in the 18th Century, Paris in the first decade of the 20th Century (la belle epoque) , Los Angeles in the 1930s and Honolulu before the Pacific war.

I have already noted a complaint that, however lovely the Champs Elysees may have been with its stylish women and elegant carriages, there would have been a lot of horse manure.

Now Deanna M. Williams of Monterey Park, who describes herself as "a student and teacher of history with a tendency to discourage the glamorizing of the 'good old days,' " also accuses me of looking at the past through rose-colored glasses (though that is my cliche, not hers).

She asks me how many women were "grandly costumed" in Paris before World War I. How many could afford the elegant carriages? "Poverty was common!" she points out.

She notes that Vincent Van Gogh killed himself because of an illness that could probably be controlled or cured today. (Van Gogh died in 1890, before my decade; but that's a quibble.) Certainly great strides have been made in medicine since la belle epoque .

Ms. Williams argues that population was in control only because women died in childbirth, infant mortality was high and life was short. A grim picture indeed.

She concedes that, as I said, flappers danced on the tables of speak-easies in the New York of the '20s, but those speak-easies, she notes, were owned by criminals, and the flapper had only recently gotten the right to vote, had no political or financial influence and little control over her reproductive life.

All right, let's say the 1920s weren't so great for women--but at least they did have the vote, they smoked and they drank and the Charleston was a lot of fun.

She concedes that the Giants and the Yankees reigned supreme, as I noted, but points out that blacks couldn't play. True. Jim Crow was a blight on all our cities for 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

I observed that San Francisco peaked during World War II, when its dazzling skyline was the last sight soldiers had of home before shipping out. Evidently the only fault Ms. Williams can find with San Francisco is that it was "the last sight of the United States that thousands of soldiers ever saw."

I don't think it's fair to fault San Francisco for the deaths of soldiers in the war.

"Los Angeles and Honolulu may have had clear skies and no traffic in the 1930s and early 1940s," she says. "They also had written and unwritten rules about where blacks and Asians could or could not live, what jobs they could and could not have, what schools they could and could not attend."

True, it is hard to think of our cities as amiable places to live in when we remember that blacks and Asians were suppressed and segregated. I am not proud to concede that most of us simply ignored that cruel discrimination and enjoyed our lives.

As for Honolulu, the Big Five hierarchies were probably white and one or two private schools may have been white, but Honolulu was remarkably tolerant. Asians were in the majority; nearly 40% of Hawaii's population was Japanese, most of them citizens; they had seats in the territorial legislature and were so integrated socially, economically and politically that after Pearl Harbor there was no thought of interning them.

Ms. Williams might also have pointed out that in 18th-Century England children labored 12 hours a day in textile mills; beggars thronged the streets; smallpox and syphilis were common; young men were shanghaied for service in the navy; the lower classes were soaked in gin; anesthesia and asepsis were unknown; women were either wenches or ladies. Besides, it is not likely that I would have enjoyed the company of Pope, Addison and Steele. I'd probably have been illiterate.

I can't see that the speak-easies of New York would have been any less exciting because they were owned by gangsters; public lawlessness was a factor in the exuberance of that Prohibition age.

It was an era of heroes and excitements. Red Grange, Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh were idolized; the newspapers provided such entertainments as the Hall-Mills and Snyder-Gray sex triangle murder cases and the affairs of "Peaches" and "Daddy" Browning; H. L. Mencken chastised the boobs, Edna St. Vincent Millay burned her candle at both ends, millions stormed showrooms to see Ford's new Model A, stocks went up and up and Calvin Coolidge said: "The business of America is business."

Besides, the war to end war was over. The times were self-indulgent, frivolous and frenzied. New York, New York was a wonderful town.

I never saw it, myself, until the 1950s. It was still a wonderful town.

"Come on, Jack!" Ms. Williams concludes. "The good old days never were! There is no paradise and never was beyond Eden. Life is always a compromise. I'll trade a lack of traffic congestion for an expansion of our civil rights. I'll even trade clean air for medical advances. . . . Most of all, give me now; I'm here, as are you. . . . Together we can enjoy the fruits of our own time and work to improve its problems."

Indeed there has never been a paradise. Even Eden had its snake.

I just want to remind Ms. Williams of how my recent column ended:

"We might as well enjoy what we have."

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