The Metropolitan Section: City Life, Delivered

By Julia Guarneri

“I thought I knew every nook and angle of this village, but it seems your staff are ferreting out new and interesting bits every week.” In 1919, subscriber Charles Romm sent this letter to the New York Tribune, praising the paper’s new “In Our Town” section. The Tribune — like the World, the Times, the American, and many of the city’s other daily papers — had begun printing a special local section on Sundays. These metropolitan sections, as they were often called, did not print local news, exactly. They were not the places to look for accident reports or the latest in city politics. Instead, metropolitan sections gave readers glimpses of the everyday city. They brought the sights, accents, and clamor of the city into readers’ laps, to be enjoyed from a living room couch or a lunch counter. Newspapers’ metropolitan sections packaged up city life for quick, enjoyable consumption.

New York World, 19 December 1909. American Newspaper Repository, Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

New York World, 19 December 1909. American Newspaper Repository, Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

As the price of newsprint fell in the late nineteenth century, editors issued larger newspapers with room for more than just the essentials. These editors reasoned that readers might want some relief from the politics and tragedy of the headlines. They might appreciate a happy ending, or a laugh. They thought that New Yorkers might enjoy seeing people like themselves and their neighbors in the paper, or enjoy being introduced to strangers. Mining this vein, the editor of the New York Sun, Charles Dana, forged a whole new genre in the 1870s and 1880s — the human interest story. His paper ran a front page article in 1881, for example, that told the story of a Tennessee poultry farmer who managed to meet and marry a Brooklyn woman by writing his address on an eggshell.

Nineteenth-century editors learned how to entertain their mostly middle-class readers by showing them corners of the city that they did not usually see. Most famously, they did this by sending their reporters to slums, in order to describe the alleys, tenements, and flophouses in lurid detail. Reporters also visited immigrant neighborhoods, introducing readers to gossip exchanged by Russian housewives or explaining a feud between Italian grocers. And they wrote about the very rich, whose world might be as unfamiliar to readers of the New York World or New York Journal as that of the very poor. Widening gaps between the rich, the middle class, and the poor — and increasing distances between their neighborhoods — meant that editors could sell papers simply by telling readers about each other.

Precursors to the metropolitan section ran in New York’s papers as early as the 1880s, but the section came into full flower in the early twentieth century. The sections’ illustrated headings created visual icons for the city: bustling streets, soaring bridges, geometric skylines. Meanwhile, metropolitan section writers invented literary genres all their own — genres which survive to this day in places like the New York Times’s “Metropolitan Diary” column. Reporters relayed snippets of overheard conversations, like this one from a Broadway dance hall:

“He said to me, ‘Stop moving your hips! Do you think this is a vulgar dance?’ But I just MUST move my hips; I can’t help it!”[1]

New York Tribune, 24 August 1919. Library of Congress.

New York Tribune, 24 August 1919. Library of Congress.

They reported endearing mistakes or phrases they spotted in the city’s signs, ads, and menus: Listed on a Chinese restaurant menu under ‘COLD DISHES’: ‘Ice cream.’[2] They noticed clever ways that the city’s hustling citizens were making the rent: “I am getting lunch money these days by visiting slot machine telephones and collecting coins that have been ‘returned’ by the operators but have not been taken by the would-be customer.” [3]

Reporters asked questions about things that many New Yorkers routinely passed by but ignored. Who were those Salvation Army Santas ringing bells on every corner? asked the New York World in 1909.[4] How much did they actually collect in those red metal pots? The sections profiled city characters with interesting jobs: the New York Times spoke to an agent who sniffed out smuggled rum in the Port of New York, then to a Metropolitan Museum security guard fending off boredom.[5] Sometimes reporters simply puzzled over a situation, rather than trying to get to the bottom of it. A New York Times reporter watched two women carry a heavy wooden bench down a quiet alley at midnight, mystified by the timing of their errand. [6] A jokey “Science Note” in the Times reported the inexplicable presence of a grasshopper in Times Square.[7]

“ ‘Round Town With the Section Sketch Artists,” New York World, 9 September 1917, Metropolitan section, front page. In these sketches we see a boy jamming subway turnstiles with buttons, employees of the Museum of Natural History mounting an exhibit, and orphans from the Hebrew Asylum building clubhouses. The caricatures show a Brooklyn baseball pitcher in his army uniform, and a Costa Rican opera singer performing in town. American Newspaper Repository, Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

“ ‘Round Town With the Section Sketch Artists,” New York World, 9 September 1917, Metropolitan section, front page. In these sketches we see a boy jamming subway turnstiles with buttons, employees of the Museum of Natural History mounting an exhibit, and orphans from the Hebrew Asylum building clubhouses. The caricatures show a Brooklyn baseball pitcher in his army uniform, and a Costa Rican opera singer performing in town. American Newspaper Repository, Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

Metropolitan sections occasionally ran pieces highlighting New York City’s sheer size, turning that scale into a source of pride and a claim to the city’s national and international importance. Yet these sections never really turned into booster projects. Why bother? New Yorkers already knew they lived in the biggest city in the nation, a global commercial and cultural hub. Instead, writers threw their efforts into portraying New York City as really just a small town, summoning a sense of community in what could seem a soulless place. The New York Times ran a column of urban vignettes called “Our Town and Its Folk.” The Tribune called its version of a metropolitan section “In Our Town.” By the 1920s, many metropolitan sections were mimicking the conventions of small-town papers in an effort to recapture small-town neighborliness, reporting on high school sports games and printing the graduation rosters of local universities. The New York American hosted a regular column, “People You Know or Have Heard About,” though the column mostly depicted urban types, rather than actual people, for in fact it was difficult to find many people known to all of the paper’s hundreds of thousands of readers. This attempt to render New York City as small, friendly, and familiar seemed to convince at least some readers: Charles Romm, in his letter to the New York Tribune, referred to New York City as “this village.”

Metropolitan sections lent coherence to the chaotic city, too, by depicting a singular New York personality. The New Yorkers on these pages were tough, but often revealed to be softies underneath. They were sophisticated to the point of being blasé, yet laughably ignorant about anything beyond the city limits. They seemed to live lives of urban alienation (“New York’s chiefest charm is that you don’t know your neighbors” quipped one metropolitan section columnist), yet they volunteered in hospitals in their spare time and gave readily to the needy.[8]

As the metropolitan section became an institution in New York City, the concept travelled elsewhere. By the 1920s, papers outside of New York were also printing multi-page “City Life” or “Metropolitan” sections. The Chicago Herald printed a regular column of “Tales They Tell in the Loop;” the Memphis Commercial Appeal ran “Stories of the Streets” on Sundays. Soon, many journalists realized that they could write about “the” city — a generic city — instead of any particular place, and then sell their pieces to dozens of papers rather than just one. A whole host of syndicated features cropped up in the 1910s and 1920s that depicted urban scenes and types that would be familiar to almost any city reader, be they a New Yorker, Atlantan, or Angeleno. Cartoonist J. W. McGurk drew up syndicated panels of playful urban scenes, such as: “Why Not? Bathing suits for the city, where it is hotter than the beach.” Dorothy Dulin sketched views of city people’s lives as seen through apartment or office windows, in “Our Neighbors Across the Way.”[9] W. E. Hill’s full-page feature “Among Us Mortals” took the idea of metropolitan section observations and applied it to places and events found in any city or town. His panels — “At the Jewelers,” “The Matinee Girl,” “The Hotel Barber Shop — gently poked fun at types that any urban or suburban reader was meant to recognize. New York’s newspapers generated a lot of this material, though not all of it. New York editors both bought and sold features on the syndicated market. So the New York City life rendered in Metropolitan sections was not always as local as readers took it to be.

“Among Us Mortals: The Millinery Sale,” New York Tribune, 17 December 1916. The New York Tribune and later the Chicago Tribune syndicated W. E. Hill’s cartoon; it began in 1916 and survived into the 1950s.

“Among Us Mortals: The Millinery Sale,” New York Tribune, 17 December 1916. The New York Tribune and later the Chicago Tribune syndicated W. E. Hill’s cartoon; it began in 1916 and survived into the 1950s.

The urban observations that appeared in turn-of-the-century newspapers had often advocated for change, whether by pushing for new policies or by conveying a sense of outrage at the status quo. In an 1897 metropolitan section piece, for example, a New York World writer noted that the land it took to build the new Pell mansion on 74th street could fit six ordinary mansions, or ten tenement buildings. “That is to say, 928 people could live, as some New York people do live, in the space which he, his wife and the combined collections of porcelains and china will occupy.”[10] A 1906 article on a society woman printed a table of her estimated yearly expenses, including her automobiles, furs, jewels, balls, stables, losses at bridge, and restaurant meals, all made public through an alimony case. “It was a startling revelation,” the article stated, “that a woman with no other charges upon her than her personal expenses could not live on an income greater than the salary paid to the President of the United States.”[11] These reporters seemed shocked by the wealth that existed on the very same island as thousands of impoverished people.

By the 1920s, that shock seemed to fade. Writers no longer preached that the gap between rich and poor ought to narrow, and instead exploited that gap for entertainment value. The fizzling out of Progressive reform efforts after World War I was partly to blame for the new nonchalant, sometimes hedonistic tone of these sections. Where earnest reformers sought to change the city and believed they had the power to improve it, by the 1920s many seemed content to leave city policy and planning in the hands of experts, and perhaps readers felt free to simply observe and enjoy the metropolis they lived in. This slightly more detached outlook was also in keeping with the urbane and freewheeling culture taking shape in New York in that decade, documented and stoked by two new magazines, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.

The metropolitan section was, and is, an odd journalistic creation. It did not report current events, but neither was it mere entertainment (unlike its Sunday newspaper companion, the comics section). It was decidedly urban, but not always as local as it appeared. Its writers were opinionated, yet by the 1920s they rarely used the section as a platform for change. It is clear, however, that these sections filled a need. For New York readers living in a city too big to experience or truly know firsthand, the metropolitan section made it knowable. When class divides grew too gaping for most New Yorkers to cross, metropolitan section writers crossed them, and reported back from the other side. When it was no longer obvious that city dwellers had anything in common, the paper showcased and celebrated New Yorkers’ common traits. The metropolitan section reveled in public life, urban dialogue, and the sheer variety of the city. It celebrated the street smarts and the niche expertise of New Yorkers. It may seem ironic that this celebration of public life took place on a newspaper page and was often enjoyed in the comfort of the reader’s own home. Yet in the best cases, the articles of the metropolitan section propelled New Yorkers back out into the street, newly aware and appreciative of their surroundings. Charles Romm, in his 1919 letter to the New York Tribune, seemed to say as much. “I hope the page will go on uncovering the other sections and quarters of the city in similar striking fashion,” he wrote. “Our city needs rediscovering, it seems to me, especially to New Yorkers.”

Julia Guarneri teaches American history at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Newsprint Metropolis: City Papers and the Making of Modern Americans (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Notes

[1] Roy McCardell, “The City of Dreadful Dance,” New York World, 30 March 1913 “Metropolitan” section, front page.

[2] New York World, 27 March 1921, “Metropolitan” section, front page.

[3] New York World, 3 April 1921, “Metropolitan” section, front page.

[4] New York World, 19 December 1909, “Metropolitan” section, front page.

[5] “Our Town and Its Folk,” New York Times, 12 October 1924, Section 9, page 2.

[6] “Our Town and Its Folk,” New York Times, 12 October 1924, Section 9, page 2.

[7] “Our Town and Its Folk,” New York Times, 26 October 1924, XX2.

[8] Quote is from Karl K. Kitchen, “Protesting Against New York’s New Neighborly Spirit That Co-Operative Apartments Are Bringing About,” New York World, 27 March 1921, “Metropolitan” section, front page.

[9] Chicago Herald, 29 April 1917, “Humor and City Life” section, pages 4-5.

[10] New York World, 6 June 1897, metropolitan section.

[11] New York American and Journal, 14 January 1906, 54.