New Books on the City After War and After Buffalo

The Rev. Francis P. Duffy speaking in Central Park in 1920 at a memorial ceremony. Credit The New York Times

The Rev. Francis P. Duffy speaking in Central Park in 1920 at a memorial ceremony. Credit The New York Times

Sam Roberts writes:

Father Duffy’s monument is in the middle of Times Square, but it’s unfamiliar to most New Yorkers and few can identify its honoree. That’s just one of many reasons to read “New York and the First World War: Shaping an American City” (Ashgate).

While most centennial commemorations of the Great War have overlooked its impact on the metropolis, the author of this book, Ross J. Wilson of the University of Chichester in England, credits the conflict with “reforming an immigrant city into an American city.”

Early on in the war, German-Americans in New York rallied for the Fatherland, and Jewish immigrants rooted against Russia and Irish immigrants against England.

Victory would anoint New York a world capital, but the fruits were ephemeral and, for some, illusory. In 1919, W. E. B. Du Bois hailed returning blacks from the 369th Infantry Regiment as “soldiers of democracy” who should “return fighting” for that ideal at home. It would be a long time coming.

Memorials conceived for Central Park and East 42nd Street were never realized (although Pershing Square, on Park Avenue south ofGrand Central Terminal, was named for an American general). But scores of lesser markers were erected to idealized doughboys and other largely unsung heroes, including the one in Times Square to the Rev. Francis P. Duffy, the Canadian-born chaplain to the “Fighting 69th” regiment who was said to have braved active battlefields to retrieve fallen soldiers.

His statue stands between West 45th and 47th Streets, behind the figure of George M. Cohan (not unsung), who wrote the World War I anthem “Over There.”

The prolific author and playwright Laura Pedersen parcels her stream of consciousness into wily and witty essays in “Life in New York: How I Learned to Love Squeegee Men, Token Suckers, Trash Twisters and Subway Sharks” (Fulcrum).

Ms. Pedersen arrived in the city from Buffalo in the early 1980s (her father was raised in Washington Heights) with a keen eye and ear for what differentiated Manhattan from her hometown.

She observes that “while panhandlers can make change in any denomination you want,” cabbies can rarely break a $20 bill. That New York women, on average, live seven years longer than men, but “they will spend at least six and a half of those years searching for public bathrooms.”

“In contrast to ‘Survivor,’ on our islands we don’t take a weekly vote regarding who gets to stay and who has to go,” Ms. Pedersen writes. “Contradictions are therefore not resolved but rather contained within the sprawling tapestry of daily life. If there’s not always a communal sense of Whitmanesque belonging, then there’s the certainty that we’re all in it together.”

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