Manhattan apartment building
Manhattan apartment building. Ordinary brownstone tenement, crowded with roughly a dozen families in New York City’s Manhattan borough. Although the stage directions indicate the geographic location only as “a mean quarter of New York,” Elmer Rice later revealed in his autobiography that he and designer Jo Mielziner had modeled this particular facade on an actual brownstone located on Sixty-fifth Street. The stage directions further indicate that this is an “ugly brownstone” built in the 1890’s, surrounded by a storage warehouse on stage left and a building being demolished on stage right. The most prominent features of this street scene are “a ‘stoop’ of four shallow stone steps flanked on either side by a curved stone balustrade,” the apartment’s vestibule just inside the front door (always open) at the top of the steps, the windows of the janitor’s basement apartment, and the six narrow windows of the first-floor apartments, through which some of the residents can be seen. The windows of the apartments located on the upper floors are not visible.
As an example of social realism, Street Scene relies on its detailed stage setting to evoke an atmosphere of everyday life in New York, not only visually but aurally. According to the stage directions, the sounds of the city should be heard as constant background noise, from the distant roar of elevated trains and rattling trucks, to the barking of dogs and murmurs of New Yorkers at work and play over the course of twenty-four hours on a sweltering June day.
In 1929, the United States was on the verge of transition from the Jazz Age to the Great Depression. The 1920s were a complicated decade in American history. There was an illusion of economic prosperity. Big business got bigger in the economic boom as corporations grew. This boom made many rich and powerful and gave others the idea that they could become wealthy as well. The source for this wealth was perceived to be the stock market, which kept getting bigger throughout the 1920s. In 1929, stock market madness hit its peak, and those who ran the stock market could not keep up with the rapid changes. Warning signs were ignored about the artificially high bull market. On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday and soon the Great Depression set in. Within a month, unemployment rates had quadrupled.
Before the crash, cities were seen as places of opportunity. Throughout the United States, there was an increase in urbanization. Office buildings, industrial complexes, hotels, and apartment buildings were constructed at a rapid rate. The Empire State Building was begun in 1929, and completed in 1931. New York City was regarded as the epitome of possibilities and drew many new immigrants and rural Americans to make their fortune. Yet in New York City there was widespread pollution and overcrowding. As people became successful, they moved to newly constructed suburbs. First the upper classes moved to the suburbs, then middle-class suburbs grew as well.
Not everyone benefited in the 1920s economic boom. Working- and lower-middle classes, which included teachers, did not, though they did have steady employment and relatively high wages. Unions were not really powerful or respected in the 1920s, though they did exist. Unskilled factory work was boring and their work situations were unstable. Many urban dwellers lived in crowded apartments. Only seventy-one percent had running water and eighty percent had electricity. Rural America was even worse off. Rural America and small towns were already on the decline, and farmers were already suffering under tremendous economic pressure. Only ten percent of farm families had electricity, and only thirty-three percent had running water.
Throughout the 1920s, there was a conflict between rural and urban America and between the native-born and immigrants. There was concern over what to do with all the new Americans and their needs: more than...
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