I lived in Budapest until I was twentytwo, and came to New York when I was thirty. In the intervening years I traveled in Western Europe, living mostly in Paris. When I arrived in New York, there was a heat wave. I found the city filthy, noisy, in part exhilarating, and in part unspeakably ugly. I was dazzled by the views from the top of sky-scrapers, which were as breathtaking as the views of Budapest and the Danube from the top of the Buda hills. Both New York and Budapest had magnificent buildings, but large parts of both cities were built cheaply, haphazardly, heartlessly, and in haste. Undoubtedly, New York and Budapest were less elegant places than Paris. After a few days, once I found that my English was better than what I often heard around me, I felt entirely at home, for the first time in eight years.
This spirit of acceptance is, in my opinion, what binds the two cities and contributes to the success of Thomas Bender and Carl E. Schorske’s pioneering venture in comparing the two cities during the sixty years between 1870 and 1930. If at first it seems odd and even arbitrary to compare Budapest and New York, there are striking lessons to be drawn from considering the two cities together, not least about the very different textures of European and American experience and culture.
In Budapest in 1896, the year Hungarians celebrated the thousandth anniversary of the founding of their state, the well-known American journalist Richard Harding Davis found Budapest similar to New York in surprising ways. The country’s phenomenal economic progress as a sovereign partner in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy prompted Davis to exclaim that the Hungarians were the Americans of Europe. Indeed, late in the nineteenth century, Budapest developed more rapidly than any other major city on the continent. Its first underground railway, opened in 1896, predated those of New York by eight years; its public and private buildings and the many magnificent bridges connecting the formerly separate cities of Buda and Pest across the Danube River seemed to emerge from nowhere.
Before World War I, Budapest had more factories employing over a thousand workers than did New York—this in a city with a population of just 1.1. million in 1910, compared with New York’s 4.7 million. More important perhaps, both New York and Budapest were built in no small part by the same people: Hungarian, Slovak, Ukrainian, and South Slav-speaking peasants. Many of them first helped to construct the railway network in Hungary, then moved to dig the subways in New York, then returned to build Budapest’s tramway line, the bridges, or the immense parliament building. Their journeys often ended in America, in the Pennsylvania coal mines, perhaps, or in the steel mills near Chicago.
Budapest is not only Hungary’s capital, it is the country’s only major urban center. New York, as Thomas Bender and Carl E. Schorske note in their introduction, was only the most important in “a richly differentiated…
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