Seeing Howard Thain’s Message Reflected In Film

Howard Thain
Howard Thain, Grand Central Station, N.Y.C., 1927, Oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Howard Thain, 1963.149

What does New York City look like to a newcomer? For artist Howard Thain, who moved to New York from Texas in 1919, it seemed a place filled with opportunity, which was at once inspiring and daunting. His art captures the excitement, movement and terror that swirl through the city, which challenge every citizen to sink or swim. And sometimes, as in the 1928 silent film The Crowd, there is no choice but to sink.

The Crowd is currently playing in the ongoing exhibition Howard Thain’s Eye: Discovering New York in the 1920s, on view at the Luce Center at the New-York Historical Society. In the film, directed by King Vidor, office worker John Sims comes to New York City, hoping to achieve greatness. But slowly, his lack of drive or talent shows itself, and he and his wife can no longer cope with life in the big city. The film reflects Thain’s view of the city: open if you can prove yourself, and closed if you can’t handle it.

The Crowd was not a commercial success when it first opened, as the Depression-era public often preferred escapist films over more realistic themes. But it was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture, and is regarded as one of the greatest silent films. And its message of a New York filled with awe and terror reflects Thain’s, and remains prescient today.

We asked a few readers to share their first memories of moving to New York. When did you start living in New York? Tell us your memories in the comments, or write us an essay and we’ll publish a few on the blog!

“This guy who was friends with my roommate had just moved from England to try to be an actor and slept on our couch for two weeks right after I moved in.” -Victoria, 26.

“Growing up in Los Angeles I thought I was used to fast paced life; boy was I wrong. My first month in NYC the dizzying pace definitely took some getting used to, from walking faster to ordering lunch at the corner salad place you needed to always be in a hurry. Five years later I think I have finally adjusted.” -Casey, 29.

“Before my fiancee and I moved into the city, we had a saying. We’d call it ‘Getting City-ed Out”. This would occur when we would commute from Westchester and NJ into the city to see our friends, like 3-4 round trips in a total week (mostly during breaks). We would look at each other and say “This makes us so tired! We can never live in the city. I don’t think we have the energy.” For a while, we’d even joke around calling ourselves the ‘Boring Suburban Couple’. Turns out being a Suburban Couple in Ohio is much worse and much more drudgingly boring than being a NYC suburban couple. Ohio made us realize that we missed the energy, conveniece and culture of NYC.  Getting used to living NYC was an almost seamless transition from the Midwest, where, let’s be honest – we never really fit in. We ditched the car at his parents house in the ‘burbs and became regular subway commuters. I had been impatient in Ohio; everyone just moved too slow. It was nice to be back in a city where everyone moved at the same pace as me. My fiancee and I love it – everyday is busy and there is never a dull moment (cliche I know…) There would be weekends in Ohio, where we would never leave the apartment. It is obvious that as long as we still live in NYC, that will never happen again. And as for getting ‘city-ed out’? We’ve realized it only occurs when you live outside NYC and have to commute from the suburbs. It’s not possible once your here. Hands down, best decision I’ve ever made.” -Rachel, 23.


Related: Think You Know Your NYC Trivia? Test It With Us!



  1. @timothywroten says

    Great post. Howard Thain’s painted depictions of New York’s vastness and anonymity don’t necessarily conjure the memories of my immediate arrival in New York. I arrived in New York in August 2005 to begin college, craving to seize the excitement and boundless possibilities of the post-9/11 “New York Story.” Friends, school, dating, work… who had time for lofty existential thoughts? The sentiments of Thain’s paintings are indicative of and speak to a more established newcomer who has lived through many shifts in season, and who realizes and accepts New York City for what it is.

  2. says

    I moved to New York in 2000 and had no sense of direction–I was constantly lost or walking in the wrong direction. My dormmate and first friend in NYC (who’s wedding I was a part of last October) taught me the trick of looking for the World Trade Center towers in the skyline to orient yourself after getting out of the subway. It worked like a charm for about a year. By then, I knew my way around.

  3. says

    I wanted to find my own voice. I knew I could not do that in Detroit. So I applied to NYU and Columbia for Grad School. If one accepted me I was going to move to NYC. Turns out both did, but NYU was first. I arrived in NYC in January 1983 and came out of Port Authority into a whole new world. Because dorm space was limited I ended up living in the YMCA on W. 34th Street. The NYU floor was full so I was on a floor that the City of NY rented. There were fights every night; I would put my chair under the door knob. I was terrified. A month later, I moved to another Y at 63rd and Central Park West. It was a new world on the floor with Julliard Students. I was in Washington Square during the day Lincoln Center at night. I fell in love with the quirkiness of Columbus Avenue, the debates at Ethical Cultural Society, Shakespeare in the Park. Soon I graduated from NYU and began working as a program manager at the NYC Dept of Cultural Affairs where my exposure to the Arts and its characters was more than I can imagined. Despite the grit, I loved my life in NYC in the 80’s.

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