[Marxism] Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 30 15:22:54 MST 2017

NY Review of Books, DECEMBER 21, 2017 ISSUE
Rome on the Hudson
by Jackson Lears

Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919
by Mike Wallace
Oxford University Press, 1,182 pp., $45.00

Despite the durable tale of liberation from Victorian repression, 
American history during the early twentieth century was less a linear 
drive toward emancipation than a recasting of centrifugal and 
centripetal forces. The two tendencies coexisted, calling each other 
into being, sometimes within the same cultural figure. Consider the 
chorus girl, whose vibrant sexuality was constrained by close-order 
drill; or the militant imperialist, whose lust for vicarious risk was 
countered by a dream of regimented order.

The interplay between new sources of chaos and new ways to contain it 
characterized the epoch as a whole. Centrifugal forces arose from 
exploding markets for labor, goods, and entertainment; from women’s 
demands for personal autonomy and a larger part in public life; from 
immigrants of multiple ethnicities crowding into cities and striking 
workers filling the streets; and from a vague but pervasive fascination 
with Force (invariably capitalized), which seemed to be quickening 
pulses as never before. Yet this ferment coexisted with centripetal 
forces, embodied in new idioms (hygiene, normality, scientific racism, 
managerial rationality) and new institutions (monopolistic corporations, 
government bureaucracies)—all of which channeled and contained the 
energies unleashed by modern urban life.

The apparently hedonistic culture that emerged before World War I was a 
muddle of flagrant gestures toward personal liberation and subtle new 
forms of social coercion—the spread of compulsory heterosexuality in the 
guise of sexual freedom, the standardization of ideals of health and 
beauty through national advertising, the codification of racial 
hierarchies in an ideology of empire, and the imposition of higher 
standards of efficiency in the workplace as well as unprecedented 
demands for conformity in the public sphere. The loosening of strictures 
on personal behavior coincided with the creation of new definitions of 
what was permissible and normal, which advanced under the banners of 
progress and liberation. Early-twentieth-century American society was on 
the verge of a reshuffling of values and power relations in which the 
rich would come out just fine. And New York City was where that new 
synthesis would be worked out, in all its messy and contradictory details.

Mike Wallace knows this. In fact he knows nearly everything worth 
knowing about New York during the years leading up to World War I. He 
knows where the Heinz Company mounted the biggest electric pickle in the 
world (Madison Square), how Sophie Tucker started out as a 
“World-Renowned Coon Shouter,” how many pounds a typical longshoreman 
loaded in an hour (three thousand), and how the City College of New York 
(CCNY) became “the Jewish University of America,” despite expecting its 
students to check their religion and their radical politics at the gate.

Wallace packs these and a multitude of other fascinating details into 
his enormous book, Greater Gotham, which somehow remains astonishingly 
readable. But he also gets the big picture right—the balance of cultural 
tensions, the centrifugal exuberance vs. the new forms of power and 
control. He never forgets that early-twentieth-century New York was 
awash in global flows of capital and embedded in regional, national, and 
international markets. And he knows that every liberation, no matter how 
genuine, contains the possibility of renewed constraint. One could not 
ask for a more thorough or thoughtful guide to the emergence of New York 
as the Empire City.

The consolidation of the five boroughs into Greater Gotham, in January 
1898, coincided with the beginning of a corporate war on “ruinous 
competition” that created Standard Oil, General Electric, US Steel, and 
other titanic monopolies, mostly midwived by the House of Morgan. Freed 
from fear that the Democrat William Jennings Bryan would be elected 
president in 1896, investors poured capital into the firms traded 
publicly on Wall Street, sustaining a run of mergers that lasted six 
years. Consolidation was in the air.

So was empire. New imperial possessions and protectorates—Puerto Rico, 
the Philippine Islands, Cuba—became magnets for New York capital. James 
B. Duke, who had just moved the headquarters of his American Tobacco 
Company to New York, took his American Cigar Company to Cuba. Other 
businessmen followed his lead. Soon 85 percent of the island’s tobacco 
manufacturing was owned by Americans, and 90 percent of its exports went 
to the United States. The pattern quickly fell into place: “Washington 
would ride shotgun on Wall Street’s stagecoach,” Wallace writes.

But empire was about military glory as well as commercial profit, and 
New York would not be outdone on that front either. “Surely no Roman 
general, surely no Roman Emperor ever received such a tribute from the 
populace of the Eternal City,” The New York Times declared of the 
tribute Admiral George Dewey, the victor of the Battle of Manila Bay in 
the Spanish-American War, received from the thousands who turned out for 
the parade in his honor that the city held in 1899. Fears of imperial 
hubris, voiced by republican moralists from John Quincy Adams to William 
James, melted away amid fantasies of New York as a second Rome.

The foundation of the fantasies was money. Capital began flowing from 
Wall Street to Europe in 1900, as Great Britain struggled to meet the 
mounting costs of the Boer War. Money managers pooled capital by 
creating syndicates, interlocking directorates, and gentlemen’s 
agreements—deals done in downtown dining clubs. Muckraking critics 
caught the scent of corruption and exposed “Frenzied Finance” in 
emerging mass-circulation magazines.

Middle- and upper-class citizens who feared being fleeced took to 
calling themselves “progressives.” Their hero was Theodore Roosevelt, a 
scion of the Anglo-Dutch elite who lived on his investments but sought 
to rein in conscienceless capital—though as the steel baron Henry Clay 
Frick recalled, Roosevelt “got down on his knees before us” begging for 
contributions to his 1904 presidential campaign. “We bought the son of a 
bitch but he didn’t stay bought,” Frick complained. When J.P. Morgan and 
other prominent bankers succeeded in stopping the Panic of 1907, 
progressives raised alarms about private bankers’ control over public 
life, demanding regulation of the “money trust.” The result was the 
Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which appeared to curb the concentrated 
power of New York banks but actually legitimated it.

Like money power, political power was centralized in a powerful 
institutional structure. Progressive reformers kept trying to wrest 
control of it from the Tammany Hall Democratic machine, with occasional 
success. They increasingly promoted the influence of self-proclaimed 
neutral experts operating out of organizations like the Bureau of 
Municipal Research and promising to replace corrupt patronage with 
efficient administration by the competent. In 1913 the (mostly 
Protestant) reformers backed the mayoral candidacy of the Irish Catholic 
John Mitchel, who reorganized city finances by borrowing to promote 
metropolitan growth and raising real estate values—and with them tax 

The growth was already underway, upward as well as outward. The builder 
Harry Black had hired Daniel Burnham to design the Flatiron Building, 
which went up in 1902 to widespread amazement and acclaim. It was the 
beginning of what Wallace calls a “Sky Boom” in tall buildings. In less 
than a decade, the skyline replaced the harbor as New York’s emblem.

Skyscrapers epitomized the coexistence of centripetal and centrifugal 
force. They were the embodiments of America’s consolidating and 
internationalizing corporate economy. Outsize variants of Heinz’s 
electric pickle—the Singer Tower, the Metropolitan Life Insurance 
Building, the Woolworth Building—aimed to enhance brand recognition 
among an emerging mass of consumers. Symbols of corporate identity, they 
strove to evoke emergent empire but also traditional civic authority, as 
Met Life did with its Venetian bell tower. Yet despite their sponsors’ 
dream of order, skyscrapers went up in what Wallace calls a “Promethean 
frenzy” of construction.

Intellectuals found tall buildings exhilarating. “Here is our poetry,” 
said Ezra Pound in 1910, “for we have pulled down the stars to our 
will.” The young Lewis Mumford, viewing Manhattan from the Brooklyn 
Bridge, agreed: “Here was my city, immense, overpowering, flooded with 
energy and light.” These were early expressions of what became a 
characteristic New York rhapsody: the urban sublime.

Henry James was less impressed: “Skyscrapers are the last word of 
economic ingenuity only till another word be written,” he observed. “The 
consciousness of the finite, the menaced, the essentially invented state 
twinkles ever, to my perception, in the thousand glassy eyes of these 
giants of the mere market.” James caught the “aura of temporariness,” in 
Wallace’s words, that suffused lower and midtown Manhattan; it arose 
from the city’s refusal to interfere with property owners’ right to do 
anything they wanted with their property. The tallest skyscrapers did 
not remain tallest for long, and even the most magnificent could be torn 
down in less than a decade.

Straining to tie its parts together, the city kept flying apart. The 
completion of the subway system made access to Greater Gotham an 
everyday experience, but the emerging car culture created a new source 
of chaotic movement and class conflict, as innocent urchins were 
regularly run down by rich twits. Yet Scientific American predicted that 
the swift noiseless movement of cars over clean (horseless) streets 
“would eliminate a greater part of the nervousness, distraction, and 
strain of modern metropolitan life.” Even chuffing cars could be 
integrated into visions of a well-managed utopia.

Street-level class conflict surfaced as retail commerce moved to 
midtown. By the 1910s, Fifth Avenue was full of cavernous bazaars 
offering women shoppers escape from domestic propriety into a glamorous 
commercial public sphere. The only problem was the scruffy crowd—mostly 
garment workers on lunch break—that jostled the ladies in the street. 
Upscale retailers fought back, and in 1916, they managed to zone 
manufacturing out of the rectangle formed by 33rd to 59th Streets and 
Third to Seventh Avenues.

As the battle over Fifth Avenue shopping suggested, class conflict was 
nearly always shaped by interethnic hostilities. Italians and Russian 
Jews joined Irish and Germans in the restless horde that provoked 
anxiety among the Anglo-Dutch elite. The anxiety was most acute when the 
working classes overcame their own ethnic rivalries and began to form 
industrial unions. But that took some doing. Samuel Gompers’s American 
Federation of Labor was committed to trade unionism, which tended to 
fragment along craft and ethnic lines—German cigarmakers, Irish ironworkers.

The needle trades were different, partly because of their Jewishness. By 
1914, New York City had the greatest number of Jews in the world, many 
of whom were committed to socialism and worked in the needle trades. The 
mechanization of the garment industry was well underway, as production 
shifted from sweatshop to factory. More workers were consolidated in one 
place, which made them easier to organize. “It is a regular slave 
factory,” said the radical organizer Clara Lemlich. “Not only your hands 
and your time but your mind is sold.” Garment workers’ locals gravitated 
toward the Women’s Trade Union League and enlisted upper-class allies, 
including Anne Morgan (J.P.’s daughter). Tensions among workers arose 
between Italians and Jews, and among owners between the “cockroach 
capitalists” who still operated sweatshops and the more established 
capitalists who wanted to drive them out of business. Concentration of 
force was the order of the day, for management and employees alike.

The Italian–Jewish conflict had political resonances. Many Italian 
artisans were displaced labor militants who inclined toward 
anarcho-syndicalist strategies—a decentralized communitarianism centered 
on small groups of workers asserting control over their workplace. 
Jewish radicals tended to be socialists and parliamentarians. When the 
Industrial Workers of the World appeared on the scene, led by a one-eyed 
giant from the Far West called Big Bill Haywood, anarcho-syndicalism 
acquired a forceful presence. Haywood urged “sabotage” in the workplace, 
by which he meant work slowdowns. He debated the Socialist Party leader 
Morris Hillquit in the Great Hall of the Cooper Union, where Hillquit 
insisted on the power of the ballot box. The election of 1912 appeared 
to vindicate Hillquit’s strategy: the Socialist Eugene Debs won a 
million votes, 6 percent of the total. This was unprecedented and seemed 
to offer an electoral foundation to build on. Haywood was expelled from 
the Socialist Party.

Politics and culture intertwined. In the elite imagination, immigrants 
were easily equated with anarchists, and vice versa. Feeling engulfed, 
custodians of culture counterattacked, creating and revitalizing 
institutions to assimilate, uplift, or inspire the immigrant 
masses—ranging from CCNY and the new, uptown Columbia University to the 
Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Zoo, and the New York Public Library, not to 
mention the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural 
History, and the Metropolitan Opera.

The last was a case study in ethnic tensions, as Protestants clustered 
cheek by jowl with assimilated German Jews—among them the dapper, 
cultivated Otto Kahn, a partner in the Wall Street investment firm Kuhn, 
Loeb. Despite Jews’ financial backing of the Met, they were not allowed 
to buy their own boxes (though an exception was made in 1917 for Kahn, 
its biggest shareholder and patron). This was the sort of genteel 
anti-Semitism that prompted Kahn’s sardonic remark: “A kike is a Jewish 
gentleman who has just left the room.” The Met increasingly employed 
Italian performers, led by the tenor Enrico Caruso, who became embroiled 
in controversy when a woman accused him of pinching her buttocks in the 
Monkey House at the Central Park Zoo. Wallace thinks “The Monkey House 
Scandal” was probably a frame-up; in any case it did nothing to damage 
Caruso’s popularity. “New York still loves me,” he told the press.

The conflict between an obstreperous multiethnic mass audience and 
elites attempting to control it is a familiar but inadequate trope in 
cultural histories of the period. Wallace transcends this formula by 
recognizing that strategies of control also originated among ethnic 
entrepreneurs who were struggling to regulate the flow of products out 
of New York and into the nation’s theaters—in effect standardizing New 
York–based entertainment for a national mass audience. The most 
successful was the Shubert Organization, the creation of two ambitious 
Jewish impresarios, which came to control 75 percent of theater tickets 
sold in the United States. Meanwhile popular music was also becoming 
more industrialized and centralized in songwriting firms dominated by 
assimilated German Jews on 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth 
Avenues—the block that came to be called Tin Pan Alley, for the din of 
pianos one could hear from the street.

Amid all the standardization, a spectacular nightlife arose around Times 
Square. Much of the excitement was the setting itself, which was 
transformed by Oscar Gude, New York’s master of outdoor advertising and 
the designer of Heinz’s fifty-foot pickle. Hired by advertisers for 
humble products like beer and bran flakes, cigarettes and chewing gum, 
Gude transformed Times Square into what the British writer Arnold 
Bennett called “an enfevered phantasmagoria” of moving electric 
images—girls walking tightropes, boys in shorts boxing. Times Square 
joined Coney Island as an entertainment zone.

But Coney Island was in a class by itself—“the most popular resort on 
the planet,” according to Wallace, and also a suggestive expression of 
mass culture as an antidote to daily life. The extravagant constellation 
of amusement parks was an early example of what became a common 
practice—the mass marketing of remedies for the disorders bred by mass 
society. As Wallace writes (summarizing “radical analysts”): “Attendees 
were offered and consumed scientifically managed and industrially 
engineered experiences. They were turned into articles on a movable 
assembly line. The only things turned upside down were the patrons.” 
Coney Island captured the careful management of consumers that 
characterized mass culture.

Still there were some areas where the new energies were too intense to 
be easily managed—particularly those where African-Americans influenced 
entertainment styles. That influence was often hemmed in by caricature: 
the black performers Bert Williams and George Walker made their 
vaudeville debut in 1896 as “Two Real Coons.” At about the same time, 
the composer James Reese Europe, the writer James Weldon Johnson, and 
other black cultural figures created a (temporarily) thriving cultural 
scene at the Hotel Marshall on West 53rd Street, where musicians could 
make connections that might lead to employment. Ragtime piano players 
were everywhere, and their music was influencing the likes of Irving 
Berlin. Bert Williams became the black star in Florenz Ziegfeld’s revue, 
a counterpoint to the sanitized white sexuality of the chorus girls.

But what really brought race and sex together was the Dance Craze of 
1911–1913. Animal dances proliferated—the Turkey Trot, the Bunny Hug, 
the Grizzly Bear. The psychoanalyst A.A. Brill was certain that this was 
a return of the repressed. Dancers imitated animal movements and engaged 
in mock sex, loins pressed together. Commercial dance halls offered 
unprecedented opportunities for cross-class and cross-race mixing. 
Swarthy Italians could serve as “tango pirates,” but the black poet Paul 
Laurence Dunbar caught the fundamental dynamic of the dance hall with 
these lines from the musical revue In Dahomey: “When dey hear dem 
ragtime tunes/White fo’ks try to pass fo’ coons.” Moralists’ “deepest 
worry,” Wallace writes, was “dance-driven sexual congress between white 
women and black men.”

All this could be dangerous for black men. New York was a Jim Crow town. 
In movie theaters, black people were consigned to the balcony—“nigger 
heaven.” On the street, police brutality was routine. As veteran cops 
told rookies: “‘unlawful resistance’ covers a multitude of sins.” Small 
wonder that in 1904, when the Lenox Avenue subway arrived uptown and a 
young black developer named Philip Payton started evicting whites from 
his apartment buildings and renting them to blacks, Harlem became a 
magnet for African-Americans from throughout the city, as well as from 
the rural south.

A smaller and more scattered population was also headed for Gotham, as 
Greenwich Village began attracting would-be bohemians from the 
provinces—Mary Heaton Vorse from Amherst, Massachusetts; John Reed from 
Portland, Oregon; Floyd Dell from Davenport, Iowa. If an aspiring 
bohemian woman had a feminist bent, she might join Heterodoxy, “a little 
band of willful women” that met at Polly’s Restaurant in the Village to 
provide a forum “for women who did things and did them openly.” Village 
feminists in general emphasized sex as personal fulfillment, but a 
broader shift in sexual attitudes tended toward compulsory 
heterosexuality, along with the invention and pathologizing of 

Artists, like feminists, were committed to transcending “genteel 
protocols”—especially the marriage of Morality and Beauty. John Sloan, 
George Bellows, and the other painters who proudly embraced the label 
“Ash Can School” all loved the “fabulous energy and dynamic busyness” of 
crowds scurrying for a subway and “the real ‘vulgar’ human life” of 
immigrant kids capering down Delancey. But what really posed a challenge 
to American ways of seeing was the Armory Show, the legendary exhibition 
in 1913 that introduced Americans to European modernists. Among them, 
Francis Picabia in particular deployed a futurist rhetoric that 
resonated with the urban sublime. He painted skyscrapers, he said, to 
catch “the rush of upward movement, the feeling of those who attempted 
to build the Tower of Babel—man’s desire to reach the heavens, to 
achieve infinity.” The same sentiments inspired Joseph Stella’s 
admiration for New York’s “violent blaze of electricity,” its permanent 
light show that epitomized what Picabia had dubbed “the futurist city.” 
New York was all about Force, all the time.

The forces of order and stability continued to assert their claims as 
well. Florence Kelley fought what the Social Gospel minister Walter 
Rauschenbusch called “institutionalized sinfulness” by leading public 
health campaigns against the tuberculosis that thrived in tenements and 
the adulteration that pervaded the food industry. Other progressives 
sought to assimilate immigrants by standardizing public 
education—lifting them “out of the swamp in which they were born and 
brought up,” as one reformer put it. Another sort of progressive 
crusaded against commercial vice, driving it into private venues; the 
high-end prostitute known as the “call girl” appeared on the scene. The 
centripetal force of government was policing behavior once thought 
exempt from public scrutiny.

The coming of World War I brought unprecedented pressures for 
regimentation. The Anglo-Dutch elite began a sustained assault on 
“hyphenated Americanism.” Roosevelt himself preferred coercive 
Americanization to immigration restriction. This was the enlightened 
progressive view; few paid much attention to the cogent calls of Horace 
Kallen and Randolph Bourne for a pluralistic, “Trans-National America.” 
Uniformity trumped multiplicity.

After American entry into the war, centripetal forces intensified. The 
Espionage Act of 1917 criminalized even casual utterances if they could 
be deemed disrespectful to flag or country. Vigilantes patrolled the 
streets of New York, searching for “slackers” who had not registered for 
the draft or answered the call-up. “Bolshevik” emerged as a new epithet 
for radicals and subversives. The drive for order culminated when the 
1919 strike wave was used to justify a nationwide Red Scare that led to 
the deportation of thousands of radicals. New York Governor Al Smith 
eventually denounced the overreach as the prelude to the imposition of a 
police state. It was not a moment too soon.

In March 1917, Leon Trotsky returned to Russia from the Bronx, where he 
had been sojourning for just over two months after being deported from 
Spain. “I was leaving for Europe,” Trotsky recalled, “with the feeling 
of a man who has had only a peep into the foundry in which the fate of 
man is to be forged.” But what was the common fate that was being forged 
in New York? Devotees of the urban sublime did not address the question 
and only occasionally reflected on New York’s world-historical 
significance, beyond ritual celebration. One of those occasions was in 
1902, when Harper’s Weekly traced the city’s ceaseless tumult to the 
nation’s newfound prosperity, which was centered in New York. Commerce 
pulsed through the streets as “an electrified current of financial 
strength that is charged with an energy unknown before in the field of 
human endeavor.” The “mighty force” astir beneath Gotham was money.

What Harper’s failed to acknowledge was that the effects of that force 
on everyday life were not always liberating. Investment capital created 
the subway system, which most people rode at “rush hour,” when they were 
going to and from work. At such times, one tour guide noted, “to do as 
the crowd does, is almost compulsory.” The routine of office and factory 
exacerbated the periodic crush of mass society. The city exerted its own 
centripetal forces, through the pressure exerted by its crowds, but also 
through the various forms of social discipline exacted by the employers, 
managers, and owners of capital. Power mattered, and capital was its 
instrument. But so, it turned out, was government. The mass mobilization 
of thought demanded by the war effort revealed how times could come—who 
knew when or how often?—when the requirement “to do as the crowd does” 
would be “almost compulsory” by fiat of the state. Freedom in the 
kingdom of force was always provisional.

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