The Making of 20th-Century New York

Capital of the World

The radical and reactionary currents of New York at the turn of the 20th century.


When the ground was first broken in 1900 to build a subway under the crowded streets of New York, some 25,000 of the city’s residents gathered to watch the ceremonies and cheer: “To Harlem in 15 minutes!” Not that it would be easy—removing 3 million cubic yards of earth and laying rails under the city was a job that would take four years and thousands of workers, 54 of whom lost their lives during the construction.

When the subway finally opened, it was a day of civic celebration. The city’s factories gave workers a half-holiday, and every passenger was permitted to ride free of charge. Some 150,000 people did. Yet what was perhaps most remarkable was just how quickly New Yorkers adapted to this engineering miracle. One reporter for The New York Times observed that after their exploratory journey, people poured out of the stations and made their way quietly home, “having finished what will be to them the daily routine of the rest of their lives.”

The story of the subway, then, is one of an extraordinary achievement that came to be regarded as perfectly ordinary, and it is, in a way, the urtext of any book about New York. “It is a miracle that New York works at all,” wrote E.B. White in his famous paean to the city. “The whole thing is implausible.” Yet this sense of awe and mystique, even as it animates much writing about the city, can also make New York difficult to see clearly—especially in relation to the rest of American history.

Often, writers treat New York either as the apotheosis of America or as a national outlier. It is perceived as the center of trends that have shaped the rest of the country’s history—the heart of immigration, the capital of finance—or as an extreme metropolis that has little in common with the rest of America, the so-called heartland. To a certain extent, some of the difficulties inherent in writing urban history (or perhaps any history at all) show up with special force in histories of New York: Is the purpose of writing about the city to illuminate its distinguishing features, or to tell a larger story of which New York is representative?

Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham—the second of what he hopes to be four books about the city—manages to do both. It is a book about New York in all its bewildering particularity, yet it also addresses the sweep of American history in the early 20th century. Greater Gotham is the sequel to the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gotham, in which Wallace, along with co-author Edwin G. Burrows, told the story of the rise of New York over its first 300 years: the transformation of an unassuming island into the hub of a vast city.

Greater Gotham covers a shorter span, the period from 1898 to 1919, but there can be no doubt that the book is a remarkable scholarly achievement. At 1,196 pages, divided into five parts and 24 chapters, it manages to cover what can seem at times like almost every facet of life in the city over the 21 years that separate the consolidation of its various boroughs, in 1898, from its emergence as the nation’s economic capital by the end of World War I. There are chapters on the economics that drove the skyscraper boom of the early 20th century and the labor processes and technological developments needed to make possible the construction of the first subways. We learn about the fissures that divided local activists in the Industrial Workers of the World from those in the Socialist Party, as well as the machinations of the Socialists’ Morris Hillquit, who kicked the IWW’s Big Bill Haywood out of the organization.

Wallace also discusses the public-health campaigns of the early 20th century, which reduced the death rate in the city from 27.2 per 1,000 in 1890 to 13.4 by 1914 despite the organized opposition of the city’s doctors, who feared the state’s expanded role in medical care. He analyzes the proliferation of prostitutes in immigrant enclaves in which men greatly outnumbered women. He also places the worldly city within the larger world, examining the role of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the pogroms that followed in driving hundreds of thousands of Jews to New York.

On top of all of this, there are wonderful sections on Coney Island, Irish politics, the literary and visual arts, the rise of Harlem as a center of African-American life, Lenin’s appreciation of the New York Public Library, and the strength of anarchist traditions in working-class Italian neighborhoods. Out of this welter of specificity comes a distinctive portrait of something far larger than New York itself: The city’s story, we come to learn, is really the story of American capitalism. It is also the story of the radical politics that emerged in response to it. This is certainly one way to read the book’s title: America itself became New York’s “Greater Gotham.”

Wallace has given a great deal of thought to the right way to tell this story. In the introduction, he outlines five major areas to examine in unraveling the city’s history: first, its emergence as the financial center of international capitalism by the end of World War I; second, its national importance as the “unofficial capital” of the United States; third, its material development, as New York took on an ever-expanding catalog of economic functions for the country; fourth, the year-by-year rhythms of capitalist expansion and contraction, which helped to spur labor organizing and radical politics; and finally, a view from the ground, the daily experience of the thrilling, chaotic city for people from all social classes and backgrounds.

Running through all of this are certain more general themes. The first is the profound ambivalence of New York’s financial and corporate elite when it came to the nature of competitive capitalism. These were people at the pinnacle of the national economy and the avatars of its achievements. Yet far from being ardent believers in the ruthless precepts of laissez-faire, they sought to tame the market and replace the “ruinous” competition of yore with corporations that dominated their economic sectors to a degree that had never been seen before. The city’s financiers presided over the great merger wave of the early 20th century: Between 1899 and 1904, fueled in part by the expansion of trading on the New York Stock Exchange, they reduced 4,200 companies to a mere 250, resulting in many of the powerful mega-firms that would dominate the American economy during the 20th century, among them US Steel, the American Smelting and Refining Company, United Fruit, and International Harvester. Many of these firms were headquartered in New York; the banks they relied on were located there as well. And their growing power pulled in the elite executives from other businesses. New York, as Wallace puts it, “sucked in millionaires and corporations as fast as they were created, and yanked some already existing ones out of other cities’ orbits.”

This flood of money shaped the physical landscape of the city. Competition between real-estate developers drove its vertical growth. Skyscrapers represented the aspiration to wrest as much money as possible from each lot of land. The very dynamic of growth spurred the buildings higher: Every additional floor meant new tenants and new rents, magnifying the value of the property as a whole, so that by 1912, New York had more tall buildings than any other city in the nation. Ultimately, the Manhattan skyline became the physical embodiment of profits literally seized from the air.

Yet far from reigning with unquestioned confidence, New York’s elites were always afraid of potential challenges to their authority, and this uncertainty forms the second major theme of Wallace’s book: the increasingly organized efforts to push back against their control. There were the Progressives and the middle-class reformers who sought to challenge the raucous power of the new business elite and to tame and civilize the disorderly city. And then there was the working class, which was not content simply to serve as the subject of reform experiments descending from on high. Labor unions proliferated in the city, and New York became a center of radical politics teeming with socialist and anarchist activism that often found its way into the unions and pushed them into confrontational actions against factory owners and financiers.

Even the Industrial Workers of the World, those anti-capitalist poets often seen as the organizers of the Western mines, had their pockets of strength in New York. Immigrant strikers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, sent their children to the city during the IWW-led strike in 1912, and when the hundreds of malnourished children arrived by train, they were greeted by thousands of supporters at Grand Central Station. Two years later, during a recession, radical activists in the IWW circle organized an “army of the unemployed”: Hundreds of people marched through the streets of New York, entering churches to demand food and shelter.

This challenge to the status quo in one area of life soon fed the growth of others. Margaret Sanger was a member of the Socialist Party and a supporter of the Lawrence strike before she became an advocate of birth control. In 1914, a Feminist Alliance, drawing from socialist, anarchist, and labor circles, was organized to challenge sexual inequities in the city (such as a Board of Education policy that forced female teachers to resign once they got married). The Greenwich Village bohemians—a small number of whom famously climbed to the top of the Washington Square Arch one cold January night in 1917 to proclaim the neighborhood a “free and independent Republic”—also shared a milieu with the labor movement and provided spaces for women to step outside the norms prescribed by gender.

The city’s left also spilled into African-American politics. One of the strongest chapters of Greater Gotham traces the expansion of black New York and the city’s emergence as a center of resistance to segregation and inequality throughout the country. The city’s African-American population swelled from around 60,000 in 1900 to 91,700 in 1910, as migrants arrived from the Caribbean and the southern United States. Housing and employment were highly segregated: Black doctors couldn’t practice at public hospitals, and black teachers weren’t employed by the Board of Education until 1895. (The city’s public schools had been legally segregated since the 18th century, and they didn’t become integrated until the 1870s and even later in Queens, which had a separate Board of Education.)

At first, it appeared that a moderate politics of racial uplift through free enterprise might predominate in black New York. Booker T. Washington built his “Tuskegee machine” in part through financial contributions from New York philanthropists, speaking at Madison Square Garden before audiences of corporate tycoons to raise funds. Soon, however, the city became home to a much more ideologically diverse black politics. Wallace traces the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the founding of The Messenger, socialist A. Philip Randolph’s magazine; and, ultimately, as Harlem emerged as the city’s center of black life, the rise of Hubert Harrison, whose politics blended socialism and black nationalism. By 1917, following what Wallace describes as a “racial pogrom” in East St. Louis, Illinois, in which some 200 black people were killed, Harrison helped organize a silent march down Fifth Avenue, with people bearing placards that read “Mother, Do Lynchers Go to Heaven?” It was the largest protest of African Americans in the city’s history, and it marked the emergence of Harlem as the heart of resistance to racism throughout the country.

Even so, left-wing politics never came to dominate New York, and, as Wallace shows, the city also served as a center for reaction. The press denounced the Industrial Workers of the World as “vicious outcasts”; the police arrested nearly 200 members of the IWW’s “army of the unemployed” on charges of incitement to riot; and open-air meetings were suspended by the city. While the fire that killed 146 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company resulted in the passage of workplace-safety legislation, the owners of the factory were nevertheless acquitted in court of any wrongdoing. Even the suffragist movement—which gained momentum through an alliance of wealthy society women and downtown labor activists—failed to carry the city when New York State voted on a 1915 referendum to grant women the right to vote.

New York was also home to a flourishing political right. Advocates of eugenics and racist pseudoscience, such as Madison Grant and Charles Benedict Davenport, built institutional centers in the city, while Columbia University became the home base for John Burgess, the founder of political science, who denounced Reconstruction as “a monstrous thing” and built his discipline on the principle of racial difference. While many structural features of city life made it possible for radical politics to thrive—among them the city’s density, its plethora of common meeting spaces and gathering points, and above all its inequality, which placed rich and poor in close proximity—none of this meant that the city’s elites would simply allow this new politics to flourish. Instead, they were determined to retain their control, no matter how much turmoil would come as the result.

Federal agencies often helped. Anthony Comstock, the repressive US postal inspector, banned an issue of Sanger’s publication, The Woman Rebel; when Sanger kept publishing material on contraception with the aid of an IWW printer, she was forced to flee the country, under threat of a 45-year prison sentence. (Following Comstock’s death in 1915, the US attorney dropped the charges against Sanger, but only after her husband spent a month in the Tombs for selling another of her publications.) Comstock also went after the bohemian artists, at one point arresting the 19-year-old receptionist of the Art Students League of New York when she gave him a free catalog that included three nude images.

The tensions between radical and reactionary New York came to a head in 1916, as the nation’s leaders debated entry into World War I. On the one hand, the example of a multiethnic city appeared to be a challenge to the ethnic nationalism that had begun to dominate European and, to some extent, American politics. But the subject of what constituted an American national identity was hotly contested in New York, where the pro-war constituency was mostly Anglophile and upper-class and the large anti-war camp was built around the multiethnic working and middle class. With the country’s entrance into the war, the transnational ideal that defined much of the city came into conflict with a shrill and forceful reassertion of militaristic patriotism, one that extolled white Christianity as the only true American identity. Wallace details the shutdown of radical magazines and organizations and the rise of hyper-patriotic organizations, not just among the elites but among many other New Yorkers as well.

For Wallace, despite the repression that accompanied the First World War, the story of New York is ultimately one of triumph—the narrative of a vast city coalescing, despite the intense pressures that might have pulled it apart. In the final pages of the book, he suggests that the experience of New York in its first 21 years as a consolidated city points to the power of shared participation: “Despite those two decades having witnessed nonstop battling between classes, races, ethnic groups, genders, and religions—verbally and at times violently—the center had held.” The “ties that bound”—shared institutions like the subways, the theaters, Tammany Hall, and most of all “the excitement and pride of living in a great city”—kept New York together, a single metropolis and a model of the cosmopolitan ideal. Although Wallace doesn’t make this point explicitly, his “Greater Gotham” is also a city that came to represent a template for the nation as a whole, a particular vision of what it meant to be American that is nearly the exact opposite of Donald Trump’s.

While Wallace’s invocation of New York as an alternative vision of American identity is welcome, there’s a way in which the book’s concluding depiction of a city unified despite its tensions runs counter to its broader narrative of struggle and contest. New York’s political and economic consolidation in the early 20th century (especially after World War I) also meant the shutting down of certain kinds of political challenges. By the end of 1919, the ranks of the Socialist Party had been decimated, thanks both to wartime repression and the internal splits in the party after the Russian Revolution. Emma Goldman had been imprisoned for organizing anti-conscription protests; and the rich network of newspapers, magazines, and political groups that had sustained the city’s left and its artistic counterculture had been driven almost out of existence. Only a few years later, the country would pass a “genuine 100 percent American immigration law” to shut out the “scum of the earth” (to quote New York real-estate developer and eugenicist W.E.D. Stokes). There’s a suggestion in Greater Gotham that the multiethnic working class of New York offered a counterpoint to the world of real estate, finance, and corporate capitalism—one that was able to check and contain its dominance and provide a real alternative. But was this actually the case?

Given the heft of Greater Gotham, asking for more might seem perverse. Still, one cannot help but wonder how Wallace’s story might have been different had he brought his story forward to examine the ways the conflicts and tensions he describes affected New York’s response to the Great Depression. How did the class politics he explores inform the liberal state as it took shape in the postwar city, and how did they shape the undermining and transformation of that liberalism after the 1975 fiscal crisis? Going further forward still, how does the city he chronicles foreshadow the one of today, which is still home to dense ethnic and immigrant neighborhoods and where intense poverty exists right next to some of the most extreme wealth the world has ever known? While elements of the robust public sector that ultimately emerged out of those contests a hundred years ago still exist, the radical politics that once animated the city does not—at least, not in the forms it did during the years chronicled in Greater Gotham. Perhaps New York will someday find itself the center of such a political uprising once again, as the myriad dispossessed of a city dominated by extreme wealth might be able, even today, to discover new points of rebellion. The intensity of life “compressed” (as E.B. White put it) in the city can never, as Wallace shows us, truly be controlled from the top. But we will have to wait for the sequel to find out why this radical spirit got lost in the later years of the 20th century—and whether this narrative of the rise of a city may also be, in a way, a story of its fall.

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