Where history stays good to the core


June 18, 1999

Like the city it chronicles, Gotham - "Goat's Town", the nickname coined by Washington Irving in 1807, which enjoyed renewed currency following the 1989 movie Batman - is congested, exhausting to negotiate without frequent pauses for rest and refreshment, and not always a salubrious experience. Received with critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, it is a tome to be taken in measured doses or, better still, placed on a sturdy shelf as a work of reference. Certainly, no one flying to the Big Apple would want to include it in their luggage allowance. Former New York City mayor Edward Koch, reviewing the book in The Times , regretted that "its girth may frighten potential readers away or turn it into a coffee table adornment". It should have been published in (at least) two, more portable, volumes.

Gotham is a densely informed (and lavishly illustrated) narrative of the settlement's beginnings as a series of Indian encampments at the mouth of the Hudson to the incorporation of the five boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx into Greater New York in 1898. Co-authors Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace (professors of history at, respectively, Brooklyn College and John Jay College) observe that the significance of their city "is not reducible to a sound bite or a bumper sticker". They then ask brightly: "So what's our take, our angle, our shtick?" and assert that it is simply to retail "in a spirited way" the history of "the glorious, glamorous, greatest city in the world". New Yorkers, as Burrows and Wallace readily concede, have never been the most reticent of individuals.

Their thesis, baldly stated, is that following the initial "purchase" of Manhattan island from Native Americans by the Dutch (for the reported sum of $24), New Amsterdam "lay at the outermost edge of a nascent web of international relationships". Following the American revolution, the city emerged as the new nation's "premier linkage point between industrialising Europe and its North American hinterland", a position that - despite cyclical peaks and troughs of poverty and prosperity, revolt and reaction, reform and retrenchment - it capitalised on for the next 200 years. By the end of the 19th century, New York was the de facto capital of the US: Wall Street underwrote the country's finances, Ellis Island imported its European labour force, Fifth Avenue set its fashions, Madison Avenue advertised its wares, and Broadway, Times Square and Coney Island provided thrills and spectacles for its residents and visitors. It was also the railroad and communications hub of America, deploying enormous political power and influence.

How was this (undisputed) greatness achieved? Wallace and Burrows are convinced that the answer(s) lay with its polyglot population. At various points in its history, New York was the largest Italian, Irish and black African city in the world. By 1750, Africans comprised more than 20 per cent of the population and New York had more slaves than any American city except Charleston, South Carolina. In 1860, almost half of Manhattan's population was foreign-born. But this multicultural mix was also marked by tensions and divisions. In 1789, 20 per cent of the city's population owned 75 per cent of its wealth, while its white elite was split between the established Knickerbockers and the arriviste Yankees. Again, the Irish immigrant population included the conservative followers of Archbishop John Hughes, and those more attracted to working-class radical movements or the blandishments of Tammany Hall politicians.

The most enjoyable sections of Gotham are those that provide vignettes of notable episodes in its chequered history: P. T. Barnum's outrageous promotion of the Swedish singer Jenny Lind in 1850, Elisha Graves Otis's dramatic demonstration of his first "safety hoister" (elevator) in 1853, Abraham Lincoln's visits in 1860 and 1861, the city's bloody draft riots of 1863, the official opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, and the completion of publisher Joseph Pulitzer's 309-foot tower in 1890 - after which the word skyscraper came into common usage. And, as the authors observe, this was not merely a new office building, but rather "a corporate self-proclamation, a brand name shouting itself in iron and stone, a shrewd Barnumesque statement by a man well aware that appearances could constitute reality". Potted histories of Coney Island, the Bowery, Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and Madison Square Garden convey the exhilaration, innovation and vulgarity that were the hallmarks of popular entertainment in late 19th-century New York. There is also a brilliant collage of the Yiddish theatre that flourished on the Lower East Side, and of its playwrights who "ransacked all European drama for bits of theatrical business and mingled opera tunes and synagogue chants with abandon. They desecrated Shakespeare with a vengeance, domesticating the Bard, turning Capulets and Montagues into feuding Jewish sects; after the first Yiddish Hamlet, the crowd was so pleased it called for the author." Drag artists, male prostitutes and transvestites added spice, powder and paint to the city's theatrical scene.

Not all of the authors' observations are so insouciant. "In 1778, New York's African-American community petitioned the City Council to stop medical students from stealing corpses out of the Negro Burial Ground." Infant mortality rates were appallingly high and by the mid-19th century, New York City's death rate was 50 per cent higher than that of Philadelphia (and London). By the 1890s, New York's 60,000 horses were depositing 60,000 gallons of urine and 1,200 tons of manure daily on its streets. Immigrant families, often with boarders, lived (and died) in unsanitary and unsafe dumbbell tenements which, by the late 19th century, had become the ostensible concern of settlement house reformers - college-educated women often intent, in Thorstein Veblen's waspish remark, on the "incubation, by precept and example, of certain punctilios of upper-class propriety in manners and customs" in those less fortunate than themselves.

An astonishing work of synthesis, scholarly comment, palpable enthusiasm and unabashed boosterism, Gotham is by turns entertaining and instructive, sombre and celebratory. Unfortunately - like some present-day New Yorkers - it is also greatly overweight.

John White is reader in American history, University of Hull.

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

Author - Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace
ISBN - 0 19 511634 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 1,383

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