At Street Level in Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham

By Thai Jones

Wallace, Mike. Greater Gotham: A History of New York City From 1898 to 1919 (New York: Oxford University Press,2018). 1182pp. $45.ISBN 978-0-19-511635-9

 Greater Gotham opens on New Year’s Eve, 1897, with thousands massing in Union Square before stepping off to join a parade celebrating consolidation of the five boroughs—including what were at the time the nation’s largest (New York) and fourth-largest (Brooklyn) cities—into one gigantic metropolis (7). “It had long been a civic tradition,” writes Mike Wallace, “for Gothamites to take to the streets” (3). While the city fathers orchestrated the parade, the myriad of unsanctioned street melees that followed often appeared so dangerous and disruptive as to threaten the very stability of the city. A mis-en-scène of conflict dominates the two decades examined in Greater Gotham.

This long-awaited second installment of Wallace’s Gotham series was intended to cover more than twenty years. But the significance and weight of an era when New York arguably stood at its zenith among all the world’s cities cannot be overstated. Also, the author and his research assistants had to contend with a mountain of archival research. The twenty years covered here takes up more than 1,000 pages, almost as many as the earlier volume required to tell the story of two and half centuries. To manage and reconcile both micro- and macro-histories of the city, Greater Gotham surveys the “historical landscape” from the altitude of a satellite, jetliner, helicopter, and a bird in flight. These elevations situate the city in global, regional and national networks. But the essential vantage point here is the street. That is where the action takes place. The din of streets overwhelms all else.

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The flat boomers of Gotham, Albert Levering, April 11, 1906, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Although the book dutifully tackles an encyclopedic range of municipal issues from the rise of skyscrapers to the consolidation of Wall Street finance, it is Greater Gotham’s attention to the politics of confrontation that sets it apart. Almost every chapter here features some episode of unrest—race riots and rent strikes, suffrage rallies and Labor Day parades, and even mob violence against reckless automobile drivers (240). For New Yorkers of the time, such street scenes began to shape a certain cultural and psychological outlook. It was no accident, then, that the Ash Can School of painters began “relish[ing] crowds” (867), and that Tin Pan Alley composers would rhapsodize over the “Sidewalks of New York” (486). In political circles, the importance of demonstrating dissent was clear to the likes of “Big Bill” Haywood, who as a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World could urge the city’s leftists to take to the streets rather than “…sitting around waiting for the next election” (732). This rhetoric inspired such anxiety that the chief of police could extoll the new subway system as a way to “absolutely preclude the possibility of riots in New York.” Cops could be sent by rapid transit to any flashpoint in the city (234).

Unruly, fascinating, and beyond control, the city’s street demonstrations were the local iteration of global experience. The hundred thousand or so Russian Jews landing annually at Ellis Island were themselves reacting to street violence—pogroms and the Czarist massacre of Bloody Sunday. Italians—arriving at twice the rate of Jews—were fleeing a repressive state that had murderously suppressed bread riots in Milan, Naples, and Rome. In the Southern United States, “grisly lynchings and pogrom-like riots” (807) sent thousands of African Americans northbound on steamers and trains.

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Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) demonstration, New York City, April 11, 1914, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Wallace’s earlier Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (written with Edwin G. Burrows and published in 1999) was also replete with disorder, including the fearsome Draft Riots of 1863, perhaps the most catastrophic urban uprising in American history. But in the disorders of the Progressive Era, Wallace sees something new. “Slowly, remarkably, for perhaps the first time in New York’s history,” he writes of a 1909 women’s garment workers strike, “a mass labor uprising in the streets began to win support from the city’s mandarins—or, more precisely, from their wives and daughters” (714).

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Newspaper row, New York, 1906, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Beginning in the early twentieth century, in his telling, and continuing sporadically through to the present, New Yorkers seeking change fought for it in the streets. Though the city showed scant tolerance for violent demonstrations, activists in time won significant victories as this city, the quintessence of capitalism, also began to emerge as the nation’s center of progressivism.

For Wallace, who first engaged with radical politics as a graduate student in the campus protests at Columbia University in 1968, the politics of confrontation are central to understanding the city.[1] More recently, Occupy Wall Street showed how a protest movement, especially when confronted by a brutal police response, could effect change in mentalities and policies.

Wallace, who wrote widely on Occupy in its moment of fluorescence,[2] likely had these upheavals in mind while reconstituting the feverish cityscape of the 1910s, a period which he summarizes as having “witnessed nonstop battling between classes, races, ethnic groups, genders, and religions” (1052). Like the 2010s, those years saw extreme income disparity and an upsurge of popular frustration at the government. With economic opportunities limited and formal political process discredited, New Yorkers—a century apart—took the reasonable step and plunged into the streets.

 ***

Featured image (at top): He shouldn’t have any trouble in choosing, Louis Dalrymple, October 13, 1897, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

Thai Jones is the Herbert H. Lehman Curator for American History at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. He is the author of More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy (Bloomsbury, 2012).

[1] Reminiscences of Michael Wallace (1983), Student Movements of the 1960s project, Oral History Archives at Columbia, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

[2] Mike Wallace, “Before Occupy Wall Street,” Jan. 5, 2012, gothamcenter.org.

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