Nonfiction: The 20 Years That Made New York City

Though some were founded earlier, the great Metropolitan and Natural History museums, the New York Public Library and the Bronx Zoo became the splendid institutions they are today. The erection of the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field fueled a local rivalry between the Giants and Dodgers that would also include a team of Polo Grounds renters – the newly christened Yankees. Lillian Wald, Margaret Sanger, Abraham Cahan, A. Philip Randolph, Emma Goldman, Big Bill Haywood and a band of muckraking journalists championed the welfare and labor benefits that New Yorkers currently enjoy and set up organizations to help the huddled masses pouring in from abroad.


A march of unemployed men in 1909. Credit Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, George Grantham Bain Collection

Wallace, a professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, tells the story of those two decades with encyclopedic sweep and granular detail, but with enough verve and wry humor to make this doorstopper immensely readable. Even weathered aficionados of city lore will find moments of revelation. Newcomers will be fascinated by how it all came to be.

What makes the book so entertaining is that it is not a conventional chronicle of how government leaders handled that era’s crises. Rather the book is as much a social and cultural history as it is a political narrative. We learn about changes in how people were housed, how they got to work, how they enjoyed their pleasures and vices. We learn how new zoning regulations shaped the cityscape and why and how skyscrapers were built. We learn almost as much about vaudeville, ragtime, Victrolas, Ash Can painters and the realist works of Theodore Dreiser and Edith Wharton as we do about City Hall and Tammany Hall, centers of the era’s corrupt politics.

We learn how Jim Crow segregation in housing and jobs was almost as omnipresent as it was in the South, and how the police sided with whites in conflicts with blacks, yet we also learn how an emergent Harlem became a bulwark in the fight against racism. We learn, too, how New York grew into a union town, despite the presence of a hired group of strikebreakers and an initial snubbing by unions of unskilled immigrant Italians, Jews, blacks and women.


The animating theme of the book is consolidation. Wallace shows how plutocrats like J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt joined political leaders in pressing for the merger of Manhattan with the four other boroughs. They wanted to lessen what was called “ruinous competition,” just as they had done in engineering the consolidation of the smaller companies that became United States Steel, American Telephone and Telegraph, and Nabisco. Along the way they elevated Wall Street into a global powerhouse. Unions, seeing the benefits of scale, also consolidated.

Flush with millions, these tycoons – for all their disrepute as robber barons – enhanced the great cultural institutions. They also exerted their influence and spent their money on the building of the subways and the first limited-access highway (the Bronx River Parkway), the opening of early public high schools and libraries and the upgrades in tenements.

Wallace doesn’t skimp on the seedy underside, with labyrinthine tales of gangsters and gamblers, crooked cops and greedy ward-heelers. He describes how prostitution was rife – 15,000 streetwalkers and brothel workers in Manhattan alone. An effort by reformers to clamp down on another vice, Sunday drinking, by limiting it to hotels with 10 or more rooms inspired saloons to divide their barrooms into a bunch of “bedrooms,” becoming de facto brothels. “Reformers had handed the sex biz a vast new infrastructure,” Wallace writes.


Children selling the afternoon paper in 1910. Credit National Archives and Records Administration

The book is enlivened by fun factoids. In 1908, before automobiles took over, 120,000 horses deposited 60,000 gallons of urine and 2.5 million pounds of manure in the streets every day.

My one major quibble is TMI: too much information. The book’s volume of detailed material at moments makes it like the whaling chapters in “Moby-Dick,” possibly trying some readers’ patience. Do we need a hundred crowded pages on the stories of a dozen strikes? A little bit of Wallace’s own consolidation would have made for a less draining reading experience. Yet he is seldom dry. His touches include a description of the United Charities Building on East 22nd Street, which discounted rents for social betterment organizations, as “bulging with the benevolent.”

Readers will also find debates about urban life that still resonate. Were the police being too tough or too lenient? Reformers advocating pensions for widows or shelters for the homeless were accused of fostering dependency. Many New Yorkers believed then, as some do today, that “wretched conditions would ward off freeloaders and keep taxes low.”

New York has always been a work in progress. But the particular years recounted in this essential, absorbing and mostly sprightly history went a long way in shaping the pulsating city we know.

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