- Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 by Mike Wallace
The takeaway from Wallace's Greater Gotham is that New York City was big, plenty big. His story begins with a detailed and persuasive account of the late nineteenth-century consolidation of the city and ends in 1919, with a metropolis bursting with energy, wealth, and prospects.
This book's predecessor, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York, 2000), written by Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows, covered [End Page 513] 289 years, ending with a successful outcome of the referendum that united Manhattan with the East Bronx, Brooklyn, western Queens County, and Staten Island on January 1, 1898. Wallace and Burrows argued that the very fact of consolidation "would be the key to the new century's first decades" (Gotham, 1, 235). The wealthy and powerful men who supported consolidation re-appear in Greater Gotham to play a dominant role in the new world of opportunities opened by the overwhelming "yes" vote in 1898. Wallace's approach is that New York's story is to be understood from "multiple vantage points" (8).
No single thesis could possibly be adequate to such a bustling, complex metropolis. Wallace is preoccupied with the sheer size of New York City, what could be weighed, counted, and measured. He finds many ways to make this point in his account of the city's commercial and industrial might: The Newtown Creek "bore more freight annually than the 1000 mile long Mississippi River" (216). The city had the "largest integrated transport system on the face of the earth" (236), and "the largest low-income-housing project in the world" (258–259). The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company on Staten island was "the largest producer of its kind in the world" (309), and so on. Understatement is not Wallace's preferred voice. It is hard to see whom he is arguing against. Had scholars failed to notice the city's great size?
Despite its' narrower chronological framework, covering scarcely more than two decades, the limitations of Greater Gotham are those of Gotham, at least to any curious soul who might like to know where, for example, Ezra Pound praised the "magical power" of Manhattan skyscrapers (153). Wallace cites twenty-seven titles in his notes for the chapter about the skyscraper boom; none are by or specifically about Pound. His method of citation does not make it easy to track down his sources. Gotham had 143 pages of references, in an achingly small font size, and its pages had four columns of text. Greater Gotham, covering a briefer time span, has 122 pages of references, in the same miniscule font size. Wallace cites thirty sources, by date, for his discussion of the "New Women," but without page references. The index, massive as it is, is incomplete. In Wallace's brief discussion of sources, he mentions the limited space available for such purposes—presumably, the responsibility of the publisher. The effect of this constraint on citations is to make these two imposing monuments to scholarship less useful than they should have been.
Wallace notes the banker George Baker's "muttonchop whiskers and … ample paunch" (67), and he spots Joseph Barondess, the "king of cloakmakers," leading nine thousand Jewish workers on May Day 1890 singing the "Marseillaise" as they marched toward Union Square from the lower East Side. Wallace shows an eye for local color and a nice flair for the comedy of New York life. But he scarcely seems interested in the city's high culture, possibly concluding that elite culture, other than the Metropolitan Opera, matters less than we might assume. He mentions the Union Club and Tiffany's twice. Mrs Caroline Astor briefly figures [End Page 514] in an unseemly family row. The Patriarchs, however, have not made the cut. Wallace devotes a single footnote to the piano manufacturers Steinway & Sons (314, n. 4), but fails to say anything about Alfred Steglitz and the city's rich photographic culture. He pays...