New York in the "Roaring Twenties" summons up the glamor of prohibition, speakeasies, flappers, movie palaces, new technologies, jazz, crime and the debonair, feckless Mayor James J. Walker presiding. Of course, 60 percent of Americans still lived below the poverty line, and New York contained a number of squalid, tenement-filled slum neighborhoods like Hells Kitchen and the lower east side where many were unemployed, life was hard, and dreams of either escape or success were rarely realized.
However, the popular imagination of the 1920s was not dominated by poverty or class strife, but by an image of big money, pleasure seeking, and for some the possibility of moving easily from poverty to wealth. It was a time when national prosperity created the kind of money for investment that made Wall Street surge, and New York replaced London as the global financial nexus. In addition, factories flourished in the outer boroughs, the city maintaining its lead as the country's leading manufacturing center.
New York had also become the nation's communications hub (radio), and played a central role in literature and the arts. The city was the home of most book publishers; writers like Willa Cather, Eugene O'Neill, and the wits of the Algonquin Round Table like Dorothy Parker; and photographers and painters like Alfred Steiglitz, John Sloan and John Marin.
Immigration was cut by prohibitive, discriminatory legislation, but the city continued to grow, climbing from 4.8 million in 1910 to 7 million in 1930. A great many people migrated from other parts of the country to New York, including blacks from the South who came during WW1 for wartime jobs, and turned Harlem into the capital of black America. The neighborhood even had a celebrated literary renaissance (Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston) of its own.
New York was also rife with real estate speculation, as the 1916 zoning resolution led to "set back" style structures -- skyscrapers that created striking silhouettes, while their heights continued to grow. The Chrysler and the Empire State Buildings were completed in 1930 and 1931, each claiming new records in stature -- the taller one, the Empire State Building, reaching 1,250 feet in height.
The astonishing climb headed for a monumental fall when in 1929 the economic bubble of the 1920s burst, and the stock market crashed. The city descended into a depression, businesses failing, construction moribund, the homeless everywhere, and unemployment rising to a point where one out of four employable New Yorkers were without a job. All of the buoyancy of the 1920s boom had disappeared.
What moved me to write about this remarkable time was the reissue of a 1936 novel "City for Conquest" by Aben Kandel that I have been asked to write an introduction for. Kandel wrote for American B-movies in the 1950s ("I Was a Teenage Werewolf"), but was a novelist in an earlier incarnation. His "City for Conquest" was a panoramic New York novel, which depicted characters from different classes and ethnicities to capture the complex patterns of city life.
If F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Great Gatsby" embodied the atmosphere of ‘20s New York, and brilliantly understood the infinite potential of the city -- "The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty of the world." -- Kandel's novel in turn vividly and melodramatically evoked the city of dreams and nightmares from the turn of the century into the ‘20s.
In a series of episodes Kandel portrayed a volatile, dynamic city inhabited by the very rich, the criminal, the idealistic, the bohemian, the driven, the entrapped and impoverished. It's Kandel's symphony to a city where almost every character is pursuing "how to make a dent in this town." The city devours some of them, but others remain greedily "at the trough, sucking away, grunting, gorging at the meat and blood of New York."
Kandel's ‘20s New York is a booming city where fortunes were made in real estate -- Bronx apartment houses, midtown skyscrapers -- and easy money abounded. The new construction was callously built on the destruction of what had existed, supplanting the slums and the past, and preserving nothing.
For Kandel, the city was a feverish monster -- a world of immense inequality (just like current New York) where "six blocks from Wall Street, people haven't got a dime, six blocks from duplex apartments, people live in hovels." Still you can feel his passion, even love, for the city running through the book, however much it lacks the literary elegance and imagination of "The Great Gatsby." Despite its artistic limitations, "City for Conquest" is a fascinating artifact.
Another rich experience I recently had with an exploration of urban issues, was the Unicorn Theater's stunning production of Michael Frayn's 1984 play "Benefactors." I would like to pay homage to director Eric Hill and Stockbridge's Berkshire Theatre Festival for a play that works seamlessly on two levels: the travails that a liberal architect in the ‘60s faces in attempting to transform a seedy, working class South London neighborhood by constructing towers for its residents (an idea we know in hindsight hasn't worked); and the intricately painful interactions between two couples, one troubled, the other ostensibly intact. Frayn writes trenchantly comic dialogue, and the play is psychologically astute about the limits and dark undercurrents involved in basing a relationship on sacrifice and compassion.
I hope putting on "Benefactors" by a theater that is a beacon of first-rate work is a promise to continue producing many more sophisticated plays that demand intellectual effort from the BTF's audience.
Leonard Quart can be reached at