Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Three different takes on the city's past

NEW YORK — There are multiple ways to look at New York City's past. A nuanced and well-written history can be found in the work of Mike Wallace whose encyclopedic (a daunting 1,196-page) "Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919" (Oxford University Press) has just been published. It's the sequel to his Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898" (written with Edwin G. Burrows).

Wallace's new book has grand ambitions, including depicting the city's movement "from the edge to the center of the world," and capturing the rich life on New York's streets, where he introduces a variety of its inhabitants ranging from anarchists to vaudevillians and from philanthropists to cab drivers. He also deals with the full array of distinctive neighborhoods that existed during those two decades.

The book begins with the consolidation of the city's five boroughs and concludes with World War I. Consolidation was partially motivated by fear that Chicago would overtake New York as the nation's premier city. Proponents for consolidation argued that the new city would "muster the resources to act without waiting for state and national governments."

Glory of the coming age

The city also had to plan for immigrants from Europe and migrants from the countryside displaced by mechanization. Tammany Boss Richard Croker, who defeated the reformers, led the consolidation effort, winning for the Democratic machine a treasure trove of patronage. The city celebrated its consolidation in 1897, doing homage to "a truly imperial metropolis that would proclaim the grandeur and glory of the coming new age."

Wallace's book is so rich in detail and analysis, I can only briefly deal with a few striking chapters. In a chapter on Progressivism, Wallace writes of two wings that were committed to building a healthy social order. One wing consisted of middle-class reformers, who couched their commitment "as a pursuit of social justice." The other wing consisted of wealthy businessmen "who regarded social ills as an impediment to profit." Wallace, though saw the two wings as having much in common — coming from similar religious backgrounds — WASPS and German Jews — and sharing comparable cultural attainments.

In this same chapter Wallace captures the inherent complexities of Progressivism, enriching our knowledge of the movement by writing about "emancipatory progressives" who pursued better housing, health care and working conditions, while a more "repressive group" worked to curtail prostitution and prohibit alcohol and drug use. Few worked exclusively for one set of reforms, since they all understood (something the contemporary Republican Party fails to comprehend) "the need for the state to impose what they believed a decent moral and economic order."

The book is also full of sketches of people who played significant roles in the city's history: from Margaret Sanger who founded the birth control movement to Morris Hillquit, one of the prime figures in the city's Socialist Party; and from black labor and civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph to Mable Dodge who established a salon that threw political and cultural rebels together. Wallace makes no attempt to evoke these figures' personalities and essence, but he does capture their political and intellectual contributions to city life.

Greater Gotham views these decades in the city's history in a relatively upbeat light — especially given the continual conflicts between classes, ethnic groups, races, and genders that took place during those years. He sees the "ties that bind" — schools, amusement parks, police etc. — as keeping the battling within bounds, a divided city that achieved a rough unity. He writes: "So far, so good."

I discovered a totally different perspective on the history of New York in film historian and archivist Rick Prelinger's "Lost Landscapes of New York," screened at NYU's Skirball Center. Prelinger's non-chronological mixture of home movies, outtakes from feature films, and background "process plates" (back projection) spans much of 20th Century New York.

Most of the footage is silent and it covers daily life on Lower East Side shopping streets like Orchard, and city emblems like the Automat, Trinity Church cemetery, the Woolworth Building, Coney Island, a handsome Penn Station before it was unconscionably demolished and replaced by one of the country's most squalid railway terminals, and the rickety Third Avenue El (which I can still remember riding as a boy peering into claustrophobic Bronx tenement apartments that I passed), and the old Times Square in color with its electronic news ticker.

The ghosts revealed

The films also provide images of different neighborhoods like the Village's Washington Square Park with its impromptu Sunday folk concerts, the South Bronx's industrial Mott Haven populated by a trio of male alcoholics, an impoverished, tenement filled Harlem viewed in a Communist Party documentary brutalized by a white police department that the film views as serving the banks. One of the concluding home movies sees female couples jitterbugging happily at the World's Fair of 1939-'40. In the films that compose the Lost Landscapes the streetscapes alter over time, and one can poignantly feel what has disappeared — "the ghosts" of a city characterized by ceaseless change.

In addition to Wallace's brilliantly exhaustive history and Prelinger's imaginative archival compilation, another slice of city history can be discovered in Richard Nelson's play, "Illyria," which closes this weekend at the Public Theater. The Public (which Joe Papp founded) is an apt venue for a play about its early history and Papp's struggle in 1958 to present free Shakespeare in Central Park.

The problem with this religiously understated play is that none of the characters including the vibrant, famously tempestuous, sometimes tyrannical Papp quite come alive. They seem doused. But there are a couple of moments in the play that radiantly convey the camaraderie of working in the theater. Especially in an idealistic free people's theater that must struggle against the city bureaucracy and against much better funded competing repertory outfits like Lincoln Center.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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