How the Big Apple took its place among the world’s great cities
By Brooke Kroeger
September 5, 2017
Greater Gotham: A History of New York City From 1898 to 1919 by Mike Wallace; Oxford University Press, 1,196 pp., $45
Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham is a brightly hued kaleidoscope of themes, facts, stories, and characters. Every turn of its cylinder rearranges the shiny bits into new configurations, fresh ways to consider the blink-of-an-eye transformation of New York City into an “imperial metropolis,” “the de facto seat of America’s budding empire.”
Wallace, a distinguished professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and founder of the Gotham Center for New York City History, won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for History for his previous work, Gotham, co-authored with Edwin G. Burrows. In 1,424 pages of prodigious detail, the two New York historians chronicled the thousands of years from the Ice Age to the threshold of Wallace’s new solo effort. Greater Gotham consumes nearly as much space to unfurl a mere 21 years of the city’s history, from 1898 to 1919, a period of rapid consolidation and conglomeration that reverberated through every aspect of social, economic, and cultural life.
For the earlier work, Wallace and Burrows set out to consider “each moment on its own terms, respecting its uniqueness.” They endeavored to remain “mostly in their ‘now’ ” of the contemporaries whose stories they chose to relate. In this new work, Wallace has staked out themes, primary among them how the city’s corporate elite shaped and executed their vision of an efficient, beautiful metropolis that was ripe for investment. Among those he cites are John D. Rockefeller (oil), Henry Osborne Havemeyer (sugar), James Buchanan Duke (tobacco), Andrew Carnegie (steel), and their surrogates, as well as the bankers J. Pierpont Morgan, Jacob Schiff, and August Belmont. “Applying the methods and ideology of consolidation,” Wallace writes, “they would work to reshape its borders, rationalize its transport and life-support systems, and remodel its cultural and political institutions.”
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Brooke Kroeger is a professor of journalism at New York University and the author, most recently, of The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote.