achievement unlocked! what i'm reading: gotham: a history of new york city to 1898

Ta-da! I finished! 

I've been reading Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 in weekly installments, since March of 2022. And now I have finished it.

I thoroughly enjoyed both the book and the reading experience. I have a list of doorstoppers that I'd like to approach the same way. I'm thinking of reading one giant tome each year, in addition to everything else I'm reading.

An absolutely brilliant book

Gotham is a marvel. Authors Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace write history from a progressive point of view, and in a lively, entertaining style. The book brings to the surface the histories that have been hidden from the mainstream. It's honest and refreshing, and naturally full of myth-busting.

Although the book is organized chronologically, it is also organized topically. The authors periodically check in on the status of women, the lives of Black Americans, and the progress of the labour movement, along with religion, politics, media, entertainment, social attitudes toward poverty, the lives of the elite, and other areas that bring each period to life.

I have so many notes -- in more than one notebook, and in the camera on my phone, and the book itself is bristling with yellow sticky notes -- that it feels exhausting and pointless to try to encapsulate even a small portion of them. I have a huge number of notes on socialism, unions, the rights of women, Black Americans, the media, the theatre, sports... and more. 

Many New Yorks

Gotham is divided into five sections. 

The first part looks at the geological formation of the island now known as Manhattan, and its original inhabitants, the Lenape and other Indigenous peoples: "Lenape Country and New Amsterdam to 1664". We visit New Amsterdam and meet the Dutch colonists. New Amsterdam was undeveloped and very short-lived, although the Dutch legacy lives on in the modern era in dozens of place-names, in the City and throughout New York State. 

Almost immediately, an oft-repeated origin story disintegrates into dust: no one "sold" Manhattan for $24. This sets the overall tone: almost everything I thought I knew about New York was wrong. Not that I believed the racist myth of the $24 purchase. But again and again, I found that the scraps of history I had received over the decades were misreported, distorted, or just plain wrong. 

Part two looks at "British New York" (1664-1783). For women, Blacks, Indigenous people, and anyone without money and a family lineage, this was a painful transformation. Dutch women enjoyed a high degree of independence and many rights: they were able to own property, which remained theirs after marriage, and could enter into their own legal agreements -- status Englishwomen would not see until the 1920s. Dutch women could live independently without becoming social outcasts. The British brought an end to all that, and much more. 

This is also the time leading up to the American Revolution. And let me tell you, if you learned (as many Canadians have) that the American colonists break with England was did not constitute an actual revolution, you are wrong. (I've had a post in drafts about this for years. Maybe it's time to bust it out.)

The third part is called "Mercantile Town" (1783-1843) and part four is "Emporium and Manufacturing City" (1844-1879). Now the City is expanding, mushrooming, ballooning. And of course, it is utterly unprepared for this rapid growth, both physically and culturally. Immigration, labour, the Civil War, so-called race riots (anti-Black pogroms), massive building projects, machine politics -- everything is rapidly changing. The City is being transformed from a mostly English, Protestant city into a giant polyglot of languages, traditions, and cultures.

The final section is called "Industrial Center and Corporate Command Post" (1880-1898). In this era, the robber barons and another tsunami of immigration are remaking New York yet again. Entertainment and sports begin to look vaguely recognizable to modern eyes. Industry, technology, and imperialism are transforming the country, and New York is leading the way in everything, assuming its place as a powerful global city, and the most important city in the country.

So much I didn't know

One topic that was particularly fascinating and surprising was slavery, and how utterly integral it was to New York City. Indeed, the entire northern economy completely relied on slavery. Although as an adult I've always known that slavery and racism were not exclusively Southern, I didn't know how enormous extent that New York City profited from slavery. Whether directly from free labour (and there was plenty of it), or indirectly through the shipbuilding industry that literally kept the slave trade afloat, the massive importing and exporting industries that revolved around sugar and cotton, or the financial institutions that supported the whole horrendous enterprise, New York City was as much of a slave power as Atlanta and Richmond.

German immigrants played a huge role in the development of the City, far earlier and far greater than I knew -- forming unions, agitating for socialism, and generally influencing culture at every turn.

Anti-Catholic bigotry was virulent and rampant for decades, as the Catholic Church, at first reviled and feared, gained a toehold, then a seat at the table, before becoming a major power in the City. 

I knew about the struggles of Irish and Eastern European Jewish immigrants -- why they left their home countries, and what they found in their new world. But I was ignorant of the struggles of Italian immigrants, and what motivated so many people to leave southern Italy in the 1880s.
Where the Jews were trapped in the shtetls, southern Italians were mired in the isolated valleys and lowlands formed by the mountain chains into which the mezzogiorno was divided. Within these provincial pockets, society was frozen into a quasi-feudal mode. A handful of aristocrats owned the bulk of the land and exacted profit and prestige from peasant tenants as their forebears had done for centuries. With the higher clergy and professionals, they formed a tiny ruling elite, utterly uninterested in agricultural improvements. As a result, the contadini (peasants who leased land or owned small plots) and the giornalieri (day laborers) worked the soil essentially as their Roman ancestors did, with wooden plows. . . . 

The area also suffered from primitive housing conditions, illiteracy (perhaps the highest rate in Europe), microdivision of farm plots, an absence of public welfare programs, limited diet, earthquakes, deforestation, soil erosion, malaria, and harsh sirocco winds blowing up from North Africa. The result was La Miseria -- a miserable, impoverished way of life.

. . . The northerners dominating the new nation [after Italian unification] considered southerners little better than African barbarians, and just as available for colonial plundering. The authorities failed to provide roads or schools, which could help eliminate backwards conditions, but siphoned off in taxes what capital and resources existed. 
Another revelation of something I thought I knew: Coney Island! 

Both my parents grew up in Brooklyn, my father in Coney Island (which is not an island at all, just a section of Brooklyn), and my grandparents and other relatives lived in Brooklyn their entire lives. We visited the Boardwalk off and on throughout my childhood, and I even went to Coney Island a few times on day outings in the 1980s. So I had always heard stories about the old days: Luna Park, Steeplechase, the Cyclone. But what did I really know about Coney Island? Next to nothing. 

In its heyday in the late 1880s, Coney Island was divided into four "wildly diverse communities". Each area offered entertainments catering to people of different socioeconomic levels, from rough brothels and gambling dens, to raucous but harmless music and dancing, to elite opulence.
Coney Island, in the space of a decade, had leapt from marshy obscurity to preeminence among the world's beach resorts. It was remarkable for its size and its segmentation -- the way its component parts were sorted and sequenced by class, from "low" to "high," with each zone governed by its own conventions. Even more remarkable -- and alarming, to guardians of the traditional order -- was the way West Brighton encouraged unconventional behavior. Reformers called it "Sodom by the Sea." They were upset by the doings in the Gut, of course [brothels, peep shows, gambling, opium], but also by the spooning on the beach, the frolicking in the waves, the way people acted (said one shocked observer) "precisely as if the thing to do in the water was to behave exactly contrary to the manner of behaving anywhere else." 
One of my favourite historical novels about New York is Peter Quinn's The Banished Children of Eve, which includes the horrific 1863 draft riots. This, too, turned out to be more complex than I knew. 

That year, in the midst of the bloody Civil War, the National Conscription Act went into effect. In response to "heavy losses, dwindling recruitment, and soaring desertion rates," Congress had passed a sweeping draft law which included a "crude assertion of class privilege": $300 could buy your way out of service. This at a time when workers were paid around $1 a day.

The Irish were the poorest and most despised of all the immigrant groups. There was only one group "beneath" them on the socioeconomic ladder: Blacks. Employers could hire Black people for wages even lower than what they paid Irish workers, stoking Irish belief that Black people were "stealing their jobs". Now poor Irish immigrants would be drafted into a war to "free the slaves". 

This much I knew. 

What I didn't know: thousands of federal troops normally stationed in New York City had been deployed to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to defend the country against General Lee's advancing Confederate Army. This left New York City "virtually stripped of defenses" -- which is why the rampaging mobs easily overwhelmed the police prescence, and the extreme violence raged unchecked for three full days, and into a fourth.

Four thousand troops were pulled out of Gettysburg to contain the violence in New York, and it would take another two days to bring the pogrom to an end. (The Zinn Education Project is a good place to read more about this.)

And this is how it went, as I read. I knew a little, but the reality was so much more complex and fascinating than I knew. Or I knew nothing. Or whatever I knew was wrong.

Some things change, some not so much

There were many parallels to our contemporary world. Foremost among them is probably the boom-and-bust, uncontrolled cycles of capitalism. The economy was wholly unregulated, and crashes occurred with regularity. People like John Jacob Astor made fortunes during good times and bad, while workers were pushed into poverty, and those already in poverty died off in the streets. Poverty was generally blamed on bad breeding or moral failure. Government corruption was a given. The police were little more than a gang with fancy uniforms and permanent immunity. 

Did you know that in the earliest days of electrification, having electricity at home was a luxury enjoyed by only the wealthiest citizens? Power monopolies scooped up the means of production and delivery, often operating under different names to give the appearance of competition. Even for the wealthy, prices soared while service sank. Only government regulation transformed electricity into a basic public good, albeit one laced with many layers of profit. Sound familiar? It's the same pattern we've seen with telcos and internet providers, heaping profit and controlling access to what should be a public utility.

And the people!

The sheer number of fascinating individuals -- writers, revolutionaries, organizers, politicos, entertainers -- in this book is breathtaking. Many became household names -- Joseph Pulitzer, P.T. Barnum, Teddy Roosevelt, Nellie Bly, Alexander Hamilton, Walt Whitman -- but dozens were unknown to me, yet no less fascinating. 

Madame Restell shows up, as does her nemesis Anthony Comstock. I fell in love with Fanny Wright, a feminist, socialist, abolitionist who founded (be still my heart) a utopian community. With George Henry Evans, Wright formed the Workingman's Party, known as "the Workies". I discovered Langton Byllesby, who wrote Observations on the Sources and Effects of Unequal Wealth: With Propositions Towards Remedying the Disparity of Profit in Pursuing the Arts of Life, and Establishing Security in Individual Prospects and Resources. Gotta love those Victorian-era titles.

In a chapter called "White, Green, and Black," I learned more about Black resistance to slavecatchers and kidnappers, which was thrilling.
With young girls being snatched on trips to the water pump, black parents began keeping their children off the streets after dark. Then, with white abolitionists on the defensive or concentrated on their national campaign, the city's African Americans formally organized for their own protection. On November 20, 1835, David Ruggles led in setting up a New York Committee of Vigilance. Ruggles, a migrant from Norwich, Connecticut, had opened a bookshop and circulating library at 67 Lispenard Street, specializing in antislavery publications. Now he became the eyes and ears of the black community.

Ruggles identified slavecatchers by name in the Emancipator. He pointed them out to blacks on the street. He publicized descriptions of missing Afro-Americans. He went door to door in fashionable neighborhoods inquiring as to the status of black domestics, implenting a New York law that freed any imported slave after a residence of nine months. . . . He boarded incoming ships, to see if slaves were being smuggled in, and on one occasion won an indictment against a French man from Guadeloupe. (Such actions were denounced by the New York Express, a militant Whig organ, as an embarrassment to trade.) Ruggles had to change lodgings repeatedly to foil efforts at kidnapping him
The Vigilance Commitee also aided those they called "persons arriving from the South." They explained to fugitives their rights, protected them from blackbirders, and established them in new locations. 

At one point, Ruggles hid the young Frederick Douglass for two weeks, before sending the "penniless fugitive" on to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Ruggles' work became a cornerstone of the developing Underground Railroad.
The Vigilance Committee was not always successful. On July 23, 1836, George Jones, a "respectable" free black man, was arrested at his workplace, an attorney's office at 21 Broadway, supposedly for assault and battery. At first he refused to go along with his captors, but his employers advised him to submit, promising they would help. However, once in custody, Jones was whisked before Recorder Riker*, where several notorious blackbirders declared him a runaway, a propostion to which Riker assented. Less than three hours after his arrest, Jones, bound in chains, was dragged through the streets of New York "like a beast to the shambles" and carried south. Ruggles described the kidnapping in the Sun. The piece, widely reprinted, helped Ruggles win public support for granting accused "fugitives" a trial by jury -- a right secured five years later.
I also learned more about the violence faced by abolitionists, fanned by a lying nativist (anti-immigrant) press that hurled bizarre racial and sexual accusations at activists. The southern states, with help from the federal government, successfully blocked the flow of abolitionist pamphlets and letters. People in the movement faced intimidation and violence on a regular basis, but they had plenty of company. There were riots against Irish immigrants and riots against Catholics. Then the victims of those riots would turn around and do the same to Blacks.

1,236 pages and not a wasted word

Gotham took 20 years to write. Burrows and Wallace unearthed an enormous amount of published research, and synthesized it into a narrative that reads like a novel. They illustrate history with the perfect details about both ordinary, everyday life, as well as the outsized people who influenced the development of the City.

This is one time where it's fun to read reader reviews on Amazon: one unqualified rave after the next.

Having read this book feels like the nerdiest thing in the world, but it shouldn't be. Don't be put off by the length and weight: if you love history and you love cities, this book will delight you. Sometime in the future, I will definitely read the second volume, Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1989-1919.

I think my next year's weekly read will be Visions of Jazz: the First Century by Gary Giddins, a birthday gift from my esteemed partner some years ago.


* Yep, that's who Rikers Island, New York City's main jail complex, is named for: a notorious anti-abolitionist who sent kidnapped Black people (both fugitives and free-born Blacks) into enslavement at every opportunity. Irony upon irony, given the demographics of the US prison population. It's time to change the name.

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