THE NEW METROPOLIS: New York City, 1840-1857 by Edward K. Spann

THE NEW METROPOLIS: New York City, 1840-1857

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A huge, old-fashioned chronicle that is one of the more entertaining and informative books ever written about the history of New York City--though not necessarily in the way intended by Professor Spann (History, Indiana State). He begins by proclaiming that ""in the two decades before the Civil War. . . New York completed the essential phase of its metropolitan development"" and became the nation's dominant urban center. But this is hardly a major revelation--no one has ever seriously argued otherwise--and it is quickly apparent that Spann doesn't intend to be bogged down in any event by the responsibilities of orderly, sustained argumentation. New York in these years, he tells us, was too complex and ""unfinished"" to be understood by any single approach or methodology, and what he means is that he will have to tell all, more or less as it occurs to him. He does, too. Trade and commerce, immigration and nativism, wealth and poverty, housing and slums and parks, disease and sanitation and street-cleaning and water-supply, clubs and theaters and opera houses, prostitution and abortion, schools and colleges, horsecars and omnibuses, Common Council politics, ward bosses and reformers, ministers and missionaries--it's all here, no stone left unturned, one subject spilling and tumbling into another with a mesmerizing disregard for rhyme or reason. In one chapter, ""The Age of Gold,"" Spann starts out describing the effects of the California Gold Rush on the city economy and then--typically--free-associates his way into such topics as traffic congestion, transportation improvements, municipal franchising, stock watering, Tweed, Tweed's father-in-law, the winter of 1854/55, and so on. Such a hodge-podge explains absolutely nothing, of course--certainly not how New York became ""modern""--yet it does manage in the process to be remarkably evocative of what life was like in New York in the middle of the nineteenth century. That alone is no mean achievement, even though it leaves untouched the hows and whys. A good book despite itself.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1981
ISBN: 0231050852
Publisher: Columbia Univ. Press