SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF A CITY: Corruption and Conscience in Old New York by Eric Homberger

SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF A CITY: Corruption and Conscience in Old New York

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Four scholarly glimpses of 19th-century New York City, adding up to a dull but informative portrait of an urban community in search of its soul. Homberger (American Literature/Univ. of East Anglia) focuses on the ills that assailed New York City as a result of a population boom that quadrupled its population to nearly a million between 1830 and 1860. His first essay examines the ""Virgilian mode of social investigation"" conducted by 19th-century journalists, who portrayed the city as a Dantean underworld of hardened criminals, lost souls, and terrible torments. Reports by Jacob Riis and others prompted a public outcry against slums, with eerie echoes of the 1990s, including attempts to close down homeless shelters and relocate the poor. Simultaneously, the city went on a crusade against abortion -- another campaign with ironic modern overtones. Homberger then turns to the sorry life of Richard Barrett Connolly, a.k.a. ""Slippery Dick,"" an Irish immigrant who became treasurer of New York during Boss Tweed's heyday and absconded to Europe with several million dollars when Tammany Hall collapsed. Earlier portraits of Connolly present a self-serving lout, but Homberger (John Reed, not reviewed) depicts a good man ground down by the machinations of corruption. After these forays into crime and misery, the author lets in the sun with his final study, which recounts the construction of Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted led the charge, designing a retreat that offered the city just what it needed: bucolic vistas, paths for quiet strolls, ponds for ice-skating. Central Park was an instant success, a glorious creation that ""truly represented the achievement of New York in this period"" -- from a modern perspective, the final irony in a book teeming with them. Less popular than H. Paul Jeffers's Commissioner Roosevelt (p. 905), which also limns the woes of old Manhattan: a painful reminder that New York was once a city on the rise.

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 1994
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.