When it comes to chronicling turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York City, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Mike Wallace takes a novel approach.
“History is written in the grooves,” says Wallace, author of Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898-1919. “There are economic historians, political historians, cultural historians, social historians, gender historians, African-American historians...and people who are specializing in a field may develop particular terminologies of examination that are appropriate for that group.
“The thing is, that’s not how real life is experienced,” he says. “Real life happens all at once and the people who can [represent] this best are novelists, because what they’re about is conveying real life in its immediacy.”
Wallace is a distinguished professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History, and champion of public history (i.e., accessibly written, widely dispersed historiographies). He is the co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, with Edwin G. Burrows, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for History.
Unlike novelists, historians are bound to facts; nevertheless, Wallace demonstrates great facility in telling a good story. According to Kirkus’ starred review, his deftness in weaving “numerous...lively strands” makes this Gotham sequel (written solo) another “monumental work.”
Greater Gotham covers two exceptional decades headlined by the consolidation of the five boroughs (and many outlying communities) into the City of Greater New York. It was the dawn of New York as the country’s unofficial capital (with the highest concentration of capital). The story begins in Union Square, at a huge parade celebrating the year’s end and the impending municipal merger, on New Year’s Eve, 1897.
“It was a fittingly mass witnessing of the birth of an urban Goliath,” Wallace writes of the grand procession comprised of crowds and illuminated floats that bathed the streets in light. One boasted a large Tammany Tiger mascot “equipped with electric eyes,” preceding the move to make the five boroughs into one city, a move that would make New York City the country’s largest by a long shot, with a population of 3,437,202 souls per the 1900 census. ....New York could now safely march into the twentieth century hoisting the title—as an 1898 commemorative Consolidation volume dubbed it—‘Second City of the World.’ ”
Told from multiple vantages, from satellite to street-level view, Greater Gotham includes 1,631 entries in its name index, from activists, entertainers, and muckrakers all the way up to the captains of industry (e.g., J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie) whose anti-competitive merger mania (U.S. Steel, AT&T, Nabisco) completely remade American capitalism (and exported it).
“[A]t the very moment that Gotham was exerting this tremendous centripetal pull, drawing the nation’s financial and managerial resources to the Hudson, the mass of accumulated capital was generating a powerful centrifugal force, as it sought new and distant outlets abroad,” Wallace writes. “It was not merely coincidental that the height of the great merger movement (1898-1904) overlapped precisely with the emergence of an American overseas empire.”
New York swiftly became the city of superlatives: tallest skyscraper, richest man, biggest port, largest department store, and many, many more.
“There was this tendency to assume that size is a a good thing,” Wallace says of the time, “and that obviously has its architectural correlative. This is skyscraper time, from the Flatiron Building at the beginning of the period, to the Woolworth Building, as they vie for the honor of being the tallest building on earth. [Gargantuanization] is one of the attitudes and the policies that suffused the entire period.”
Appropriately, the care taken in the telling of 1898-1919 New York necessitates gargantuan heft: Greater Gotham is a 1,196-pages, 4.6-pound book comprised of five parts—“Consolidations and Contradictions,” “Construction and Connection,” “Cultures,” “Confrontations,” and “Wars”—broken into dozens of chapters and multiple sections.
For those who find the prospect overwhelming, Wallace suggests starting small.
“At the table of contents level, pick something that interests you,” he says. “There’s a section on ragtime, there’s a section on architecture, there’s a section on the Wobblies’ strikes, etc.—plunge in. Once you get a feel of what it’s like swimming in this pond...then you may feel more relaxed about hopping around, which is perfectly fine by me. Or using it as a reference. Or just to have on your shelf—as long as you’ve reinforced your shelf.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.