New York City Transformed

Mulberry Street - NYC

CUNY historians Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burroughs won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Gotham, their sweeping history of New York City to 1898. Two decades later, Wallace, working solo this time, is out with the long-awaited second volume of a planned trilogy. Greater Gotham focuses on just 20 years — from the city’s consolidation in 1898 through the end of World War I ­— but they’re as epic as the centuries that came before.

“This was the most transformative moment in the city’s history,” Wallace, a Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the CUNY Graduate Center, said during a recent interview for the CUNY Book Beat podcast. “It’s the period of emergence of the things people know as modern New York” – the subways and skyscrapers, the power centers of finance and culture, the great wave of immigration that turned the city, seemingly overnight, into a global metropolis and the economic and cultural engine of 20th-century America.

Greater Gotham opens on New Year’s Eve 1897 – the eve of an era packed with more than enough building (and digging), moneymaking, social transformation and larger-than-life characters to keep the next 1,052 pages moving right along.
“New York has always been a changing place but the rate of change in those 20 years was fantastic,” said Wallace, who founded the Gotham Center for New York City History at The CUNY Graduate Center in 2000. “The big fuse was lit in Lower Manhattan, where all things happen, and the exclamation points were the skyscrapers. They were the headquarters of all the major American corporations but also giant symbols” of the nascent Wall Street-powered economy.

“People like John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan transformed the very structure of American capitalism, eliminating competition and consolidating their power and wealth through mergers. And they were the ones who urged and won the merger of New York’s political jurisdictions into one city. That created a blank canvas for a megalopolis of enormous dimensions. Even the competition between skyscraper builders was symbolic. Somebody builds a taller skyscraper, well, you tear yours down and build an even taller one.”

The superstars of the era are now iconic American names: “Morgan, Rockefeller, Harriman, Lehman, Morgenthau ­— and that’s just in the economic sphere,” Wallace said. “Enrico Caruso, D.W. Griffith, Yiddish theater performers, Italian troupers. Sophie Tucker is one of my favorites in the book, I’ll admit, because she was so daring. Times Square was a giant ganglia for New York things but also became the capital of mass culture for the country.” It was in this period that the country and the city began what remains “a complicated love-hate relationship,” Wallace added. “On one hand, New York was Wall Street creating great inequalities of wealth, but at the same time it was a glittering, fascinating modernity of changes in culture.”

The first volume of Gotham was a two-decade collaboration between Wallace and Burroughs, a specialist in the Colonial period. It took another 20 years for Wallace to tame the wealth of material in Greater Gotham. He originally intended for the book to run to the end of World War II and complete a two-volume set. “But it was clocking in at somewhere around 3,000 pages, exceeding the limits of bindery technology and reader patience, no doubt. So, the decision was made to cut it in half.” The good news for fans of New York history: “There will be a third volume and a fair amount of it is in the can.”

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