'Greater Gotham' Is A Great Big Book For A Great Big City

Oct 4, 2017
Originally published on October 4, 2017 1:27 pm

Like Russia, New York City inspires big, doorstop-size books, epitomized by the six-volume Iconography of Manhattan Island by I.N. Phelps Stokes (published between 1915 and 1928, weighing in at 35 pounds). The picture swims into clearer focus when we realize that Gotham, the brand-name-style moniker employed by Mike Wallace for Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919, his follow-up to the Pulitzer winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (written with Edwin G. Burrows), is in English folklore a town — originally "Goat Town" — where all the inhabitants pretend to be insane. So, madness, at great length.

Wallace's fabulous new work of encyclopedic nonfiction gives readers delightful glimpses of madness, feigned or otherwise, along with other kaleidoscopic aspects of turn-of-the-last-century New York. The over-6-pound, 1,196-page telling is especially rich because of the author's "determination to include all the historical actors that had been left out of earlier studies ... and a conviction that a synthesis of perspectives — economic, cultural, political and social — makes for a compelling narrative." Dead white men are here, indeed, but they don't dominate.

Dip your bucket anywhere and you will find something engaging. Every reader will have their favorite passages. Mine ran the gamut, each one making me want to go find a friend and share. Workers on the IRT subway line unearth mastodon bones at Dyckman Street. Meanwhile, horses drop 60,000 gallons of urine and 2.5 million pounds of manure on the cobblestones every day. And something called "The Monkey House Scandal" casts grand opera icon Enrico Caruso as "a vile seducer of womanhood," accused of pinching a woman's behind in the Central Park Zoo.

The two-decades-plus span of Greater Gotham kicks off on New Year's Eve 1897, when citizens paraded by the thousand, field guns boomed, rockets soared, and a brass band throbbed, all to mark the incorporation of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island into Greater New York City, proud to declare itself second in size only to London. The score of years to come would bring great tycoons, ingrate robber barons, and the Great War. In between, New Yorkers were summoned out of the gas-lit Gilded Age and into the bright electric light of an exuberant 20th century.

The "sky boom" in Wallace's phrase, began in earnest with the Flatiron Building, whose "sexy cachet" derived from the wind that whipped around its 23rd Street base, lifting the hems of passing women. Ezra Pound wrote that skyscraper windows at night display "squares after squares of flame, set and cut into the aether. Here is our poetry, for we have pulled down the stars to our will."

Times Square exploded during this era: Oscar Hammerstein opened a roof garden on Broadway "replete with real trees, and real swans a-swimming on a 40-foot lake." Showbiz men fashioned vaudeville houses, legitimate theaters, nickelodeons, photography parlors, music publishing firms, amusement parks and motion picture houses. Predatory gigolos, nicknamed "tango pirates" appeared at tea dances. "Pluggers" picked up sheet music in the morning, then spent the afternoon "performing the pieces, or cajoling others into doing so."

In 1904 Charlotte Perkins Gilman defined a feminist as a woman who vaulted from the pedestal with "chains off, crown off, halo off." Margaret Sanger invented the term "birth control." Greater Gotham recounts many other players in a detailed account of a hugely important time of change for female Americans; such a thoroughgoing discussion of gender is unusual in a mainstream work of history. Wallace even places the zaftig, sexually charged chanteuse Sophie Tucker "at the vortex of a cultural whirlwind," which was enough to make me clap my hands.

Greater Gotham offers a wealth of such experiences. It is this combination of the scholarly and the pop that makes it such a compelling read. The average reader will find herself eager to pick up the book — and not just for bicep curls.

Jean Zimmerman's latest novel, Savage Girl, is out now in paperback. She posts daily at Blog Cabin.

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