*Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919*

by on October 25, 2017 at 1:19 pm in Books, History, The Arts, Uncategorized | Permalink

Written by Mike Wallace, and weighing in at almost 1200 pp., this is one of the best books of the year.  Every page has interesting material.  You could pull out just the bits on the origins of the subway, or the development of the arts and entertainment, or immigration, and still have one of the best books of the year.  From one Amazon review:

The narratives are well-honed and to the point. There is not one ounce of journalistic fluff. There are no fanciful digressions into fads and fashions of the day. There is no imaginary dialogue, unlike the situation found in some “history books” written by mere poseurs.


Simply put this is another masterpiece deserving the highest accolades. Tremendously rich in anecdotes it is superbly written. If you grew-up in New York, particularly in the outer boroughs, the book will have a special meaning for you as you see the physical, cultural and human development of your neighborhood. My favorite sections were on the development of the ‘arteries and ligaments’ of the city; the radicals among the Jewish immigrants, and New York in World War I.

I have read only a few hundred pages of it, and may not read it all, but am likely to read more than half of it.  Strongly recommended, it’s also one of the best books on American history period.  You can order it here.

1 Roy LC October 25, 2017 at 1:44 pm

The earlier volume was shockingly dull considering its topic. Not quite “Sweden: The Nation’s History” dull, but awfully close.

The mention of anecdotes does sound promising though, “Gotham” could have used a lot more of that though when it came to systematic history and chronology it was pretty wretched in that regard as well.

2 Ray Lopez October 25, 2017 at 2:24 pm

By earlier volume I assume that big book on Gotham in general. Why the years 1898 to 1919 will be any more exciting is a mystery to me.

Bonus trivia: the wristwatch was invented and popularized during WWI.

3 Ray Lopez October 25, 2017 at 2:33 pm

And if the Panic of 1907 is well known, how many of you know about the panics of 1896 and 1893? see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panic_of_1896 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panic_of_1893 ( the second Wiki link has helpful unemployment figures; notice how unemployment went from 4% normal to 18% in 1894). Question for the reader: given 18% unemployment in 1894, how is the Great Depression, which had 20% unemployment and was largely over by 1934, really that different from earlier “panics”? Could the entire myth of the “Great” Depression by an exaggeration? And let’s not forget Murray Rothbard’s interpretation of the Panic of 1837, where the economy arguably contracted almost as much as in the Great Depression (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panic_of_1837)

4 Hadur October 25, 2017 at 2:51 pm

Panic of 1893 is hugely important to American political history, as is the Panic of 1837: much more important than 1907 IMO. The fallout of the Panic of 1907 was contained due to the excellent coordinated response.

Panic of 1893 destroyed Grover Cleveland as a force in American politics, and Panic of 1837 made Martin Van Buren (or Martin Van Ruin) a lame duck for almost all of his presidency. This is similar to how the Great Depression destroyed Herbert Hoover.

5 William Jennings Bryan October 25, 2017 at 2:52 pm

Know about it? I lived through it. Overly tight money = high unemployment. Same as it ever was.

6 Ray Lopez October 25, 2017 at 3:26 pm

@Hadur -thanks

@William Jennings Bryan – read this on your failed bank deposit scheme of 1894 (see:WSJ – July 13, 2010 – http://econweb.rutgers.edu/ewhite/Dodd-Frank.html ) and comment on the effect today of Trump suspending a very similar provision in Dodd-Frank in April of this year.

7 A clockwork orange October 25, 2017 at 8:47 pm

One has to ask if GDP isolated for innovation is a positive value, and if it is, how one could possibly claim Tesla’s electric car could possibly be considered a defensive innovation.

8 y81 October 25, 2017 at 3:49 pm

Too complicated a topic to really cover in a blog comment, but the big difference between the Depression and prior panics is before about 1920, most Americans had a farm somewhere to which they could retreat in times of economic trouble (even if it belonged to their brother whom they couldn’t stand, and even if it meant being subject to the “imbecility of rural life”). So panics did not generally result in either hunger or homelessness. As the nation became less rural, a critical mass developed in the cities who did not have that safety net.

9 Ray Lopez October 25, 2017 at 11:40 pm

@y81- that sounds very plausible to me, and not too complicated as a blog comment. The change in AD due to lack of a rural safety net is interesting. I used to think that one cause of the Great Depression was, besides the horse to car and steam to gasoline transitions, was the rural to city transition, but from the evidence I’ve seen the number of farmers did not really radically change from 1920 to 1930, it was the same as the declining of previous decades; also unionism in the 1930s was relatively still small (so no sticky wages). Quite possibly the “Scott Sumner thesis” (he wrote a book on this; I’ve not yet read it) holds that the Great Depression ended around 1934 (due to coming off the gold standard says Sumner, but I say it was just a coincidence) and the rest of the Great Depression was caused by FDR’s meddling, the 1937 Fed missteps (Sumner again) and lack of AD until WWII lifted AD. In other words, the GD was a routine 19th century panic made into a years long affair by the US government? Or the people maybe fearing fear itself (my pet thesis is FDR did more good than harm with his fireside chats, which broke the 1933/34 bank panic; US banks, being “unit banks” not Canadian style “branch banks” were prone to bank runs)? “Further research is needed…”

10 Josh October 26, 2017 at 5:51 am

I may be misremembering, but isn’t the story usually that 1907 led to the eventual creation of the federal reserve. Seems pretty important.

11 mulp October 25, 2017 at 6:23 pm

“The earlier volume was shockingly dull considering its topic.” On Charlie Rose the author touched on this. First he sees this era as much more dynamic, he found exponentially more records than previously, and “history” has come to use “stories” as well as facts, or replacing facts.

He, and his slaves if I interpreted him correctly, (RAs), found lots more records than for his previous book and his draft second volume came in at over 3000 pages. (Who knows how many thesis papers were produced by his assistants….) The second half of his second volume should come out in a “short” time. He didn’t commit to an end date for the rest of the second work, so the more stories he leaves in vs adds will determine how long until he delivers the final draft to his editor. If this volume sells well, my guess it will be sooner and cover less time.

He stated he first wrote the WWII portion, implying lots of material written, which leaves 1920 to 193x, which includes FDR helping clean up Tammany Hall with La Guardia in 1934 on, with all the CCC and WPA projects still mostly machine controlled to 1940. The risk is he decides to make the 1920 to WWII robust which takes a number of years before finalizing the WWII portion, and then revising his views on the WWII portion.

My bet is it will be two 1000 page volumes to get beyond WWII. Based on following several other authors producing similar works over 40 years in multiple fields. My first such author was Don Knuth who expanded a book on computer algorithms into a planned 7 volumes which had a detour into computer publishing with a book that expanded to 7 volumes, and now the original series volume four is projected as at least 3 books, and volume five is looking so long to produce, 2025, that he won’t live long enough to have time to have anything to add in any volumes 6 and 7.

Asimov on the other hand, published lots of books, which often involved reed itinerary previously publish short stories, and then revising and adding material to previous books to assemble them into a couple of histories that before he died revised into a single history in many volumes. I followed him after reading Opus 100 which excerpted from his previous 99 books, out of what ended up being about 500 books (many significant revisions of his previous books in effort.)

In any case, the Mike Wallace interview by Jeff Glor is https://charlierose.com/videos/31077; at minute 31 or so he talks about why only to 1919 and what comes next.

12 Roy LC October 26, 2017 at 10:03 pm

I know this is late, but thanks! That was a really useful response.

13 Robert Rounthwaite October 25, 2017 at 2:29 pm

If this is “one of the best books on American history period” why wouldn’t you read the whole thing? Are we to conclude that American history isn’t to your taste?

14 dearieme October 25, 2017 at 2:50 pm

Be fair. It covers more than twenty years!

15 Anon October 25, 2017 at 5:16 pm

Catch 22.

16 Unanimous October 25, 2017 at 5:27 pm

I found that funny too. It’s so good I’ll probably read more than half of it.

17 rayward October 25, 2017 at 2:54 pm

One of the things about living is a small southern town with a very long history is that history is right there in front of you every day, not some far away abstraction. From the colonial era to the plantation era to the gilded era to the progressive era to the war era to the post-war era, reminders of them all right there in front of you every day. Not that many care. I’m reminded of the absence of curiosity among Americans often when visitors ask for directions. “How do I get to the marina”, one asked recently. “You continue on this road about a half mile until you come to the tabby ruins, then turn right at the first road”, I answered. Then I added, for no particular reason, “The ruins are what remain of Pierce Butler’s house, this property we are on being one of the many plantations Butler owned in South Carolina and Georgia.” “Who?”, he asked. “Pierce Butler, one of early America’s wealthiest and most educated men and a delegate to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia and a signer of the constitution”, I responded. “I’m just trying to find the marina, but thanks for the information anyway,” as the visitor went on his way. I don’t know if he found what he was looking for.

18 Mike October 25, 2017 at 3:24 pm

Just curious – do you have an opinion of the first book in the series. (Gotham) Based on your recommendation, it doesn’t sound like it’s mandatory.

And will it make ex-New Yorkers too homesick?

19 The Other Jim October 25, 2017 at 9:48 pm

Very glad you enjoyed the book, but Dear God Man, stop quoting reviews from amazon.com. You know how many of the are paid for by the publisher, yes?

It sounds like you don’t, and that does not provide good optics for you.

20 Napoleon Symphony October 25, 2017 at 11:00 pm

The curse of bast is of course the cure for TB invented of course in 1882, the same year by the way, that flatirons were invented. That leaves 1832 as proof that the strand is the bust of homer. Yes, 47 Faulkner said 47 mules granny stole I reckon from the Yankees and asked for god’s forgiveness. The diagnosis slayed the cure. There’s no doubt Sound and Fury is the masterpiece because it is told in the first-person without any narrative space for Joseph Heller like musings. Don’t get me wrong. I like the musings. But the genius of Sound and Fury is the absence of linear narration and in its place the idea of tangents and elliptical in a way Joyce wished he could understand. Yes the Grandma is in Good Country People is fine gal, but is she cocksure? I’d have to say not.

21 Rob October 26, 2017 at 9:41 am

If I’m considering this or Power Broker, which is a better doorstop and which is a better read?

22 Albigensian October 26, 2017 at 12:56 pm

I’d agree that these years were particularly important in the history of New York City, but, it’s still just one city and just 21 years and, “almost 1200 pages”?

So many books (fiction as well as non-fiction) have become obese, even as much of the public’s attention span has grown minuscule. Perhaps some sort of compromise (something between 1200 pp and click-bait) is possible?

23 banstoddy October 27, 2017 at 9:06 pm

Another book about New York and another book about the New York Jewish experience!


Honestly, anyone who wants to read about anything else is an anti-Semite.

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