Greater Gotham: A Talk by Mike Wallace: Open House New York 21 February 2018

Open House New York was having an event at the SVA Theatre, where many New Yorker Festival events are held (sometimes the same weekend as Open House New York when they unlock the doors of many of New York’s famous buildings). This was a talk by Mike Wallace, one of the co-authors of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, who would talk about his new book, Greater Gotham: A History of New York City form 1898-1919. Why the first book stopped at 1898 is obvious. The second book takes you to the end of World War I, in which New York very much became the city we know today. The third book, which Wallace is currently writing, takes New York City to the end of World War II.

The theater was sold-out and filled with many young architectural students in addition to older New Yorkers like me, who are just interested in the history of our city.

Unlike the first book, the sequel is more relevant to the NYC of today. Wallace planned to give us a 15-minute overview of a book that is over one-thousand pages and then take questions.

The new way to travel around the city – subways – had people packed like sardines, which people endured because they could get from 72nd Street to Wall Street in 16 minutes (the signals worked then). Companies were merging and most had their headquarters in NYC. Brooklyn was de-agriculturalized when the subways were extended into the outer boroughs. Penn Station and Grand Central Station transformed the ecology of the city. Libraries like the Astor, combined with others to create a city-wide library system. The garment center developed with its sweatshops in lofts in midtown. Theaters were built for vaudeville and motion pictures. Skyscrapers brought a revolution in construction and finance.

Socialists/progressives (mostly Italians and Jews) fought for the working class. Theodore Roosevelt said there was no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism and old stock America did not like the immigrants. And that period began with race riots – whites assaulting blacks, where the police joined the rioters. The grand jury never indicted anyone and the police commissioner said it was the Negroes fault for getting into the disorganized crowd around them. Jim Crow existed and black Harlem was created (at one point whites suggested a wall be built to keep blacks out of Harlem).

Gender – there was a new sensibility for women. With all the corporate headquarters in NYC, some became clerks or they became salesclerks in stores. Women in the garment industry would strike. There were “willful” women like Margaret Sanger.

World War I – did you side with England? The Irish and the Germans did not. There were profits to be made from war. Europe shipped gold but did not have enough so they sold their stocks in the US railroads and other US businesses on the NYSE. Now Europe was in debt to the US.

Then it was time for questions. The first was about the Dutch. When mentioning ethnic groups in NYC, there was no mention of the Dutch. Most had married English people and sort of went underground. Except for names that still exist, the Dutch did not have much influence in NYC.

The population of NYC went from three million to five million on New Year’s Day 1898.

Why stop the book at 1919? The intention was to take the book to the end of World War II but when he was at three-thousand pages, Wallace realized he needed to cut the book in half.

Significant dates: 1898 – rise of imperialism in the US with the Spanish-American War. US industrializes and NYC becomes the capital of this. 1919 – England comes back in Europe with the rise of their navy but after World War II, NYC becomes the capital of the world.

There are booms and busts throughout this time in the US, just like today.

Pointing at the photo on the screen (looking south from the Woolworth Building in 1913), someone noted some buildings that are still standing and asked where the elite lived.


Wallace said that the elite worked in the financial center but they did not live there. They kept moving uptown – Union Square, Madison Square, Central Park, Park Avenue – to get away from the non-elite, who were also moving uptown.

Guidebooks from that era advertised elevator rides to the top of the skyscrapers as a new thing. Charging people to go to the top paid for the building. Losing out on being the tallest building meant losing money.

The plutocrats were in competition with European cities, so they built parks, museums, etc. JP Morgan paid off the city’s debt himself.

In response to if there was any resistance to consolidation of the boroughs, Wallace said that it crumpled quietly. Residents of Brooklyn Heights were most afraid of the hordes taking over. Brooklyn was houses and churches and many Anglo-Protestants worked in Wall Street (commuted by ferry). But Brooklyn was running out of water – the aqueduct from Nassau County (Conduit Avenue now that runs along the Belt Parkway) was not sufficient and Brooklyn needed the hard water coming from the Catskills into Manhattan. Brooklyn was also running out of money – they needed streets and an electrical supply. There were no taxes because it was a borough of houses and churches.

What was the draw for immigrants when they faced so much animosity from Anglo-Protestants? Jobs. The industrial waterfront was a powerhouse. NYC was a cultural and imperial city the likes of which had not been seen since Rome.

East Harlem was then Little Italy and people would live where they were surrounded by their own. When the Italian women would go to Union Square to shop, they would say, “I’m going to America today.”

What happened to the maritime industry in NYC? One problem – where do you park? Piers are too short now. The transcontinental railroad used to end at the river until Penn Station and Grand Central were built. Then everything had to be off-loaded. Competition backed up train traffic to Chicago during World War I. There were waterfront strikes.

I always love learning about my city. I do not think I’m going to slog through the book but I hope Wallace will give another talk when he finishes the third volume.

By Carene Lydia Lopez