NEW YORK, NEW YORK
The Life and Times of Gotham, the City by the Sea
11:00 PM, Feb 7, 1999 • By FRED SIEGEL
What made New York different was not the lack of intense, often violent, class conflict but rather the lack of the assumptions behind it. There was a fundamentally different character to American radicalism -- primarily because many radicals shared the same free-market ideology as their class enemies. Consider William Leggett, leader of the "Locofocos," the Jacksonian radicals who broke with the Tammany Hall regulars. "The sole reliance of the laboring classes," Leggett argued, "is the great principle of Equal Rights . . . [and] a system of legislation which leaves all to the free exercise of their talents and industry." The primary objects of Leggett's ire were the government-granted monopolies in everything from meat and vegetables to fuel and ferries. It was the working people, he quite correctly argued, who paid for the privileges of the politically connected Whig elite with higher prices and reduced opportunities.
Writing in the New York Morning Post, Leggett made such a strong case for hard money, free trade, and limited government that some historians mistakenly see him as a precursor of such conservative free-market thinkers as Friedrich Hayek. "Governments," Leggett insisted, "have no right to interfere with the pursuits of individuals . . . [or] to tamper with individual industry a hair's breadth beyond what is essential to protect the right of person and property."
Other New York radicals were more fully in the European mold. The German immigrant Wilhelm Weitling, who had fought on the Parisian barricades in 1848, was one of the early proponents of terror -- "founding the kingdom of heaven by unleashing the furies of hell." He wanted to mobilize "smart and courageous murderers and thieves," but he found little success in America. His proposals to establish workers' cooperatives did resonate a little in New York's German community (whose piano-makers' union carried the flag that their fellow Parisian piano makers had planted "upon the barricades during the stormy days" of 1848). But at last Weitling's ideas remained marginal.
New York in the nineteenth century -- like New York in the twentieth century -- was beset by an often bewildering set of cross-cutting antagonisms. In Gotham, Burrows and Wallace note that there were numerous clashes in which workers crossed ethnic lines. But most labor and fraternal organizations had a distinctly ethnic caste, as different groups operated in distinct niches of the economy. It is difficult, in fact almost impossible, to sort out ethnic and religious strands from class in radicalism. How can they be disentangled when, for instance, an unskilled Irish Catholic worker easily found himself in conflict with a native-born Protestant boss?
In fact, it often looked as though New York's nineteenth-century conflicts were entirely ethnic. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Irish immigrants -- representing 20 percent of the population but 70 percent of the people on relief and more than half of the men in jail -- were despised as "simian brutes" by Protestants of all stripes. The Irish alliance with radical Tammany politicians was already enough to anger Protestants, and the Catholic Church didn't help matters when Bishop Hughes preached at St. Patrick's Cathedral on "The Decline of Protestantism and Its Causes."
Yet the 1849 Astor Place Riots demonstrated that Irish Catholics -- given the right provocation -- could unite with anti-Irish nativists to form the "dangerous classes." It was Shakespeare who set off the Astor Place Riots, but what they revealed was a class conflict so intense it shook the city. The greatest Shakespearean actors of the day -- and bitter rivals -- were William Macready, a symbol of British aristocratic culture, and Edwin Forrest, the Philadelphia-born hero of the common man. In May 1849, Macready was set to perform for the white-gloved Whigs at the Astor Opera House, while Forrest was playing at a Broadway theater not far away. The penny press stoked the feud between the actors, and the Irish radicals hostile to Macready and the native-born Bowery B'hoys united for the occasion. When Macready came out for the third act of Macbeth, Isaiah Rynders, a knife-toting gambler, saloonkeeper, and Tammany politician, led his gang members to their feet shouting curses. Outside a mob of more than eight thousand -- egged on by nativist Ned Buntline swinging a sword and screaming "Workingmen! Shall Americans or Englishman rule?" -- were throwing stones at the theater windows. The crowd, shouting "burn the damned den of the aristocracy," refused to be intimidated by the arrival of the militia, which eventually fired on the rioters and left twenty-two dead.
In the wake of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, it seemed as though class warfare had finally come to the New World. Some of the Whig grandees were delighted by the outcome. James Watson Webb saw the riots' casualties as "an excellent advertisement to the Capitalists of the old world that they might send their property to New York and rely upon the certainty that it would be safe." But, as the historian Peter Buckley notes, the class solidarity of late 1840s was soon replaced by the ethnic antagonism of the 1850s. Working-class nativists quickly came to see cheap Irish labor, rather than Anglophile bosses, as their primary foe.
The nativist riots of the 1850s were the last time that the Protestants dominated the streets of New York. In the 1860s, it took an entire regiment of Union soldiers to beat back the Irish rioters protesting the Civil War draft and the competition of black labor in what was the bloodiest disturbance in American history. By 1871, while wealthy New Yorkers looked with horror as the Commune ruled Paris, Catholics took control of New York's streets. With the police closely aligned to Tammany Hall, Irish Catholic rioters made that year's Protestant Orangemen's parade the city's last.
It's hard not to admire the encyclopedic breadth displayed by Burrows and Wallace in Gotham. On top of its coverage of political and economic topics, the book is filled with discussions of the arts, entertainment, popular recreation, and architecture.
It's also hard, however, to be satisfied with Gotham's implicit thesis of a world definitively divided between rich and poor. For what's striking about New York is that so many of its conflicts took place within a consensus about values. Gotham presents a city like a giant, wobbly bucket, always threatening to be tipped over by agitation. But for all its violence, nineteenth-century New York was more like an ocean that always settled back after a storm. The historian James Chapin argues that "if by chance the elite 10 percent of New York had been wiped out by a plague, the remaining population would have recreated something similar to what already existed." What most New Yorkers, rich and poor, wanted was a chance to better themselves. It's true that sometimes they tried to acheive this by violent means, but the real fact of social mobility is the missing element in Gotham. There is no recognition, for example, that the great-grandchildren of the nineteenth-century Irish Catholics would go on to create the New York Conservative party in the 1960s.
Selma Berrol's new The Empire City: New York and its People, 1624-1996 lays out in its brief 183 pages the more compelling case of a city defined by upward mobility. Her thesis is that there was a "symbiosis" between the rise of new immigrants and New York City. As she notes, both the mid-nineteenth-century Croton water system (built by the Irish) and the turn-of-the-century subways (built by the Italians) provide examples of a city improving its infrastructure while its new immigrants improved their social position.
Berrol doesn't gloss over the desperate poverty of the immigrants, particularly during the down cycles of New York's boom-and-bust economy. But, as she observes, those who arrived in New York with skills -- like the Germans, who were 15 percent of the population in 1855 but half the bakers, confectioners, cabinet makers, tobacconists, tailors, and woodworkers -- were likely to do well even when times got hard. Berrol argues that "the basic reason" there was so much suffering in a city with a growing economy was simply that the population was expanding even more rapidly, "creating a gap that led to low wages and unemployment," particularly in the winter "when the canals froze and commerce dwindled."
Henry George, the most influential social critic of late-nineteenth-century New York, gave a different answer. George, an extraordinary mix of conservative and radical instincts, wanted to know why more wealth seemed to produce more poverty: "As liveried carriages, appear, so do barefoot children." Seven years before Frederick Jackson Turner penned his famous thesis explaining why American democracy depended on the opportunities offered by the frontier, George anticipated his argument. The United States, George said, had been a land of promise because its vast expanses of territory meant that landlords couldn't extort monopoly rents from the workingman. But that day had ended, and the new world was about to become as class-bound as the old. The solution for George (an ardent free trader) was a single tax on land to replace all other taxes.
In 1886, Henry George was one of the three extraordinary candidates for mayor in a defining election fought out against a backdrop of rising unemployment, the Haymarket bombing in Chicago, and a wave of violent strikes. George's opponents were the twenty-eight-year-old Theodore Roosevelt (who finished last) and the victor, Abram Hewitt, the son-in-law of Peter Cooper, who had founded the Cooper Union for Arts and Sciences, where the bright children of mechanics could receive a free education.
Declaring himself the spokesman of "Honest Labor Against Thieving Landlords and Politicians," George drew the support of the city's newly aroused labor movement. His supporters, Irish laborers and German craftsmen alike, sought to restore the traditional virtues. Their placards read "No Charity: We Want Fair and Square Justice," and "The Spirit of '76 Still Lives." On the stage of Cooper's Great Hall, where Lincoln had denounced black slavery, George denounced "industrial slavery." Adverting to the city's densely packed slums, he told the crowd, "we are toiling perhaps for Mrs. Astor" or "the heirs of some dead Dutchman."
Hewitt, by nature a reformer, reluctantly accepted the backing of Tammany Hall. His family ties gave him some credibility with the city's workers, and he insisted that he was not the upper class's candidate. "These rich Republicans and these rich millionaires -- nay, have they not at the Union League Club endorsed Mr. Roosevelt?" Hewitt criticized the Astor family -- who at one point were collecting 10 percent of the rents of Manhattan -- for not devoting their "unearned increment" to the public good, and he agreed that the city should tax the wealthy to create more institutions like the tuition-free Cooper Union. But he also spoke to the fears of middle-class property owners, noting that the single-tax would hit them hard. And he insisted that the United Labor party that backed Henry George consisted of "anarchists, nihilists, communists, socialists" who were "enemies of civilization and order." The city should, he admitted, restore opportunity -- but not at the risk of practices that would recall "the horrors of the French Revolution and the atrocities of the Commune."
Hewitt proposed to increase opportunity by rebuilding the city's crumbling docks, streets, and transit facilities. New Yorkers looked with envy at the way Baron Haussmann used the authoritarian powers granted him by Napoleon III to modernize Paris. Haussmann tore down the jumble of working-class streets that had so often incubated revolution and replaced them with broad boulevards -- transforming revolutionary Paris into a right-wing city by pushing the working class out into what became the "red belts" of the periphery.
This Haussmannian model was unavailable to New York with its manufacturing centered in the very heart of the city and its vibrant democratic politics. But New York had its own working-class jumble that worried the city's business class. It lay in the Tammany strongholds along the chaotic, densely packed, sometimes violent Manhattan docks.
The corporate lawyer and anti-Tammany reformer Andrew H. Green was the first to argue that the city and the port could modernize themselves if the five boroughs were consolidated. Mayor Hewitt (who was also an iron importer looking to reduce the cost of goods moving through New York harbor) agreed that only a unified city could dredge the harbor, upgrade the docks, and rebuild the warehouses. If a single authority controlled the water-front, he argued it could control the abuses from those "who by encroachment, appropriation, and misuses, deplete the general system through niggard schemes of individual profit." He even suggested the construction of a rail bridge across the Hudson to connect manufacturers to the mainland.
Green and Hewitt cautioned that if New York did not consolidate its five counties in order to pay for the new infrastructure, it would inevitably fall behind its rival, Chicago. Echoing Leggett and George, Hewitt even warned that only a consolidated New York could carry on more than a "desultory and futile war against the organized forces of relentless and absentee capitalism, resident in Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, London, Paris, or Frankfurt."
Green and Hewitt succeeded. New York surpassed Chicago in population and never looked back. With the 1898 consolidation, explains historian David Hammack, New York became a regional government and "suburban development could in effect take place under the aegis of city."
The upshot was extraordinary. New York turned into "the engineers city." With a unified harbor, the city went on to build bridges across the Harlem and East Rivers, tunnels under the Hudson to New Jersey, and the subway's circulatory system for labor. New York became not only the largest city in the United States, but its busiest port, a paradise for small manufacturers, and the headquarters city for national corporations. It was, as George Francis Train boasted, the "locomotive of these United States," a city whose bank deposits were as great as all the rest of the country combined.
In Gotham, Burrows and Wallace mourn George's defeat and thereby lose the larger picture in which Hewitt became the architect of the city's twentieth-century success. Hewitt's farsighted emphasis on infrastructure helped create the economy that gave the mass of newly arriving immigrants (as well as earlier arrivals) the opportunity to begin their now fabled journey up into the middle class.
Burrows and Wallace are not the only ones to lose sight of Hewitt's vision. Much of the history of the city in our own time is the result of New York's leaders forgetting what made their city great. Over the past half-century, New York has proved unable to erect major new projects -- or even maintain what it once built. The city stopped building and ignored the harbor that had once sustained it. And in the bargain, it once again began to suffer from the disorder of its "dangerous classes."
The New York of Hewitt -- the New York that Herman Melville knew -- seemed still very much alive when the city celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of consolidation in 1948. Unscathed by the war that had ravaged London, Paris, and Berlin, the city was alone at the top. The earlier warnings from the Brooklyn Eagle about the dangers of a "Manhattan pattern" imposed on the outer boroughs were forgotten. The expanded tax base had built the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, the subways, and the sewage and water systems necessary for a rapidly growing city. The unified harbor that had a prime attraction for the merger was finished, and it brought in ever increasing tonnage.
And yet, even in 1948, consolidation had left an important piece of business unfinished. One of the primary reasons Brooklynites had voted for consolidation in 1898 was their desire for a cross-harbor rail connection linking Brooklyn's deep-water port to the mainland. In the absence of a rail tunnel, goods were shipped across the harbor in barges or lighters (the "Manhattan Transfer" made famous by John Dos Passos). The river traffic, however, couldn't sustain even the demands that the First World War had placed on the port -- when, as Lankevich describes it in American Metropolis, trains arriving on the Jersey side "were backed up as far as Pittsburgh."
When the war ended, New York and New Jersey collaborated to create a port authority modeled on the semi-autonomous agency already running the London docks. The new agency took on the job of building the rail tunnel, and therein lies perhaps the greatest "might have been" in New York history. In 1988, Rebecca Shanor published a fascinating volume entitled The City that Never Was: Two Hundred Years of Fantastic and Fascinating Plans that Might Have Changed the Face of New York City. These included a dirigible port atop the Empire State Building and Robert Moses's plans for a bridge from the Battery to Brooklyn. It is a wonderful book, but strangely it didn't include William Wilgus's proposals for modernizing freight connections. Wilgus, a master engineer best known for building Grand Central Station, showed how an inner rail line could update the port by joining the Brooklyn and Manhattan water-fronts and connecting Brooklyn to the mainland by way of a rail tunnel.
The Port Authority took up Wilgus's proposal, but it was stymied when, as historian Robert Fishman explains, the twelve trunk-line railroads serving New York "achieved a rare level of agreement through their concerted refusal to cooperate." This is the point at which everything started to go wrong for New York's blue-collar economy. "In precisely those industrial and working class areas that would . . . become tragic loci of decay and deindustrialization," writes Fishman, "the [Wilgus] plan called for massive investments in new rail and mass-transit lines, highways, and shipping piers."
Instead, the city began to shed itself of the infrastructure that had been its glory. Saddled with the financial costs of the La Guardia years (when it had offered the widest range of social services available in the United States) and rising municipal labor costs, the city moved to divest itself of the very assets that had created its wealth. New York's two airports were turned over to the Port Authority, which went on to mismanage them. And then there came the final loss of the harbor.
Two years after a 1946 tugboat strike had shut down New York's port, Mayor O'Dwyer proposed that the Port Authority take over the city's docks. The Tammany-connected long-shoremen resisted furiously, but they were tainted by their mob connections. The docks of lower Manhattan were among the last remnants of the old New York described in Gotham. Cut off "from the rest of the city by a steel-ribbed highway and a wall of bulkhead sheds," wrote Daniel Bell in 1951, "is the New York waterfront, an atavistic world more redolent of the brawling money-grubbing of the nineteenth century than the smoother-mannered business transactions of the twentieth."
It was atavistic both in its mores and in its unmodernized facilities, and in the late 1950s, the harbor was turned over to the Port Authority -- which had by then only a secondary interest in maritime commerce.
The Port Authority was created to upgrade the harbor, but by the 1950s it had dedicated itself instead to building automobile bridges and tunnels and collecting tolls from them. The regional planners meanwhile turned to clearing Manhattan of "inappropriate uses" -- by which they meant manufacturing. Without the Wilgus rail lines, most small factories were eventually pushed not only out of Manhattan but out of New York altogether.
Over time, the new bridges and tunnels managed both to open the city to suburban commuters and to congest the city to the point of making it almost impossible for New York businesses to ship out their goods. White-collar commuters came to Manhattan, and manufacturing jobs left.
This, to be sure, isn't the whole story. Over-taxation, over-regulation, the excess of Robert Moses, and John Lindsay's welfare programs played their part in the city's travails. But the decline of the harbor is a key and underappreciated part of the decline of New York. In the late 1950s, with the help of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the Port Authority transferred most of what remained of New York's ship traffic across the river to Newark and Elizabeth, which were well connected by rail. New York City received instead that twin-towered white elephant, the World Trade Center, and higher down-town vacancy rates, while the Port Authority, which had devolved into the kind of monopoly William Leggett would have recognized as an enemy of opportunity, started an art collection.
It may be unfair to blame New York's leaders for not grasping at the time what seems so clear in retrospect. There was a moment when it looked as though New York could have the best of both worlds. Between 1947 and 1963, notes Berrol, the city added 58 million square feet of office space including the Time-Life, Equitable, and Seagram buildings, while still employing 927,000 people in manufacturing.
But today only a little more than a quarter of those manufacturing jobs remain. Some of this transformation -- documented in Laura Rosen's well-photographed pictorial essay, Manhattan Shores: An Expedition Around the Island's Edge -- was inevitable as the United States shifted to a service economy. Land in Manhattan once devoted to docks and innumerable small factories has been converted to office towers for the far more remunerative financial sector. It came, however, at the cost of not just a decline but a near-catastrophic collapse of the city's extraordinary ecology of the small specialty manufacturing companies that both competed and cooperated with each other.
With the post-1965 wave of immigration, well-educated and entrepreneurial Korean and Indian arrivals, like the nineteenth-century Germans, have generally moved up quickly. But New York is having a very hard time incorporating its largely unskilled arrivals. The loss of the harbor has meant the loss of the jobs traditionally filled by young immigrants.
A Puerto Rican man who had come to New York in the 1950s recently told the journalist Robert Suro:
I started after school hauling ice, and then as soon as I was sixteen, I dropped out of school and went down to the Fulton Street docks to become a stevedore. When there was no work on the docks, you could always go to the Garment District and just look for signs, . . . and I never spent a day on relief.
Since 1960, Puerto Ricans' participation in the labor force has dropped from 85 percent to 50 percent, and the city's 900,000 Puerto Ricans, as a whole, have become not only downwardly mobile but perhaps the poorest group in the country.
"The net effect of the repeal of New York's harbor geography," wrote Roger Starr, "has been to turn the primary asset of the city, the foundation of its greatness, into a liability." The manufacturing intimately tied to the port has been marginalized and the city has been left, even in the booming 1990s, under the administration of a mayor as extraordinary as Rudy Giuliani, with an immigrant population but without an immigrant economy. In the hurly-burly immigrant city depicted in the pages of Gotham, disorder in the streets and opportunity in the shops were joined. The danger now is that the disorder of the downwardly mobile has few means of entrepreneurial expression.
Mayor Giuliani seems to have at last given up on the Port Authority, which has dabbled in fishports, airports, heliports, and "resource-recovery centers" without ever carrying out the mission for which it was chartered. He has proposed that the city take back what it once ceded to the Port Authority and take on the task of building the cross-harbor tunnel itself. It's an idea that might redeem Hewitt's vision of New York as an "engineers city" and the harbor as an engine of opportunity.
New York City needs to turn its face to the sea, once again.
Fred Siegel, of the Cooper Union for Arts and Sciences, is a senior fellow of the Progressive Policy Institute and author of The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America's Big Cities.