A true behemoth of New York City lore, Empire City isn’t so much a textbook (although I used it as one) as the product of a couple of historians lovinA true behemoth of New York City lore, Empire City isn’t so much a textbook (although I used it as one) as the product of a couple of historians lovingly digging up primary documents and arranging them to tell four centuries of NYC history. Compiled by Kenneth T. Jackson (frequently seen on history channel documentaries about the city) and David S. Dunbar, it has first-person Joe Schmoe accounts, political documents, critical essays, travel journals, fictional selections, and plenty of ephemera, and divides them into 5 majors epochs: the Colonial Period, Rise to National Dominance, Industrial Metropolis, World City, and World Capital.
The first part, the Colonial Period (1624-1783), covers the largest span of time in the fewest pages. Due to the language of the period though, the primary documents here are perhaps the hardest to trudge through. But there’s some great stuff here, from an account of Henry Hudson’s maiden voyage up the Hudson, to a few initial colonial social contracts between the city’s first citizens, though accounts leading into the Revolutionary War. Jackson ends the epoch with his own heart-wrenching, ironic account of the slave ships of the British Army, where American prisoners were served rotten food as a deal between British General Howe and a New York City mercantilist when said mercantilist found out Howe was having an affair with his wife.
Things get moving at a much quicker pace in the second part, Rise to National Dominance (1783-1860), with documents of the laying out of the street grid in Manhattan, DeWitt Clinton’s then-revolutionary idea of using the public schools to educate the poor as well as the well-off, and plenty on the notorious Five Points district. There are also lots of accounts of European travelers having a look around at the Great Experiment (including a certain Victorian novelist who almost ruined his career with his account), but more important to this section are some of the first writers of the American literary tradition, including Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville.
Industrial Metropolis (1860-1898), the third part, starts off with a selection of writings by a couple of relatively obscure black citizens of New York who might be credited as the start of the long, proud line of African American literature to spring from the tight racial relations of New York City. An account of the Draft Riots of 1863 follows, and the bulk of the literary work of this section is decidedly political, with most sides drawn between representation and/or endorsement of the capitalist model that, let’s be honest, NYC was built on (George Fitzhugh, Horatio Alger, Edith Wharton), and a worker-based outcry against the dehumanizing effects of that model (Thomas McGuire, Henry George, Jacob Riis). On a lighter note, there are accounts of the building of Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as a poem in praise of the Statue of Liberty and an early view of Coney Island before it was ever lit up.
The last two parts take up more than half of the book, which is understandable as by this time the printing press was heralding the rise of mass media and New York was replacing Boston as the literary capital of the world. It’s no surprise, then, that a decent portion of part 4,World City (1898-1948), is composed of giants of the American literary tradition, including Henry James, Henry Adams, O. Henry, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Thomas Wolfe, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Mitchell, and John Steinbeck. It’s filled in nicely with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s Ten Misconceptions of New York, Le Corbusier’s chimeric fancies about filling every space with a skyscraper, the compact that established the Port Authority, numerous documents of the horrendous worker treatment and tenement laws of the turn of the century, and “Brooklyn Could Have Been a Contender,” a modern essay by John Tierney that imagines a world where Brooklyn hadn’t accepted Manhattan’s conditions for consolidating into the New York City we know.
If part 3 showed the roots of the Harlem Renaissance, the fourth part and then the fifth, World Capital (1948-2002), reveal the bulk of its fruits; they’re represented with selections by Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and James Weldon Johnson in Part 4, and James Baldwin, a searing poem by Federico Garcia Lorca about Harlem, and a slew of white writers who were influenced by them including Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac, and Tom Wolfe in Part 5. The rest of World Capital could probably be second-guessed more than any other section simply because of the wealth of material being written in and about NYC in the last half-century, but I don’t have many complaints. This part is especially heavy on city planning arguments (what was that old saying? Something like, “New York would be the greatest city in the world, if they ever finished it.”), with Robert Moses on one end of the spectrum and the Young Lords on the other and plenty in between. I got a little nostalgic to see they included Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” the first thing I ever read on the subway when I came to the city. And they even were prescient enough to include a short essay by Junot Diaz of recent Oscar Wao fame, a cool little piece where he reveals some of the origins of that great novel with his mashup of New York City and science fiction imagery. ...more