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Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

Author(s):Burrows, Edwin G.
Wallace, Mike
Reviewer(s):Goldin, Milton

Published by EH.NET (February 1999)

Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to


New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. xxiv + 1383 pp.

Illustrations, maps, references, bibliography, and indexes. $49.95 (cloth),

ISBN 0-19-511634-8.

Reviewed for H-Business by Milton Goldin, National Coalition of Independent

Scholars (NCIS).

MiltonG 525@AOL.COM

Gotham demonstrates the wisdom of never judging a book by its cover —

or by its heft. Its dust jacket suggests yet another in the apparently endless

series of New York City social histories; and given its nearly five pounds,

suspicious readers may leap to the conclusion that Burrows and Wallace are

academics who never saw a detail they could not include. To the contrary,

the book is an extraordinary interweaving of business history and social

history that results in a reference work which

not only tells us how, but why, the metropolis was well on its way to becoming

the financial capital of the world on New Year’s Eve in 1898, when “the

nation’s first- and fourth-largest cities would merge into a supercity —

Greater New York —

that would

encompass not only Manhattan and Brooklyn, but Queens, Staten Island, and the

Bronx as well” (p. 1218).

The authors move quickly from Manhattan’s earliest Indian inhabitants to Peter

Stuyvesant’s New Amsterdam, founded in 1624 as a fur-trading outpost for the

Dutch West India Company. Dutch settlers were very different in temperament

from Puritan settlers — more phlegmatic, less fanatical, and far more

interested in making money, legally or otherwise, than in probing deeper

meanings of Christianity. An other major difference was that the Dutch

displayed unruly traits not usually encountered among devout types.

Saloonkeepers ignored regulations to close on time, not to sell liquor on

Sundays during preachings, and not to pawn articles that customers offered for

drink. Stuyvesant increased fines for settlers who struck other settlers, but

New Amsterdam’s residents evidently considered such pleasures well worth the

penalties; court records suggest they hit each other as often as possible.[1]

From the time

the Dutch arrived, England was claiming title to New Amsterdam. But not until

1664 could London assemble armed forces to seize the settlement. Stuyvesant

wanted to resist, but inhabitants did not much care who ruled them so long as

they could freely pursue commercial interests and amusement, and they opted to


During the remainder of the seventeenth century and since that time, the basic

question that perplexed Stuyvesant and the earliest citizens would perplex

English and then American political leaders and populations: How can

commercial establishments interested almost exclusively in status,

wealth, and power prevent from flying apart a community of increasing


In their introduction, which serves as a tour de horizon not only for

this volume but for a forthcoming volume in what will be a history of New York

City to the present time, Burrows and Wallace make clear the extent to which

commerce has dominated the city: “After the Civil War, the metropolis became

the principal facilitator of America’s own industrialization and imperial

(westward) expansion.”(p. xvii). And, by the 19th century’s end,

“New York had gained the ability to direct, not just channel, America’s

industrialization. Financiers like J.P. Morgan established nation wide

corporations and housed them in the city, making Manhattan the country’s

corporate headquarters. When World War I ended European hegemony, and the

United States became a creditor nation, New York began to vie with London as

fulcrum of the global economy.”(p. xviii). Key developments in facilitating

the city’s “imperial expansion” were the opening of the Erie Canal in October

1825 and railroads, from the late 1850s. Other cities along the eastern

seaboard resented New York’s burgeoning fortunes, but unfortunately for them,

they began digging canals too late. Only with railroads could other cities hope

to compete, and in 1860, counting “the still-heavy volume of traffic on the

Erie Canal, [New York] received $161 million worth of goods from the West, just

about the value of that year’s cotton crop.”(p.655).

While some

entrepreneurs thus demonstrated their extraordinary talents

positioning New York vis-a-vis national and international commerce,

others made speculation in real estate an art form. The

real estate market was driven not only by needs of the rich for factories and

palaces for themselves but by immigrants who poured into the city thanks to its

promise of employment. Employers never adverse to paying the lowest wages

possible had no complaints about realtors extracting the highest rents

imaginable from workers.

Like the Dutch, English and American elite had no great fondness for

non-Protestants. Jews were tolerated because they took care of their own poor.

The problem through much of the

19th century was with immigrants who might be Christians but who also happened

to be Catholics. In particular there were the Irish, driven from their

ancestral homeland by indescribably cruel English policies. To the dismay of

New York’s Establishments,

not only were Irish Catholics unable to finance care for their poor, but by

definition they were guilty of allegiance to Rome. Adding to their misery,

in searching for employment the Irish resented seeing such signals of

disapproval as signs reading, “No

Irish need apply.”

What the authors call “the sharply unequal distribution of wealth in the city”

(p. 144) did not calm nerves. In 1730, “a comprehensive property assessment

revealed that the richest 10 percent of the city’s taxable population, some 140

merchants and landowners, held almost half its taxable wealth.”(p. 144). In

1800, “the richest 20 percent owned almost 80 percent of the city’s wealth. The

bottom half owned under 5 percent.”(p. 351). By 1892, “60 percent of the

leaders of New York’s national corporations,

investment banks, and railroads were descendants of old-monied families.”(p.

1083). In New Amsterdam, care of the poor had been left to religious groups,

but with the English came secular welfare policies that continue to inform City

Fathers more than three hundred years later. From 1685, “deserving poor . . .

received assistance for their Reliefe out of the public Treasury,”(p. 145),

the idea being to keep them out of sight and to get them off welfare rolls as

quickly as possible.

Non-residents bereft of money, who happened to be passing through, and all

able-bodied residents judged fit to work but unemployed got nothing. Only

“deserving poor” were thought worthy of receiving charity. Who were the

“deserving poor?” Those persons who appeared to be in distress through no

fault of their own, such as widows, the sick, and cripples. “Paupers” could

receive no charity; their situations clearly stemmed from laziness, fraud, and

assorted moral degeneracies. Little was said about the unspeakable practice in

Colonial New York of setting free aged or infirm slaves to save money,

“a practice so widespread by1773 that in order to keep down the cost of relief,

the legislature imposed a fine of twenty pounds on the last owner of any

freedman found begging in the city.”(pp. 192-3).

Gotham inevitably gives rise to thoughts about histories of the

metropolis. Not for the first time, a book that deals with the impact of

business on cities makes me wish that more writers would address confrontation

s between classes rather than offer smorgasbord portrayals of admired,

colorful, celebrated personalities, descriptions of magnificent,

soaring, unique architectural achievements, and encomiums for world-famous,

inspiring arts centers and art museums endowed by the rich who thus serve the

masses. Struggles for power and class conflict are also what business history

is about — in cities as well as within countries.

[1] For accounts of life in New Amsterdam, see Carl Bridenbaugh. Cities in

the Wilderness

: The First Century of Urban Life in America, 1625-1741.

(New York, 1966); J. Franklin Jameson, editor. Narratives of New Netherland,

1609-1664. (New York, 1909).

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century