New York State of Mind

New York State of Mind

Mike Wallace details the history of New York City from 1898 to 1919 in his sequel Greater Gotham.

Last October, Mike Wallace co-authored Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919. The book is a sequel to the Pulitzer Prize-winning volume Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Wallace is Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay and is also the founder of the Gotham Center for History at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

Stephanie Jimenez: Your first book, Gotham, covered the first two centuries of New York City’s history. What made you take on such an ambitious project?

Mike Wallace: There was an even more lunatic project I was interested in before this one, which was to write an entire narrative history of the U.S. In the ’60s and ’70s, the history of the U.S. was revolutionized in conjunction with the movements on the street. At the moment when blacks, women, gays and anti-war activists were trying to get included in the American presence, the historian dimension was undergoing the same change. I was involved in this movement in the ’60s, and my colleagues and I formed a radical history journal called the Radical History Review. We had speakers and public forums hosted here at John Jay, and by the ’70s, it was clear we had collectively rewritten the history of the U.S., but nobody knew it. So a colleague and I set out to write the history of the country, but after several years, we hadn’t gotten out of the 17th century. I thought, well, let’s do the history of New York instead. It seemed less ambitious than what we initially intended.

Flatiron, New York 1905
“Flat-Iron Corner After Snow Storm,” New York, 1905 (New York Public Library, Art and Picture Collection)
Macy’s ca. 1908
Macy’s ca. 1908 (Image No., Byron Company/Museum of the City of New York)

SJ: Did you know you were going to write the sequel even as you were writing the first?

MW: When we set out, we thought we were going to write the whole thing in one volume but eventually it was agreed to do it in two. When we worked on the second volume, again we cut it in half. Now we’re working on the third volume, a fair chunk of which has already been written.

Rent Strike in Harlem
“A Rent Strike at 1294 Park Ave. in Harlem.” New York Times, September 1919

SJ: What is New York City’s relation to the rest of America?

MW: Well, it wasn’t clear at first that New York would become a super city. Increasingly it became a focal point, and Wall Street and New York became inextricably linked in the public imagination of the Midwest and South. In the period of this second volume, New York experiences an immensely transformative moment and clearly becomes the predominant city. New York was an important port and financial city by the 1880s, but by 1919, it was a serious contender as the financial capital of the world.

SJ: What is the process of writing a book this comprehensive?

MW: I read. I synthesize the works of hundreds of thousands of books, articles, dissertations and websites. The point was always to summarize the work of those who had been influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and project it to a popular audience. It’s been a pleasure now to have many, many, people say this is so readable—as if something that was big was inherently dull.

Photographs of New York
G.G. Bain, “East Side Eviction,” ca. 1900-10 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

SJ: In Greater Gotham, you talk about New York City as a place that was constantly rebuilding and redefining itself. Is that process of change unique to New York City?

MW: To some degree, it’s omnipresent in a capitalistic economy in general. But from the 1830s onward, the city was known for tearing itself down almost as quickly as it built itself up. In the 1850s, people said, “Why should anybody love New York? From one minute to the next, it’s completely different! Someone goes away for 10 years and comes back to find nothing they can remember.” Hyperbole, but that sensibility is a phenomenon.

SJ: What do you do when you’re not reading and writing?

MW: Traveling is part of it. My wife, Carmen Boullosa, is Mexican, and we go back and forth between New York City and Mexico City. We’ve written a book together called A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War.” 

SJ: You teach the “History of New York City” and the “History of Crime.” How do John Jay students benefit from learning the history of New York?

MW: Americans tend to think the past is over. When someone is a serious loser, you say they’re history. But the past isn’t dead. It flows through the present. If you don’t understand how the world came to be, then you don’t understand how it is, and you’re open to all kinds of delusions.

SJ: How have you seen the College change since you first started teaching in 1971?

MW: Oh, there’s been enormous transformation. The ethnic mix of students has gotten stronger. I start my “History of New York City” course by asking students to do an ethnic survey of anyone in their extended family tree and we look at the results by order of immigration to New York. We have no Dutch, but we do have representatives of English, Irish, German, Cuban, Italian, Russian, Polish, Greek, French, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Norwegian, Swedish, Puerto Rican, Jamaican, Mexican, Chinese, South Asian and Middle Eastern descent. I suggest to students that if they haven’t got a grip on what New York is all about, it’s themselves. It’s the unlikelihood of winding up with that level of diversity at one time, in one classroom.