How New York Became American, 1890-1924
Reviewed by Daniel Opler
Angela Blake’s How New York Became American is a relatively brief book, and a fast read, thanks to Blake’s easy and informal style. Nonetheless, in her 176 pages of text, Blake accomplishes some important goals, exploring the ways in which urban boosters dealt with the question of New York City’s link to America in the years between 1890 and 1924.
Blake provides a fascinating portrayal, in the first few chapters, of how the tourist industry attempted to paint the city as one of tourist sites in the 1890s, as reformers tried to draw attention to the same city as a site of poor immigrant communities (the immigrants themselves are largely silent, which is perhaps surprising in an era when immigrant groups had tremendous access to communication; but one could argue that to middle class Americans, the groups both reformers and tourist industry boosters sought to address, urban immigrants, were indeed silent). In the end, she argues, boosters very much came to control the city’s image.
As a professor in a Department of Communication, Blake is singularly interested in the methods that the different groups used to try to spread their different understandings of the city. She argues that photography, for instance, was itself the subject of contestation between the two groups. In the 1890s, reformers like Jacob Riis used photography to try to paint the city as a site of poverty and moral decay. As a result, when New York tourist boosters tried to advertise the slums as sites where middle-class Americans could go and see the immigrant “Other,” could experience strange foreign adventures, they avoided photography, using instead pen-and-ink drawings to try to capture the foreign world of the immigrants. Other methods of communication are also historicized in interesting ways. Statistics, for instance, are one of the shared concerns of the two groups: boosters loved to use numbers to describe the height of buildings and the size of the city; while reformers were increasingly determined to use statistics to try to describe immigrants’ poverty. And, Blake points out, both sides tried to use exhibits to make their point; reformers in the Charity Organization Society had their Tenement House exhibition of 1900, where they tried to use a combination of statistics and visual representations to argue for the reform of immigrant housing in New York City. By the 1920s, however, exhibitions had become the province of tourist boosters. Led by Grover Whalen, the city’s Silver Jubilee, Blake argues, was a way for the boosters to portray New York as “a mainstream, modern city, safe for business and tourism” .
The willingness to historicize images of New York City, to recognize the different forces at work in the contest for New York’s image, and to explore the different methods used to portray New York City are important in themselves, but other moments in the text are equally thoughtful. Blake pays close attention to the history of science, and she integrates this story thoroughly into her narrative on several occasions, not only examining the rise of social science in the Progressive Era, but also informing the reader that the American Museum of Natural History was once a center for eugenics, spending a few interesting pages examining the Eugenics Congress of 1921 and its accompanying exhibition. She also reminds us that, despite the best efforts of eugenicists to spread their ideas in the city, no matter how successful eugenicists were in promoting their ideas nationally and internationally, interest in eugenics was relatively muted within the city. By 1921, boosters were more interested in using immigrants’ neighborhoods as tourist attractions, and too many immigrants had voices in city politics, for eugenic arguments to make much headway.
In addition, Blake’s largely informal writing style, integrating metaphors, taking time to provide the reader with detailed descriptions of specific sites and events in the city’s history, is highly engaging, making the work very accessible both for scholars and for undergraduate students.
There are only a few places where Blake’s work falls short. For instance, the difference, with which she begins the study, between boosters and reformers, might be more complicated than Blake suggests. The two groups had many things in common, including shared sites. The city’s department stores, for instance, which Blake identifies as central to boosting tourism, nonetheless were also sites used by urban reformers, according to Susan Porter Benson. And while the groups may well have had different messages, their goal was often the same: to recreate New York City as a space devoid of class and ethnic conflict. If boosters sought to deny this conflict’s existence altogether, reformers sought to eliminate it by altering the social conditions in which immigrants lived. The methods they used and the image of the city they wished to present were certainly different, and Blake’s argument that the two groups contested is certainly an important point, but their shared goals suggest that perhaps the relationship between the two groups deserves more careful attention.
In addition, in her analysis, Blake minimizes the role not only of immigrants, but also of African Americans. If the turn-of-the-century immigrant press was largely ignored by most native-born Americans, and there is no evidence to the contrary, it is unclear that one could make the same argument for the Harlem Renaissance. People throughout the country were very aware of the Renaissance. And, while it is an open question whether Renaissance authors played to the stereotypes of white Americans or challenged those stereotypes, there can be no question that they were profoundly aware of their white audience, and of the role the city played in the minds of this audience. Yet Blake all but ignores these voices, arguing instead that by the 1920s business leaders successfully used neighborhood associations to ensure that New York City be represented exclusively by midtown. Doing more on the Renaissance authors’ depiction of New York City might have provided a fascinating counter-narrative to her overall argument.
Other times she goes a bit too far in her analysis, at one point arguing that boosters adopted western language to describe the city at the turn of the century because they wished to represent the city as central to American identity. It is an odd assertion, largely because so many other reasons exist for the adoption of western motifs in these descriptions. For one thing, as she points out, discussions of the frontier abounded in the 1890s and early 1900s, and boosters’ decision to adopt this language to describe the city need not have any special significance. There simply is not enough evidence to claim that this was a calculated move to recast New York as an American metropolis.
These are, on the whole, rather minor objections. Blake’s prose flows beautifully, and her argument overall illuminates aspects of urban history often overlooked in other studies. If flawed in spots, Blake’s book is an important one, spanning several different important subject areas and decades. It is an impressive accomplishment.