Gotham: A History
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JIM LEHRER: Now, another of our conversations with winners of this year’s Pulitzer Prize, and to Terence Smith.
TERENCE SMITH: The Pulitzer Prize in History went to Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace for their book, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. The authors are history professors teaching in New York City, Mike Wallace at John K. College of Criminal Justice, and Edwin Burrows at Brooklyn College. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Mike Wallace, do people confuse you with the "60 Minutes" correspondent?
MIKE WALLACE: Yes. Although happily, after years of riding on his coattails, I understand from him that he’s been getting calls recently asking him or congratulating him on having gotten the Pulitzer Prize. I mean, it makes perfect sense, I suppose. I mean, Jennings, Brokaw, those are the folks that do the big history books.
TERENCE SMITH: Exactly.
MIKE WALLACE: Why not?
In many ways the story of the United States.
TERENCE SMITH: Edwin Burrows, let me ask you this, this book is simply huge. It is an enormous project. I’m curious about the origin of it and the suggestion that you actually started out to do a history of the United States?
EDWIN BURROWS: Oh, that’s the joke. We began working on this about 20 years ago. We had been collaborating on a history of the United States, and we thought, well, we had some pretty good ideas, maybe we should try sort of a test of those ideas and maybe do the history of New York City, which we thought we could finish pretty quickly. And, of course, it took us 20 years.
TERENCE SMITH: And, of course, you make the point in the book, Mike Wallace, as well, that the story of New York is in many ways the story of the United States.
MIKE WALLACE: Absolutely, and certainly through this period — we end in the late 19th century — New York was sort of the unofficial capital, and at one point the official capital, but also New York was the place that all of its street names were instantly recognizable around the country, around the world: Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Seventh Avenue, Broadway, Coney Island, Times Square. You know, it was lodged seriously at the center of the national consciousness.
TERENCE SMITH: Edwin Burrows, when you describe in the early chapters the legendary purchase of Manhattan for $24, you call it sort of the primal deal of the deal-making city of New York. Is it myth or did it happen?
EDWIN BURROWS: Well, it happened, but not quite the way in which people often think it happened. New York City was not purchased for $24. It was purchased for a bucket full of trade goods that were figured in the 19th century to be worth $24. But we like the story because it says a great deal about how New Yorkers view themselves and how they view the city and the acts that created that city.
TERENCE SMITH: Mike Wallace, you also explain in the book the origin of the name "Gotham," was so often applied to New York and what it conveyed about the residents.
MIKE WALLACE: Yes, Gotham was, in fact — still is — a real little town in England near Sherwood Forest. But in the Middle Ages, it was the proverbial village of fools. And Washington Irving, who was writing this kind of brat pack series of essays in the early 1800′s, picked up the name and applied it to New York, probably with sarcastic reference. But I think New Yorkers seized on it because one of the stories that was told about medieval Gotham was that it was a place of wise fools who knew enough to con people by pretending to be foolish. And I think that, like the $24 thing, appealed to New Yorkers’ sense of themselves as, you know, fast talkers, con artists, deal makers. We love selling the Brooklyn Bridge to any rube who comes to town. It’s somewhere near the core of our genetic cultural material.
TERENCE SMITH: It’s certainly the way New Yorkers like to think of themselves.
EDWIN BURROWS: Absolutely.
MIKE WALLACE: Absolutely.
A communications center.
TERENCE SMITH: Edwin Burrows, you also mention in several chapters the centrality of New York as a communications center and exactly why that came to pass, beginning with the telegram.
EDWIN BURROWS: Well, beginning — it actually began earlier in the 19th century when New York City began to throw out lines of communication, both across the Atlantic and then down to the South and out West, through canals and railroads and roads, and achieved a dominance on the flow of information around New York that — around the United States that really made the city the central processing center for information in the United States. And in many ways, that’s one of the secrets of the city’s power and its growth and its dynamism in the 19th century.
TERENCE SMITH: And Mike Wallace, it became also the great center of the newspaper business, of the media.
MIKE WALLACE: It’s the same — part of the same story. I mean, with the Erie Canal, the city becomes the obvious port of call for new things. I mean, Dickens came here because he was enraged that Americans, like Harpers brothers, were pirating his books and running off copies and sending them down to the interior. But because we had the printing presses here and because we had the first dibs on information coming in from Europe and the stock market was here and we got a lock on things with the Atlantic Cable and the Associated Press and Western Union, this place becomes the central point of dissemination of news and information, but also cultural goods. The hot new plays come. They come to New York City. They’re tried out on Broadway, and then they go off literally on the road into the interior.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Edwin Burrows, "Harper’s Monthly," you quote, back in 1856, wrote of New York and said, "New York is notoriously the largest and least loved of our great cities." I wonder why and whether you think that’s still true.
EDWIN BURROWS: Well, let’s — the first part of it goes back, again, much earlier than the 1850′s. New York was — many people in the United States view New York as the least American of all United States cities. And that’s a phenomenon that I think dates to at least the early part of the 19th century. And New York was both admired and resented around the United States because of its economic power. There are farmers out in the Midwest who are trying to buy land to farm, and they realize that it’s owned by New York State land barons, by New York City land barons, and merchants and bankers. And there’s always been a mingled admiration yet bitterness toward the city that is rather old.
The five points.
TERENCE SMITH: And, of course, the great flows of immigration. Mike Wallace, you describe, in fact, a point in the city that was sort of the ultimate melting pot, which was called the five points. Tell me about that.
MIKE WALLACE: The five points, so-called literally because five streets came together, was in fact originally under water. And it was filled in. It was low-lying swampland. The price of land was the cheapest, so, in fact, it attracted the poorest people in town. So it’s true that the earliest immigrants and Irish and Germans and such came there, as well as African Americans, after they were freed from being slaves. It’s tricky. It is — it’s probably one of the times when there was most of a melting pot because there was such a dense intermixture of populations. But "melting pot" is a tricky metaphor. I mean, almost at the same time, you had a huge arrival of German immigrants in such numbers that, in fact, they formed their own enclave right next to the points, and that was much more homogeneously German. But the points were notoriously, you know, run down, squalid. Landlords would take three-story brownstones, carve them up into little mini spaces, and pack in 100 people or more. Same sort of thing is, in fact, going on, particularly in Asian parts of the city these days, with miserable sanitary conditions in those days even worse. All those people would share one privy. So it was famous for being squalid. Dickens, when he came to New York, wanted first and foremost to visit the five points, and he went with a little armed police guard. But, in fact, what drove Dickens particularly crazy was, at the heart of the five points there was a dance hall where blacks and whites danced together. And it certainly is true that the racial barriers, which were intense from the earliest days on, were most fluid in the five points. The poorest New Yorkers managed to sort of fraternize across race lines in a way that middle class folks would not do.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. You know, I’m curious. I have to ask you, Edwin Burrows, when I look at this book, I wonder what your thoughts were and your hopes and your expectations when you wrote and published this book.
EDWIN BURROWS: Well, you see, after 20 years — when we started the book, we knew we had a good idea. And we devoted a lot of time and energy to it. And as the book grew, of course, we labored away in this kind of exquisite solitude year after year after year, without much sense of exactly what kind of a reception we would get. And bless their souls, when Oxford University Press got a hold of it and began to respond very positively to it, we began to sense that we had the tiger by the tail here. And I think as that process came to an end, we really began to have some expectations of real success.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
EDWIN BURROWS: The Pulitzer, I didn’t let myself think about that too much. But I’ll be honest with you, the thought crossed my mind occasionally.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. And Mike Wallace, I understand that you are at work on Volume Two.
MIKE WALLACE: Yes. I’m going to complete the story down through the 20th century to the day after tomorrow.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. That’s great. We’ll look forward to it. Thank you both very much.
EDWIN BURROWS: Thank you very much, Terry.