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The Center of the World: New York, A Documentary Film | Clip

Mike Wallace, Historian

Historian Mike Wallace won the Pulitzer Prize for the book he co-authored with Ted Burrows, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. He is the founder of the Gotham Project for New York City History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Producer Ric Burns interviewed him during the making of New York: The Center of the World.


The U.S. and Global Interests
You have to understand that the remarkable thing about the United States in the 19th century is that it was not an imperial power, in the classic European sense. It did not have to be, because it was its own empire. What happens is that over the course of the 19th century, our empire's the West. We drive railroads into it. We look for mines. We open up factories. We develop cattle farms and ranches. It's very similar and very much the same time that the British and the French and the Germans are invading Africa, are moving into the Far East. We were moving into our own continent. There's a lot of blood shed... spilled, and Indian wars are, you know, enormous and incessant, but it's within the continental boundaries.

It's only really by the end of that 19th century that there's the sense, overstated somewhat, but that markets are closing up, that access to raw materials is being limited, that the great game of global imperialism is going on. People like Teddy Roosevelt, here in New York City, are saying, we've got to get into the game. That means getting outside of our border. That means getting territory. That in fact is involved with what we do in our first little gambit which is, we peep out onto the planet and knock off the weakest remaining European empire, which is Spain, and we get Puerto Rico, and we get Cuba, and we get the Philippines.

There's a tremendous backlash, because many Americans think this is for a republic. We are not an empire. We don't do things like this. But we did. And they were footholds for an expansion of navy. Navy would expand beyond and facilitate our fleets emergence, because in the real world, but American bankers and American businessmen went down to Latin America, they found ahead of them, ensconced in all the big capitals, it was the British, the British banks, the British traders, they were squeezing us out. They didn't want to let us in, even if it didn't have an official colony, they had better goods, they had more money, they had more expertise. We bumped up against them. We bumped up against them in Asia, and for the longest time, the Brits, of course, wouldn't allow us in at all. And then when they had big colonies, I mean, India and the like, it was off limits. So there was this sense of impatience and concern and desire to sort of get in on the great game. And that meant expanding beyond our physical borders. But it was a matter of debate.

This is moot through the 1920s and the 1930s, but it's at the end of the Second World War, and for a whole variety of reasons, there's a renewed concern now to look abroad, to begin to figure out ways of making money that transcend the still enormous national, domestic market, which we can still rely on and still focus on, but we need more, the critical balance is increasingly overseas.

Lower West Side Businesses

Radio Row actually was a constellation of wholesale and retail outlets, this time for what are radio goods, in the 1920s, vacuum tubes and what not. This is the kind of place where both businesses and, you know, ham operators and all that sort of flocked to buy things. It was a thriving marketplace in electronic goods.

And after the Second World War it expands. You've got an enormous amount of army surplus, navy surplus stuff that's being sold, latest in electronic gadgetry. Who knows, you know. But it's the kind of place that's a petri dish for the potential development of an electronics institute. We talk about the electronics on the West coast growing out of garages and what not. Well, this is, this is the operation that caters to that. And in fact, very soon... electronics, one of the giants of the later industry, is going to grow out of that petri dish down there in Radio Row. You move up a little bit, still on the Hudson River side, you've got the printing trades, which are servicing the financial district. You've still got a hefty garment manufacturing component. You swing around a little bit. You're into Chinatown. Chinatown is, again, pretty sleepy, because immigration restriction had cut off the influx of Chinese, so the community's kind of an aging bachelor society. But if you shift over to the East River, you've still got the Fulton Fish Market, you know, functional, viable, some of the new public housing which is going in, in just the late Forties, which is housing some of the new immigrants coming up from Puerto Rico and elsewhere.

So there's an amazing diversity of things around what is the old financial core, which is really only one section of this operation. And it, in fact, is very kind of back water status. Remember, it had been at its height in the 1910s and the 1920s explosions, when the great towers built up. And they had grand visions of expanding throughout the rest of the area. But the Depression laid them low. War time, not much happening. There's no new construction had gone on, no big new office buildings. More to the point, the industry itself was very cautious. The corporate economy was still sort of slow. There was concerns about the return of a recession at the end of the war. The great push abroad hadn't really taken off yet. The stock market is sort of dozing along. So it's this kind of equilibrium between a variety of uses that looks very much like it might have looked 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago.

Opposition to Building the World Trade Center
It's fascinating, because it's the same kind of opposition, the same kind of interplay between midtown and downtown interests that you had back in the 1920s, when you had the battle of the skyscrapers between the Bank of the Manhattan Company on the one hand and the Chrysler Building on the other. When word is clear that the Port Authority is going to subsidize this enormous trade complex, which is now -- only very marginally has anything to do with the port, because in fact they're moving the port, you know. So the old rationale is crumbling.

You get a complex of interests, particularly the people who own the Empire State Building who say, wait a minute, foul ball. You're in fact using government public dollars to underwrite a massive new complex of office space. What's going to happen to the rental market? It's going to not only destroy downtown, because you're going to build far more office space than you actually need, but it's going to mess up my property up here in the Empire State Building. So they bring suits, and they try to stop it.

The other kind of opposition that takes place is from the endangered small owners in Radio Row. And they picket, and in a funny way, it's just the kind and at the same time of resistance that's taking place to Bob Moses' plans for building the Cross Bronx Expressway, up in, you know, to devastate the Bronx and also in parts of Brooklyn. And these guys go out. And they actually unkindly attack the Port Authority as sort of like Kremlin-like, it's high Cold War, remember, and that their sort of arbitrary using of undemocratic power to sort of drive 30,000 jobs out of this area. It's not nothing, you know. They lose. To make a long story short, the powers that are assembled in favor of remaking lower Manhattan triumph. And one by one, these competing uses are literally driven into the sea or pushed on elsewhere. And for a time, lower Manhattan is indeed going to be stabilized. And it's ready for when the next boom hits in the 1960s, when the real internationalization now of the American economy takes off with Chase right smack in the center of that operation, many of the visions that David had, and his assorted peers down there, are going to come true, and lower Manhattan is going to go through an efflorescence.

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