'Gotham Rising: New York in the 1930s' by Jules Stewart (I B Tauris)

This history of the life of New York in the 1930s shows us a bi-polar city. On the one hand, there's the severity of the Depression and its drastic effects on the lives of many and on the other, the huge amounts of money gained – and spent – which contributed towards the city's transformation. Well-researched and written in a lucid and exciting way, this book informs through stories of colourful events and characters in a social history that embraces architecture, economics, the Mafia, immigration and the arts.

The two main architects of improvement in New York in the 1930s were the mayor, Fiorello la Guardia, and Robert Moses, known as the 'Master Builder' of public works projects. While they did not always see eye to eye, these men, particularly la Guardia, had the vision and the energy to make radical improvements. The chapter on la Guardia is particularly uplifting as it describes someone who worked tirelessly for the public good, always keeping in his sights the benefit to the whole of his community. He tackled the issues of corruption and crime, poverty, slum housing and unemployment; he improved workers' pay and conditions, oversaw the building of decent housing, and massive improvement to all transportation systems.

There were other builders too, who dramatically changed New York's skyline. Several of the chapters are dedicated to the background history and the actual construction of the skyscrapers. The motivation of the businessmen and entrepreneurs who erected such famous landmarks as the Chrysler Building, the Empire State building, and the Rockefeller Centre, apart from capital investment, seems to have been a mixture of civic pride and competitiveness. In a dizzy succession of ever-taller, ever more extreme constructions, various spindly needles penetrated the sky and cast ever longer shadows, as if the construction of each tower posed a challenge – does anyone dare go higher than me?

Along with this – extremely rapid in today's terms – construction, went, at least to a European sensibility, a blithe disregard or even contempt for what went before. However wonderful in whatever terms you choose – practical, profitable, innovative, daring, beautiful – the new buildings were, construction was preceded by demolition of whatever was there before. Conservation does not seem to have been an issue for those who purchased the ground and funded the construction. And when there was public opposition to some of these plans, it was swept away as cavalierly as the previous buildings themselves, whether these were people's homes or the 'colossal Tuscan columns' and 'concourse of glass and wrought iron' of Pennsylvania station. The demolition of the latter caused a 'great outcry from conservationists' but an outcry was not enough to halt the ambitions of the planners and investors and its demise was secured. The building that replaced it, according to the author, was 'far less pleasing to the eye'.

Throughout the decade, New York is seen as full of bitter contrasts. While it was 'blithe and vibrant for the privileged', there were 'the boarded-up shops', the 'makeshift bonfires' of the homeless and the hungry on the streets, the 'wretched slide into ruination' as the Great Depression like some dark tsunami, swept so many away from moorings, shelter and any kind of hope for constructing a decent life. And while many of her citizens lived in overcrowded slums in pitiable conditions, trying to eke out a living, New York entered a decade of unparalleled architectural growth. This was the era of building expansion, both vertical and horizontal. While much of the building was for commercial purposes, philanthropy played its part too as this rapid expansion included the justly famous Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. And there was massive state investment in transportation works – bridges, tunnels, railways and airports but most of all more roads, bigger and better, for that increasingly ubiquitous mode of transport – the motor car.

In these years of the Depression, within the crumbling, precarious state of a whole section of society – the poor, the underclass – the gangland flourished. There's a fascinating chapter on organised crime, the Mafia, prohibition and its eventual repeal – showing the ruthless struggle for power and domination among the rival gangs. There are other chapters about the wonderful jazz singers and musicians, the literary scene in Greenwich Village and the influx of refugees from Europe.

The final chapter describes the ethnic mix of New York and the increase in immigration. In the 1930s, we are told, about a third of New York's population was foreign-born (and still is today) and there were large and for the most part separate communities of Irish, Italian, Hispanic, Jewish and African-American people with clearly-demarcated territories. And these different communities did not blend easily together into some harmonious whole, but 'saw almost constant confrontation between these ethnic groups.'

The decade saw an increase in the number of Jewish people escaping the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime in Germany, and its spreading influence throughout Europe. Those who were lucky enough to be accepted into the US were thankful to find a place of refuge, but were not universally welcomed with open arms. There were anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi organisations in New York at this time and they whipped up resentment and antagonism. Once the US entered the second world war on the side of the Allies in 1941 these organisations were disbanded. Entry into the war, as well as deflecting energy from inner conflicts, meant a number of new job opportunities in the war industries: 'A measure of shared affluence cures many a social ill' the author writes. While it's disconcerting to think that going to war might bring greater economic equality and a more harmonious society, it remains true that a big discrepancy in wealth between rich and poor entrenches a feeling of unfairness in which various 'social ills' can flourish.

This book is full of vivid characters from all these different worlds – visionary mayors and architects, the monied and the Mafia, the artists, musicians and writers – and links up so many famous and less well-known names from different social arenas. It delineates a social and historical fabric which is pulled together to form a sometimes dark and sometimes glittering and illuminated network around this incomparable city.

For New York itself is the central character in this story, exerting its own influence on the diverse people who, with their arrogance, faith, narcissism, their money and ambition, their competition and their vision, gave it not just its inimitable style and skyline, but turned it into the cultural, artistic and creative milieu that it is today.

I so enjoyed reading this decade-in-the-life of New York. While I sometimes felt disbelief at the destruction of old buildings and at the racial segregation, the twists and turns of the deadly Mafia machinations read like a thriller. And I felt that in the late 30s and early 40s the city had redeemed itself with its acceptance of the refugees from Europe, after the miseries of so many of the poor and homeless in the Depression years. Of course for there to be any talk of redemption it's to do with the changes of circumstance and of heart, with the people that make a city rather than the city itself, but Jules Stewart's writing is so good that you come to believe in secret, subterranean intentions or supra-skyscraper destinies, that belong to the city itself.


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