Genteel Days of Racism and Classism

26 Jun

Just finished reading Tales of Gaslight New York, which blended nicely with my bathroom perusal of The Flatiron by Alice Sparberg Alexiou. I wouldn’t recommend either book. The latter is a terribly boring story of an opportunistic real estate magnate and his dealings with labor leaders and shareholders–really, the author could have just published his company’s ledgers and saved the writing. Tales of Gaslight New York is a collection of magazine articles about New York from around the turn of the twentieth-century. If you like that sort of thing, it’s pretty cool, and has some fascinating photos and line drawings. It’s not a picture book, though, and the reproductions aren’t great. The book is very dense with words, so you’ll probably want to break up the monotony of reading article after article where the word “today” is hyphenated with something that’s less eye-straining: I chose The Flatiron and Batman: The Man Who Laughs.


Titling the book Tales of Gaslight New York is somewhat of a misnomer, since virtually all of the articles are from after 1902 when much of Manhattan was electrified. I enjoyed the writing within, authors with names like Clay Meredith Greene and Richard le Galliene, writing for periodicals with titles like Munsey’s Magazine and Everybody’s Magazine at what must have been a per word rate. There are a lot of topics covered by thirty-four articles, but they can largely be lumped into one or more of three groups: pleas for social reform, descriptions of buildings and locations (sometimes illustrated), and essays about New York City’s social elite, full of wry commentary about ingenues and robber barons, much of which is lost on me since I don’t know particulars about the intended targets. Still, I enjoyed these glimpses into a world over a century past, mostly to see what has changed (our collective vocabulary has worsened) and what has not (apparently we’ve always loved to build up celebrities only to watch them self-destruct).


I enjoyed one author’s description of “succeeding waves of Italiany children” near a cabby’s hack stand on the East side, which “broke and splashed at our feet.” I trudged through the scrutiny one author gave the building of the IRT subway, affording the reader a view as clear as if he’d been peeking at the construction from between plywood slats. Most moving was an article about the General Slocum disaster, written by Mr. Herbert N. Casson as “the exact facts of the most shocking and pitiful tragedy in the annals of the sea, with the damning evidence of criminal indifference and despicable dishonesty on the part of directors and inspectors.” Many of the articles in this book are or include indictments of penny-pinching landowners and unscrupulous corporation boards, missives that clamor for more official involvement, more laws, more restrictions in place ostensibly to protect the common man. The demand for this kind of institutional compassion is a hallmark of the twentieth century, and in the articles contained within this book show us some of the geneses of that demand.


The magazine sections in Tales of Gaslight New York were penned before the American labor union movement, before women’s suffrage. There was much talk about health and vigor but seemingly little knowledge in the way of how to achieve them. Desegregated water fountains and establishments were still half a century away when magazines published loving articles about the Human Need of Coney Island or an expose on the “white wives” of Chinatown in Slumming in New York’s Chinatown. It’s easy to sit here from the vantage point of the twenty-first century and chuckle, being that we’ve assuaged some of the public need since the time of these old writings. We provide more social services, afford more equity overall. Yet century-old calls for more corporate culpability and better living conditions seem to ring truer than ever. There may not be millions of immigrants swarming New York’s Five Points, among rats and refuse and firetrap wooden shanties, but hundreds of thousands if not a million people still live in substandard housing in New York City, in some of the most deplorable conditions you won’t see beyond an episode of Hoarders.


What I got from reading this book was that there are no limits on man’s inhumanity to man; the powerful will always exploit the weak as much as they are allowed. This is why we must always be vigilant and pursue our ideals, no matter how futile they might seem, because if you don’t fight then you’ll simply be taken advantage of. Compassion exists freely only among the have-nots, from those who give our lives its structure it must be forcefully extracted. Assume nothing, safeguard yourself, be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. Moreso now than in 1900, there seems to be plenty of grease to go around, and yet the aggregation of wealth in the world is held by fewer people than it was a hundred years ago.

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