Tag Archives: history

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.

Lazy Historians

24 May

A friend of mine points out that it looks like a lot of fun to be paranoid schizophrenic. Essentially, you perceive yourself as the center of the universe, someone that tremendously powerful and secretive forces want to affect. Whether they’re beaming invisible thought rays straight into your cortex or planting subversive characters behind the Dairy Queen counter, to a paranoid schizophrenic there are no limits to what the diabolical Powers That Be will inflict upon hapless citizens. I think I might have the reverse of this affliction, since I’ve never perceived myself as very important or that the things I do are worthy of scrutiny.

I can understand why a crazy person might think that his neighbor is an FBI agent planted to listen to everyone’s most private thoughts through a machine that looks suspiciously like a dishwasher: that person is crazy. In an effort to make sense of a scary world full of hallucinations and symbolism, being targeted by a grand conspiracy is a more salient reason than accepting that one is looney tunes. In fact, constructing such a conspiracy is a symptom of being bonkers. So when some fetid lunatic crawling backwards through a subway turnstile with no pants on–an event I witnessed yesterday morning–starts hollering about the Illuminati ripping off his recyclable aluminum collection, I won’t take that person to task. I have no clues as to the whereabouts of this can collection; for all I know, the Illuminati did take it.

However I am pretty fucking sick of otherwise intelligent, literate people of my peer group that believe in ridiculous conspiracy theories. Now there are reasonable conspiracy theories, many of which are not actually theories at all but immutable fact: Ronald Reagan’s administration traded guns to Iran for hostages, OPEC artificially raised the price of oil in the 1970s while falsely claiming their reserves were depleted, boxing is fixed. When powerful people meet behind closed doors, they can get up to all sorts of mischief. But these romantic ideas of diabolical conspiracies apropos of nothing carried on for generations are absolutely ludicrous. I had a neighbor try to convince me that the some Jewish family had been running the world’s finances since the fifteenth century, passing their secret pact from father to son for hundreds of years without a break. My dad still has to knock himself out every year to remind me that mom’s birthday is coming up, never mind my carrying out a sinister conspiracy on his behalf. Shit, if he told me he was part of some age old Jewish conspiracy I’d probably blab it all over town for free latkes.

Most conspiracy theories suffer from three flaws: one, they offer an incomplete view of history, depicting it all having happened according to an exact plan devised in smoke-filled rooms, not subject to forces like weather. Some theorists reply that the spooky characters who run the world can control the weather, they control everything, which is the second flaw: if the conspiracy is already fulfilled, then it’s not a theory, it’s just life. If the Freemasons decide when it rains but I still have to go to work every day, then I can only hope the Freemasons won’t take away our umbrellas. Why are they making it rain, anyway? That’s the final flaw in most conspiracy theories: they’re compelling and long-winded setups with no punchline. They often involve the most dizzyingly powerful people in the world going through tremendous and expensive ministrations to become even more powerful. What the fuck is the point? That’s like Warren Buffet fighting over a dime at the grocery store. Which he might do, incidentally, if he weren’t secretly brainwashing everyone at the behest of space aliens.

It strikes me as incredibly lazy and powerless thinking, to assume that every event is calculated above your pay grade and therefore is a fait accompli when most of us can barely keep our sock drawers in order. It’s salacious and fun to consider conspiracy theories, but when you start making broad connections across history to suit your assumptions, then you’re starting to line up with the same guy who blows erratically into a harmonica while shitting his pants near Union Square Park. And believe me, you don’t want to end up like that guy. If you thought amazon.com sent a lot of junk e-mail, the Illuminati’s thought rays are relentless.

%d bloggers like this: