Fifth Avenue, Easter, 1906 (National Archives)
The city's bustle cannot destroy/The dreams of a girl and boy./We’ll turn Manhattan/Into an isle of joy.
—Lyrics to “Manhattan” by Lorenz Hart
The fledgling songwriting team of Rodgers and Hart had their Broadway breakout hit with “Manhattan,” a 1925 tune that celebrated New York City as a playground of delights for the humblest of lovers—all the way from Coney Island to “the Bronnix.” In Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 (Oxford University Press), Mike Wallace chronicles the growth of the city’s great cultural institutions—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, the Columbia campus on Morningside Heights—each clothed in imposing classical architecture and for the most part sponsored by wealthy Anglo-Protestant New Yorkers.
But equally impressive, says Wallace, was the surge of popular-culture institutions and expressions that emerged from the enclaves of Jewish, Italian, Irish, and German immigrants. That boom was reflected in ethnic theaters, vaudeville houses, nickleodeons and movie studios, Tin Pan Alley songsmiths and the recording industry, and gambling “hells"” and cabarets. Mammoth entertainment zones like Times Square and Coney Island became attractions that defined the city’s recreational pleasures and temptations, drawing their crowds from city dwellers and visitors alike.
Perhaps the most striking contribution was the impact of African American New Yorkers, whose ragtime, cakewalk, and “jass” music innovations fed the era’s dance crazes and bands and helped foster a cultural revolution both in Gotham and throughout the nation. Wallace traces the fascinating confluence of social, economic, and creative forces that transformed New York into an everyday isle of joy for entertainment lovers.
Wallace is a distinguished professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the director of the Gotham Center for New York City History. He is the co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history, and was a consultant for the PBS series “New York: A Documentary Film,” in which he also appeared.
Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 is available for sale and signing.
A performance of “Manhattan” from the 1929 short Makers of Melody, a tribute to Rodgers and Hart, includes contemporary footage of the vanished New York of the ′20s.