Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement—Five Cents a Spot, 1889, by Jacob Riis
The late 19th century in New York City was an era of spectacular architecture, beautiful parks and squares, exquisite mansions, and palatial public buildings—all magnificent markers of what has become known as the Gilded Age and the wealth that made it possible.
Yet the city was a study in dichotomies, an urban society whose contrasting facets were both celebrated and critiqued in the writings of Edith Wharton and Henry James and boldly exposed in the photographs of Jacob Riis. Mark Twain slyly referred to the period as the Gilded Age, to make the point that the golden, splendiferous surface only masked an underlying core of more disturbing socio-political and economic realities.
George Scheper, a senior lecturer in the advanced academic programs at Johns Hopkins University, surveys the cultural panorama of New York as the foundations of its modern identity were created. He examines the explosive growth of the city's merchant class, and the continual movement of privileged residential neighborhoods ever further uptown, from Washington Square and Astor Place through the Fifth Avenue corridor of "Vanderbilt Row."
He takes a close look at the world of Mrs. Astor—and of her social rivals the Vanderbilts—as seen in the succession of 5th Avenue mansions that turned New York’s nouveau riche into a New World aristocracy.
Schleper traces the trajectory of the arts of the period, including works of William Merritt Chase and New York Impressionist painters such as Childe Hassam and Maurice Prendergast. The culmination of the aspirations of Gilded Age–New York is reflected in the array of Beaux Arts architecture, both public and private, that served as settings for the gilded social world chronicled by Henry James and Edith Wharton.
Of course, there was another contemporaneous world in this New York: that of the city’s new immigrant population, made widely known in Jacob Riis's explosive photographic exposé How the Other Half Lives. Schepler concludes with a glimpse into these contrasting realities in turn-of-the-century New York City.