New York City's history, writ very large - and small

November 29, 1998|By Robert W. Laird | Robert W. Laird,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898," by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. Oxford University Press. 1,416 pages. $49.95.

"American Metropolis: A History of New York City," by George Lankevich. New York University Press. 282 pages. $55. This was a year of celebration for New York City - the centennial of the consolidation of the five boroughs into what originally was known as Greater New York. But the year has passed without a ripple. The success of the union of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx is taken so for granted, it seems, that its 100th birthday was about as exciting as the arrival of the next A train.

There are, nevertheless, reasons to celebrate, for the end of the year brings with it the publication of two splendid books on the city's history.

The weightier of the two - in every sense of the word - is "Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898" by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. (No, not that Mike Wallace; this one is a history professor at John Jay College; Burrows is a history professor at Brooklyn College.)

"Gotham" takes 1,416 pages to trace the city's life, from the time 75,000 years ago when the site lay under a 1,000-foot-thick, geography-molding glacier to the unification of 1898. That is a great text for what some might deem a narrow subject. But the epic result more than justifies the effort.

"Gotham" is a masterwork - a great tapestry of a book that weaves a vast array of personalities, dramatic episodes and illuminating anecdotes into a rich and colorful whole.

This is a work not just for lovers of New York, but for anyone who seeks a deeper understanding of American history. For the city's story is, after all, in many ways the nation's.

In lesser hands, "Gotham" might have turned deadly, so packed is it with information. Happily, Burrows and Wallace are first-rate writers, fluid in their handling of the bare-bones statistics, enthralling in their handling of moments of high drama. Their vivid account of the draft riots of 1863, for example, is as blood-curdling as anything in a Stephen King thriller.

The cast of characters is enormous, of course, many of them well-known figures like Alexander Hamilton, Tammany Hall boss

William Marcy Tweed and financial manipulator Jay Gould.

But one of the book's many delights is the discovery of less well-known players. People like Henry Chadwick, editor of the Chronicle, who in the late 1860s "invented box scores and began calculating batting averages" for the newly popular sport of baseball. Where would sports fans - or baseball! - be without Mr. Chadwick's invaluable contribution?

New York City has been blessed with a number of excellent histories, notably Robert Caro's "The Powerbroker" and David McCullough's "The Great Bridge." Now add to the list "Gotham."

George J. Lankevich's "American Metropolis: A History of New York City" is far less sweeping in its ambitions. But Lankevich, a ++ retired professor of history at Bronx Community College, succeeds admirably at his goal of providing a "short, popular history of the city."

Beginning with the early days of European exploration, he carries his narrative to the present, ending with the re-election last November of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The necessity of covering so much ground in such limited space carries a price: The book is long on facts but short on quotes, anecdotes and interpretation.

But when Lankevich does pause to analyze, he can be insightful, particularly in debunking a legend or two. "Tammany Hall in the 1830s was not the mythical, finely tuned, highly organized political machine described in the works of some political scientists," he notes. "Rather, it was a coalition of factions deeply divided over questions of leadership and national issues." More often than not, Tammany's successes were thanks to a fractured opposition: "The reform impulse in New York has historically been both brief and vacillating."

"Gotham" and "American Metropolis" each stands on its own, of course. But for those interested in enriching their knowledge of America's most influential city, they might be treated as a cinematic package - "Metropolis" for the panoramic long shot, "Gotham" for richly detailed closeups.

Robert Laird, Op-Ed page editor for the New York Daily News, spent 11 years in New York government and politics, including eight as deputy press secretary to Mayor John V. Lindsay and two as press secretary to Gov. Hugh Carey, and has reported on and written about New York City since 1963.

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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