Greater Gotham: Interview with Mike Wallace

By Peter Scamardo

Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 by Mike Wallace is the recipient of the 2018 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. Established by Phi Beta Kappa in 1960, the award recognizes scholarly studies that encompass work in history, philosophy, religion, anthropology, and the social sciences and that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity.

A native of Queens, New York, Wallace is Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and at the CUNY Graduate Center. A Guggenheim Fellow, Cullman Center Fellow, and Pulitzer-Prize winner, Wallace specializes in the history of New York City and the practice of public history, such as the way history is presented in museums, films, and theme parks. 

In addition to writing extensively about New York City, Wallace co-authored A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the Mexican Drug War with his wife, Carmen Boullosa. The two have collaborated multiple times on binational research and exhibitions that detail the connected history between the United States and Mexico.

A follow up volume to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, for which Wallace and co-author Edwin G. Burrows received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for History, Greater Gotham covers 355 fewer years than its predecessor but tells the story of how New York became the city we recognize today.

Coming in at over a thousand pages in length, Greater Gotham paints the scene of Broadway’s blossoming, the growth in popularity of the Bronx Zoo and the New York Public Library, the baseball craze of the Giants and Dodgers and newly-minted Yankees, and how Wall Street saw New York surpass London as the financial capital of the world.

In a story of art movements, race riots, immigrant dreams, and the First World War, Wallace takes his readers on an immersive journey through all five boroughs and between every skyscraper and sweatshop. 


In 1999, you won the Pulitzer Prize for Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. What made you want to return to the subject of New York City and this time focus on a particular 20-year period?


WALLACE: In fact I’d always intended this to be a multi-volume project. Originally I thought the second volume would carry the story down to the end of the Second World War, rather than stopping at the first. But when it looked like the manuscript would clock in at roughly 3,000 pages, way beyond the limits of bindery technology (and reader patience!), Oxford and I decided on a two-for-one stock split. The third volume, in progress, will accordingly cover from 1919 to 1945, including the boom of the twenties, the depression and New Deal of the thirties, and the Second World War. Further installments will depend on sufficient longevity. 

Greater Gotham has been described as encyclopedic in scope and detail, but is there a particular person or event that struck you as truly essential for the city’s development during these early decades of the 20th century?

WALLACE: I hold encyclopedias in high regard but would demur from so labeling the Gotham project. Encyclopedias are assemblages of individual entries, but narratives like mine weave entries into a story – with the importance, interest, and usefulness of the narrative being a function of how well discrete entries are connected. Similarly, with something as gargantuan and complicated as New York City, individuals have outsize influence only to the degree they are agents of huge social forces. In this period “J.P. Morgan” is a stand in for the consolidation of the economy and culture of the metropolis, as embodied in the great wave of corporate mergers over which he presided, and the collateral development of giant organizations in many spheres of the city’s social ecology.

Where does the word “Gotham” come from, and how did it become synonymous with New York City? Why did you decide to use it in your title?


WALLACE: Gotham is the name of an actual English village, near Sherwood Forest, of Robin Hood fame. In the middle ages it was a proverbial village of idiots, about which jokes were circulated on the order of ‘how many Gothamites does it take to screw in a lightbulb.’ Washington Irving borrowed the name to critique elite New Yorkers, but as the American revolutionaries did with Yankee Doodle, the city adopted it as a nickname. This was because of another fable which cast the Gothamites as ‘wise fools,’ only pretending to be idiots, but really tricksters. You can find the whole story by going to Amazon’s preview of Gotham, the series’ first volume, where it’s in the introduction, starting on page xii. (You can also listen to the story on their just issued audiobook, which lasts 67 hours and 25 minutes!)

A review in The New York Times observed that even “weathered aficionados of city lore will find moments of revelation” in your book. Can you discuss one revelation that might surprise your readers?

WALLACE: I don’t know that it rises to the height of revelation, but I remember being startled to learn that even slaughter houses were skyscrapered. Starting in 1906, cows could be ferried across the Hudson to a new state of the art facility between 39th and 40th Streets at Eleventh Avenue. The cattle arrived at the company’s own pier, hoofed up a ramp to the roof of the six-story abattoir—a mini-skyscraper by slaughterhouse standards—and spent their last hours there in repose, eating, drinking, and contemplating the river. Then they were dropped by electric elevators to the fifth-floor killing beds, where they were dispatched, then processed as they descended, until they reached street level as sides of beef, ready to be sent down to wholesalers in the meatpacking district below 14th Street. The new abattoir was widely praised for its efficiency and cleanliness, qualities in marked contrast to the horrible conditions that prevailed in Chicago—a state of affairs that had just been revealed by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

What was your reaction to winning Phi Beta Kappa’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Award? 

WALLACE: I was delighted and greatly honored to join the ranks of such a distinguished body of awardees, particularly to find myself in the company of my mentor Richard Hofstadter.

Peter Scamardo is a senior at the University of Houston majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. He is also interning at the Houston Chronicle this fall. The University of Houston is home to the Mu of Texas chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.