In every epoch, one great city has commanded attention through its ability to rise above material circumstances and express something new and original about its times. Athens, Rome, and Byzantium in antiquity, and Florence, Paris, and London in more recent times. New York is indisputably the capital of the early twentieth century.
William R. Taylor, one of America's most original and probing cultural historians, in this study of New York in the grip of modernity places it in the tradition of great western trading cities from Venice and Amsterdam to London. In such cities, commerce placed its imprint on all of the forms of cultural life. In the case of twentieth-century New York, a rich commerce led to a richly elaborated vertical architecture of skyscrapers, placed its stamp on the clustering of activities in the city, and created the modern skyline perspective that has become the trademark of modern cities. Photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Lewis Hine struggled to take account of the novelties their lenses searched out: new kinds of public spaces designed for masses of people, man and machine, man and asphalt, cityscapes with and without accompanying crowds.
In the labyrinthine turn-of-the-century New York, printing presses acted as seeing eyes for the new or disoriented citizen. Guidebooks, novels, but most of all the daily and Sunday newspapers served as charts for those trying to fathom this novel kind of society, those looking for work or entertainment. New kinds of stories, by O. Henry and others, "The Yellow Kid" and other early comic strips were part of newspaper mapping of the new city. The most indelible maps were in the network of the city's new underground subway system that carried New Yorkers back and forth between home and work. This network came to focus on Times Square, an area that soon became the city's central entertainment district, first of vaudeville, theater and nightlife, eventually of film, burlesque and, in its decline, peepshows, prostitution and penny arcades. The presence of Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood studios on Broadway and network radio nearby made it by the Thirties into a national cultural marketplace.
Publishing was the apex of the modern city's commerce and culture. Newspapers, the song publishers of Tin Pan Alley, and the proliferating magazine press took the measure of the city's changes year by year. Variety, Vanity Fair, the Smart Set and The New Yorker ground out smart opinions and stylish versions of city life for different audiences. Even Greenwich Village writers and painters were caught up in the publicizing craze of New York's jazzie new sophistication. It was words, clever words, inventive slang by a Walter Winchell or a Damon Runyon as much as any one thing that fused it all together. These elements all become part of Taylor's Gotham, an amalgam that intertwined the mysteries of old and modern New York.show more