Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America

Image result for supreme cityIn the wonderful book Over P.J. Clarke’s, the author describes the Prohibition as a law that the city’s liquor-loving mayor had no desire to enforce. His name was Jimmy Walker, and he saw through the temperance movement as being anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant. As a Catholic he had no problem with drinking, and as the mayor of New York City he knew not to anger the ethnic groups whose votes he needed. The people in New York had no desire to obey the Prohibition, any more than a 13 year old obeys an order never to look at internet porn. New York City in the 1920’s was a world class party town. But what gave it an edge over Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Miami, or LA?
Supreme City will surprise you in how it pieces together all the aspects of New York City that gave it the famous Jazz Age character. NYC always tolerated silly behavior, hence the nickname “Gotham,” after an English town whose resident avoided taxes by feigning imbecility. Yet according to this book, the 20’s were a time when even the upper classes were enjoying silly things once stereotyped as low-class, like short skirts and drinking.

The Holland Tunnel gets a chapter in this book, because at the time it was built it was a major tourist attraction. The ventilated air was cleaner than that on the street, and it ended the crowded boat traffic on the Hudson River. Before the tunnel, there were thousands of ferries crossing the river, crashing into each other, sabotaging each other, and god help the ferry pilots who had to cross at night or in fog. The waterways were now a place for pleasure boating. As for trains, the law forced them to convert from coal to electricity, so the smoke was soon gone. Even better, the tracks were forced under park Avenue, leaving Park Avenue literally what it was called; an avenue with a park in the middle (it was later removed to widen the lanes.) Property values soon rose.

The roles of women changed too, with so many of the male sex dead from the Great War. Women were now free to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, wear short dresses, and socialize with men in way previously seen as low class. The US was the biggest exporter of grain, lumber, alcohol, beef, and fertilizer, and US corporations owned plantations in Latin America. Europe was a wreck from the war, the US dollar value was high, and there were so many opportunities for wealth, not to mention the business of illegal alcohol. Radio programs increased, as did Hollywood and the movies, creating a greater influence than religious preaching. No temperance-minded moralist could stem the barrage of the media.
New York City, like others, was going up. Skyscrapers were built in record time, thanks to Mohawk ironworkers, and there were no lawsuits for wrongful death, leaving the contractors with zero liability. They came from Canada and Upstate New York, lived in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn, and had the Wigwam bar on Nevins Street. They left Brooklyn in the 1960’s when the highways decreased travel time and the area started getting bad.

Supreme City isn’t full of surprises, but it does have a logical argument. If the Holland Tunnel weren’t built, and the trains hadn’t been forced under the streets, then perhaps New York City wouldn’t have been as attractive as it became. Cities on the coast have always been attractive as a tourist spot, more so than the ones within the continent, so I imagine NYC would be a bit more fun than Denver or Salt Lake City. As for Miami, it wasn’t built up yet, and there wouldn’t have been much to do, same with Los Angeles. But Chicago, now that was a city with character, also a destination in the 1920’s.

However, NYC has always been popular with single adults, so it’s no surprise that the residents want to party. Once they needed more space (like Jay Gatsby) they moved out to Long Island or Westchester. The ones that stayed were the artists, writers, actors, and others who didn’t mind a cramped city.


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