New York Becomes the Capital of Capitalism
Miller: In the year 1900, Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana gave a
toast to the new century. "The 20th century will be American. American thought
will dominate it. American progress will give it color and direction. American
deeds will make it illustrious."
But the question was: which America would dominate the new century? In the
decade leading up to 1900, Capital and Labor clashed in enormous struggles for
the soul of the nation. In 1894 alone there were 1,400 industrial strikes.
As these struggles were taking place, American capitalism was undergoing a
Industry-dominating combinations, trusts and holding companies, were forming in
every sector of the economy: in oil, sugar, tobacco, meatpacking, lumber, and
more. At the same time, power was shifting from smokestack cities like
Pittsburgh and Chicago to New York City, the new capital of American
There's where American banking was centered. There's where the money was to
finance the creation of these giant monopolies. And there's where J. Pierpont
Morgan was, the new colossus of capitalism.
Unlike Carnegie or Rockefeller, producers of iron and oil, Morgan made nothing,
nothing except money. He had and controlled so much of it that people called
him Jupiter, after the supreme Roman god. And almost alone, he changed the
balance of power in the American economy from hard-edged industrial moguls to
well-tailored New York bankers.
The novelist Theodore Dreiser had thought Chicago would be the great capitalist
city of the 20th century. That's before he'd seen New York. When he arrived
there for the first time in 1894, he was overwhelmed.
New York was bigger, more powerful, and vastly more impersonal than Chicago.
And the entire city had what he called a "cruel, mechanical look." Dreiser had
grown up a poor kid, but wanted to be rich. So one of the first places he went
was Wall Street. There he found what he described as "a seething sea of
financial trickery, a realm crowded with shark-like geniuses of finance."
The Street, like the city itself, made him feel small, insignificant. Later,
writing about his experience, he spoke for ordinary Americans of that time.
"How could the average person," he said, "confront these wizards or contend
with them? They were like ogres," who in his words "ate the labor and stores of
Then he went to upper Fifth Avenue. There were the gaudy palaces of the
Vanderbilts and the Astors. The whole neighborhood, Dreiser thought, "smacked
of travel, the sea, European capitals, yachts, great financial institutions,
and industries." Here was the home of capitalist arrogance, as well as
Dreiser found this world thrilling and alluring, but he wanted to know both the
best and the worst of New York City. And this took him into run-down
neighborhoods, where as a struggling writer he was forced to live. He would
describe this other New York in Sister Carrie, where we watch the slow unmaking
of Carrie's lover, Hurstwood, a big man in Chicago but a sinking stone in New
Jacob Riis and the Slums
But the real slums in New York were on the Lower East Side. Over a million
people lived in dark, airless tenements. In his novel, Maggie: A Girl of the
Streets, Stephen Crane captured these cankerous slums with almost painful
accuracy. But it took the invention of flash photography and the crusading
spirit of Jacob Riis, to expose this human hell to a national audience.
Riis came to America from Denmark in 1870, at the age of 21, and seven years
later landed a job as a New York police reporter. His beat included Mulberry
Bend, the worst neighborhood in New York.
Riis couldn't reconcile America as a land of opportunity with what he saw in
the Bend, and he wanted to show comfortable people what they preferred to
ignore. He was able to shock people, truly unsettle them, because he recorded
this dispiriting place in pictures, as well as words, in a book he published in
1890 called How the Other Half Lives.
Riis made his readers feel as if they were there, right at his elbow, as he
took his flash photographs with his hand-held detective camera. The flash
powder exploded with such sudden force that it left many of his subjects with
looks of fright and surprise on their faces. They were shocked because Riis had
come at them almost like a mugger. It was called flash-and-run photography.
Riis would go on all-night tours with the cops. He'd burst into the haunts of
the poor, explode the flash in their faces, and then race off. But, as we see
here, some of his most heart-stabbing photographs were carefully posed shots of
street kids and struggling families. Riis was a better photographer than he was
a writer, but some of his prose passages have a gripping "you are there"
Here's Riis: "Here's a door. Listen! That short, hacking cough, that thin,
helpless wail. What do they mean? It's the sound of another child dying. With
half a chance, it might have lived, but that dark bedroom killed it."
But Riis wasn't free of the prejudices of his time. Jews, to him, were greedy
and materialistic; Blacks were best fit for menial jobs, and the Chinese, who
he loathed, were, as he put it, a "menace to society." As for beggars, they
should be left to starve if they wouldn't work.
Riis' work lead to tenement house reform. But like Jane Addams, he tried too
hard to Americanize immigrants, to get them to give up what he called their
"ethnic clannishness." That's why he hated the Chinese. They held on too strongly
to what they were.
Riis also tried to steer immigrants from corrupt political bosses. It's true:
almost every precinct captain of Tammany Hall, New York's Democratic political
machine, was out to enrich himself. But these political thieves provided jobs
and services immigrants desperately needed. And they didn't ask those they
helped to change who they were.