Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

The Thinker

Two book reviews: “After Lincoln” and “City of Dreams”

I’m back home after 19 days away. I’d like to say I was on the road but most of it was on a cruise ship so technically I was on the seas. When not at ports of call, cruise ships does give you downtime. With no Internet, there was time to do something I should do more of: read books. I completed two books on the trip, both worth your time if you are into histories.

After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace
By A. J. Langguth
ISBN 978-1-4516-1733-7

It’s curious how many books you can find on the Civil War but how few you will find about Reconstruction: the time after the Civil War when the slaves were technically freed but not quite equal citizens. This book by the late USC professor A.J. Langguth (1933-2014) finished in the year of his death delves into the messiness of the post Civil War years. You are introduced to a cast of characters including a number of rogues. The title gives away the ending, in case you are unfamiliar with U.S. history. What is truly heartbreaking is how much overt discrimination remains 140 years later. Moreover, the parallels between Andrew Johnson (who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination) and Donald Trump are more than a little creepy. (Trump though is actually worse.)

The book does not start immediately after Lincoln’s murder. Most chapters delve into particular historical figures, fills in their biographies before reconstruction and tell the roles that they played. It’s quite a gamut of figures: from Nathan Bedford Forest who founded the KKK (and led a very successful cavalry for the Confederacy) to Pickney Pinchback, half black by birth (white slaveowner, black slave) but all black in the eyes of society. He won election to the U.S. House and Senate for Louisiana, but was not permitted by Congress to actually be seated. There are also names that might ring bells from newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, to Secretary of State William Henry Seward (who bought Alaska for the U.S.) to presidents that served during this time. Johnson is the most infamous since he was impeached (but not convicted), but the book also covers Ulysses S. Grant’s eight years as president and ends with his more obscure successor: Rutherford B. Hayes.

Langguth’s approach works pretty well because it illuminates these figures while constantly adding backstory and connecting characters. The chapters are just the right size to be comfortable reads without feeling overwhelming. They also draw you in. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were progressive tools that should have made most of these class and race issues moot. By dropping out of the Union, states of the Confederacy gave power to the Republican Party to pass these progressive amendments freeing the slaves, giving them full enfranchisement and equal protection. To say the least the Southern states were put out. They became experts in passive and overt resistance that was occasionally quelled by the introduction of federal troops.

Langguth gets into all the details of how we lost the peace. Basically the South sort of won the Civil War after it lost it for two reasons: Jim Crow laws that courts were reluctant to strike down and northern Democrats who tired of the whole equal enfranchisement business. Essentially a critical mass of white America stopped caring.

At 375 pages (without appendices) it’s an appropriately sized history that should sustain your interest despite the known outcome. The movie Lincoln gave us a taste of some of these figures (like Thaddeus Stevens played by Tommy Lee Jones). Langguth colors in these characters and exposes the macro and micro forces at work during this time. In short, you’d have a hard time finding better book to read about Reconstruction, in part because so few have been written.

City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York
By Tyler Ambinder
ISBN 978-1-328-74551-4

Published in 2016, this book is one that I don’t think has been done before: a deep dive into New York City’s 400 years of history with a special emphasis on its many immigrant communities: who came, how they interacted, where they settled, who succeeded, who failed and the many tensions of living in this biggest of cities. Ambinder, a professor of history at George Washington University, fills out the story in part by documenting his own relatives’ paths.

This is a real tome: 738 pages, 570 pages without the appendices. It’s also the kind of history that I like best: that tells me things I would never learn otherwise. It’s a work of immense scholarship but written so well that at times you can’t put it down. To me the most interesting and appalling part of the book is its discussion of immigrants transit to America in the mid 19th century, which for most of our ancestors meant steerage class on a sailing ship: a slow trip to America in the bowels of the ship where sickness, overcrowding, darkness, dysentery and literal bowels made the journey hellish with many casualties along the way. The fetid atmosphere describe almost rises from those pages.

Curiously it intersects frequently with After Lincoln since the era around and after the Civil War forms a significant chunk of this tome. You see some of the same characters in both books, such as Horace Greeley and cartoonist Thomas Nast. Both books cover the draft riots in New York during the Civil War too. New York started out as New Amsterdam and was hence a Dutch colony, but the Dutch couldn’t hold onto it particularly as colonies around it became British possessions. People arrived by the boatloads. New York quickly became the largest city in the world. Jamming so many people into the city was done poorly at best. Most immigrants ended up in crazily crowded tenement housing, with populations per square mile so dense that they rivaled anything ever seen before. Ambinder also shines with his extensive look into tenement housing, whose details are equally as appalling as the passage of people in steerage class during the days of the sailing ships.

New York first previewed America’s coming ethnic tensions. How could it be otherwise when so many ethnicities were jammed together into so small a space? Then as now people self segregated themselves by ethnicity. For a very long time the Irish dominated the city. If the word Tammany Hall rings a bell, you’ll learn a lot about the Irish that ran it mostly corruptly while also giving employment to huge numbers of immigrants.

Ambinder though shows us that regardless of the time it’s always the same story. It’s only the cast of characters that rotate. In the 19th century the Irish were oppressed. The cartoonist Nast even drew them with gorilla foreheads. The No Nothing Party of the 19th Century was formed principally to keep the wrong kind of immigrants (the Irish in particular) out. Like Trump today, the No Nothings wanted only the right people to be Americans. Eventually though it was the Irish that saw themselves the most legitimate of New Yorkers and they worked to repress other groups, like the Italians. Having felt discriminated they seem to delight in dishing it out.

Ambinder’s detail is often staggering, but mostly it’s an engaging read. If it drags, it is only near the end where we see New York’s latest immigrants (mostly from the West Indies) going through this pattern yet again. As recently as the 1990s, whites in Queens were bashing in the heads of West Indies immigrants when they happened to stray into their ethnic enclaves. With Muslims pouring in today, Ambinder makes it clear that they too will become part of our fabric and that our fear of them is ridiculous.

I read a lot of history books and City of Dreams is definitely in the top ten percent of my favorites. It may be a tome, but it is definitely worth your time.

 
The Thinker

2003 in Review, 2004 in Preview

The year 2003 ended the right way and the year 2004 started off great. This was in marked contrast to 2003 in general, which left a lot to be desired. Both my wife Terri and I struggled with family issues. My wife’s father in law has been through major operations and as you know things haven’t been great for my mother either this year (although it ended on a hopeful note).

But as the year ended we at least got a respite from a frantic and often angst filled year. Terri and I had eleven days free from work and responsibility and I reveled in each one of them. We found hobbies to keep us busy. Mostly I worked on programming my other domain so it could be more interactive. I hope that I can market it and launch it early this year. For most computer types, programming would be considered a chore. But as I am a project manager I don’t get to program so it was fun to code for a change. But I also helped others on their journeys into cyberspace. My brother Tom is getting into the blogging business, and I helped him put up his domain which at least initially I will host for him. And arguably we did do some needed housekeeping. The house got thoroughly cleaned for the first time in years. We threw out lots of old books, magazines and assorted crap that have been cluttering up our rooms for the eleven years we’ve been in the house. I wouldn’t be surprised if our trash men got hernias after hauling away all our excess stuff.

For New Years we were invited to a party two doors down the street. We had an excellent time eating and partying with neighbors and friends. Aside from the terrific company I felt good about being reasonably physically fit. Although I could always stand to lose more weight, my weight is under reasonable control. Not so of the other men at the party about my age, many of who were approaching the seriously overweight stage. I wonder how long it will be before I hear of their first heart attacks.

New Years morning found us up around 8:30 and packing. We left Union Station around 11:30 a.m. for a two-day trip to New York City to see a few shows. Between shows we hung out in our room on the 21st floor of the Milford Plaza hotel in the heart of New York’s Theater District. We spent too much money but enjoyed the two shows we saw on the same day, starting with Hairspray and ending with Gypsy. Now we are back and have to contemplate going back to work and school in the morning.

As a political prognosticator I tend to stink. But at least in 2003 I was largely right on the money. Although millions like me did our best to stop our war in Iraq, we did not succeed because our president is tone deaf to criticism. However I feel I was at least vindicated in my position. I was skeptical that Iraq was at all tied to our national security, or that it harbored weapons of mass destruction, and I was right. And I was excited to see around midyear that Howard Dean caught fire as a presidential candidate. He excited the Democratic base as it hasn’t been excited in years. I never contributed a dime to a politician before 2003, but last year I dumped a surprising amount of money into political candidates and political causes. My contributions were many and small but they added up to quite a piece of change. MoveOn.org got $300, Howard Dean got $400 and I was proud to make the first contribution to my friend Tim Bagwell’s campaign for congress. I can’t match the donation levels of fat cat Republicans, made faster by more obscene tax cuts passed last year for the rich, but perhaps those of us somewhere in the upper middle class can make up in volume what Republicans make up in contribution sizes. In addition to contributing money, I also contributed time. I was one of many letter writers back in October writing Al Gore asking him to endorse Howard Dean for president. In December Gore did just that; I’d like to think it was my letter that made him change his mind. In any event 2003 ended on a hopeful note that Democrats can retake the presidency in 2004 and perhaps even a house or two of Congress.

Looking to 2004 I know I will be busy contributing more money and more time on political causes. I’m not quite as optimistic as I was a few months ago that Democrats will win back the presidency in 2004. So much depends on factors outside our control. The economy is definitely improving and that will work largely in Bush’s favor, unless the Democrats can frame the issue as one of jobs. Most of those three million jobs lost during the Bush tenure won’t be coming back. Iraq is likely to remain a quagmire, and that will work in the Democrats’ favor. But there is reason to be hopeful. This time 12 years ago George H.W. Bush led Bill Clinton by 20 points in the polls, but Clinton won the election. A recent CNN poll shows the gap between Bush and Dean (assuming he is the Democratic nominee) at 5%. As Americans continue to die even though Saddam Hussein has been captured, Bush’s political bounce from the capture begins to fade and disillusionment creeps in again. The biggest risk factor for the Democrats is probably whether we get another 9/11-type attack here in the United States. A rally around the flag effect keeps Bush in office. It’s ironic but the more successful Osama bin Laden is in terrorizing us, the more likely Bush is to get reelected.

Personally I may be switching jobs this year. Over the break I interviewed for a job at the U.S. Geological Survey in nearby Reston. If I get it I will not only get supervisory responsibilities, but will put a couple more hours a day into my life. That is because my commute will go from 25 miles in each direction to 3 miles. My interview was very positive and I got very good vibes, but only time will tell if I get the position. Although I could be happier at ACF, it is not a bad place to work and I often enjoy my work. I would feel less personally vulnerable to terrorism out in Reston than I do every day working in D.C.

I think it is likely that my parents will continue to struggle with medical issues this year. They are not getting any younger. We hope they will choose to relocate closer to one of us, but it doesn’t look like they are in any hurry to do so, in spite of the risks they are taking in their own safety. I just hope 2004 ends with both of them alive; I am quite fortunate to have both of them alive. My mother will turn 84 this year, and my father will turn 78.

My daughter Rosie will turn 15 late in the year and doubtless will begin petitioning me to teach her how to drive. We expect her to continue to direct her life toward the arts. Perhaps she will be in another play or two, like her December performance in the musical Scrooge. Hopefully her grades will begin to reflect her natural talent. At this point we can do little beyond encouraging her to make these choices. Like most teenagers she has developed some tone deafness toward her parents. We hope that life’s hard lessons about life will be experienced early rather than late. Perhaps a part time job will help her focus on her choices and the reality of life in this world.

 

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