New York’s Gilded Age: Past and Present

The New York Times magazine recently joined the chorus of celebrities, tabloid boosters, and mainstream politicians by declaring New York City to be the center of the “Second Gilded Age”. Equipped with a two term billionaire mayor, an ex-mayor currently a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination (largely under the banner of being “America’s Mayor”), as well as the reputation for being “restored” to greatness by a mix of conservative politics and militant law and order tactics, the city is proclaimed the perfect, and original neoliberal fit.

It wouldn’t take long for a visitor to get the general idea. Listening to the local sports radio station in New York on any given day, one will not be able to go ten minutes without hearing the voice of Donald Trump. The reason being that Trump, a powerful, if awful, influence on the city the past decade, is pushing his secret for building wealth in the form of a DVD from which those viewing will learn to get rich by pedaling real estate his “way”.

The smug voice of Trump may be momentarily acceptable to listeners; however his won’t be the only siren’s song enticing pushovers with promises of quick wealth. It won’t be long before a racket called Internet Speedway begins another commercial with the question “Do you know the difference between the millions and millionaires in this country and you? They decided they wanted to be millionaires, so they went out and did it.” The pitch here is an “internet business that virtually runs itself.” Again salvation comes in the mail in the form of a DVD that promises a way to generate money even when asleep.

In case sports talk radio is beneath the interest of most people, New York’s Barnes and Noble bookstores and other megastores have a steady stock of the latest “self-help” sensation. The current fever is a book and DVD called The Secret, edited by Rhonda Byrne and endorsed some months ago by the always reliable Oprah Winfrey (ensuring the book sells in the millions- an estimated three million copies thus far). The Secret also presents a notable novelty; whereas other wealth formulas require at least some kind of physical effort, according to The Secret, the world is inherited by those who simply think the right thoughts. Did you know: “The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts” or “Our physiology creates disease to give us feedback, to let us know we have an imbalanced perspective, and we’re not loving and we’re not grateful”; a world full of ungrateful AIDS victims and overly pessimistic poor masses.

While get rich quick schemes sold by shady charlatans and quacks aren’t new, there is also a deeper theme in all this that may have a parallel historically. New York, of course, has always been a large part of the “streets paved with gold” mythology. Now Bloomberg, Trump, Weill, and Ratner of the new Gilded Age have become the historical reincarnation of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Morgan. Marx wrote that major historical events always return as farce the second time, and indeed farce is an apt description of much of the Big Apple.

The words “SoHo” and “Hell’s Kitchen” have become nothing more than marketing slogans and catch phrases for hipster T-Shirts. The former “bohemian” and yuppie populations of SoHo have moved to the Lower East Side and North Brooklyn, historically working class and immigrant neighborhoods, displacing most of the long-time residents. This gentrification has also reached traditional African American cultural strongholds such as Harlem, Fort Greene, and Bedford Stuyvesant. The New York Times has reported that data from the 2004 census reveals that New York’s City’s black population has declined for the first time since the 1863 draft riots (April 3, 2006).

What is left out of the current triumphant grandstanding was summed up nicely in a recent report by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. At the moment 1.3 million New Yorkers, one in six residents of the city, cannot afford a consistent food supply and must rely on shelters and pantries. Demand for such services has exploded an estimated 20% this year to go with an 11% increase last year. According to the Coalition’s report, the sheer numbers of the hungry showing up (along with the Bush Administration’s slashing discretionary spending for emergency food by 76% since 2002) have forced more than half of the city’s pantries to ration food or even turn people away.

These numbers are the foreground to the fact that New York City owns a poverty rate roughly twice the national average and well above where its own poverty rate was two decades ago. It is also one of the most unequal cities in the world — a study earlier this year by the Bookings Institute classified only 16% of the city’s neighborhoods as middle class.

Beyond the pomp and circumstance of millionaire populism, other parallels could be drawn from the current Gilded Age to its predecessor. Like the mid 19th century, the New York of the early 21st century is largely a city of immigrants: Mexicans, Eastern Europeans, and Asians, being the modern pioneer representatives of their Irish and German forbears (currently about 37% of the city’s residents are foreign born). While textbook historians shine brightly on the robber barons and their “philanthropy”, and present day tabloids focus on celebrity “sightings” and shopping sprees, it was the vast army of workers that have had the greatest historical impact on the city, a benevolent influence that continues to the present day.

It was in the heart of the first Gilded Age when a united working class led what was the greatest labor organizing effort in the city’s history. The pinnacle of the movement took place in the summer of 1872 when in May of that year the largely native, English speaking building-trades workers began striking for the eight-hour day. They were soon followed by German furniture makers a few days later. By May 25th there were an estimated 20,000 workers on strike, a week later the number grew to 40,000, and before the summer was over more than 100,000 of the city’s workers took part in the eight-hour strikes. The summer action included an “eight-hour parade” through the Bowery on June 10th led in part by the International and organized by the Eight Hour League, which also organized strikes in several other cities.

Though the workers were ultimately defeated by an alliance of large manufacturers (led by the Steinway piano company; New York is still blessed with a Steinway Street, a main shopping thoroughfare in Queens), police clubs, and a conservative media (of which the New York Times was at the forefront), the foundation was laid during the Gilded years for the eventual victory of the eight-hour day and for the coming of the “Progressive” Era. Lasting products of the first Gilded Age included the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Labor Day.

New York in its current Gilded Age hasn’t completely abandoned its labor heritage. Despite experiencing the outsourcing of its manufacturing base and its transformation into a service economy, the city still claims about a million union members, some of whom have shown signs of life in recent times. This month is the second anniversary of the 2005 transit workers strike against proposed cutbacks to pension plans that shut down the city for most of a week. In April 2006, New York hosted some of the massive immigrant rights demonstrations that swept the country. This past September saw a strike by yellow cab drivers against Global Positioning System devices in their cabs. The ongoing gentrification has stirred up some passionate local resistance in several places. While most of these actions have been defensive in scope, and with mixed success, the potential certainly exists for the resurgence of truly progressive politics. Just as the most significant legacy of democratic progress during the original Gilded Age was accomplished by the diverse, hardworking masses, there are still signs of hope that the same will be said for the present one.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Read other articles by Joseph.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Robert B. Livingston said on December 17th, 2007 at 9:50am #

    Yesterday I listened to Paul Krugman talking to Bob McChesney (should be available today at: http://tinyurl.com/p8k58).

    Krugman knows better than anyone what constitutes a “Gilded Age”– and has repeatedly warned us of a coming new one which may already be here. In the program yesterday he largely blames racism and the shift of white southerners to the Republican Party for being mostly to blame for our current state of political affairs– and who is to say he is wrong (especially when thinking how President Clinton learned to “triangulate” etc. to capitalize on those trends)?

    At the same time– he and his host talked only of “realistic” ways of turning the tide against the Republicans in power. Rather than support candidates who might stand for what they really believe in, they both are already pragmatically thinking of how to influence people like Obama, Edwards and Clinton– warmongering candidates who would never dare talk about single-payer national health coverage.

    Krugman said of Kucinich simply– he cannot win… so why “let the perfect be the enemy of the good”?

    Where have we heard that before?

    Although I agree that supporting Kucinich is probably futile… I still did not like hearing about it for the reasons they had. I became angry, really. It seemed to me that Krugman would rather not allow people to vote their conscience.

    By the end of the program, Krugman and McChesney had shored up their mutual admiration society and their resolve that realpolitik would take precedence over idealism or constructive imagination.

    Once again, the blueprints are being drawn by leading progressive-liberal intellectuals to back the lesser of two evils– whoever that may turn out to be (and I am beginning to believe, not by anything said in this program, that it will be Barack Obama).

    What is galling and most frustrating to me is to hear Krugman lament our state of affairs with each passing year– as things become worse– but then to prescribe, always, the same medicines. He is right about so much, and his (and I believe McChesney’s) heart is a good one– why can’t he see or understand that “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

    David Cay Johnston in the NYT: http://tinyurl.com/3xm8eu
    Competition in the New Gilded Age: http://tinyurl.com/25fky2
    A Christmas Sentiment: http://tinyurl.com/yt9t54
    Can anyone help Krugman out? http://tinyurl.com/38fn9j

  2. hp said on December 17th, 2007 at 11:41am #

    What’s truly needed is the gilded edge of the guillotine(s).

  3. Deadbeat said on December 17th, 2007 at 12:07pm #

    In order to be able to make a demand you need proper analysis and political cohesion. I think the biggest problem today is the lack of political cohesion on the left. Krugman is right about how racism divided the working class that permitted the rise of Reaganism. However, I think most people are weary of Reaganism (Clintonism) and with the Iraq War are ready for progressive remedies. However there is a major inability on the left to present an organized front. The irony is that Krugman was able to identify one type of racism that divided the working class. He hasn’t been unable to identify the racism that now keeps the left divided.