Occupy Wall Street staged a rebellion against corporate corruption and economic inequality in Manhattan’s parks and streets, but the battle for the city began with nineteenth century electrification of Broadway.
To wander Manhattan is to step into the modern fulfillment of an earlier age. The hurtling traffic, the stylish storefronts and bars, the pyramids of cupcakes, the lantern light of iPhones—it may all seem dreadfully contemporary, but its antiquity lies in the time of steam. “New York is a product of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution,” Lewis Lapham observed in the fall 2010 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, “built on a standardized grid, conceived neither as a thing of beauty nor as an image of the cosmos, much less as an expression of man’s humanity to man, but as a shopping mall in which to perform the heroic feats of acquisition and consumption.”
If the lust to acquire and consume is one defining feature of the city, so too is its complement–deprivation and economic disparity. David Harvey, author of Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, describes Manhattan as “one vast gated community.” He describes the process by which the rich push the city’s less well-off to its peripheries and take hold of urban life. Tracing the history of urban uprisings from the 1870s to Occupy Wall Street, Harvey argues that cities have long been contested spaces, where the interests of money collide with the public good. Beginning in the late nineteenth-century—when modern New York took shape—one finds the dawning sense that for the city to be made safe for consumption and its contented, bourgeois destiny, it needed to be purged of the blemish of the poor.
For Industrial Revolution-era exponents of this belief, the spectacle of “acquisition and consumption” was one of arresting beauty. Were you to climb the spire of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan in 1872, you would have an uninterrupted view north along Broadway as far as Grace Church on Tenth Street. That vista, hemmed on both ends by Gothic steeples, offered a glimpse of the awesome scale of New York. Man shrank into the precision of the pumping city. “The long lines of passers and carriages take distinct shapes, and seem like immense black bands moving slowly in opposite directions,” wrote James D. McCabe, a nineteenth-century chronicler of the city. “The men seem like pigmies, and the horses like dogs. There is no confusion, however. The eye readily masses into one line all going in the same direction. Each one is hurrying on at the top of his speed, but from this lofty perch they all seem to be crawling at a snail’s pace.” Broadway had real power, absorbing the frantic striving of the individual into the rhythm of a city so much larger than him. It was, in McCabe’s words, “the most wonderful street in the universe,” dwarfing all other European or American rivals in “the extent of its grand display.” Broadway was “a world within itself.”
What sparkled in those two marvellous miles between the churches? What great display condensed the wonder of the universe into this single stretch of New York street?
Shops, of course. McCabe, the author of the guidebook Lights and Shadows of New York Life(1872), delighted in listing the proliferating stores that studded Broadway. There at the corner of Grand Street sat “the beautiful marble building occupied by the wholesale department of Lord & Taylor.” On Prince Street you would find “Ball & Black’s palatial jewelry store.” Passing theatres and hotels—the St. Nicholas, the Comique, the Metropolitan, the Olympic, and so on—you would finally reach “an immense iron structure painted white,” the vast edifice of A.T. Stewart’s Retail Store, one of the city’s first department stores, occupying the entire block between Ninth and Tenth streets. “It is always filled with ladies engaged in ‘shopping,’ and the streets around it are blocked with carriages. Throngs of elegantly and plainly dressed buyers pass in and out.”
McCabe dropped quotation marks around the word “shopping” because it was a novel activity. As a pastime (and not simply an exercise of necessity), shopping came into its own in the second half of the nineteenth century, when consumer-citizens, liberated by the mobility of the street car and the new safety offered by gas and electric street lamps, found disposable time and income to spend on the stuff of the industrial age. Shopping reflected the growing prosperity, elegance, and aspiration of New York. Broadway lay at its heart. “Jewels, silks, satins, laces, ribbons, household goods, silverware, toys, paintings… rare, costly, and beautiful objects of every description greet the gazer on every hand. All that is necessary for the comfort of life, all that ministers to luxury and taste, can be found here in the great thoroughfare.”
On Broadway, “no unsuccessful man can remain in the street. Poverty and failure have no place there.” One finds in McCabe’s guidebook an early example of the very bourgeois faith that we are what we buy. Broadway was, in his view, much more than a street. As a triumphant expression of both progress and prosperity, the spectacle of consumption was the defining scene of the age.
Today’s New York, where the belief that you are what you buy has been taken to an absurd extreme, might be familiar to McCabe. According to the CUNY-based urban geographer David Harvey—a contemporary Marxist scholar of the city—the “quality of urban life has become a commodity.” Ambitious consumption in New York encourages the sort of vacuous pursuit of fashion that prompted Ian Schrager, a slick hotelier and developer, to write: “Nationality and class have been replaced by lifestyle.” The ideal New Yorker has no past and no background, only a wallet and a will to buy.