By Steven Martinovich
New York has long dominated America's cultural and economic spheres thanks to its fortunate existence as one of the country's finest harbours. From there it imported both goods and thoughts from across the planet and disseminated them through commerce, books, radio, television and plays across the continent. Its unquestioned supremacy may have occurred during the 1920s when the narrow sliver of land known as Manhattan was the heart of it all, a place where politicians, business titans, gangsters, artists and athletes all mingled under the umbrella of the Jazz Age.
Donald L. Miller's Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America chronicles the decade and its notables in a series of interlocking chapters that explores how the country's zeitgeist combined with a number of great men and women to produce an era of little rivalled excitement – at least for those who could afford it or were connected well enough to belong to someone's coterie. It was an age where the center of New York was transformed in a little more than a decade from dockyards and butcher's yards sitting blocks away from Gilded Age mansions to a forest of skyscrapers, theatres, bars and businesses.
The most fascinating person in Miller's account opens the book in the form of Mayor Jimmy Walker, an ethically challenged populist who despite his myriad of sins – both public and private – was beloved by many in the city. A creature of Tammany Hall, Walker shepherded or happened to be around for much of the infrastructure work that reshaped New York and Manhattan with new roads, tunnels, railways and buildings. That work encouraged an explosion of development which transformed the island by concentrating commerce and intellectual activity and yet making it accessible to the rest of the country thanks to improved transportation and communication links.
From there Supreme City attacks the city's social history in four other broad parts dealing with the effect that prohibition had on Manhattan, how commerce and invention solidified its preeminent position, the men and women who essentially invented the future on several fronts, and the artists who pushed boundaries. Mobsters rubbed elbows with elite athletes, politicians broke bread with the holy and unholy and the artists chronicled it in song, story and theatre. As Miller writes it, it was one of those rare intersections of exceptional times and people – boxers and dress makers, real estate developers and bootleggers – which spawned extraordinary moments in a community's history.
If one could make a criticism of Supreme City is that Miller unfortunately fell into the trap of telling us that Jazz Age Manhattan "gave birth to modern America", as the book's subtitle informs us, rather than showing the reader how that came to be. While the communications revolution that the country experienced with the advent of radio and later television was heavily influenced – if not pioneered – by New York companies, Miller makes a less persuasive case when it comes to other New York efforts. That New York was a fertile nursery for ideas is inarguable but Supreme City seems to make the stronger case that those ideas cross pollinated within the city and only tangentially influenced the rest of the country – on those rare occasions when they actually merited mention in Miller's story.
As criticisms go, however, that should be considered a marginal one. Supreme City tells an engrossing story filled with engaging personalities that would have been at home in The Great Gatsby and an amazing character in the form of a city which for over a century has drawn the world's best and brightest. The Manhattan of today is a cleaner and more efficient community within the city and those alive during those turbulent days are few in number. Thanks to Miller we can once again relive that era and witness the early days of the modern form of a city that has long reinvented itself and others.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.
Buy Supreme City at Amazon.com for only $27.40