Top critical review
Most hyperbolic, bombastic, over-the-top and overstated History book I’ve ever read
on March 9, 2016
This is a popular history. It even started life as a television program. It’s a nice piece of eye candy, perhaps a souvenir even, for the curious tourist like me, who likes to know more about the places he visits. It’s not a piece of academic thought. But it is still a History book, so why the civic boosterism on steroids?
A historian’s proper restraint and objectivity are gone. The book’s enthusiasm for its subject matter is exhausting. Every gradual transformation was an awesome adventure, every shift had unimaginable repercussions, and every event was spectacular. This book would have you gasp at every page. And it tries. Quotes seem to have been selected by their degree of exaggeration and implausibility. The wide-eyed amazement the text reflects is actually embarrassing in places.
This goes far beyond just that old “Capital of the World” moniker. Suspect assertions and unbelievable claims pepper this work.
Was 17th century Manhattan the “world’s most artificial environment ever built (p.77)? Venice, with its palaces built on islands of wooden stilt foundations, and Amsterdam’s 16th Century canal ring and artificial islands immediately come to mind.
It also turns out that the Erie Canal, was the most meaningful construction work since… the Pyramics of Egypt! Are we overlooking the Great Wall of China, perhaps? How about the cities of Macchu-Picchu and Teotihuacán? The thousands of miles roman network of roads and aqueducts? All post-Classical Egypt.
Was the Southern tip of Manhattan island the “world’s first district devoted to commerce?” Dejima Island off Nagasaki (16th Century), Japan, was exclusively for the commercial exchange with Portugal. The City of London’s Royal Exchange was founded in 1565. Virtually all castle towns had commercial districts. And what are free and treaty ports if not commercial districts?
Was Brooklyn the world’s first commuter suburb? I guess it depends how you define commute, but if it means a place away from the central business area where those who can move to and then travel back and forth every day for official duties, any number of communities around much older cities from London to Edo (Tokyo) would fit that description.
Did forty years from in the 19th Century really represent the most dramatic urban development the world had ever seen? Debatable, at best. The gutting of the entire Medieval Paris to make room for the Haussmannian City is but one instance of urban transformation, certainly on a larger scale and with much larger influence on other cities from Shanghai to Washington.
These are literally but a handful among dozens. But why stop there? But why stop with the world? goes beyond even that… the universe! I kid you not.
And that’s just the “world” claims. I suspect readers from other U.S. cities or states would dispute several of the “America’s first” claims. In the end, you really cannot put any stock on any of this book’s claims on the novelty, superiority or relative significance of anything you didn’t already know.
I tried to focus on the beautiful images and the literary bits –I loved the pages featuring writers such as Walt Whitman—but I found myself rolling my eyes constantly. I had to laugh out loud a couple of times. I actually gave up on this book a few times, but since it was my first New York history work, I went through the whole thing, but it wasn’t easy.
The United States can be an overwhelming place for the meek. Chauvinism of the nationalist variety rarely raises eyebrows in the country that calls the championship of its national sport “The World Series,” and where the average citizen truly believes his is the world’s best country, as if that were a measurable fact. This is a book in that vein.
This heavy-handed sentimentalism ultimately does a disservice to the city it purports to honor. With its lack of analytical subtlety and nuance, the historical likeness that emerges is a trampling, vociferous deformity. Reading this book often feels like a piece of aggrandizing propaganda, very unbecoming for a modern democracy, and curiously insecure and unnecessary for such a great city.