Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Historian George J. Lankevich’s 1998 book, American Metropolis: A History of New York City, is one of surprisingly few books that deal with New York City’s history from the arrival of Europeans until, more or less, the time of its publication. The pieces are all there (except for proper annotation and a comprehensive bibliography) and, unlike Edward Robb Ellis’ The Epic of New York City, it was penned by an academic historian, and published by a university press (New York University Press). If one were to judge it by its cover, then, it is a promising book.
American Metropolis, however, is “classic” historical scholarship. There is some consideration of “street-level” history, but the main focus is on politics and the words and actions of a select few white men; the interesting players in this history are the mayors and their elections, achievements, failures, opponents. This is not necessarily a bad thing – official and political history is important – but the way it is presented here makes the book, in my opinion, an incredibly boring read. The city as portrayed appears as bloodless. The one exception, which only compounded my resistance to the book, is the fact that it’s also a curiously exceptionalist book. This just rubs me the wrong way, because it is unnecessary and because it’s highly subjective (a few of the claims are furthermore somewhat spurious). Time after time the author lists how much tonnage was shipped or produced in the city, the pace of skyscraper construction, how many theaters and publishers and other institutions operated here, and so on, as quantitative proof that the city is and always was the greatest city in the world.
All in all, I would say that American Metropolis is a functional introduction to New York City history for anyone who wants the broad strokes from an academic source, but I would send the more generally curious reader in the direction of Ellis’ book (despite its own faults).