Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890-1920 by David Huyssen (Harvard University Press, 392 pp., $39.95)

A century ago, New York City’s Progressives saved poor people from apartment and factory fires, provided working people with a reliable place to put their modest savings, delivered charity meals, clothing, and education, and helped fix a broken mass-transit system. “The growing awareness of inequality and its dangers led to reforms that arguably saved capitalism,” writes David Huyssen, Yale history professor and author of Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890-1920. True enough. But where most would see that as a good thing, Huyssen thinks the accomplishment is hollow at best and regressive at worst. Progressives’ “most lasting contribution to relations between rich and poor,” he writes, “was to further embed the tragic assumptions . . . [that] continue to reproduce inequality today.” The most “tragic” assumption, as Huyssen sees it, is that capitalism works.

Photo by Kheel Center/Flickr
Photo by Kheel Center/Flickr

Huyssen is hard to please, as becomes clear in the first story he tells. An 1894 tenement fire on the Lower East Side had killed a little girl, four-year-old Lizzie Jaeger. The fire, and others like it, spurred civic-minded New Yorkers to investigate and prescribe reforms. George Gilder, a magazine editor and all-around high-society “club man,” spearheaded a committee that paved the way for new laws requiring more fire-resistant construction, better escape routes, and “new behavioral regulations for tenement residents” concerning overcrowding and storage. Over time, fire deaths declined. The outcome exemplifies what Progressives once stood for: progress.

Huyssen isn’t buying it. “Badly lighted hallways, fire escape obstruction, and lack of fireproof construction . . . were not ultimately responsible for Lizzie Jaeger’s death,” he writes. Rather, he contends, it was “the larger structure of incentives and disincentives” that caused a liquor-store owner desperate to get out of his impossible financial obligations to hire insurance fraudsters to burn down his store, located on the ground floor of Lizzie’s tenement house. Murderous arson for cash “distilled a certain essence of American capitalist ambition: profit at all costs,” he claims.

This is an odd argument. First, as Huyssen concedes, officials investigated and prosecuted Lizzie’s killers, proving that, even in Gilded Age New York, financial difficulties were not seen as a valid excuse for malicious endangerment. Second, harm reduction is an inarguable principle of modern public-health policy. It is impractical, to say the least, to save people from fires by eliminating every possible motive other people may have for starting them. Instead, the public-health goal is largely to reduce the harm fires can do, by stopping them from spreading and allowing people to escape more readily, which Gilder’s fixes helped to do. Huyssen seems to suggest that, by keeping children from meeting Lizzie’s fate in the future, Gilder and his cohort reduced the incentive that poor people stuck in tenements had to rise up against the capitalist system.

Huyssen makes a similar argument against the Bowery Savings Bank. In the early 1890s, the bank’s owners hired classical architect Stanford White to build a new marble headquarters, one “surrounded by slums,” in the same neighborhood where Lizzie died. Huyssen raises some fair points about the evictions that this massive project caused. But again, he goes too far. He accuses the bank’s directors of wanting to “overwhelm” its customers with its “lavish new home.” But back in the days before federal deposit insurance, people wanted to see their bank as an impregnable fortress. More substantially, to Huyssen’s thinking, by taking working-class people’s savings and investing them not in the same neighborhood, but in railroad bonds and municipal securities, the Bowery Savings Bank acted as “a constant conduit for the removal of wealth” from the area. The bank “mirrored the financial operations of the new American imperialism: claiming a progressive mission while systematically siphoning wealth out of less powerful areas.” If you just wanted a convenient and secure place to store your savings, you probably didn’t see it that way.

Huyssen sees malign motives everywhere. The Salvation Army isn’t feeding poor New Yorkers when it holds a charity Christmas dinner at Madison Square Garden in 1899. Rather, the Army, because it has invited wealthy donors to view the endeavor, is making it clear that “the poor, while culturally fascinating and picturesque, were a separate, properly docile class to be pitied.” The Charity Organization Society isn’t trying to help people improve their lives when it probes whether aid recipients could manage their money more wisely. Instead, it is preserving the “distinction between worthy and unworthy poor” by distinguishing between people who are poor because they are widowed mothers from those who are poor partly because they squander their money on alcohol or tobacco.

Huyssen even goes after those whom he admires, like Lillian Wald, the director of the Henry Street Settlement and the Visiting Nurse Service. Huyssen lauds her empathy for the poor. Wald understood that poor children didn’t fare well in school, not because their parents were neglectful, but because they had no quiet place in which to study and sleep. She understood that poor people often stayed away from large hospitals out of fear, and that home visits would be more effective. But Huyssen warns that projects to “assimilate recent immigrants through classes in subjects such as hygiene, cooking, and English” could be “regard[ed] as condescending and presumptuous.” Wald helped the poor to improve themselves, but in doing so, she wielded power over them. That “she treated everyone with respect, took their input seriously regardless of social position, and rarely denied anyone sources of assistance does not alter the fact that her discretion governed the allocation of those resources.” It’s true, as Huyssen writes, that turn-of-the-century charities often reflected the era’s racism and anti-Semitism, and that public servants, then as now, were often hypocritical and corrupt. But for Huyssen, the glass is always half-empty, at best.

Huyssen tells harrowing tales of raw capitalism before the forces of democracy tempered it with rules and regulations to safeguard health and safety. New York’s garment workers toiled in deplorable conditions. The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory locked its workers in the building to prevent theft. In 1911, 146 workers, mostly women and girls, were trapped and killed in a horrific fire. Transit workers and construction workers labored under abominable working conditions. The working class organized itself into unions—and wealthier Progressives supported their efforts to make the workplace humane—for good reasons.

But Huyssen sees the normal bickering, organizational strife, and setbacks that went along with tempering raw capitalism with enlightened democracy as proof that progressivism failed—because it’s capitalism itself that the Progressives should have jettisoned, not tempered. When J.P. Morgan’s daughter, Anne Tracy Morgan, invites striking garment workers to her upper-class club to hear their stories, the “physical arrangement of the workers—testifying on the gymnasium floor while looking up at the balcony where some of the rich women sat during their testimony—underscored a more conservative experience of class relations.” The rich women’s donations to the strikers’ fund are irrelevant—the strikers raised more money from other sources, anyway. When the public frowns upon transit workers’ deliberate dynamiting of a subway station (no one dies), it’s not because such violence is unproductive and inexcusable. It’s because the capitalist owners have outwitted everyone by becoming more reasonable in their public rhetoric, thus making violence seem, well, unproductive and inexcusable.

Huyssen’s facts are solid—he’s done his research, and it shows. It’s fascinating to read of how upper-class women supported the working poor in their strike efforts, and of how the city’s private transit system collapsed into labor chaos (and, eventually, municipal ownership). But it’s hard to take the author’s conclusions seriously. He declares, for example, that more than a century after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Americans “have arrived at a moment of vast, progressive inequality eerily reminiscent of the past.” Garment workers in Bangladesh can be forgiven for thinking that nothing has changed since 1911, but Americans can’t say the same for conditions here.

Improvement, of course, doesn’t mean perfection. American capitalism is flawed and will remain so. Inequality and unemployment are acute problems; neither Democrats nor Republicans offer strong arguments on how to address them. But that’s a far cry from asserting, as Huyssen does, that “democracy and capitalism pursue incongruous priorities,” or that reforms such as better apartment construction only “expand[ed] inequality in the very attempt to shrink it,” thus “constitut[ing] not tragedy—but farce.” Democracy has moderated and improved capitalism over the decades through regulation and other policies. Whatever the inadequacies of that ongoing process, Huyssen’s scorn for incremental improvement won’t help.


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