Urban Developments in 19th Century New York: 
Welding Symbolic and Cultural Capital
History of American Capitalism | April 2021
In the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth century, the metamorphosis of the built landscape corresponded to that of the American economy. America’s urban developments were built for enduring economic gain rather than temporary social displays of wealth. The writings of Benjamin Flowers retrospectively analyzes how American architectural development dramatically departed from the faux opulence of the Gilded Age, as described by Rebecca Graff, towards a functional, Taylorist future. This transition resulted in new ideologies, and the mid-nineteenth century artistic works of Hart Crane and Aaron Douglas illustrate how new structures impacted the collective American psyche.
The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century marked a new chapter in American history. America was beginning to shed her opulent Gilded veneer that hearkened back to the days of European aristocracy and turned her gaze towards a capitalist future. In his book, Skyscraper: The Politics and Power of Building New York City in the Twentieth Century, Flowers succinctly summarizes this revolution in quoting Raymond Hook, “‘The architect designing a big building today is more like a Henry Ford than a Michelangelo’”. In lieu of humanism, the architects planning New York’s future opted for modern functionalism. Efficiency and function superseded form in this new era. The evolution of Fifth Avenue and the location, naming, and design of the Empire State Building model this process. 
Flowers traces the evolution of Fifth Avenue from an aristocrat’s playground to a white-collar workplace. In the wake of the prohibition and swaying cultural tides, leisure became a less profitable enterprise. Even before the twentieth century, Fifth Avenue’s strip of fanciful facades began to lose its luster as commercial enterprises colonized this promising space. Flowers notes that, “By 1870 the character of Fifth Avenue around the Astor homes had changed. In place of the homes of the wealthy, forms of commercial spaces from stores to hotels had proliferated”. The possibility of profit catalyzed this transformation. It was out with the old, and in with the new. 
This was certainly the case when the Empire State Building was not named after an affluent benefactor, but rather the state in which it stood. The occupants of the space were anonymous businessmen, and Flowers frames this beside the exclusivity of the Waldorf-Astoria that was demolished for this project. One didn’t have to be part of the 400 most elite New Yorkers or have a recognizable surname to participate in this space. In both name and design, the Empire State Building opened the doors for people to work and flirt with the prospect of upward mobility. Participating in the built environment effectively became more democratic. Zoning laws and setback skyscrapers integrated plazas and shared spaces where the average New Yorkers could congregate or pause to marvel at the latest edifice. This new relationship to space subsequently fostered a distinctly American mindset. 
Graff’s exploration of how the rise of urbanism encouraged the adoption of individualist attitudes in her article titled  “Dream City, Plaster City: Worlds’ Fairs and the Gilding of American Material Culture” intersects with Flowers’ analysis of modern architecture. She writes, “...This time period coincided with a fundamental shift in American values that can be seen in movements from small towns to cities; from traditional family-based values to middle-class individualism; and from living as ‘a nation of loosely connected islands, similar in kind’ where self was defined in relation to community, to participating in the bureaucratic modernity of cities where one's job and socio-economic position carried far more weight than customary bonds”. Graff shows how opportunity was no longer solely predicated upon the family connections or status necessary for Gilded Age success. In an age where Taylorism flourished, individual value became attached to employment: one was defined by their job. By the same token, this model expanded the capacity for capitalists to benefit from this new consolidation of urban labor.
Motivated by profit, the private companies that invested in urban development played a role in reshaping both the physical and ideological terrain. Flowers notes that, “The effort to extract ever greater rates of return on capital investments, nurtured by easy credit and liberal zoning regulations, propelled the growth of New York by 38 million square feet of office space in the boom decade of the 1920s”. To put these numbers in context, “In the second half of the 1920s, the amount of office space in New York City increased by 92 percent; buildings completed after the stock market crash increased the total by another 56 percent”. In turn, the capacity for profit was linked to the industriousness of the white-collar workers that labored in these fresh office spaces. Designing space for profit maximization drew from the production models espoused by Ford and Taylor. Flowers claims that, “The Fordist and Taylorist regimes that defined the construction of the Empire State Building as a vertical assembly line (with labor operations broken down to the smallest component part) were likewise to be found at the very start of the design and planning for the building”. These office spaces were modern American factories. Despite being designed for function, Crane shows how these new developments dually represented human ingenuity and contemporary American beauty. 
In his 1930 poem, To Brooklyn Bridge, Hart Crane acknowledges the beauty of one of these urban developments. The Brooklyn Bridge, also named after its location, was so dramatic that it took on a life of its own. In the seventh stanza, Crane writes, “And obscure as that heaven of the Jews, Thy guerdon… Accolade thou dost bestow Of anonymity time cannot raise: Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show”. The personified bridge seems otherworldly and immortal; it was built to survive the passage of time. Crane’s juxtaposition of modern subject matter with outdated yet ornamental language mimics the same transition that New York was undergoing at the time. Crane’s abstraction of the bridge intersects with Flowers’ insight into how “Poetic possibilities in this case were also decidedly modern ones, as setback skyscrapers were considered both entirely American and modern: ‘a zoning law, has given architects a chance to create beautiful and appropriate buildings, not Greek temples nor medieval cathedrals, but something modern, born of a new spirit… which is tensely of today’”. Again, these structures were synonymous with modernist attitudes and were larger than both life and their human engineers.
Aaron Douglas also captures the allure and promise of the modern cityscape through the imagery of skyscrapers in his 1936 painting Aspiration. The painting depicts African Americans gazing towards a promontory lined with skyscrapers and factories. Illuminated by a North Star, the subjects escape the darkness of bondage and aspire towards this new sought-after land. Douglas anchors the idea of success to this urban architecture, but in doing so, he brings the racial disparities of the early-to-mid twentieth century into relief. So while these new modern buildings expressed American democratic values and economic success, they were still inaccessible to those oppressed by racial segregation in an era when jobs were racialized.
To reiterate, the evolving landscape both reflected and informed the permanence and strength of the American economy and cultural values that dominated the twentieth century. Engineers and architects began to abandon the fake utopian motifs of Gilded Age architecture in favor of functional business architecture. Flowers’ inclusion of Sheldon Cheney’s critique best summarizes this transition, “‘Business rules the world today, and as long as business can best be served where many offices are concentrated in one small area, in buildings designed as machines...business architecture will be supreme’”. This insight underscores the rising importance of Taylorism and Fordism to the American economy. Behind the gleaming steel and concrete mountains were people sitting in office chairs, following orders. The artistic productions of Crane and Douglas represent how these changes manifested in the modern American psyche. In conclusion, new urban developments literally brought Americans to new heights by democratizing space, increasing efficiency, and shaping modernist thought. 
Works cited
Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936
Benjamin Flowers, Chapter 2: “Setback Skyscrapers and American Architectural Development,” Skyscraper: The Politics and Power of Building New York City in the Twentieth Century, pp. 39 – 50 (2009)
Hart Crane, “Poem: To Brooklyn Bridge,” The Bridge (1930)
Rebecca Graff, “Dream City, Plaster City: Worlds’ Fairs and the Gilding of American Material Culture,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology (2012)
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