August 8, 2009
I've read that, in certain works of fiction, a city can be as much a character as any person in the story. Certainly cities and localities have played much the same role in my biographies.
In Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, for example, rural western Missouri emerges as a living, changing thing, as essential to Jesse James's story as his mother or brother Frank. And, in The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, I tried to tell the story of the emergence of two great American cities: San Francisco and, in particular, New York.
Without New York, Commodore Vanderbilt never would have achieved the staggering success that marked his career. And without Vanderbilt, New York would have had a harder time clawing its way to the top. I tried to give the full flavor of the city as it changed in the nineteenth century: it went from being "an overgrown seaport village" (as a Scottish visitor called it, before the War of 1812)—rife with herds of roaming pigs and packs of wild dogs, with backyard privies and yellow fever epidemics—to an island of tenements and factories, mansions and banks.
As I see the story (and tried to write it), Vanderbilt and New York grew up together. He took on the aristocratic, landowning merchants who presided over the "culture of deference" in the early nineteenth century, championing an individualistic, commercial, competitive culture that came to define American society. And he went on to inaugurate the Gilded Age, with the vast polarization of wealth between himself (along with a handful of other super-rich New Yorkers) and the desperately poor, who lived a short distance from his Washington Square mansion, crowded into decrepit housing in Five Points and other slums. It's a story both exhilarating and hearbreaking, much like New York itself.
Vanderbilt also played a central role in the birth of San Francisco. More than a decade before the completion of the transcontinental railroad—and half a century before the Panama Canal was begun—he ran a steamship line between San Francisco and New York, with a land crossing at Nicaragua. By lowering fares and speeding up service, he promoted migration to California, and magnified the impact of the gold-rush gold in the financial system headquartered in New York. Though he never set foot in San Francisco, he became a major presence there, praised and condemned in newspaper editorials and sidewalk conversations on Market Street. The character of early San Francisco—a city of hustlers and con artists, of schemers and quick-to-shoot miners—shaped a major part of Vanderbilt's own life, and I tried to bring it out in all its brilliant colors.
Though Vanderbilt's greatest corporation, the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, is long gone, the infrastructure he built has left a lasting mark on New York. His massive St. John's Park freight depot (where the exit of the Holland Tunnel is now) reshaped lower Manhattan, giving it the particular character it has today, with its massive nineteenth-century warehouses. He constructed the original Grand Central, which anchored Midtown, and made 42nd Street into a grand crosstown artery. He sank the railroad tracks that led to Grand Central beneath the surface of 4th Avenue, allowing it to blossom into Park Avenue. And he helped to make Wall Street the most important and sophisticated financial market in the world.
For good reason his statue remains outside of Grand Central Terminal today, looking south toward Wall Street. In many ways, he made the modern city, and with it the modern economy of the United States.