A review of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure by David Freeland appeared in the August 8th edition of the Wall Street Journal.
Newton’s third law—every action has an equal and opposite reaction—goes on display every day in Manhattan. The action is provided by renters and owners who want a piece of the city. They’re the ones who empower developers, a group that delights in bashing down old structures and replacing them with high-rises (and higher prices).
The equal-and-opposite reaction to this process takes the form of a wistful longing for bygone pleasure palaces. When they were around, those dance halls and theaters and restaurants were taken for granted. Now that they’re gone, the lamentations are as loud as the wrecking ball.
In “Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville,” historian David Freeland takes full advantage of this longing for the colorful past. With an archaeologist’s eye and a storyteller’s wit he roams from Chinatown to Harlem—concentrating on scenes of the city’s nightlife a century ago during the vaudeville era but also reaching back into the 19th century as he summons up forgotten neighborhoods and personalities who gave old New York its raffish vigor.
En route, he provides a hilarious anthology of New Yorkers’ biases—immigrant populations invariably came in for a hard time from the locals. On the Bowery in the mid-19th century, the burgeoning population of German newcomers was generally regarded as ambitious and industrious, but that didn’t stop a historian at the time from giving a satiric account: “The chief end of man has long been a theme of discussion among theologians and philosophers. The chief end of that portion who emigrate from the Fatherland is to drink lager, under all circumstances and all occasions.”