Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Reader Review: New York Undercover

James Batty reviews New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era by Jennifer Fronc.

by James Batty,

This fascinating but frustrating book shines a light on the murky, seething, metropolitan world of New York City in the early 20th century. Jennifer Fronc, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, delves deep into the records kept by various social and moral activist organisations that formed and dissipated in these formative years for modern New York.

The book is fascinating for the detail it gives of the lives of ordinary working class people during this period. Organisations such as the Committee of Fourteen, the Committee of Fifteen and the National Civic Federation hired both professional private investigators and lay men and women to walk the streets of the city looking for vice or behaviour considered ‘disorderly’ and ‘immoral’ by the standards of these activist groups. This mainly involved going into bars, hotels, entertainment venues and other places of public gathering in the more insalubrious parts of town and either observing or actively encouraging vice-like or other lewd behaviour.

What emerges is a world full of vice, trickery and deception. The investigators themselves show through their reports that they took full part in this world, and noted down their experiences in a dispassionate detached voice. Fronc rightly questions the veracity of a number of these reports. In their dealings with prostitutes, for example, the investigators record that they go so far as to pay the women and wait until they get undressed before they make their excuses and leave. Some, however, omit to mention that they left at all – leaving a telling silence in the record, or perhaps just being more truthful that the others.

The characters are the most fascinating part of these reports. Fronc recounts the story of a gang war in Chinatown during this period, when the local criminal ‘godfather’ and sometime ‘mayor’ of Chinatown, Tom Lee, is challenged in his supremacy by the fantastically named Mock Duck. In another set of reports one investigator, Edward Barrows, emerges as a hero of child welfare in the notorious Hell’s Kitchen district. Barrows, working for the People’s Institute, moved into the area to become a ‘denizen of the street corners’, living there for an extended period of time and ingratiating himself to the locals. This way he was able to see the ‘criminal’ children for what they really were, just bored kids looking for something to do.

The reader is kept enthralled by such details, which run throughout the book. The only concern is that the argument can appear quite forced at times. The information is arranged well into different investigative areas and gently guides the reader through the period from the end of the 19th century to the 1920s. At times, however, the main argument can get lost in the detail, leaving the reader struggling to understand how one section is linked to another.

Nevertheless, the sheer vividness of these investigative reports shines through, begging even more questions about the lives of the investigators and the investigated in this lively and corrupt world. One particularly zealous investigator who begs for more attention is David Oppenheim, a specialist in getting into African American establishments, often by arguing at the door that he isn’t white but Cuban, and soliciting any prostitutes that might be on the premises. His skills at attracting these ladies of ‘low moral standards’ appeared strong at the beginning, but by the end, in 1919, Oppenheim was reduced to walking the deserted streets of Brooklyn at night desperately looking for prostitutes to entrap.

James Batty is a History Today reader. He has lived in New York and is particularly interested in the history of the city.

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