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Documenting doomed battle to clean up New York

The New York City of the 1890s was two cities, one carefully overlaid on the other in such a way that the image of one city never bled into the image of the other.

At that time, the budding metropolis at the mouth of the East and North Rivers was claiming its rightful distinction as the nation's No. 1 city, and in fact was making a strong pitch to be recognized as world-class.

Nearly 2 million people crowded the lower half of Manhattan Island, but through some miracle of physics, the people of these two overlaid cities, while walking the same noisy narrow streets and breathing the same rancid air, seldom spoke to each other. They spoke different languages.

The men might rub shoulders on a crowded train platform or ferry, but some would go so far as to say the people of those two cities never even saw each other.

One city was peopled by the blue bloods, with puritanical ideals, Victorian morals, finishing school accents and Knickerbocker lifestyles.

They played jolly-good polo, collected art masterpieces from Europe, drank $800 bottles of champagne at the Waldorf and wore silk top hats to the new Metropolitan Opera House. They had names like Astor, Bradley-Martin, Morgan, Flanger, Rainsford, Parkhurst and Roosevelt.

The second city was inhabited by first- and second-generation immigrants who worked six days a week in sweatshops or hung around the crowded street corners, looking for work, trouble, or both.

The residents of the second city slept in shifts amid the mites and rodents of overcrowded tenements and never escaped the stench of their own clothing. They had Irish names, German names and Italian names. Their worthiness for manual labor often was judged by the length and turn of their noses.

These were the two disparate cities of New York at a time when the highest point in its skyline was the 13-foot classical nude Diana perched atop Madison Square Garden, a time before the skyscraper, before the subway, when the Bronx was still forested, and Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island still were independent towns.

This is the "Island of Vice" the city that reform Republicans vowed to clean up when they swept Tammany Hall out of power in the mid-1890s. For two years, a young Theodore Roosevelt barked, howled and chopped the air with his hand in an attempt to wipe out police corruption, open prostitution, gambling and after-hours consumption of alcohol in the city he never understood.

His first mistake was to deprive a Sunday beer to the 125,000 Germans of Kleindeutschland where the biergarten was the place for the whole family on their only day off. If the German immigrants were unhappy over a dry Sabbath, imagine the owners of the city's 8,000 saloons.

Next, Roosevelt deprived the Irish street cop, who was "on duty" for 110 hours a week at poverty wages, of the few extra dollars he was able to extort from the brothels on his beat. If that wasn't bad enough, when the beat cop lost his pocket money, the captains, superintendents, ward heelers and political bosses who handed out the jobs in the first place, lost big bucks.

It didn't help that this was the time of the great newspaper war between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, and that the other dozens of small New York dailies like the New York Times also needed a piece of the story. Nor did young Roosevelt's inability to keep quiet help his cause.

"He is altogether a fine representative of the best type of contemporary American," one paper shouted.

"Do your duty Teddy, and keep your mouth shut," shouted another.

"Roosevelt is a good man in the most obnoxious sense of the word," cried a third.

Things only got worse when some cops became overzealous to satisfy their new boss -- or were they tweaking his nose? -- and raided the off-limits gentlemen's clubs during private parties, or arrested poor street vendors for selling flowers on Sunday, or theater owners for their actresses' skimpy costumes.

It became a popular sport for newspapers to create heroines of innocent young wives arrested on soliciting charges when their only crime was trying to extricate their husbands from the labyrinth of neighborhood gin mills.

It is important to note for Western New York's legion of Roosevelt devotees that journalist Richard Zacks has not attempted to write a biography of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt doesn't enter the picture until the reader is 70 pages into the book. And Roosevelt's stint as a police commissioner only consumed two usually forgotten years of his young career.

In fact, Zacks' view of Roosevelt is not very complimentary. If these two years were to define Roosevelt's career, he would be little more than a brash, belligerent, narrow-minded, puritanical moralist from uppity Oyster Bay.

This book, Zacks' fifth, is about the clash between the two New York Cities. He specializes in the dark underside of the city, the perverse and the seedy. At times the narrative tends to bog down in sometimes interesting and other times prurient extraneous detail. Roosevelt is the thread that stitches the tale together.

As the book winds down, we find young Roosevelt trying to extricate himself from an impossible position of his own making. He has made enemies of the leaders of both political parties, the newspapers are openly hostile, and his own Republican Party wishes it somehow could spirit him quietly out of New York without tarnishing its image as the reform party.

New York's citizenry, which according to one newspaper, "prefers to be crazy and reckless" over "crazy and religious," rewarded Roosevelt's political backers by returning City Hall to the Tammany crowd. In short, Roosevelt had overstayed his welcome.

Of course, Roosevelt was to get kicked upstairs as assistant secretary of the Navy; he would resign that post to form the Rough Riders, and go on to become a national hero of the Spanish-American War. He would be elected vice president in President William McKinley's second term, and became president after McKinley was shot to death at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo.

But that's not the material of this book. This book finds Roosevelt hightailing it to Washington, insisting: "I was right all along." The dueling newspapers soon turned to fresh topics. And the island of Manhattan sighed collectively and began a swift return to its proper position as the island of vice.

Edward Cuddihy is the retired Buffalo News managing editor.


Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York

By Richard Zacks


431 pages, $27.95