Union Town

Union Town

Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II
by Joshua B. Freeman
The New Press, 2000, 393 pp., $35


I’m sitting here in sunny California poring over short-term rentals in downtown Manhattan. My wife stops short at a luxury loft on Lespinard Street (a good spot for “sightings” of Robert DeNiro and such, the ad says). Lespinard Street, she says, that’s where Sam’s place was. Sam is the long-dead husband of my wife’s Aunt Lil. After World War II he was a small-time jobber in rented space on Lespinard. Just imagine, my wife says, remembering Sam and his cronies playing pinochle on a slow day, Lespinard Street . . . a hot New York address. Countless New Yorkers and ex-New Yorkers have experienced a similar moment, and every one of them must have framed some kind of theory accounting for his or her version of why DeNiro, and not Sam, now figures on Lespinard Street. But it’s actually hard to put one’s finger on the crux of New York’s transformation.

That’s what Freeman does in this engrossing book. He puts his finger on the city’s working class. In a general sense, of course, this cannot be news to readers of Dissent. Ken Burns’s recent series on PBS produced a lot of grumbling for being clueless about labor’s role in New York history (not by me: I quit after twenty minutes of skyline shots and breathless commentary). But Freeman’s argument is more specific. He contends that New York’s character at mid-century was determined by the cultural and political dominance of its working class. The erosion of that power, Freeman suggests, most accounts for the new New York that I read about in the West Coast edition of the New York Times.

In making that case, Freeman gets a strong assist from the new labor history. It is, of course, a cliché by now that the new labor history is no longer new. But it is hard to imagine Freeman writing this particular book without a sensibility about class and culture that derives from the great historian of the English working class, E.P. Thompson. When Herbert Gutman became Thompson’s American champion some thirty years ago, it seemed as if the main thing was to stop writing trade-union history. What Gutman really meant was that historians should stop writing about unions in the dry institutional terms of the long-dominant Wisconsin school. In fact, unions always figured in Gutmanesque scholarship, for the very good reason that unions were an important—sometimes the only—entry point into a working-class world the new labor historians wanted to explore. Freeman’s book is written in that tradition. It is mostly about the New York labor movement but conceived, in the spacious mode of Herbert Gutman, as at once product and shaper of a richly layered urban world.

It has often been said about the new labor history that it never really got out of the nineteenth century, where,...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: