Monday, January 19, 2009

From There To Here

Tomorrow’s blog would write itself; the inauguration of America’s first Black president is ripe with meaning and historical parallels would beg to be told. But here I am, assigned this entry, a day shy of the big event. (Writing about the inauguration now would be like shooting fireworks on the 3rd of July: it’s more about noise than celebration.)

So, as a kind of counterpoint to tomorrow’s shining moment, let me offer a distinctly grubbier instance from our past: NYC at the turn of the last century.

Machine politics ran the City, Tammany Hall ran the Machine, and (mostly) Irish Democratic politicians ran Tammany Hall. (The City was so pervasively Celtic that Italian and Jewish crooks felt compelled to take on Irish monikers to get ahead. On the other side of the law was a police department that was ¾ Irish.)

Among the Tammany Hall “stars” were:

Big Tim Sullivan who collected tribute from gambling halls and shook down honest business people, using the money to buy votes. His realm, lower Manhattan, was solidly Democratic. Despite his crooked ways, he was known for his generosity, setting out, for example, Christmas dinner for 5000 Bowery bums.

Big Bill Devery was Chief of Police who sold police protection to crooks. His corrupt behavior inspired the NY legislature to abolish his office. To this day, there is no NYPD Police Chief. Deverey and a couple of his cronies brought the baseball Yankees to New York.

Boss Croker dealt in graft, enriching Tammany Hall and himself. Ostensibly only a humble civil servant, he accumulated two NYC houses, another in Tennessee, three in England, and mansions in Palm Beach and Ireland. His lavish life style included raising thoroughbreds. He stipulated that Orby, his favorite racehorse, should be buried next to him.

And my point?

First, is to remind us that we’ve managed to come from Boss Croker to Barack Obama. Of course, the path hasn’t been straight; the last 8 years have certainly been a costly detour. But we still managed to get here.

Secondly – and perhaps more apropos to this blog – is that villains can still make great stories.

To learn more read Luc Sante’s Lowlife and Mike Dash’s Satan’s Circus.

Happy Inauguration Day.

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