new boozy city

My favorite bit of narration from Prohibition, Parts II & III:

Consumption dropped in every major city, and everywhere in the United States, except in New York City, where it went up. New Yorkers then as now did NOT enjoy being told what to do and took to drinking in defiance.

Heh. Yeah, I could’ve guessed.

Another favorite tale: a woman at grad school in Cambridge (Radcliffe?) applied that intellectual talent (with a roommate) to making homemade beer. It blew up, thus spoiling an otherwise promising weekend, no doubt.

All of these stories–up to and including the spawn of what we now know as the mob–make for quite the tale of “crime, corruption and hypocrisy.”

Oh, and did anyone else catch the right to privacy first articulated thanks to Justice Brandeis?  Or a hero of New York politics, Al Smith? Imagine a politician today standing up for his or her convictions regardless of losing a general election, because that’s what Smith did after denouncing the strengthening KKK.

It was quite something hearing from The New Yorker’s Lois Long (aka “Lipstick”) who could be a blogger recapping her night somewhere on the Lower East Side circa 2011 : these are the tales which cemented the legendary flappers in New York’s imagination, I’m sure.

At last, Burns gets back to gender in the 1920’s, and brings up a phenomenon you’ll see again in the wake of 2nd wave American feminism: an incredibly politicized generation of feminist activists appalled at the sexualized behavior of their daughters. My delightful discovery, thanks to this doc, was that of Pauline Sabin, the blue-blood Republican who stood for repeal and against the Women’s Christian Temperance Union because she felt offended that they purported to stand for all American women.

Definitely worth a viewing–so put this one in your queue for a winter’s weekend, if not sooner! I’m impressed at Burns’ brevity here: there is more than enough material to have gone on far longer, and this film is fairly “tight” for him, clocking in at around six hours. It’s also genuinely insightful in terms of how long certain political and cultural debates have been with us as a nation, which is to say–as always–longer than we thought.

prohibition, part 1

It was interesting to see so many of the issues I’ve worked on in policy and feminist history show up throughout the first installment of Ken Burns’ Prohibition.

Kudos to Burns for tracing the history of women’s activism in terms of the temperance movement in the 19th century–they are absolutely intertwined. It is amazing to reread the history of temperance seeing “alcohol” as code for domestic violence, marital rape and financial ruin if paychecks were brought directly to taverns where they could be cashed and spent in full. This did not encompass every single drinker’s behavior, thank goodness, but it has always interested me to think about how easily we can use one identifiable so-called “evil” as a stand-in for far more amorphous social problems (then and now).

Last year, I spent a lot of time doing research on New York’s alcohol policy, and the same arguments from the 19th century about the city’s “vice neighborhoods” now appear as battles over the efficacy of allowing “nightlife districts”. Watching Burns’ documentary, you see history repeat itself over and over again. In America, fights over alcohol  have been going on in the background of our politics forever–one way or another.