The view from the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
The Rockefeller centre in downtown Manhattan was commissioned and financed by the son and heir of John D Rockefeller- one of the largest oil barons of 19th Century America. Adjusting for inflation it’s estimated JD Rockefeller was probably the wealthiest person to have ever existed. He established oil, banking and railway monopolies that made him one of the most powerful and influential figures in US history. He was also one of the most prolific philanthropists of his era and many of the hospitals, universities, charitable foundations and museums he funded still bear the Rockefeller name.
His son John Junior inherited not only his father’s empire but also his nack for aggressive business practices and also his philanthropic tendencies (all the suits of armour in the Detroit Institute of Arts, for example, were bequests from the Rockefeller foundation). Despite being a teetotaller his public criticism of prohibition helped repeal the 28th Amendment and despite his father’s preference for homeopathy he helped direct funds towards medical research, public health issues and environmental conservation.
It’s important to remember though that there’s a great deal of bias built into the recording of the Rockefeller legacy. History is written by the victors, the saying goes, and the same is true for those who are victorious in business. Junior died in 1960 but the Rockefeller family is still inordinately wealthy and their trusts and foundations will be a prominent part of US society for many years.
With that in mind it’s difficult to get a sense of what it really took to build such an empire and who lost out in the process. The inescapable criticisms of the Rockefeller family centre on a strike at a mine they owned in Colorado that was brutally repressed by mercenary security firms and the Colorado national guard in 1914. The mining companies used armoured vehicles and machine guns to break up a strikers camp near a town called Ludlow. That massacre, and the conflict that followed, may have claimed the lives of as many as 200 people and it remains the most violent chapter in the American labour movement. Socialist activist Margarat Sanger at the time described the Rockefellers as;
“leering, bloody hyenas of the human race who smear themselves with the stinking honey of Charity to attract those foul flies of religion who spread pollution throughout the land.”
The Ludlow massacre bears some resemblance to the Eureka Stockade massacre in Australia in that wealthy business interests often have enough political influence to employ government forces as their own private army. Many similar injustices no doubt lurk in the background awaiting a time when public sentiment towards the Rockefeller name has cooled enough to allow them to be brought to light.
Interestingly the famous image of workers ‘lunch atop a skyscraper‘ was taken during the construction of 30 Rockefeller plaza. The building was constructed at the height of the depression when more than 25 per cent of the men living in the city were unemployed. Seen in that light the image is not really the playful portrait of fearless blue-collar New Yorkers that it’s made out to be. It’s more a reflection of the working conditions of the time. No helmets, no harnesses, no railings- just desperate men casually undertaking a dangerous job.
I got up to the observation deck just as the sun was setting and watched people come and go from the corner of the level below me. When the sun had fully set there was this deep contrast between the blue light from the building and the yellow lights from the offices in the streets below and I waited for someone to stop in that particular corner to get the title shot.