Into the Crazy-Loved Dens of Death

As New York’s propertied classes surveyed the new metropolitan landscape, their pride in the city and its power was laced with a sour frustration, even revulsion. All around them stretched noisome urban marchlands where the writ of gentility hadn’t run in years—Five Points, Corlear’s Hook, Dutch Hill, the black enclave around Bancker Street, Kleindeutschland, the Hudson River waterfront, and the sprawling eastside industrial precincts between 14th and 23rd streets—nurseries every one of unionism, radicalism, Catholicism, pugilism, vice, squalor, and disease. Take care, respectable citizens, when you descend into these haunts of “rum-degraded human beings,” warned Solon Robinson in Hot Corn (1854), a popular collection of sunlight-and-shadow vignettes. “You may meet someone, perhaps a man, perhaps a woman, who in their drunken frenzy may thrust you, for the very hatred of your better clothes, or the fear that you have come to rescue them from their crazy-loved dens of death.”

In fact no part of town seemed safe anymore. Prostitutes, homeless urchins, vagabonds, beggars, and other “social rats” had free run of the streets, and legislators investigating conditions in Corlear’s Hook worried that the cancerous horrors of the slums were spreading relentlessly through New York’s “veins and arteries.” If nothing were done, they continued, “the heart and limbs of the city will sooner or later suffer, as surely as the vitals of the human system must suffer by the poisoning or disease of the smallest vehicle.” Once bucolic suburbs weren’t immune from infection either, thanks to the ease of travel by railroad and steamboat. On summer Sundays and holidays, growled George Templeton Strong, “the civic scum” washed over Long Island, Staten Island, and New Jersey. “All conveniently accessible hotels and boarding houses are overrun by the vermin that hot weather roasts out of its homes in towns.” Most of his friends, Strong added, never went out at night without a revolver.

Every year, indeed, brought shocking new testimony—from physicians, health inspectors, hospitals and medical dispensaries, orphanages, courts, police officials, and legislative commissions—that confirmed a horrifying expansion of poverty and disease and crime in the metropolis. Yet concerned elites were no longer certain what they could or should do about it. Many held fast to traditional moralizing while others found the pressure of circumstances (and working-class radicalism) forcing them to reconsider some cherished assumptions about the causes of poverty and the role of government in responding to it.


The merchants and industrialists who ran the Tract Society and Bible Society continued trying to convert tenement dwellers, particularly Catholic ones, to Protestant piety and bourgeois social virtues, though increasingly they shifted from relying on volunteers (who found the immigrant localities “very repulsive”) to using full-time salaried workers. To churn out bulk shipments of Holy Writ for Sunday schools, poorhouses, prisons, orphanages, and immigrant depots—and to manage what was increasingly a worldwide crusade—the American Bible Society erected a grand new Bible House that took up the entire block between Third and Fourth avenues and 8th and 9th streets.

The Home Missionary Society similarly kept on spreading gospel civilization to heathen savages from the African veldt to the American West and working for the Christian redemption of New York City. They were joined in this by Episcopalians (who revived their Missionary Society) and Congregationalists (Beecher’s Plymouth Church opened several waterfront missions), but the boldest initiative came from the Ladies’ Home Missionary Society (LHMS) of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 1850, backed by wealthy contributors like Daniel Drew and Anson G. Phelps, the LHMS opened a Five Points Mission in a rented room diagonally across from the infamous “Old Brewery.” There, under the leadership of the Rev. Louis M. Pease, the ladies ran prayer meetings and Bible study classes, opened a charity day school, sponsored temperance speakers, and went out to comfort the sick. Closely attuned to the virtues of publicity, they issued regular accounts of their work—filled with stories of miraculous conversions and deathbed repentances—and on Thanksgiving Day paraded hundreds of scrubbed Sunday school students before benefactors. Then the ladies fed their charges turkey dinners, inaugurating a ritual that would lead, a decade later, to Thanksgiving’s establishment as an official (and feminized) holiday.

In 1852, drawing again on the ample resources of Phelps and Drew and on a thousand-dollar contribution from the Common Council, the LHMS purchased the Old Brewery itself and announced that the notorious “pest-house of sin” would be replaced with a proper “school of virtue.” To dramatize its demolition, the LHMS ran candle-lit tours of the rookery’s fetid interior, “where miserable men, women, and children . . . moodily submitted to the gaze of the strangers in that community of degraded outcasts.” The residents were then evicted and the building razed; in its place rose the new Five Points Mission, complete with chapel, schoolrooms, baths, and twenty apartments for the homeless—a bow to the poor’s material needs.

Some missionaries learned unexpected things in the working-class quarters. One day, the Rev. Pease was preaching to a group of “profligate” women—“respectably, some even genteelly dressed,” he remembered, “yet their character was readily perceived.” Suddenly they turned on him. “Don’t talk to us of death and retribution and perdition before us; we want no preacher to tell us all that,” they cried. “Give us work and wages!” These “sotted wretches,” Pease discovered, could not afford to pay the security deposit clothing manufacturers required before handing out garments to sew. Pease decided to help. Converting the mission’s evening prayer room into a daytime sewing workshop, he collected the piecework himself and offered employment to all who would pledge themselves to temperance and a moral life. The LHMS, believing Pease had gone too far, denounced him as a Fourierist and severed their relationship. But Pease won the backing of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, and in 1854 his new Five Points House of Industry set up shop on Anthony Street.

By the late 1850s there were seventy-six missions in the metropolis, almost saturating the working-class quarters, yet for all this earnest activity, there was a growing sense that it was little more than an expensive dead end. A vigorous and self-assured workingclass culture seemed to shrug off evangelical efforts as easily as did Middle Eastern Muslims. In 1855, when New York’s population was 629,924, there were only 138,678 communicants in metropolitan churches.

And of these over half, 78,488, were Catholics, a statistic not calculated to warm Protestant hearts. The Irish, long inured to proselytizing by British Protestants, kept evangelicals firmly at bay—a task made easier by the missionaries’ obvious disdain for what they regarded as a cult of medieval superstition and idolatry. (In their determination to guard Christian souls from the clutches of Rome, evangelicals forbade inmates of their homes and shelters to see a priest, even if they were on their deathbeds.) Catholics boycotted “Old Pease’s School,” cursed the redoubtable ladies of the LHMS, and threatened bodily harm to representatives of the Tract Society.

Besides such grass-roots opposition, the evangelicals had the Catholic hierarchy to contend with. Redeeming the poor from “bondage” to Protestant charity was “the noblest work for Catholic charity,” said their spokespaper Freeman’s Journal, and the Church set out to establish a rival aid network. In 1846 Father Varela, pastor of Transfiguration, introduced the St. Vincent de Paul Society to New York City; other parishes quickly established chapters or started their own missions. In 1849 the Sisters of Mercy opened a House of Mercy, which accommodated two hundred destitute women each evening and gave food and clothing to great numbers of the needy. That same year Archbishop Hughes, infuriated that Protestant hospitals blocked priests from visiting Catholic patients, got the Sisters of Charity to launch St. Vincent’s Hospital. (The German Sisters of the Poor would follow suit with St. Francis Hospital.) St. Vincent’s charged a modest admission, in part to remove the stigma of receiving charity, and by 1858 a physician at New York Hospital admitted that “most of our domestic servants prefer” St. Vincent’s.

Catholic and Protestant elites saw eye to eye, however, on the evils of demon rum, being dispensed (as of 1849) at 5,780 licensed liquor groceries, porter houses, taverns, and fancy saloons. The New-York Temperance Society and Bishop Hughes alike welcomed Cork’s famous Father Theobald Mathew to Manhattan, where he spent much of a year preaching against alcohol and inspiring formation of the Roman Catholic Total Abstinence and Benevolent Society. Even pleasure-loving Knickerbocker patricians listened more attentively now to temperance claims that “the cheap wines of France” had been responsible for “insubordination and revolution” in 1848.

Yet here too reformers found themselves up against formidable opponents, starting with the immigrants themselves. When advocates opened a mission next door to a Ger­man beer garden in 1860, its outraged customers “evinced their displeasure by throwing water into the open windows, shouting, making noises in the hall, casting stones against the door, and other disorderly conduct; so that the aid of the police became necessary.” In addition, alcohol purveyors ranging from merchant importers to waterfront barkeepers mobilized into a formidable pressure group—the Liquor Dealers Protective Union had eight hundred members by 1855—and sponsored mass meetings to mobilize antiprohibition sentiment.

Balked, temperance advocates turned to the state. “Ought law to conform to public sentiment,” Horace Greeley rhetorically asked delegates assembled in 1853 for the World’s Temperance Convention, “or ought law to be based upon essential righteousness, and then challenge a public sentiment to act in conformity therewith?” The reformers answered by successfully pressuring the state legislature into passing the 1855 Act for the Prevention of Intemperance, Paupers, and Crime, a law that, among other things, authorized keeping persons arrested for public drunkenness locked up until they agreed to testify as to the source of their intoxicant. The statute aroused immense hostility in New York City, touching off mass rallies at Tammany Hall and bringing declarations from Bennett’s Herald that it would ruin New York business to the benefit of wet New Jersey. The mayor refused to enforce the law, and in 1856 the state appellate court declared it unconstitutional.

Setbacks in missionary and temperance work were accompanied by abject failure to check the spread of gambling. Jonathan Harrington Green, a reformed gambler turned professional lecturer on tricks of the sharpster’s trade, helped set up a New York Association for the Suppression of Gambling (ASG) in 1850. The board of ministers and businessmen directed executive agent Green to undertake a thorough survey of the problem. He reported back that there were 6,126 gambling houses in town—defined broadly enough to include the first-class “hells” where rich merchants played faro in luxurious surroundings, the dimly lit “penny-poker dens” where small-time thieves congregated, the lottery offices, the policy offices, and indeed anywhere bets were placed, including ten-pin alleys, billiard rooms, saloons, cockfighting pits, and shooting galleries. Green also noted the rarity of arrests: in the previous six years a grand total of fifty-nine people had been indicted for gambling.

The ASG professed great concern about the impact of these establishments on vulnerable young men, and it was true enough that gambling, like much else in New York, had rapidly shifted its nature in recent years. In the past, most recreational betting had been done with peers; monies won generally remained in circulation within the neighborhood. Now much of the wagering went on in commercial settings, organized by oftunscrupulous professionals who lived off customers’ losses. But Green and the ASG proved to be less troubled by gambling’s impact on youths than by its consequences for employers. In general, they bemoaned the gambling-propagated lust for quick wealth that was undermining the industry and sobriety businessmen wanted in their labor force. In particular, they bewailed the rising number of gambling-addicted clerks who dipped into their employers’ tills to make up losses.

Green’s contemporary, a young merchant named George H. Petrie, had visited London for business and to see the Crystal Palace, discovered the Young Men’s Christian Association there, and brought it back to New York in 1852 to “ralley around the young stranger and save him from the snares of this wicked city.” With the help of Mercer Street Presbyterian’s Rev. Isaac Ferris, Petrie set up a temporary sanctuary in two rooms on the third floor of the old New York City Lyceum at 659 Broadway. Clerical workers, many of them new to the city, flocked to the YMCA, attracted by its library and meeting place, network of friends and surrogate family, and help in finding housing, churches, and jobs with YMCA businessman backers. Such men, in turn, responded warmly to the argument (cogently expressed by the Rev. George W. Bethune at the second annual meeting in 1854) that the organization was “a principle of insurance to their interests,” a way “to make their servants—I mean those who are in their employ—faithful to their duty.”

For all its promise, the “Y”—which would itself evolve in unexpected directions—was not intended to transform the immigrant masses in the present but to contend with them in the future. It was wonderful, Bethune said, that “after all this infusion of foreign admixture, the Anglo-Saxon element pervadefs] and rules” New York, but maintaining that predominance required advance planning. The YMCA would train up what Bethune called a cadre of men “calm, resolute, armed, drilled and prepared for the fight, taking their position as the guardians of the city,” but even if successful, such troops could have no immediate impact on a rapidly deteriorating situation.


The “scientific reformers” at the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor were not doing much better than the moralizers they tended to belittle. By the early fifties the AICP, with roughly four thousand contributing members—including some of the greatest bankers, merchant princes, and industrialists of the day—was the most influential organization of its kind in New York. Its program of centralized philanthropy to manage city indigents was in full swing; nearly four hundred employed visitors had logged hundreds of thousands of visits; and executive secretary Robert Milham Hartley professed himself mightily pleased with the elaborate structure. “Its machinery,” Hartley boasted, “though extensive, is easily managed, and works with admirable precision, economy and effect.” Surely it couldn’t fail “to expel idleness and beggary from the city.” Here, he crowed, was America’s answer to the recently published Communist Manifesto.

Hartley had succeeded in expelling many of the most wretched from the city, in a sense. They’d been swept from Manhattan’s streets and dispatched to Blackwell’s Island, by 1850 a 1.75-mile-long laboratory for scientific management of the classified poor. Yet no matter how many grand (and costly) new establishments got constructed on Blackwell’s, they were immediately (and expensively) swamped with inmates, 60 percent of them Irish. Many were elderly discharged domestics who, having spent their lives in service, had no children to look after them nor community support networks to rely upon in their old age. Between 1853 and 1856, caring for the seven thousand people crammed into the new almshouse drove the costs of operation up by 240 percent, from $385,000 to $925,000.

The sick and immigrant poor, meanwhile, were shoehorned into Bellevue Hospital. Of the 3,728 admissions in 1850, 2,596 had been born in Ireland and only 647 were native born. A substantial minority were relegated to the floors until a new wing, added in 1855, brought the number of beds to twelve hundred; by the mid-1850s Bellevue was treating four to five thousand patients annually. The place had a fearsome reputation, however, partly because the private hospitals and other poor-relief institutions continued to dump their terminal cases there and then slander the facility for its mortality rate. Ardent efforts brought in-house deaths down somewhat, but in the late 1850s Bellevue remained rat-infested, lice-ridden, and, like many of the other overcrowded institutions, wracked by epidemics of puerperal fever (which carried off parturient women) and ophthalmia (which led to blindness in large numbers of children).

Public and private reformers made heroic efforts to respond to the crisis. A tiny smallpox hospital was opened on Blackwell’s southern tip in 1848, then replaced by a much larger version in 1856. The Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum, a mammoth and intricately designed hospital at the northern apex, was the largest such institution in the country when it opened in 1839 but was quickly overburdened with inmates; it was replaced by two new buildings in the late 1840s. Three-fourths of these inmates were immigrants, two-thirds of whom were Irish. Insanity proved especially prevalent among young immigrant women, one sympathetic physician wrote, who were simply overwhelmed by “the combined moral and physical influences of their leaving the homes of their childhood, their coming almost destitute to a strange land, and often after great suffering.”

The idle and dissolute—“paupers” and “vagrants”—were sent to the new (1855) workhouse, which reformers had been clamoring for for years. There they were set to productive labor, isolated from the respectable almshouse poor with whom they had once been promiscuously mixed. The utterly “debased” and “depraved” were incarcerated in the fortresslike penitentiary near the island’s southern end, with one wing for males, another for females; at times, however, the crush of vagrants in the workhouse was so great that its overflow—twenty-five hundred people in 1851—had to be confined along with the convicts.

Most of these establishments imposed a rigorous and moralistic order on their “inmates.” They required the able-bodied to work: men labored in the quarry, rowed ferryboats to the mainland, and were on occasion loaned out to clean sewers; women cooked, washed, ironed, sewed; expectant mothers scrubbed floors. But these tasks, originally intended to inculcate values while offsetting costs, soon degenerated into devices for maintaining discipline or imposing a punitive routine. Rehabilitation had given way to warehousing.


The reform community’s greatest efforts were devoted to rescuing children of the poor—now, more than ever, considered a threat to civic stability. In 1849 George Matsell, New York’s chief of police, alerted residents to a “deplorable and growing evil” that threatened the very survival of the city. “I allude,” he wrote, “to the constantly increasing number of vagrants, idle and vicious children of both sexes, who infest our public thoroughfares.” The three-hundred-pound Matsell was detested in workingclass neighborhoods—Mike Walsh called him “a degraded and pitiful lump of blubber and meanness”—but his warning inflamed the imaginations of middle- and upper-class reformers. The Rev. Edwin Chapin quite agreed that “the children of the Poor create an appeal to prudential considerations,” as they “form a large proportion of those groups known in every city as ‘The Dangerous classes.’”

By the late 1840s children under fifteen constituted almost one-third of the city’s population (comparable to London’s 31.9 percent though far more than Paris’s 19.6 percent). The virtual disappearance of apprenticeship with its provision of room, board, and steady work had freed many from traditional constraints, and working-class families, who expected children to earn their keep from early on, routinely sent their young into unsupervised street trades.

Even more alarming than the swarms of children working the streets were those who lived on them as well. Many were orphans—poor parents often died young—but others simply didn’t like working-class family life, with its enforced sharing and cooperation, its parental discipline, often its parental violence. The streets beckoned the discontented with their alluring range of things to buy and places to go; even boys with homes slept out for weeks at a time, swelling the ranks of vagrant children.

The AICP’s solution was similar to the one they fashioned for adult immigrants: round the children up, then slot them, depending on character, into reformatories, schools, or bourgeois-type homes. To accomplish the first goal, the AICP drafted a model Truancy Law and, with help from the Female Guardian Society, got the state legislature to pass it in 1853. The law empowered police to arrest vagrant children between the ages of five and fourteen. If they proved to be orphans, they were to be made wards of the state and institutionalized. If not, they were to be turned over to their parents, who were enjoined to send them to school—an injunction given teeth by making school attendance a condition of family relief. If parents still failed to live up to their responsibilities, authorities were authorized to seize the children “and place them under better influences, till the claim of the parent shall be re-established by continued sobriety, industry and general good conduct.”

The legislation was less effective than it might have been in banning children from the streets, as it was so harsh that in practice many policemen refused to make arrests. But those who were picked up in the dragnet got consigned to a range of specialized institutions.

The hard cases were packed off to the House of Refuge, founded in 1824 and still going strong, though newly relocated in 1854 to Randall’s Island. There, isolated from the wicked city and adult prisoners alike, youthful vagrants were set to laboring alongside convicted juvenile delinquents and rebellious sons and defiant daughters who had been committed by their working-class parents. In the House of Refuge, the AICP noted approvingly, twelve-year-olds were “trained in habits of industry” by being compelled to make sixty pairs of ladies’ shoes a day, which sold briskly in retail shops, undercutting adult shoemakers.

The AICP did worry, however, that inmates who were hardened reprobates would drag down into delinquency those who were as yet merely vagrant and neglected. So the organization proposed and helped institute the New York Juvenile Asylum (1851), dedicated to teaching disobedient and idle children “self-discipline of body, mind, and heart” and then apprenticing them to employers. The asylum, unfortunately, proved no more effective an agency of reform than did the House of Refuge, and it too came to serve primarily a custodial function.

The reformers vested their major hopes for saving the salvageable in the school system, which underwent a major reorganization in these years. The Public School Society, the private board that had been running the free schools with public money, was subordinated to, and then in 1853 subsumed by, the popularly elected Board of Education. The public system launched an ambitious building program, constructing some schools capable of holding a thousand or more, and hired women as teachers, to keep costs down. Most innovatively, the board, seeking to provide an alternative to theaters and saloons, provided an evening school program that by 1856 had enrolled nearly fifteen thousand, some four thousand of whom were females, taught in separate classes.

The board’s pedagogical agenda remained that of the old Public School Society—the president announced in 1852 that he sought the “cultivation of habits of ready obedience”—and many of the new ward-school teachers, old PSS veterans, brought along their emphasis on mechanical memorization and Protestant indoctrination. The schools, accordingly, had a mixed record in accessing the immigrant poor. Over half of those registered never showed up, and perhaps fifty thousand went utterly unprovided for. What the institutions did best was protect and encourage children of middle-class character; youths who failed to measure up were weeded out rather than reformed.

The Sunday School Union had its own problems with the immigrant poor, though it did reaffirm (in 1856) its commitment to the “wretched progeny” of the “refuse population of Europe” as well as the “offcast children of American debauchery, drunkenness, and vice.” However, as the union admitted, “our object has always been to reach the masses, but we cannot get to them.” More and more, the Sunday schools became adjuncts of middle-class congregations, and most outposts in the working-class districts were eventually written off as failures.

The era’s most creative educational initiatives were aimed at older youths and adults. In 1846 the Board of Education’s Townsend Harris, a prosperous crockery merchant, proposed establishing a college for those who “have been pupils in the common schools.” It would offer studies relevant for the “active duties of operative life” rather than the classics courses Columbia and NYU considered preparatory for “the Pulpit, Bar, or the Medical profession.” The Free Academy was authorized in 1847 by an act of the legislature, but under pressure from “friends of the present expensive colleges [who] dislike it and are trying to crush it,” its fate was made conditional on winning a referendum.

In a whirlwind thirty-day campaign, Tammany posted placards all over town urging a “Free Academy for the poor man’s children” while Whigs opposed the idea on several grounds. Some complained of the cost. Others suggested that workers lacked the intellectual capacity to absorb higher education or, conversely, that they would absorb it and then become “too proud of their superior education to work either as clerks or mechanics, or to follow any active business except what is termed professional.” After all, as “Plain Truth” argued, “in every organism there must be diversity of members. There will be head, and hands, and—we must venture to say it—feet, too.” Finally there was the blanket ideological objection that the proposed expansion of free public services was really the opening wedge of a “mongrel Fourierism.”

Overriding these plaints, the citizenry passed the Free Academy referendum by 19,305 to 3,409. Architect James Renwick was set to designing a Gothic structure on Lexington and 23rd, and at the formal opening, in January 1849, a speaker hailed the “system of popular education for the common man” as solid evidence of the “growing democratization of American life.” Mike Walsh denied this, predicting that few laboring-class children would ever grace its Gramercy Park precincts, for most could not afford not to work, and the academy, while free, offered no stipends. Walsh’s prediction proved only slightly overstated. Talented sons of laborers, cartmen, craftsmen, and clerks did enter (though few from the ranks of Irish or German immigrants), but most were indeed forced by indigence to drop out and take jobs. The vast majority of gradu­ates were scions of merchants, ministers, lawyers, doctors, brokers, or clergymen, and most were of English, Dutch, or Huguenot descent. Nor were any graduates women, no matter what their ethnic and class credentials, for despite an 1854 legislative grant of authority to extend free higher education to females, raucous opposition within and outside the board blocked formation of the female Normal School (later Hunter College) for another decade and a half.

Peter Cooper set out to do better. Long inspired by the adult education programs offered by lyceums and mechanics’ institutes in the United States and abroad, Cooper, while PSS leader, had helped inaugurate the public schools’ evening classes back in 1848. Now he decided to erect an institute that would offer free education in the mechanical arts and sciences, with an emphasis on practical education, for men and women of the working classes. In 1853, on a plot of land between Astor Place, Third Avenue, Seventh Street, and Fourth Avenue, he laid the cornerstone for Cooper Union; he spent $600,000 completing it over the next five years. Its open-admission night classes were available to all comers, regardless of previous education; those lacking rudimentary knowledge were sent to the public evening schools. Two thousand people responded avidly—clerks, salesmen, bookkeepers, machinists, carpenters, and cabinetmakers predominated—filling every class immediately, though over six hundred soon dropped out. The courses were coed—though 95 percent of the students were male—and Cooper also opened a daytime Women’s School of Design to teach engraving, lithography, drawing, and painting on china. Cooper Union’s program was strictly nonsectarian, despite Cooper’s strong history of opposition to Catholics’ receiving state funds for education, and the school drew high praise from Bishop Hughes. The Great Hall, to the alarm of some, became a place where civic issues were debated from many (including radical) points of view. And its well-stocked reading room—unlike those of the neighboring Astor Library (which opened at 6th and Lafayette in 1854) or the Mercantile Library (now housed in the old Astor Opera House) or the New York Society Library (newly installed on University Place in 1856)—was kept open until ten P.M., making it accessible to working people.


Despite the defects of existing child-saving programs, the Rev. Charles Loring Brace insisted that this was a time for decisive action, not despair. Brace believed, as did the moralizers and schoolmen, that the “existence of such a class of vagabond, ignorant, ungoverned children” represented a massive danger “to the value of property” and even “the permanency of our institutions.” But his mission work with the Rev. Pease in the Five Points had convinced him that “the old technical methods—such as distributing tracts, and holding prayer-meetings, and scattering Bibles”—were now useless. “The neglected and ruffian class which we are considering are in no way affected directly by such influences as these. New methods must be invented for them.”

Brace also dissented sharply from the AICP approach. The street urchin, Brace agreed, having “grown up ignorant of moral principle as any savage or Indian,” would eventually “poison society,” yet while fearing those he called “barbarians” and “street rats” Brace also admired the “independence and manly vigor” of the newsboys, bootblacks, match sellers, even the petty thieves. Their creative entrepreneurial energy suggested they might be little businessmen in the making—if only they could be instilled with a ” ‘sense of property,’ and the desire of accumulation, which, economists tell us, is the base of all civilization.”

Clearly the first step was to isolate urchins from their working-class milieu—the “engine runners, cock fighters, pugilists, and pickpockets,” the “low theatres, to which he is passionately attached,” the “vicious career of [his] parents.” But the next step, Brace insisted, was not to place them in asylums or schools, whose obsession with “drilled and machine-like” conformity would only break their spirit and render them “unused to struggle.”

The better solution was to extract them from the city altogether and ship them off to the interior, where they would be boarded in “kind Christian homes in the country.” This would submit them to the moral tutelage of some pure woman: “No influence, we believe, is like the influence of a Home.” It would also set them to work, having the additional advantage of sending “laborers where they are in demand” while relieving “the over-crowded market in the cities.” Clumped in New York, the children were a festering menace; dispersed over the continent, their individualism and opportunism could be put to good account.

To this end, in 1853 Brace set up the Children’s Aid Society, on Astor Place on Fourth Avenue (near the headquarters of the AICP and the YMCA). At first, after screening both children and potential families, it shipped youths to farms in the nearby countryside. Later, when the railroad system penetrated deeper into the interior, they were sent all the way to Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa. By 1860 the society had placed out 5,074.

Brace’s approach attracted a good deal of support from socially prominent merchants, bankers, and lawyers (though not, despite some help from the Unitarians, from the ministerial community, a sign of the growing secularization of the reform movement). Working people were of a more mixed mind. The program had its appeals: enterprising youths were attracted to its promise of a western adventure; emigration schemes were in the air; and the Irish, in particular, were well accustomed to seasonal migrations of adolescents as farm laborers and domestic servants. On the other hand, there was a widespread (and often justified) sense that the children were being exploited as cheap labor by shrewd western farmers. And unlike the land reformers’ voluntary homesteading plan, the Children’s Aid Society approach had the unappealing aspect of something done to one. Moreover, just as African Americans had long resisted Colonization Society efforts to “solve” the racial problem by deporting them en masse, Catholics vigorously resented a policy that seemed, in the words of the Freeman’s Journal, to be “seizing them in the name of charity and of religion, and carrying them away to be brought up aliens to the Catholic faith.”1

The New York Archdiocese, accordingly, redoubled its own children-saving efforts. By 1858 the assets of its massive parochial school system were valued at over two million dollars, and soon there were nearly fifteen thousand attending twelve select schools and thirty-one free schools. Some of these were artfully counterplaced: when crowds of Catholic parents prevented children from entering Pease’s House of Industry in the fall of 1853, they redirected their youngsters to a parochial school that had been deliberately set up nearby. New orphanages rose, to prevent Catholic children being consigned to Protestant asylums and “brought up in hatred of that religion which was the only and last consolation of their dying parents!” The most spectacular countermeasure was launched in 1863 when the enormous Catholic Protectory was inaugurated on 114 acres of farmland in the Bronx—a rural training center where city boys could be rescued from the wicked city and the Children’s Aid Society alike.


In 1842 John H. Griscom, a learned and pious Quaker physician who served on the AICP’s first executive committee, issued a scorching report on sanitary conditions in the city. Griscom had seen the effects of living in cellars and tenements close up during his years of service at the New York Dispensary and New York Hospital, and after he was appointed to John Pintard’s old post of city inspector in 1842, he embarked on a comprehensive survey of city health.

Griscom concluded that a good deal of metropolitan mortality was avoidable. To his mind, “first among the most serious causes of disordered general health” was the city’s crowded and poorly ventilated housing, especially its rear courts and cellars (he found some that housed as many as forty-eight persons), and he bitterly condemned the cupidity of those who had taken advantage of abject destitution to convert their basements “into living graves for human beings.” Griscom’s second-ranked killer was the omnipresent filth, which resulted from obscenely overused facilities (often fifty people shared a single privy) and from abysmal drainage and sewerage.

After carefully demonstrating the connection between unsanitary living conditions and poor health, Griscom argued for preventive action. Like his predecessors, he wanted common nuisances eliminated. But he went farther, citing studies of Edwin Chadwick and other English health reformers, and urged construction of a comprehensive sewage and drainage system and free provision of Croton water to the entire population. Griscom also sought public regulation of housing. Going far beyond the existing fire-related statutes, he asked for legislation to protect residents “from the pernicious influence of badly arranged houses and apartments.” Griscom wanted to require landlords to provide tenants with adequate space and fresh air (at least ten cubic feet per minute per adult). He urged banning the use of cellars, limiting the number of residents per building, and holding landlords accountable for keeping buildings clean. To ensure compliance, he proposed replacing politically appointed health wardens with nonpolitical medical experts—a Health Police, authorized to make routine inspections and, if necessary, close down places found unfit for human habitation.

The aldermen did not take kindly to Griscom’s proposals, which among other things would lop off lots of patronage positions, and the doctor was not reappointed as city inspector. But a group of reformers including Peter Cooper put together a fund to publish an expanded version of his 1842 study, and The Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Population of New York—a landmark in the history of public health—came out in 1845.

Among Griscom’s many striking departures from conventional bourgeois wisdom was his refusal to blame the poor for their wretched housing. He knew that lack of fresh water and adequate sanitation made it impossible for residents to keep clean and pious homes, even if they wanted to, and he even declined to blame laboring men for escaping from such hovels to the grogshops. For Griscom, dirt was a symptom of poverty, not its cause.

On the other hand, he didn’t blame the rich, as the land reformers did. Rather he appealed to them to provide decent housing, not just as “a measure of humanity, of justice to the poor,” but as a matter of self-interest. Bad housing meant sick workers, and sick workers meant lower profits, higher relief outlays, and higher taxes. Ultimately, too, slums fostered the growth of “a class in the community more difficult to govern, more disposed to robbery, mobs, and other lawless acts, and less accessible to the influence of religious and moral instruction.” Griscom was convinced that such rational appeals would have weight because the problem seemed to stem from lack of understanding: “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives.”

The comfortable half didn’t pay much attention to Griscom, however, until rudely reminded of the costs of inaction. In June 1849, scant weeks after the riot in Astor Place, James Gilligan, an Irish laborer, was found dead, sprawled on the dirt floor of a rear basement room he shared with four women on Orange Street; by next day three of his fellow tenants were dead too.

The previous December the packet ship New York had arrived in quarantine from Le Havre with cholera as a passenger. Three hundred steerage customers had been hastily sequestered in commandeered customs warehouses, but many escaped to the city in small boats. Within a week cases had begun appearing in crowded immigrant boardinghouses. The cold winter had slowed its spread; now the disease roused itself and leapt out of the Points, sending the city into plague mode. The Board of Health struggled to find space for a makeshift hospital; turned down everywhere, they seized a colored public school. Railroads and steamships pulled in with no passengers aboard. Hotels emptied out. Business stopped.

The wealthy escaped to the country, leaving the disease to claim over five thousand of their poorer compatriots (another 642 died in Brooklyn). Bodies lay in the streets for days. Eventually they were rowed over to Randall’s Island and dumped in an open trench, at which point a gruesome public health device came into play as thousands of rats swam over and gnawed the flesh from the carcasses before they rotted.

As in 1832, many declared the cholera God’s retribution for sin—notably that of being Catholic. (Had not over 40 percent of the casualties been born in Ireland?) Indeed the Herald was amazed to find victims “among the respectable, including even ladies.”Overall, however, the cholera—together with the Astor riot and rising radicalism—strengthened the hand of those who argued that moralizing was no longer a sufficient response to social crisis. The relationship between ethics and environment had to be reconceptualized as an interactive rather than a one-way affair. “The physical and moral are closely allied,” announced the liberal Protestant New York Independent in 1850, trying out the new thinking: “The habit of living in squalor and filth engenders vice, and vice, on the other hand, finds a congenial home in the midst of physical impurities.” Poor people tended to be sick people, a group of state officials noted, and vice versa. Even Hartley began to temper his moralizing and to admit that substandard housing, inadequate sanitation, and other environmental or circumstantial factors might be causes as well as consequences of poverty.

The implication for action, Charles Loring Brace concluded robustly, was that “Material Reform and Spiritual Reform must mutually help one another.” But the former would prove as difficult to obtain as the latter, especially as the municipality and state, smitten with laissez-faire, had dismantled much of their eighteenth-century regulatory apparatus. Still, the patent social breakdown registered by the crudest of social indicators—corpses stacked like cordwood—gave newly enthused reformers the chance to make a considerable impact on the urban landscape.


Another pig round-up, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 13, 1859. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

Starting with hogs. The 1849 catastrophe jolted the city into taking up arms once again against the immemorial foe. Overcoming sometimes violent resistance by impoverished owners, the police flushed five to six thousand pigs out of cellars and garrets and drove an estimated twenty thousand swine north to the upper wards that summer. (At the same time, in an exterminating frenzy spurred on by municipal bounties, 3,520 stray dogs were killed in the streets, mostly by small boys with clubs.) The authorities, moreover, kept up their campaign year after year, banishing from lower Manhattan (in 1851—2) all bone-boiling works (along with the putrefying carcasses piled high in their yards). In the late 1850s Hog Town was invaded and the westside piggery complex between 50th and 59th streets dismantled. By 1860 New York’s porkers had been definitively exiled north of 86th Street and transformed into a distinctively “uptown” menace.

Cows were another story. Absent refrigeration, the city’s on-the-hoof meat supply had to be kept close at hand. Besides, the Common Council was reluctant to limit the entrepreneurship of powerful butchers. An 1853 ordinance did ban cattle drives south of 42nd Street (at least in the daytime), but that still left 206 slaughterhouses open for business, which butchered over 375,000 animals annually (usually draining excess blood to the gutters). Then there were the eleven public markets, the 531 private markets or butcher shops, the tanneries with their piles of putrid hides, and the beasts—usually five thousand a year—who simply dropped dead in the streets from natural causes. In August 1853 alone, the city’s contract scavenger reported clearing away 690 cows, 577 horses, 883 dogs, 111 cats, fourteen hogs, and six sheep—plus 1,303 tons of “butchers offal” and sixty-two tons of refuse bones from the slaughterhouses.

Then there was shit. The mercantile boom had vastly expanded the horse-based transport system—in 1854, there were 22,500 horses pulling public vehicles alone and countless others hauling private ones—collectively plopping tons of manure in the streets each day. Humans contributed their share via thousands of overflowing privies and cesspools, especially in the densely overpopulated tenement districts, where absentee landlords were disinclined to waste profits on tenant amenities, and tenants lacked money to pay privy cleaners. Where night scavengers did make pickups, they often spilled much of their cargo along the lanes as they jounced their way to the waterfront. There they dumped their loads onto (or off of) the wharves, where poorly designed slips held the effluent fast to the shore and were themselves rendered almost impassable to vessels, to say nothing of the stench.

That New York was drowning in garbage was in large measure a by-product of the explosive and unregulated growth that few were willing to impede. But the problem was compounded by the city’s having turned street cleaning over to private contractors in 1842, convinced this would bring improved service and lower costs. In the real world, collection contracts were often handed out as political plums to recipients who felt little compunction to make more than token swabs on the main streets; or they were awarded to the lowest bidders, often unprincipled sorts who hadn’t the slightest intention of doing any work whatever.

Ironically, Croton water, so recently hailed as savior, only made matters worse. The rich built water closets in profusion, which when flushed with Croton water overflowed their cesspools even more rapidly. They consequently clamored for the right to plug directly into the sewers, which had been built for draining storm water from the streets. In 1845 the Common Council permitted such hookups. However, the pipes had been laid at right angles or awkward grades that could handle swift-moving rain runoff but couldn’t cope with thick and sluggish wastewater. The result: impenetrable blockages, clogged pipes, and rampant flooding.

This problem was in turn resolved—in part—by building new sewers. The drawback here was that sewers, financed by assessments on adjacent property owners, were built only when resident proprietors or speculative realtors petitioned for them. Unlike the water supply, which had been designed as a system and paid for out of the common treasury, sanitation was reserved to those who could afford it. Sewer pipes slithered up Lexington, Second, and Third, where horsecar lines had facilitated better home construction, but most Irish and German areas remained bereft. Even where trunk lines did penetrate working-class quarters—along Stanton, Rivington, Delancey, Broome, and Grand—landlords refused to connect up with them, just as they resisted paying the Croton Aqueduct Department’s installation fee and its annual water rent of ten dollars. In 1854, however, in yet another concession to environmentalists, the Common Council ruled that residences had to be connected to sewer lines. And in 1856 it passed an ordinance limiting construction of new buildings to lots serviced by drains.

Nevertheless, in 1857 (the AICP noted), only 138 miles of the city’s five hundred miles of paved streets had been sewered. This left two-thirds of all New Yorkers still reliant on backyard and basement privies, whose overflow continued to seep to the water table, infect public wells used by the poor, flood cellars, and leave missionaries and physicians routinely horrified to find children playing and mothers hanging the wash in yards coated with human excrement and swarming with flies. Against all this, the pioneering Bath and Wash House opened by the AICP in 1852 was a worthy but woefully insufficient response.

Foul milk, like foul water, proved durable and deadly. Dairy herds, like beef cattle, had to be kept near consumers and were most densely concentrated on the west side near 16th Street. Often, to keep costs low, they were placed next to distilleries, allowing “swill,” the boiling-hot waste product of fermentation, to be fed directly into stable troughs in the cramped quarters. Swill had nutritive value but required supplementation with hay and grain. Few profit-conscious owners bothered to provide it. Nor were they overly concerned that disease ran rampant among their confined herds. They continued extracting thin blue milk from rotting and ulcerous cows until the animals died (at which point they were sold for meat). Then they doctored the product with magnesia, chalk, and stale eggs and passed it on to consumers, felling infants by the thousands.

Griscom and Hartley campaigned vigorously against swill milk, proposing city inspection, but neither city nor state was inclined to interfere with the workings of the free market, especially when the wealthy could afford good milk from farms in Westchester and Queens. By 1856 an estimated two-thirds of all milk sold in New York City was coming from distillery dairies. In 1858 Frank Leslie began a visual expose in his Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, depicting the milking of sick cows, detailing dairymen’s profits, and decrying lobbyist payoifs to aldermen. The Common Council reluctantly authorized an investigation, then dropped the matter. Not until 1862 would environmentalists win a swill-milk law from the state legislature, and it proved to be full of loopholes.


Housing reformers too ran into brick walls, though some of their difficulty in finding a solution stemmed from their own misdiagnosis of the problem. John Griscom had focused his ire on the “merciless inflation and extortion of the sublandlord.” The AICP agreed that slumlords tended to be unscrupulous immigrants or, at best, firstgeneration Americans—petty exploiters, often operators of saloons, brothels, and gambling dens—difficult to distinguish, in other words, from their wretched tenants.

It was true that large landlords commonly sublet their buildings to middlemen, leaving to them the chore of extracting high rents, rather as big garment shops left small contractors to do the direct sweating of labor. It was also true that many of these intermediaries were lower-middle-class proprietors (grocers, tavern keepers, building tradesmen) who had jumped into the real estate game or were professional real estate agents (often unemployed building tradesmen) who for a 5 percent commission let apartments and collected rent. In either case, landed grandees were effectively distanced from their tenants, few of whom knew that their ultimate landlord might be an Astor.

But the bottom line was determined from above: sublandlords had to pay chief landlords what Griscom blandly termed “a sum that will yield a fair interest on the costs.” But “fairness” was defined in relation to the returns their capital could fetch elsewhere. New York’s bourgeoisie had many outlets for accumulated cash—finance, industry, transportation, and western lands—and would invest in local real estate only if they could garner comparable profits. The same logic dominated the building industry, where the newly incorporated construction companies bid for capital from individuals and institutions; forced to pay high interest rates, building companies cut costs else­where, usually by slashing wages of construction workers, lowering housing standards, or both.

Griscom nevertheless believed he could convince “the benevolent capitalist” to build decent housing at a fair rate of profit. The AICP vigorously promoted a bricksand-mortar discussion among builders and capitalists by circulating plans of “model” tenements gleaned from English sources. Well maintained and properly managed, it was argued, they could bring the owner a legitimate 6 percent return. Alas, even respectable Christian businessmen preferred to invest in upper-class housing that brought in 10 percent, new tenement housing that could garner 15 to 25 percent, or old crammed-up artisan housing that could reap 50 to 75 percent, though much of that had to be split with others.

When distressingly few businessmen stepped forward to begin construction, the AICP decided, again taking its cues from English and Continental philanthropists, to do the job itself. In 1855, after frustrating delays and false starts, it opened the largest multiple dwelling yet built in New York City, a six-story structure for eighty-seven families at Mott and Elizabeth streets, just north of the Five Points. Known as the Workingmen’s Home and often described as the city’s first model tenement, it had water closets on each floor, gas lighting, and Croton water. All the apartments were rented to African American New Yorkers, since “they are usually forced into the worst kind of dwellings, and are deprived of most special privileges, and consequently were specially deserving commiseration.” The experiment wasn’t successful, however. Though many rooms lacked windows, and all were absurdly cramped (bedrooms measured eight feet by seven and a half), rents, ranging from $5.50 to $8.50 per month, proved too high for most tenants yet too low to ensure the promised 6 percent. After a dozen years of losing money (and continuing trouble with the “inmates”), the Workingman’s Home was sold to the Five Points House of Industry as a residence for working women.

As it became clear that tenement reform wouldn’t attract private investors, the AICP began to consider the need for government regulation of the housing market. Joined by fire insurers, who thought a stricter building code would reduce their risk exposure, by concerned physicians, who were also seeking to enhance their standing as public experts, and merchants worried about the city’s sinking reputation as a healthy place to do business, the environmentalists persuaded the legislature’s Tenement House Committee to launch a full-scale investigation in 1856.

The legislators proceeded to immerse themselves (a la Dickens) in places like Corlear’s Hook and were duly shocked. “Though expecting to look upon poverty in squalid guise, vice in repulsive aspects, and ignorance of a degraded stamp,” the investigators recounted in conventional sunshine-and-shadow prose, “we had not yet formed an adequate conception of the extremes to which each and all of these evils could reach.” The committee’s Tenant House Report of 1857 declared that housing in New York’s Tenth Ward was “without room sufficient for civilized existence” and that some dwellings in the Eleventh Ward were so bad “it is astounding that everyone doesn’t die of pestilence.”

The legislators, however, were no more prepared than Griscom or the AICP to ask tough questions about the larger economic order that gave rise to the slums. The mismatch between rising rents and falling wages was not on the table. Nor was the premise that housing had to be provided as a commodity: the land reformers’ notion of government-underwritten urban homesteads was literally unthinkable. They did, however, recommend passage of regulatory housing laws, and their work led to the drafting of the state’s first housing code.

Drafting, but not adoption: the prospect of regulation raised an enormous hue and cry from builders and owners, forcing the legislature to retreat, and another decade would pass before it summoned the nerve to try again. Housing was left to market forces—with the predictable result that the thirty-four blocks along Fifth Avenue between Washington Square and 42nd Street housed a mere four hundred families in virtually agoraphobic comfort (twelve families per block) while on the East Side seven hundred families jammed themselves into one tenement block.

When added to inaction on the garbage and sewage fronts, the result (said a legislative committee) was that “death is making an alarming inroad upon [our] population.” Cholera raced through the tenements again in 1852. Typhus, an immigrant disease of dirt and overcrowding, grew endemic, then turned epidemic in 1852. Deaths from consumption (tuberculosis) soared in the black and immigrant communities. Between 1845 and 1854 the city wide mortality rate hovered at an all-time high of forty deaths per thousand city residents, and the gap between bourgeois and working-class districts widened dramatically: in 1855 the Sixth Ward had the highest death rate in New York. The flood of corpses manifested itself in a grisly version of the law of supply and demand. With the number of unclaimed bodies growing faster than medical schools’ need for cadavers, their prices dropped accordingly. Corpses had cost twenty-five dollars in the early 1800s, but in 1848 a certain Dr. Reese was selling bodies of dead patients as a sideline at five dollars apiece.

The infant mortality figures were particularly horrifying. Pulmonary diseases drove the rate to a record high of 166 per thousand between 1850 and 1854, with the casualties (the AICP noted) “chiefly amongst the children of the poor, in the most filthy parts of the city.” Between 1850 and 1860 more than half of those under the age of five died each year—seven of every ten under the age of two—figures equal to the worst of the English factory districts.

By 1856 more New Yorkers were dying each year than were being born. Without the continuing torrent of immigration, said the city inspector, “the city would in a few years be depopulated.”


In the end, only one environmentalist enterprise succeeded fully, though its public health component would constitute a small part of a project that for a wide variety of other reasons enlisted the backing of some very powerful New Yorkers.

In October 1848, only months after the revolution in the streets of Paris, landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing proposed the creation in New York of a mammoth (five-hundred-acre) People’s Park. Until then Downing had concentrated on providing country gentlemen with picturesque retreats and editing the Horticulturist. But the European upheavals alarmed him. They seemed to herald similar convulsions in a New York that, to his dismay as an old-school republican, had been dividing up into social classes that no longer comingled one with the other as they once had. New York desperately needed a place where classes could regain comity. Parks, he thought, would facilitate interactions no longer available on the street. Such social intercourse, Downing believed, would, as reformers wished, uplift the lower orders. “Every laborer is a possible gentleman,” Downing argued. It wanted only “the refining influence of intellectual and moral culture,” which a park might make available, to raise up “the man of the working men to the same level of enjoyment with the man of leisure and accomplishment.” In addition, Downing said, coupling his concerns to the demands of the growing public health movement, the park’s material as well as moral environment would be beneficial: the open space would serve as the “lungs of the city.”

Merchant and AICP sponsor Robert Bowne Minturn reached a similar conclusion by a somewhat different route. After returning in the winter of 1849-50 from an eighteen-month grand tour, he and his wife, Anna Mary Minturn, were struck, as so many other well-off travelers had been, with the mortifying contrast between what Downing called New York’s “mere grass-plots of verdure” and Europe’s grand green spaces. Minturn became the nucleus of a group of largely Whig gentlemen, many of whom had made their fortunes in international trade, that came to agree that Manhattan needed a public space worthy (as William Cullen Bryant put it) “of the greatness of our metropolis.”

A proper park, these gentlemen said, would advance New York’s commercial interests, counter the attractions (like Brooklyn’s Green-Wood) offered by rival cities, and offer a pastoral and healthy retreat from the disorderly city. It would also provide the respectable classes a place to promenade that was far from crowded Broadway, where cultivated ladies like Anna Minturn were finding themselves “stared out of countenance by troupes of whiskered and mustachioed chatterers” (a Post correspondent noted). Even better, a spacious park would allow the gentility to roll about in their fabulous new carriages, rectifying what Nathaniel Parker Willis had long ago singled out as New York’s great deficiency “as a metropolis of wealth and fashion”: the “lack of a driving park.”

Placing a park at the spot favored initially—the iso-acre plot bounded by 66th, 75th, Third Avenue, and the East River known as Jones’ Wood—would, moreover, reap additional advantages. Uptown property owners had been expressing considerable dismay at finding Irish, German, and African Americans forced northward along with hogs, bone-boiling establishments, and dung heaps. The Harlem Rail Road, too, was fostering a rapid growth of up-island brickworks, ropewalks, and paint manufactories. By removing a substantial chunk of uptown territory from the marketplace, landowners believed, a park would protect their terrain from further encroachment. Establishing the “character” of the surrounding neighborhood would also “materially improve Real estate” and make possible the profitable construction of terraced villas like those facing Regent’s Park in London.

Unfortunately, the Joneses and Schermerhorns who owned the Wood were unwilling to sell, scenting bigger profits in more commercial and river-oriented uses. So in 1851 James Beekman, a wealthy Whig state senator, who himself owned property near Jones’ Wood and was generally regarded as uptown’s representative in the legislature, introduced a bill to seize the land by eminent domain. Backed by Minturn and other prominent merchants and bankers, Beekman’s proposal passed quickly into law.

Despite this fast start, the Jones’ Wood plan now triggered vigorous opposition from other downtown merchants who castigated it (said one irate Tribune contributor) as “a scheme to enhance the value of up-town land.” Fiscally conservative gentlemen like U.S. Senator Hamilton Fish also objected to the way Beekman’s plan shifted the method of paying for the park: away from the traditional practice of assessing the neighboring landowners who would be the chief beneficiaries, and toward putting the burden on all taxpayers. There were additional reservations about the unnervingly massive and worrisomely precedent-setting expansion of state intervention in the land market.

Unionists, land reformers, and environmental reformers had their own objections. The Industrial Congress was on record as saying that if the city was to build parks, they should be placed in “vacant squares in the more thickly populated districts”; Mike Walsh and others were particularly keen to enlarge the Battery as a people’s promenade. The Staats-Zeitung also preferred “many smaller parks in different parts of the city” to one big one for “the heirs of the Upper Tendoms,” and it rejected as “complete humbug” the claim that a landscape park three miles north of the congested center would somehow lower the mortality rate. Dr. Griscom agreed that eight parks of a hundred acres each, or sixteen of fifty, “would certainly be less aristocratic; more democratic, and far more conducive to the public health.” Better, said physician and land reformer Hal Guernsey, to use the public’s money for building cheap homesteads on uptown land.

Finally, upper westside landowners made clear that they too were unhappy about the growth of immigrant and poor communities in their domain—places like Seneca Village—and demanded a park in their neck of the woods lest it soon “be covered with a class of population similar to that of Five Points” (as uptown assistant alderman Daniel Tiemann put it). They proposed an alternative, more “central” mid-island location, whose rocky topography made it unsuitable for building houses, grading streets, or digging sewers. The land would be much cheaper, and the municipal corporation already owned 135 acres in the area. It would therefore be possible to build a much bigger park, indeed one of the largest in the world, that would have “ample room for riding and driving therein with Horses and Carriages.”

After two years of debate and maneuver, the coalition backing the central park location won out. In 1853 the state agreed to use eminent domain to take 778 acres (expanded to 843 a decade later) from the 561 proprietors who controlled the site, 20 percent of which was owned by three families. Over the next two years a commission of estimate surveyed and assessed the thirty-four thousand lots, finally authorizing payment of five million dollars for the parcels (three times what advocates had claimed the entire park would cost). Compromising on the funding mechanism, it decreed that one-third of the expense would have to be covered by assessing adjacent landowners, generating screams and (ultimately unsuccessful) lawsuits from men like Archibald Watt, who nevertheless cleared a 1500 percent profit on land he’d bought only twenty years earlier. The sixteen hundred or so Irish, Germans, and blacks who lived on the land—dismissed and disparaged as “vagabonds and scoundrels”—were evicted by 1857, though the Sisters of Charity were allowed to remain in their Mount St. Vincent retreat until 1859.

Also in 1857 the state legislature established a Board of Commissioners of the Central Park, which sponsored a competition for choosing the park’s layout, touching off a new controversy over design. The commissioners were drawn to Downing’s old vision of a park that could foster interclass harmony, but many in the city either doubted that such coexistence was possible or feared that comingling would end with the lower orders imposing their vicious habits on their betters. The Times detested the notion of providing Boweryites with free access: “As long as we are governed by the Five Points, our best attempts at elegance and grace will bear some resemblance to jewels in the snouts of swine. Rather the Park should never be made at all if it is to become the resort of rapscalians.” Far better, some said frankly, to design a space that catered to distinctly upper-class needs—a new trotting course for sporting types, a carriage drive for the fashionable, a pastoral space cleansed of commercial excess and social disorder for the genteel—which would also anchor northern Fifth Avenue as a residential preserve for the wealthy.

Tribunes of popular culture like Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper countered by calling on the commissioners not to “allocate to aristocratic pride and exclusiveness, a place which they may strut and parade in a solitary state, but [to create] a spot for all classes of our fellow citizens” that would allow “the labouring classes to have cafe concerts, cirques, ambulatory exhibitions, and shooting galleries.” The Irish News wanted a “commons” area—in the vein of such pleasure gardens as Niblo’s or the Elysian Fields—that would allow for plebeian pleasures like picnics, festivals, sports, games, militia drills, theaters, fireworks, and circuses.

In the end the commissioners chose the Greensward Plan offered by Frederick Law Olmsted, whom they had just appointed superintendent of the park, and Calvert Vaux, a London-born architect who had suggested the competition idea to them in the first place.

Olmsted, son of a prosperous dry goods merchant from Hartford, had been set up by his father on a 125-acre Staten Island farm (on Raritan Bay) as a scientific agriculturalist. He had also written on rural design for Downing’s Horticulturalist (including a piece on Liverpool’s Birkenhead Park), published travel books on the social landscape of England and the American South, and in 1855 become a managing editor of Putnam’s Magazine, which by 1857 was foundering. When family friend and park commissioner Charles Elliott encouraged him to apply for the position directing the park’s labor force, he swiftly gathered endorsements from editors, writers, reformers, and friends, including Brace, Greeley, Cooper, and Irving.

One thing that helped him secure the position was his anti-laissez-faire conviction—very much in tune with the newest reform currents—that properly designed environments like English-style landscaped parks could elevate the character and condition of the poorer classes. Olmsted was also convinced of the value of class intermixing and in 1854 had urged his Yale chum and traveling companion Charles Loring Brace to “get up parks, gardens, music, dancing schools, reunions which will be so attractive as to force into contact the good and the bad, the gentlemanly and the rowdy.”

Vaux thought in similar terms. Trained as an architect in London, Vaux had attracted the attention of Andrew Jackson Downing, who in 1850 recruited him to run the architectural wing of his flourishing landscape-gardening practice. After Downing died in 1852, Vaux carried on his practice, then moved to New York in 1856, joined the National Academy of Design and the Century Association, and helped found the American Institute of Architects. He too adopted an environmentalist position and in 1857 urged municipal authorities to underwrite wholesome rational play—“public baths, gymnasiums, theatres, music halls, libraries, lecture rooms, parks, gardens, picture galleries, museums, schools”—as activities that would ensure “a refinement in popular education” and “good taste.”

When Vaux decided to enter the Central Park competition, he invited Superintendent Olmsted—whom he had met at Downing’s home in Newburgh—to join him, chiefly for his on-site familiarity with the topography. During the winter of 1857-58 they worked on a plan that would apply their social philosophy to the barren and rocky mid-Manhattan terrain. Evenhandedly rebuffing both working class desires for ball fields and aristocratic longings for a raceway, their Greensward Plan proposed a reformer’s vision—a space designed to school both patrician and plebeian cultures by transmitting, almost subliminally, civilized values and a “harmonizing and refining influence.”

To achieve this, they called for exiling the normal business of urban life to beyond the park’s perimeter. Coal carts, butchers’ carts, dung carts, and fire engines that had to cross the park were to be diverted to sunken transverse roads (rather as servants and tradesmen were kept out of sight in genteel mansions). Also banished was Manhattan’s grid, and with it the kind of streets that were “staked off,” as Olmsted put it, “with a rule and pencil in a broker’s office.” Here therapeutically romantic curves were to be the rule. Pedestrians and carriages would meander along paths affording ever-changing vistas, rather like a succession of Cole or Durand canvasses, intended to invoke decorous contemplation of nature, in the manner of Bryant’s poems. In addition to spectatorship of civilizing scenery, the plan encouraged genteel pastimes such as skating and boating and was particularly attentive to the needs of ladies. The park was to be a sanctuary, a retreat from the city’s competitiveness and congestion akin to the bourgeois-home-asdomestic-refuge, a place to set aside at least temporarily the “habit of mind, cultivated in commercial life, of judging values by the market estimate.” For all this sniping at the marketplace, Olmsted, in particular, stressed that Central Park would “greatly accelerate the occupation of the adjoining land,” pleasing wealthy Fifth Avenue landowners, and increase tax revenues, a claim calculated to warm the hearts of city officials.

The Greensward Plan was far less welcoming to the working classes. It banned not only their conventional recreations but their republican political culture. Olmsted and Vaux forbade martial displays, civic processions, and public oratory. The Mall was reserved for promenades: silent and apolitical encounters. Nor, for all the emphasis on the virtue of interclass mixing, was there much of it. Transport was neatly segregated: the middle class moved through the park space by carriage and horse, the working class on foot.


Central Park, New York, “a picturesque guide through the whole Park showing all the improvements up to June 1865.” (Map Division. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Olmsted also took patrician anxieties about potential plebeian rambunctiousness to heart. “A large part of the people of New York are ignorant of a park, properly socalled,” he wrote. “They need to be trained to the proper use of it.” Doubting that the park’s deep structure would sufficiently discipline the unruly, Olmsted established regulations that, in marked contrast to the laissez-faire streets of the city, soon blanketed the park terrain with 125 varieties of directive and injunctive signs and posters. He also instituted park police—“keepers”—who would “respectfully aid an offender toward a better understanding of what is due to others, as one gentleman might manage to guide another.”

For the time being, an apparatus to enforce proper canons of behavior was hardly necessary. The nascent park was too far north of the Bowery, and public transport too expensive, for it to attract many laborers apart from those busy constructing it. But the design and regulatory structure reassured the elite that it would in time become a gathering ground for the civilized. The value of surrounding property skyrocketed accordingly: by 1860 assessed values had risen by two-thirds of their 1856 levels.

This complacency was in fact misplaced. Working-class citizens would soon be contesting Greensward notions of proper usage. However, to the degree that Central Park did for the moment remain an upper-class playground, it represented yet another defeat for the larger reform project. Once again a cultural enterprise designed to mitigate the divisiveness of metropolitan life had served only to exacerbate it.


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