52

Reconstructing New York

Southern planters and western greenbackers were far from being the sole concerns of the city’s propertied classes in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Memories of the terrible draft riots remained raw. The lower three-fifths of New York’s population seemed still in thrall to poverty, ignorance, alcohol, Romanism, and the Democratic Party, which some Republicans now believed tainted with treason as well as venality.

The Union League Club’s Committee on Municipal Reform, established in October 1865, caught the prevailing mood among groups like the Citizens Association and Chamber of Commerce when it wondered: “Is there not a member of this Club who had not had fleeting moments of longing for a temporary dictator who would sweep these bad men from our municipal halls and cleanse this Augean stable of its accumulated corruption?” Some Republicans were indeed convinced that setting the city to rights would require methods as vigorous as those employed in reconstructing Georgia or Mississippi, and they yearned for the dispatch of federal troops to New York.

But most preferred to resume the strategy, launched just before the war, of using the state legislature to override and supplant local government, thus bypassing politicians and encrusted special interests. Handing power to state commissions staffed with professionals, moreover, would allow reformers to assess and redress civic wrongs by using “scientific” studies of municipal problems.

Drs. Griscom and Sanger had pioneered the idea of scientific surveys and statistical analyses of municipal problems back in the forties and fifties. The wartime success of agencies like the Sanitary Commission had greatly strengthened reformers’ confidence that the fruits of social intelligence could be brought to bear upon previously intractable urban ills. Now, in the postwar era, “social science” (argued E. L. Godkin in the Nation) could be fully brought to bear on “the arrangement and management” of city life. The new optimism was caught by William Cullen Bryant in an Evening Post editorial. “Thoughtful men,” Bryant said, no longer believed that urban growth was beyond “the control of scientific thought.” Instead they were focusing their attention on “the important problem of how to plan and how to build a city so as best to accommodate business and promote health.”

Many businessmen were prepared to support such initiatives. Even laissez-faire stalwarts who, before the war, had balked at any legislative infringement on property or profits experienced a change of heart after the draft riots. The Citizens Association, formed in that upheaval’s aftermath and heavily stocked with civic leaders, would now push hard for substantial government intervention in an all-too-free marketplace.

FIRE

One of the city’s most serious problems was its ongoing flammability. Reformers blamed the volunteer firefighters, whom they now set out to replace with a professional fire department. The volunteers were newly vulnerable to assault, as their prewar reputation for rowdyism had been reinforced by the behavior of some in their ranks during the draft riots. After Appomattox, moreover, their brawling had reached intolerable new heights. In one August 1865 shootout at a fire scene, two men were killed and eighty wounded, while the building they had come to rescue burned to char and cinders. For the insurance companies, which had to cover such losses, and for the local merchants, who were forced to pay premiums higher than anywhere else in the United States or Europe, the volunteer system was inexcusably inefficient. Republican reformers were also well aware that the companies were prime recruiting resources for the Democratic Party.

Republican legislators accordingly introduced a bill to replace the forty thousand volunteers with a thousand-man professional fire department, to be equipped with the horse-drawn, steam-powered pumpers that brawny volunteers had long resisted. In hearings on the bill, the insurance industry presented the damning evidence they had systematically collected that demonstrated exactly how costly the old amateur order was to the city and its property owners. Other urban centers, the insurance companies noted, had established professional departments, and the statistics made clear how much more effective Baltimore and Qncinnati’s systems were. Twenty-three banks, 109 insurance companies, and thirteen thousand citizens filed petitions on the measure’s behalf. Businessmen complained that having worker-volunteers down tools and race off whenever the fire bells rang was “incompatible with any steady pursuits of industry.” The police commissioner testified about rowdyism. Moral reformers charged that volunteers, who were allowed to bed down in the firehouses at public expense, had been bedding down with prostitutes, converting stations to de facto whorehouses.

The existing Board of Fire Commissioners offered feeble rebuttals but was ill equipped to controvert such charges. Sputtering was no match for statistics. The bill passed, weathered an immediate lawsuit challenging its constitutionality, and went briskly into effect. The new fire commissioners, moving swiftly to establish discipline, replaced competition between companies with a centralized command. The old system of summoning assistance by ringing the City Hall bell was replaced by an extensive network of fireboxes (by 1873 there were 548 boxes on Manhattan, connected by 612 miles of telegraph wire). Within a few years, annual losses from fire, and the amount of settlements paid out by insurance companies, had both dropped sharply, to widespread relief and applause.

HEALTH

Reformers also succeeded in establishing a Metropolitan Board of Health. Dr. John H. Griscom, who first called for creating a sanitary police back in the 1840s, had kept hammering at the issue throughout the 1850s and had been joined by other activist physicians like Joseph M. Smith, president (from 1854) of the New York Academy of Medicine. The doctors helped organize a New York Sanitary Association in 1859, which brought physicians together with civic-minded businessmen like Peter Cooper to agitate for change. The Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor signed on to the crusade, spurred like other reformers by the draft riots. “The mobs that held sway in our city,” the Citizens Association agreed, had been generated in “overcrowded neglected quarters.”

In 1864 the Citizens Association submitted a proposal for action to the state legislature. It went nowhere. The most vigorous resistance came, ironically, from the city inspector’s office (Griscom’s old department), which had oversight of sanitation. Inspectors opposed further transfer of municipal authority to Albany, partly on home-rule principle, primarily to hold on to their hefty level of funding (some of which they apparently diverted into the pockets of legislators who voted against reform). Antireformers also claimed that charges of unsanitary conditions were vastly overblown.

Griscom blasted his old department, noting that since he’d left twenty years earlier, its expenses had shot up, and so had the city’s mortality rate. In terms of public health, Griscom charged, New York had regressed to London’s position two centuries earlier. To counter opponents with solid statistics, militant physicians organized a Council of Hygiene and Public Health and initiated a block-by-block, tenement-to-tenement survey of Manhattan. Dividing the city into twenty-nine districts, the council assigned each a doctor, who visited every building and put to every family a written schedule of questions. Artists went along, sketched conditions, and prepared illustrations. The mammoth study (it ran to seventeen volumes) was then condensed to a five-hundred-page Sanitary Report, published in June 1865.

The report startled even those hardened by two decades of such surveys. The examiners had discovered that smallpox—a preventable disease—was rampant in the city; they turned up fifteen hundred cases in their first few days investigating. The Council of Hygiene called on the city to replace its voluntary (and disorganized) vaccination efforts with a compulsory program. But smallpox was only a small part of the story. Where Philadelphia’s death rate per thousand was twenty and London’s was twenty-two, New York City’s stood at thirty-three. This meant that thirteen thousand people were dying each year from diseases and conditions that were probably avoidable. And for each death there were twenty-eight cases of disease: in some tenements, 50 to 70 percent of the residents were sick at any given moment. This added up to a vast amount of preventable illness and—a fact the council underscored for the business community—a corresponding loss of work hours.

By 1865 the Citizens Association had distributed two million sanitarian tracts in every part of town, sponsored many public meetings, and once again introduced a health bill in the legislature. Incorporating provisions of England’s public health laws, it urged that a nonpolitical board of experts be given extraordinary powers to clean up unsanitary conditions. Union League Club members testified on the bill’s behalf. Once again it was blocked by municipal bureaucrats and politicians and by those who resisted giving government agencies substantial power over property rights. The legislature did, however, authorize New York City’s Croton Aqueduct Department to devise a plan for the systematic sewering of all Manhattan, free from interference by the Common Council.

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Scavengers on the Beach Street dumping barge, Harper’s Weekly, September 29, 1866. Here, the paper said, men, women, and children dug through “the refuse of respectable folk” to find anything that could be used or sold to junk dealers. (Library of Congress)

At just this point, cholera tugged at the legislators’ sleeves. In August of 1865 newspapers announced that the disease had reached Europe and was heading west. In November a steamship arrived with sixty cases aboard. A cold winter retarded its movement, but alarmed state lawmakers realized that in spring the plague might well scythe through New York’s tenement population and then, as in the past, press on to devastate Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. In February 1866, therefore, Albany created a Metropolitan Board of Health and gave it extraordinary powers to fight the scourge. The new board could order any person deemed a health threat removed from home to hospital. It could order property owners to rectify unhealthy conditions. Such orders could be enforced by the police or the board’s own officers.

When spring came the board sent an army of agents marching through town, making house-to-house inspections and cleaning and disinfecting privies, cellars, and yards. It commissioned new street-cleaning contracts and oversaw the removal of vast amounts of filth from the city’s streets (160,000 tons of manure from vacant lots alone). It got the city’s butchers to clean up slaughterhouses and agree to their eventual removal north of 40th Street. The water supply was improved. New standards were imposed on the milk industry.

The mobilization helped keep New York’s death toll under five hundred—one-tenth the fatalities of 1849, despite a one-third increase in population since then—while Cincinnati lost twelve hundred, St. Louis thirty-five hundred. New York had erected a milestone in the history of public health, but it was clear to reformers that securing their victory would require systematic attention to the city’s built environment as well.

HOUSING

The war had exacerbated the city’s housing crisis. New construction had limped badly while immigrants continued to pour in (over 150,000 in 1863 alone). With peace, demobilized veterans swarmed back home, and steamers disgorged ever greater numbers of newcomers. The 1865 report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health demonstrated just how crowded the tenement districts were. Out of New York’s seven-hundred-thousand-plus residents, 495,592 individuals were tenanted in 15,309 multifamily dwellings, an average of roughly seven families per building. Many of these five-or six-story tenements had each floor carved into eighteen rooms, organized like compartments on a train, hence the expression “railroad flats.” Only two of these tiny rooms got direct sunlight (if the facade faced south), and interior cubbyholes were without ventilation, unless an extravagant builder included air shafts. Thousands more tenants were crammed into the back buildings landlords continued to insert behind tenements, often jammed up against their rear wall. In the Fourth Ward, the population density reached 290,000 per square mile.

Things got rapidly worse. In 1867 the legislature authorized another investigation. Again, statistics were amassed. Fifty-two percent of Manhattan’s tenements were “in a condition detrimental to the health and dangerous to the lives of the occupants.” Their deficiencies included insufficient ventilation, absence of light, lack of fire escapes, and terrible drainage. (When the tide came in, a basement in a filled-in swampland area could fill to a depth of twelve inches, high enough “to keep the children of the occupants in bed until ebb-tide.”)

With rotten conditions came rising rents, which jumped 50 to 100 percent within a year after Appomattox, feeding a profit stream that flowed upward to the great propertied families from whom many slumlords leased their lands. Priced out of even tenement housing, the very poorest drifted to uptown shantytowns or, like Jacob Riis, a young and unemployed Danish immigrant, slept in doorways.

In March 1865 Germans near Tompkins Square held a mass meeting and called on the legislature to regulate rents; a year later they renewed their demands. The Council of Hygiene and Public Health called for strict public regulation of tenements. Radical Republicans supported imposition of minimum standards. The conservative Republican Times and Democratic World agreed, with the latter’s editor, stunned by the investigations, declaring that “of all the diabolical, horrid, atrocious, fiendish, and even hellish systems of money-making ever invented by the mind of man, the tenement-house system of this city, is the most horrible.”

In 1866 Albany enlarged New York’s Department of Buildings, giving it a full-time staff, and established standards for municipal construction, creating the nation’s first comprehensive building code. In 1867 the legislature passed the Tenement House Law, New York’s first regulation of working-class housing. Modeled in key respects on London’s 1848 Lodging-House Act, the act limited the number of persons permitted to reside in a given amount of space. It required that every room in new buildings have ventilation and that transoms be installed in older ones. It decreed the installation of fire escapes and the provision of one water closet for every twenty residents (one per hundred then being the norm). It outlawed domestic animals (except dogs and cats). It forbade renting out cellar apartments less than seven feet high. And it made landlords liable to a daily fine for every uncorrected violation cited by the new Metropolitan Board of Health, which was given enforcement responsibility.

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Clearing Out a “Dive, “Harpers Weekly, July 12, 1873. Basement dwellers often clashed with the Board of Health’s Sanitary Inspectors, who were empowered to throw them out and dispose of their possessions. (Library of Congress)

Most landlords, builders, and real estate companies soon discovered, however, that the Tenement House Law was loosely worded and loophole-ridden. A fire escape “or some other means of egress” was required—a wooden ladder might do. Cesspools were forbidden—except where unavoidable. Ventilation for a dark inner room could be provided by a window to an outer one. “Tenements” were legally defined as buildings with more than three families, though many of the worst ones contained only that number.

Despite these obvious concessions to real estate interests, the law was a remarkable stride forward. Reformers had made private housing a matter of public concern and authorized government intervention to protect tenant health and welfare. The Metropolitan Board of Health pursued its duties vigorously, suing scores of city landlords for code violations in over three thousand units in 1868 alone, and in succeeding years managed to cut the cellar-dweller population in half. Slowly, dilapidated wooden housing gave way to new brick tenements constructed under the reformed building codes.

CITY BUILDING

“Generally the public works that have heretofore been carried out on this island have been conceived on too narrow and limited a scale,” said Andrew Haswell Green in 1865, “We need not go off the Island,” he amplified a year later, “to see lamentable results of the want of largeness of ideas in the attempts that have been made to provide for the growing wants of a great people,” If “the planning of a city” were to be “done with any degree of foresight,” Green insisted in 1867, it was imperative to transfer authority to “some body with comprehensive powers.” The body he had in mind was his own Central Park Commission, and the powers he had in mind were Haussmannesque—nothing less than authority to plan and oversee the expansion of all city services into northern Manhattan, and even Westchester.

Suggestions from Andrew Haswell Green commanded respect among New York’s landed wealthy, for he had long since proven his devotion to their larger interests. Since 1844 the former wholesale clerk had been a partner in Samuel Tilden’s law firm, where he worked closely with the eminent corporate attorney then urging consolidation on the railroad industry. Green himself offered investment advice and management services to owners of New York’s great estates. He won their trust with his expertise, his pious Protestantism (a legacy of his Massachusetts upbringing), his extreme frugality (bordering on miserliness), and his pugnacious conviction that government should rest with the propertied, not the politicians. He himself had entered politics as an anti-Wood Democrat, been appointed by state Republicans to the Central Park Commission in 1857, and served ever since with distinction.

Though he shared many of the values of the reformers, professionals, and journalists then debating the proper “arrangement and management” of cities in periodicals like the Journal of Social Science, Green approached city building as a businessman rather than an intellectual. Well aware that property owners balked at infringements of their prerogatives, Green argued that comprehensive and orderly development would enhance the value of their property.

This approach resonated among members of the organized real estate “industry” that was now emerging in New York City. Businessmen concerned with property and its purveyance formed trade journals, like the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide (1868), and established landowners’ associations in various parts of town. Their goal was to systematize New York’s haphazard approach to urban development and to discipline the city’s chaotic real estate market, in the interest of enhancing profitability.

Such men cast envious eyes at contemporary Paris. “Despotic governments are generally bad governments,” the Guide averred, “but when one hears of the marvels Napoleon has accomplished in Paris. . ., it makes us wish that he, or some one like him, could be made Emperor of New York for about ten years.” Would-be developers at the Guide were particularly enamored of the French capital’s stunning public improvements and stated baldly that “we want a Haus[s]mann who will do for New York what that great reconstructor did for Paris.”

Uptown boosters attracted to this vision founded the West Side Association (WSA) in 1866 to promote extensive improvements in the area north and west of Central Park—the Badlands of Manhattan. Craggy slopes, running streams, and malarial pools marked the bleak and rocky land. It was barely accessible to downtown civilization: a single horsecar trudged along Eighth Avenue up to 84th Street, where it gave up, turned around, and trudged back. Intrepid travelers heading farther north could take a stagecoach up the Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway), but there wasn’t much to see in these parts. The hamlets of Harsenville, Manhattanville, and Carmansville. Some miniature farms. Some squatter shacks occupied by poor immigrants, refugees from Central Park, and assorted outlaws. Some asylums, hospitals, institutional homes, country churches.

In the collective mind’s eye of the WSA, however, the inhospitable terrain looked very different. The elevated plateau afforded magnificent views of the Hudson to the west and the splendid new Central Park to the east, and river breezes provided a salubrious climate. If the rugged topography were tamed—drained, roads and sewers put through, gas and water lines installed, scenic parks and tree-lined promenades created, centers of culture and learning sprinkled here and there—it might one day replace lower Fifth Avenue as New York’s luxury quartier.

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West Ninety-fourth Street, looking west across West End Avenue toward Riverside Drive, c. 1889. Although real estate promoters began to target the Upper West Side soon after the Civil War, development was slow. (© Museum of the City of New York)

To hasten such a glorious future into existence, WSA boosters, ably led by lawyerdeveloper William Martin, petitioned the state legislature to give Andrew Haswell Green and the Central Park Commission (CPC) authority to transform the upper western wilds into a residential gentry preserve. Albany Republicans had already shown their willingness to expand the CPC’s powers: In 1864 it had been asked to extend the park’s pleasure drives above its northern boundary by turning Seventh Avenue into a shaded carriage way; in 1865 legislators charged it with fixing up upper Sixth Avenue and making over the old Bloomingdale Road into a tree-lined, Parisian-style “Boulevard.”

In 1866, with Martin and the WSA applying the pressure, Albany gave the goahead for the CPC to develop a street and property plan for all territory above 155th Street (ungridded in the 1811 blueprint). In succeeding months and years, the legislature steadily expanded the CPC’s mandate to include platting streets, designing ne works of parkways and promenades (including a grand Riverside Boulevard along the top of the bluff, and a racing lane for elite horseowners), arranging for parks (Morningside and Riverside), laying out suburban districts, improving up-island riverfronts, dredging a shipping canal at Spuyten Duyvil, and arranging for bridge and road connections across the Harlem River. Not only did the CPC now dominate the citybuilding process for all of Manhattan Island north of 59th Street and west of Central Park, but Green also took charge of forming a general street plan for the adjacent regions of the Bronx—still part of Westchester County.

Green now called for the annexation of western Westchester; “unity of plan for improvements on both sides of the river is essential,” he said. This was soon arranged. In 1873 voters were asked to authorize the incorporation of the area, including Kingsbridge, West Farms, and Morrisania, into New York City. Then-Mayor Havemeyer opposed the plan, which he attributed to “speculators on both sides of the Harlem River.” Where would it all end, he asked: “Once entered on the mainland, where can we stop?” He was voted down, however, as Westchesterites opted overwhelmingly for access to the city’s police, fire, water, sewage, and street-building services, while Manhattanites agreed with one newspaper editor who declared it “the manifest destiny of this great commercial emporium to spread in ever-widening circles over adjacent counties.” And many voiced hopes of moving the “laboring classes” to “neat and comfortable cottages,” accessable via “cheap workmen’s trains.” With the formal acquisition in 1874 of what would long be known as the “Annexed District,” New York entered on the first phase of its imperial expansion.

With the Central Park Commission established as the nation’s first de facto planning agency, the Prospect Park Commission emerged as a close runner-up. In Brooklyn, Andrew Haswell Green’s counterpart was James Samuel Thomas Stranahan. An upstate New Yorker who settled in Brooklyn in 1844, Stranahan had made a fortune as a railroad contractor, become a principal investor in the Atlantic Docks and the Union Ferry, and served as a trustee of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Long Island Historical Society.

In 1859 the Eagle had argued that if Brooklyn were “no longer to be a suburb of New York” it needed to develop “extensive and well cultivated Public Parks.” Mayor Powell agreed the following year, noting that “to attract a large population, it is indispensable that something else should be provided than interminable rows of brick houses along long lines of dusty streets, for these alone can never constitute a great city.” Stranahan, public-minded capitalist, took up the challenge. He gathered other prominent citizens into a South Brooklyn Association and argued strongly for a mammoth three-hundred-acre park, one grand enough to entice Manhattan taxpayers to Brooklyn. The group proposed to locate it on Prospect Hill, an elevated area already a favorite with “pic-nic parties” and easily accessible via Flatbush Avenue, Kings County’s major thoroughfare.

In 1860 the state legislature, following its Central Park procedure, created a Board of Commissioners (headed by Stranahan), which in January 1865, again following in Manhattan’s footsteps, invited Calvert Vaux to prepare a plan of development. Vaux, soon accompanied by Olmsted, produced a design the commissioners believed would “hold out strong inducements to the affluent to remain in our city” rather than be drawn away by the “seductive influences of the New York park.” In May 1866 the two, now the landscape architects and superintendents of the park, began directing the labor of hundreds of stonecarvers, masons, earth movers, and tree planters. Work proceeded rapidly during the late 1860s. Portions were opened in 1867 and 1868, and the work was essentially completed by the early 1870s, when even George Templeton Strong was forced to admit that Prospect Park was “a most lovely pleasure” and that in trees and views it “beats Central Park ten to one.” The Brooklyn populace was equally pleased: in 1873 the park received 6,700,000 visits.

Stranahan, now known as the Haussmann of Brooklyn, followed Green’s lead by extruding his commission’s power beyond the park’s boundaries, moving steadily from park design to urban planning. In 1868 Olmsted and Vaux proposed creating a “parkway neighborhood” surrounding Prospect Park that would offer “more wealthy and influential citizens” the rural satisfactions of air, space, and abundant vegetation. The commission was given extraordinary powers to open and improve streets, take property, and restrict land use. Though most of the costly project never came to fruition, it did eventually leave one major legacy: two grand “park-ways” radiating out from Prospect Park, for which Olmsted and Vaux cited Louis Napoleon’s Avenue de l’Impératrice as precursor. To the east, stretching to the city’s frontier, ran Eastern Parkway—a treelined dual carriageway quite like Manhattan’s Boulevard—and the equally magnificent Ocean Parkway, which ran south to the sea.

In 1870 the legislature embarked on its last and most ambitious venture into urban reconstruction by appointing a Staten Island Improvement Commission to transform the malaria-plagued and hard-to-reach territory into New York’s premier suburb. A “committee of experts,” including Olmsted (an old Staten Island hand) and architect Henry Hobson Richardson, offered a fourteen-point, multimillion-dollar scheme to drain lowlands, improve ferry service, and build a comprehensive network of roads and parks, as well as suburban domestic neighborhoods, for the “class of people . . . able and willing to pay an advanced price for land and for improvements.” The island’s far-flung villages, however, proved unwilling to underwrite the experts’ approach, and though piecemeal improvements were undertaken, the grand plan was never implemented.

WHITE MEN SHALL RULE AMERICA!

New York radicals’ boldest intervention in civic affairs involved political rather than physical reconstruction. In tandem with Republican initiatives in the South and other states, New York’s radicals pressed for giving the black population the right to vote. African Americans, in their churches, newspapers, and state conventions, had been demanding the suffrage as a fair return for their war service, and many radicals agreed a debt was due. The elimination of the existing $250 property qualification, moreover, might add eleven thousand blacks to the rolls, virtually all of whom would vote Republican. This was a bloc of considerable consequence, given that Republican Governor Reuben Fenton had won by only eight thousand votes in 1864 and that Democratic presidential candidate Horatio Seymour would carry the state by just nine thousand votes in 1868. The bulk of these potential Republicans, moreover, lived in the Democratic strongholds of New York City and Brooklyn.

Radicals first raised the issue at the state constitutional convention in 1867. Democrats, spearheaded by Henry C. Murphy of Brooklyn, resisted furiously. Playing a “scientific” race card, Murphy trotted out a “craniological” analysis that purported to prove the existence of superior and inferior breeds of man. Giving blacks the vote, Murphy argued, would lead to social equality, race mixing, and the collapse of civilization. Republicans countered that granting political rights would lessen the likelihood of amalgamation—which they too rejected—by granting blacks dignity. “There is no danger,” one radical argued, “of the intermingling of the race by a man who respects his own blood.”

Democrats pressed their racist campaign during the November 1867 elections. Banners at Tammany campaign rallies read NO SUFFRAGE NOR NEGRO EQUALITY! WHITE MAN’S GOVERNMENT FOR WHITE MEN! WHITE MEN SHALL RULE AMERICA! Riding the backlash, Democrats handily captured the state assembly and missed retaking the state senate by a mere two votes. When a proposed state constitutional amendment authorizing black suffrage was finally submitted to the electorate, in November 1869, the Daily Eagleasked the white man in the street: “Are you willing to declare by your vote that you are exactly and precisely the equivalent of a negro, neither more nor less?” The answer was a resounding no. New York repulsed black voting by 70.4 percent.

THE END OF RADICAL RECONSTRUCTION IN NEW YORK

The same 1869 election that defeated black suffrage gave Tweed Democrats control of both the Assembly and the Senate, completing their conquest of the state (Tweed’s protege, New York Mayor John Hoffman, had captured the governorship in 1868). Tammany’s forces, marshaled by Grand Sachem Tweed, a state senator since 1867, now proposed a new city charter that would restore home rule to the metropolis by abolishing all the new state commissions and transferring their functions to ten departments controlled by the city (and Tweed). After thirteen years, power over the police force would be returned to the municipality, along with dominion over its own health, fire prevention, education, public works, charities, buildings, and docks. The proposed charter further strengthened City Hall, making all department heads mayoral appointees, and further hedged the Common Council, requiring it to muster a three-fourths vote on all bills involving expenditures. The charter also allowed the city virtually unlimited borrowing power for specified improvements.

Reformers were surprised but delighted. Tweed had proposed a simplified, centralized, fiscally responsible, and potentially effective city government. Peter Cooper of the Citizens Association strongly urged passage. So did the Union League Club, Horace Greeley, and a long list of prominent businessmen headed by banker James Brown and rentier John Jacob Astor. Even the Republican minority supported it, either reassured by promises that a strong voter registration law would be enacted or won over by hard cash—some six hundred thousand dollars’ worth, Tweed later admitted. Governor Hoffman signed the charter into law in April 1870. In May Democrats easily won charter-mandated special elections for the Common Council, sweeping all fifteen aldermanic slots (one going to a budding politico named George W. Plunkitt).

Despite their acquiescence on the charter, Republicans, like their Klan-beleaguered southern counterparts, were not prepared to accept Tammany’s electoral triumph without protest. Since 1868 Republicans had been compiling statistical evidence of Tammany wrongdoing. They leveled charges of straight-out fraud (some wards had more voters than residents), and they accused Tammany of mass-producing new citizens. Tammany Judge McCunn naturalized 2,109 petitioners in one day, a rate of three per minute—with “as much celerity,” the Tribune observed caustically, “as is displayed in converting swine into pork at a Cincinnati packing house.”

Republicans appealed to Washington, where their party still reigned. A sympathetic Republican Congress investigated in 1869 and agreed that “crimes against the elective franchise” had been committed. The “crimes” were only metaphorical, however, because Tammany practices contravened no existing law. Congress closed this loophole in 1870 with two pieces of legislation. An Enforcement Act—aimed at crushing both Ku Klux Klan resistance to southern Reconstruction governments and Tammany-style practices in northern cities—imposed penalties for obstructing or intimidating voters and authorized federal marshals or troops to supervise elections. A second law, the Naturalization Act, extended the waiting period between naturalization and voting by six months and established machinery to supervise voter registration.

New York Republicans used the new legislation to full effect in 1870. Federally appointed officials scrutinized registration proceedings and clapped some Democrats in jail even before election day. On October 25 President Grant ordered several regiments to the city’s harbor forts and dispatched two warships to the East and Hudson rivers.

Democrats portrayed themselves as martyred defenders of civil rights and home rule. At a torchlight parade, Tweed told fifty thousand partisans to scrupulously obey the law on November 8. Tammany more or less followed orders—the courts created only two thousand new citizens, compared to the sixty thousand they’d turned out two years earlier—and Republicans had to admit it was a fair election. Which made the results—a total Democratic sweep—all the more galling.

The new charter had established a powerful municipal government, but that power belonged to Tweed. The trio of Tweed and his comrades Mayor A. Oakey Hall and Comptroller Richard Connolly constituted the new Board of Supervisors that controlled city finances, and Mayor Hall swiftly appointed his colleagues to high offices as well. Tweed himself presided over the Department of Public Works, a consolidation of the former Street Department and Croton Aqueduct Board. And one of Tweed’s closest advisers, Peter Sweeny, took charge of the powerful Central Park Commission, now folded into a Department of Public Parks.

With control over parks, public health, and tenement regulation now removed from their hands, the elite stewards, who in their own minds stood for professional expertise, moral refinement, and the public welfare, worried that their regulatory state would be dismantled. In some cases, they were right. The new Metropolitan Board of Health became a haven for hacks and rapidly waned in effectiveness, and the Tenement House Law, easily evaded by bribing compliant inspectors, went largely unenforced.

Yet Tammanyites didn’t scuttle all their predecessor’s initiatives. In particular, they made the city-building project their own, though turning it to their own purposes. The reformers had seen their primary constituency (in the words of one association) as the bourgeoisie in general—“the class who have the largest pecuniary stake in the good order of the city and who also command its moral forces.” The politicians were certainly prepared to extend municipal benefits to businessmen who were willing (or forced) to pay for them, but they also sought power and profit by dispensing patronage to working-class clients and siphoning off benefits for themselves.

Democrats backed public works projects far more grandiose than anything the Republican planners had promoted, to maximize the jobs they could hand out and the money they could pull in. Embracing a far more comprehensive and centralized approach to wielding municipal power than the laissez-faire Democratic Party had been accustomed to, Tammany politicians together with their bourgeois allies set out to reshape the urban landscape once again.

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