City Building

William Martin of the West Side Association was delighted with Tweed’s rise to power, convinced that under a Democratic regime “the great public works on this Island would be vigorously pushed forward.” Yet in his part of town, the pace of progress remained languorous at best. Olmsted was not asked to submit a plan for Riverside Park until 1875, and work began only in 1877. Masses of laborers did begin transforming the old Bloomingdale Road into the grand new Boulevard, laying out two fifty-foot-wide carriageways, broad sidewalks, and a thirty-foot-wide planted median, but that project alone wasn’t enough to transform the drowsing countryside. In 1876 a Herald reporter found its lower extremities lined with saloons and shanties and its upper reaches, around looth Street, used mainly by the occasional cowherd leading his charges to pasture.

There were many reasons for the sluggish pace of West Side development, but the most critical was the Tweed men’s fixation on the opposite side of Central Park, a function in part of their heavy real estate investments in the area. The property owners who formed the East Side Association in 1868 had several things going for them. What their territory lacked in grandeur, it made up for in lower construction costs. The terrain from 59th to noth, between Fifth and Third avenues, was relatively easy to grade, dig up, and build upon, and the Harlem Plains (north of 110th) were more accessible still.

Tendrils of civilization, moreover, had already climbed higher up Manhattan’s East Side than its West. The New York and Harlem Rail Road up Fourth Avenue had opened up the area in the 1830s. In the 1850s horsecars came to Third Avenue, and by the 1860s it was lined with detached frame buildings, shops, and occasional groups of row houses. Horsecars ran along Second Avenue too, all the way up to 122nd, providing access to Harlem’s modest cottages. By Tweed’s time, with newcomers spilling westward along 125th Street, Harlem seemed ripe for full-scale development.

The East Siders’ battle plan was straightforward: settle working-class families in brownstones and tenements along the arterial avenues, salt the transverse streets with row houses for the middle class, and entice the wealthy to Fifth Avenue mansions fronting the new Central Park. Hopefully the obstacles and nuisances littering the territory—shantytowns and slaughterhouses, breweries and quarries, stockyards and garbage dumps—would be forced over to the industrializing East River waterfront.

Tweed proved a perfect partner. As commissioner of the Department of Public Works, he authorized miles of sewer, water, and gas pipelines, appointed first-rate professionals to oversee the enterprise, and told them to build the best. Tammany sent civil engineer Alfred Craven to study European waste disposal systems, then sanctioned the use of technologically innovative vitrified tubing. Tweed appointed Edward H. Tracy chief engineer (he’d worked on the Croton Aqueduct under Jervis), and Tracy laid out the new underground network as a coordinated, unified system, in sharp contrast to the downtown jumble.

Next came roads. By 1873 over a thousand men in the pay of the Department of Public Works were laying out miles of hundred-foot-wide macadamized avenues (made using successive layers of stone broken into pieces of nearly uniform size) and substantial streets, at least fifty feet wide, with the key crosstown connectors (at 57th, 79th, and 86th) twice that size. The city also fostered development by leasing or giving away land to hospitals, schools, and museums—Mount Sinai, a Sisters of Mercy foundling hospital, the Normal (later Hunter) College—and encouraged Harlem’s improvement by laying out Mount Morris Park at 120th and Lenox.

Contracting firms, employing great numbers of skilled construction workers, followed behind the public works crews and began erecting speculative housing. Much of it—aimed at middle class and better-off Irish and German workers—consisted of three-story brick row houses with brownstone fronts, equipped with gas, Croton water, and indoor toilets. Even the four-story tenements lining Third, Second, and First avenues were several notches up from those blanketing the Lower East Side, though shady, marginal operators perpetrated some inferior work. Municipal expansion allowed the Democratic Party to establish solid relationships with uptown contractors, brickmasons, stonemasons and plasterers, many of them Irish-American.

New housing blotted out the old. At Dutch Hill—the shantytown on 42nd Street at the East River—the city broke up the hundreds of one-room shacks, cobbled together out of old timbers and tin roofing, that had housed over a thousand full-time residents. Old mansions tumbled. The Astors’ former estate at the foot of East 88th was torn down, as was the 1763 Beekman country home on East 51st Street. Workingmen digging the cellar for a building at Lexington and 104th Street uncovered a graveyard for British soldiers.

The construction boom sent land prices spiraling, and rumors of transit development sparked further hikes. Investors, convinced current values would be doubled or tripled in months, paid outrageous asking prices. Turnover was brisk, profits were taken quickly, and among the biggest profit-takers was William Tweed. He and his cronies bought heavily in uptown lands, especially in Yorkville and Harlem, and their properties became prime beneficiaries of—and spurs to—their many projects. In 1869, for example, Tweed and some friends bought the entire block bounded by Fourth, Madison, 68th, and 69th, had the city lay water pipes, and watched happily as their investment soared. Some bonanza hunters didn’t wait for actual construction. In 1869 Terence Far­ley, a contractor and well-connected Tweed alderman, acquired a corner lot at Madison and 68th; the city announced the impending arrival of sewers and water mains; and within two weeks of his purchase, Farley sold out for a substantial profit. Tweed had West Side investments too, but his East Side ventures were three times as big, which likely accounts for some of the delay in launching West Side public works. There were others who argued that progress on mapping, coordinating, integrating, and upgrading the maze of disintegrating sewer pipes in lower Manhattan was unduly delayed by the pressure of real estate promoters pushing uptown expansion.

But Tweed’s speculative exploits were matched by solid accomplishment. In the mid-1870s the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide rhapsodized that “from One Hundred and Tenth street to Harlem river, from St. Nicholas avenue to the East river, the Boulevards and cross-streets are laid out and improved in the highest style of Tammany Art—opened, regulated, curbed, guttered and sewered, gas and water mains laid, with miles and miles of Telford-McAdam pavement, streets and avenues brilliantly lighted by fancy lamp-posts.” Tammany had made the region “one of the most desirable and picturesque localities for residence.”

Tweed had done his job well but expensively, with padded contracts inflating real construction costs. Some of the money came from city-levied property taxes, authorized by Tweed’s charter, whose collection was overseen by the Tweed-dominated Board of Apportionment. Most, however, was borrowed by selling interest-bearing bonds on the open market. In 1867 New York had already owed thirty million dollars—for Croton, for Central Park, and for Civil War draft-related expenditures—but the debt tripled by 1871, to nearly ninety million dollars, with two-thirds of the increase coming between 1869 and 1871.

Much of this capital flowed from wealthy private investors—old-monied merchants and Civil War profiteers—who with stock market waters roiled by the likes of Jay Gould sought the more sheltered investment harbor of municipal bonds. City bankers were pleased to underwrite the public works program, which generated fat commissions and a hefty 7 percent rate of interest (payable, as was the principal, in gold). Trust companies and savings banks blossomed after the war, many boasting Tammany-affiliated officers, and these repositories for the spectacular fortunes accumulated during the boom bought up fifty million dollars’ worth of city and county bonds by 1871. The international capital markets were another novel source. The Houses of Belmont and Seligman were skilled at financing railroads. Now they marketed New York City, selling its bonds in London, Frankfurt, and Paris.


The one piece of infrastructure upper Manhattan still sorely lacked was a transportation system that could speed uptown residents to downtown jobs. On the East Side, the old New York and Harlem line, now part of the Vanderbilt empire, was a limited and unpopular resource. Property owners along Fourth Avenue had long been dismayed by the steam locomotives chugging up and down their thoroughfare, spewing smoke and cinders, and though Vanderbilt did open stations at 86th and noth streets, rail access wasn’t nearly sufficient. Nor was the old horsecar system. By 1872 Third Avenue cars built to carry twenty-two riders bulged with sixty or more during rush hour, and it could take an hour and a half to get to Wall Street. West Siders wailed that without fast transportation their area (as one promoter put it) would remain a “howling wilderness of vacant lots and rocks and morasses” from “which only death and the tax-gatherer will extract any harvest.” Here Tweed’s ambitions were the most vaulting. He planned to build a colossal, elevated Viaduct Railroad that would run along tracks mounted on massive masonry arches, forty feet high. Starting at a grand terminal he envisioned across from City Hall, two tramways would drive northward, plowing through the middle of blocks rather than along the avenues. One would proceed up the East Side paralleling Third Avenue to Harlem, the other up the West Side alongside Sixth Avenue to Spuyten Duyvil, thus encircling Manhattan Island. The cost was projected to be millions of dollars per mile.

In 1871 the Democratic legislature and Democratic Governor Hoffman authorized Tweed to charter the New York Railway Company and provided that after an initial subscription by private capitalists, the city treasury would contribute five million dollars to start construction. The company, moreover, was to be exempted from all taxes and assessments, could build anywhere it chose, and could condemn and raze anything in its path. With such extensive powers in hand, Tweed attracted the wealthiest capitalists in the city to the line’s board of directors—including A. T. Stewart, August Belmont, Abram Hewitt, Joseph Seligman, and J. J. Astor—as well as prominent press barons James Gordon Bennett Jr., Horace Greeley, and Oswald Ottendorfer.

Not surprisingly, Tweed reacted crankily to competition from Alfred Ely Beach, editor-publisher of the Scientific American, who in 1868 had slipped a bill through the legislature permitting him to install an underground system of pneumatic tubes using compressed air. Beach claimed they would blow letters and parcels between Wall Street and a planned new post office at City Hall, but in fact he intended blowing people to and fro. From the basement of Devlin’s clothing store at Murray Street, Beach had workers dig a nine-foot-wide tunnel twenty feet below Broadway, smuggling out the dirt after dark, that ran one block north, to Warren Street. Next, to ensure the popular acclaim that would overwhelm resistance from corrupt politicians, Beach installed a gas-lit entryway, a platform with frescoed walls, settees, and a grand piano, and a luxuriously upholstered twenty-two-person car. In February 1870 a huge rotary blower began propelling passengers smoothly back and forth—a public relations triumph that drew four hundred thousand riders that year, at twenty-five cents each. Nevertheless, the combination of Tweed’s opposition, protests from powerful Broadway landlords who feared for their buildings’ foundations, technical difficulties, and reluctance of private investors to undertake the enterprise led to its demise.

Charles T. Harvey had better luck. Back in 1867 he had received legislative permission to erect an experimental single-track elevated line on a half-mile stretch of Greenwich Street (just north from Battery Place). By June 1868 Harvey’s scheme was precariously operational, with cables attached to stationary engines shuttling a car back and forth. Harvey was ruined in Jay Gould’s Black Friday, but three years later, after several corporate reorganizations and abandonment of the pulley system, steam locomotives of the New York Elevated Railway Company began regular service along the single elevated track that ran up Greenwich and along Ninth Avenue to the 30th Street station of the Hudson River Railroad. For all its flaws—the engines belched sparks and inundated pedestrians below with ashes—the elevated railroad had proven its practicability. The future seemed rosy to uptown Manhattan’s promoters, with the disturbing exception of the competitive behemoth rising across the East River.


Brooklyn was booming. Most new development still closely hugged the waterfront, especially industries with large land requirements; Havemeyer and Elder’s mammoth sugar refineries; Appleton’s printing and bookbinding establishment near the Navy Yard, manned by six hundred workers; Williamsburg breweries, far larger now than before the war; Mayor Martin Kalbfleisch’s Bushwick Chemical Works; the score of refineries in Greenpoint along Newtown Creek, like Charles Pratt’s, which processed oil shipped east by rail and floated to their front doors. Around these giants hundreds of smaller concerns clustered: in 1865 Brooklyn had five hundred factories; by 1870, a thousand; by 1880, over five thousand.

Residential districts near the waterfront also did well. The Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill complex expanded farther into South Brooklyn (today’s Carroll Gardens) in these prosperous years. But interior territories near the new Prospect Park languished. Back in the 1850s Edwin C. Litchfield had assembled a seven-acre stretch of land that sloped downward from the crest of Prospect Hill. Construction of Prospect Park in the 1860s gave him hope that he could lure wealthy families into buying large plots and constructing grand urban town houses along its borders, villas like his own Alexander Jackson Davis-designed Grace Hall. Unfortunately, buyers showed insufficient interest in paying the kind of prices Litchfield had in mind, so, with the patience of the long-term developer, he settled down to wait. (He would in fact die, in 1884, before prices reached a satisfactory level.)

Other developers, encountering similar resistance from the well-to-do, tried to attract people of more moderate means. They tried to pull buyers from downtown Brooklyn or Williamsburg, both of which were rapidly changing into immigrant industrial or commercial districts, and to attract middle-class Manhattanites, who were being priced out of New York by escalating rents and land prices. Developers of Windsor Terrace had some success enticing buyers to streets stretching from Prospect Park’s southwestern border down to Green-Wood Cemetery. But Kensington’s developers did less well, while those who purchased large tracts south of the park around Ocean Avenue did downright poorly. Similar difficulties plagued Charles S. Brown, who bought land way to the east of the park, a place he immodestly christened Brownsville. Brown hadn’t really imagined his domain becoming a middle-class suburb, what with the unpleasant smells wafting up from the marshes and bone-boiling plants of Jamaica Bay, but even working-class customers proved scarce.


Oil Refineries on Newtown Creek, from Harper’s Weekly, August 6, 1881. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

Brooklyn’s bosses and boosters, like those promoting uptown Manhattan, believed that poor transportation was the source of their city’s problems, and they set about rectifying the situation.

Boss Tweed’s Brooklyn counterpart was Boss Hugh McLaughlin, master of the Kings County Democratic Party. McLaughlin, whose parents had come from Ireland early in the century, had worked, variously, as whip boy in a ropewalk, waterfront gang leader, fishmonger, and master foreman in the Navy Yard before becoming a full-time professional politician. McLaughlin looked a bit like Tweed—he was almost as tall and fat—and he too concentrated on facilitating public improvements, then profiting from insider information about the direction of the path of progress. Real estate deals would make him a millionaire, but, unlike Tweed, he would avoid ostentation and continue to dress “like a Canarsie clam baker.”

McLaughlin’s chief colleague was William C. Kingsley, Brooklyn’s most prosperous contractor. Kingsley made a fortune paving streets and installing sewers, then branched out into dealing in lumber and granite. He bought real estate, forged close ties to the Fulton Street banks and insurance companies, became publisher of the Brooklyn Eagle, and emerged as a major power in the city.

McLaughlin, Kingsley, and other boosters like J. S. T. Stranahan had been delighted with the Prospect Park Commission’s work. Kingsley’s companies did a great deal of the park’s construction business, and Boss McLaughlin managed to buy up land where Vaux and Olmsted intended to place their grand plaza at the park’s Flatbush Avenue entrance. But when the park failed to galvanize Brooklyn’s interior development they refocused their attention on the transport problem.

Viewed by night from one of Brooklyn’s lofty lookouts, the harbor sparkled romantically with the gaily colored lights of ferries plying their way back and forth from Atlantic Street to South Street, from Wall to Montague, from Fulton to Fulton. And Whitman’s masterpiece “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” was an exuberant hymn to its daytime glories. But practical men saw the system as a bottleneck, not a marvel, and the icy winter of 1866-67, which crippled river traffic, only underscored the problem.

A bridge over the East River at its narrowest point seemed the obvious solution. It would help farmers and brewers get their wares to market, perhaps even attract customers to Fulton Street shops, and, above all, allow Manhattanites to live in Brooklyn and work in New York. But would-be bridgebuilders confronted formidable obstacles. The East River, a tidal estuary prone to surging currents, was dauntingly wide, and conventional bridges would block the flow of maritime commerce. Only a suspension bridge of hitherto unachieved dimension—high enough to afford clearance to even the tallest sailing ships, and long enough to overleap the treacherous currents—had a chance of succeeding, and only John Augustus Roebling had a chance of building it.

In his native Germany, Roebling had studied architecture, hydraulics, and bridge construction—and philosophy, with Hegel, who thought Roebling one of his brightest pupils. In 1831 he had migrated to the United States, joined a farming colony, worked as a canal engineer, and developed a wire cable, which he used in building iron bridges that allowed America’s proliferating rail lines to surmount its abundant rivers. At Niagara Falls locomotives shuttled serenely across the great gorge on Roebling’s breathtaking International Suspension Bridge. Contacted by promoters of the East River crossing, Roebling laid out a magisterial plan. He would build the longest suspension bridge in the world, eighty feet in width (as spacious as Broadway, he liked to point out) with plenty of room for cable cars. The span would be supported by steel cables strung over two massive masonry towers—which if built would be the largest structures ever built on the North American continent—and the cables would be rooted to onshore sevenstory stone anchorages.

If technical obstacles seemed bridgeable, political currents remained treacherous. In 1867, when William Kingsley broached the idea of chartering the New York Bridge Company, he turned to State Senator Henry Cruse Murphy, point man in Albany for Brooklyn’s Democrats. Son of a Brooklyn judge, Murphy had had a distinguished legal and diplomatic career, helped found the Brooklyn Eagle back in 1841, served as Brooklyn’s mayor and congressman, and taken part in the city’s economic evolution, most recently as a developer of Coney Island (another potential bridge beneficiary).

Murphy designed a charter for the Bridge Company that would fix its capital stock at five million dollars and authorize the City of Brooklyn to subscribe three millions’ worth and the City of New York one-and-a-half million, with the rest to be taken up by private shareholders. Brooklyn authorities, he knew, would do their part. The key problem lay in Manhattan, where the phalanx of promoters and politicians booming the upper island worried a bridge would siphon off potential home buyers. In addition, New York warehouse owners feared loss of business, and its taxpayers fretted at the enormous costs involved. But only one voice counted in the end, and it belonged to William M. Tweed. To find out if New York aldermen would accept a half-price deal, Murphy paid Tweed a visit. Tweed allowed as how the aldermen would probably come around if encouraged by sixty thousand dollars or so. Murphy authorized the expenditure—according to Tweed, though Murphy denied the story—and Kingsley provided the cash, carried over from Brooklyn in a carpetbag.

To recompense Tweed, hardly interested in such paltry rewards, Kingsley bought up and gave over roughly half the outstanding private stock to the Boss and two Tammany colleagues. The stock was incredibly valuable because under Murphy’s charter, only private stockholders had voting rights. The cities, which would put up 90 percent of the capital, were to be, in the truest sense, dummy partners. For Tweed, this opened up magnificent vistas—jobs for constituents, kickbacks from contractors—a treasure chest that would more than offset any potential damage to his uptown investments.

This tawdry but obligatory business behind them, the Bridge Company (Henry Murphy, president; William Kingsley, chief contractor) set to work. Roebling, named chief engineer in 1867, gathered a crack crew and had just about completed preliminary planning when, on June 28, 1869, an accident crushed the tip of his foot, which led to lockjaw, seizures, a coma, and death on July 22. The company passed the engineer’s mantle to his son, Washington, who had worked on bridges for the Union Army and, at his father’s request, visited Europe in 1867 to study the use of pneumatic caissons.

Young Roebling’s first task was to design and oversee the construction of just such caissons—essentially huge, watertight, submersible boxes that could shelter work crews while they dug down in search of bedrock on which to erect the giant towers. In May 1870 the first caisson was floated four miles down the East River from the Webb and Bell yards to just beside the Fulton ferry slip. Now, invisible to onshore watchers, the mostly Irish, German, and Italian laborers set to work under limelights—calcium lamps normally used for stage lighting or nighttime political rallies—boring their way down through traprock and basalt, at fewer than six inches a week. To speed the process, workers using long steel drills hammered holes in the obdurate rock, tamped them full of blasting powder, and set them off. Working around the clock (three eight-hour shifts every day except Sunday), the rate of descent accelerated to twelve to eighteen inches a week, and the bottom was soon reached.

In May 1871, while the Brooklyn tower rose ponderously out of the water, the process began again on the deeper, more difficult New York side. Now to the grueling work and foul odors were added incidents of a strange and painful disease. Laborers found blood spurting from their noses and mouths and fell prey to terrible cramps, which so contorted their bodies that the ailment was named “the bends.” As the shaft sank deeper, workers began to die (young Al Smith, who lived near the construction site, listened to neighborhood talk of their horrible deaths). The company hired a doctor to investigate and while he never quite identified the cause—nitrogen bubbles trapped in the blood—he more or less stumbled on the solution, a slower transition from compressed to normal atmosphere. He urged a five-to-six-minute exit procedure (twenty minutes would have worked), but with the company in a hurry to finish and workers in a hurry to get out, they settled on a two-to-three-minute transit—so men kept dying.


Building the Brooklyn Bridge, 1877 engraving. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

On May 8, galvanized by the terrifying conditions, the caisson men struck for an increase in pay: three dollars for their four-hour stints. The Bridge Company agreed to $2.75, which the men angrily turned down, but when Kingsley announced he would fire them all, the strike collapsed. Roebling, aware laborers were at their limits, gave orders on May 18 to halt further digging, chancing that the level already reached, though not bedrock, would provide a sturdy enough base. Now the final stages commenced—though without Roebling. His health crushed by the ordeal, he spent the next several years in European spas and in Trenton, New Jersey, trying in vain to recover, but all the while directing the ongoing work via letters to his on-site assistants.

In June 1875 the Brooklyn tower was finished. Little over a year later the last stone was set in place on its New York counterpart. As crowds watched on both shores—it was the “best attended circus in the world,” said the Tribune—the first cables were strung over the tops of the immense towers, taller even than the spire of Trinity Church. Finally, on Friday, August 25, Master Mechanic E. F. Farrington, an agile sixty-year-old, donned a linen suit and a new straw hat and climbed into a little seat attached by pulley to the wire rope. Then, as tens of thousands cheered, cannons roared, church bells clanged, and tugs shrilled their whistles, Farrington was hauled aloft to the flag-bedecked top of the Brooklyn tower, sailed serenely across the river (lifting his hat from time to time), and then brought safely down, twenty-two minutes after his departure, on the tumultuous Manhattan shore. The bridge’s span would take years more to complete, and the 1876 mini-Festival of Connection would be dwarfed by the official one in 1883, but it was as plain as the sparkling August day that a momentous conjuncture had been wrought.


The great postwar boom roused even slumbering Queens. Here, however, no formidable state commission would undertake large-scale planning, nor would an alliance of powerful politicians and private investors direct large-scale development. It was, rather, an ill-judged action of Brooklyn’s that proved to be the crucial agent of change.

Since 1832 the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to Jamaica and points beyond had run east along Atlantic Street (later Avenue) from Brooklyn’s South Ferry. Objections to the smoky and dangerous steam engines and to the cargoes of manure they hauled had forced the line (in 1844) to submerge its first two thousand feet of tracks in a tunnel under Atlantic. In 1859, however, responding to years of continuing complaint from area merchants and homeowners, the state legislature banned steam locomotives from Brooklyn altogether.

In 1861, accordingly, the tunnel was sealed up (and eventually forgotten, only to be rediscovered in 1980). The LIRR moved its operations to Queens. For its new depot, the company chose Hunter’s Point, an easy ferry crossing from Manhattan’s 34th Street and already, since the 1850s, western terminus of a railroad from Flushing. From Hunter’s Point, the company ran a line directly to Jamaica, where it linked up with the main road on to Greenport. By the early 1870s rival rail lines connected the Hunter’s Point hub with Rockaway and Whitestone, and a turnpike (now Jackson Avenue and Northern Boulevard) had been pushed through to Flushing.

Long Island’s commuter and commercial traffic quickly reoriented itself along the new rail and road arteries. Many of Brooklyn’s warehouses, stores, hotels, and banks closed or relocated. Kings’ loss proved Queens’ gain. Soon Hunter’s Point resembled a western boomtown. Entrepreneurs built hotels, saloons, boardinghouses, kerosene refineries, and coal and lumber yards. A massive depot with engine houses and machine shops went up. Housing, churches, and schools arrived.

Like many western towns, Hunter’s Point developed a grandiose vision of its future. In 1869 it launched a drive to incorporate itself as Long Island City, an entity with imperial ambitions. Leading businessmen lobbied Albany. So did the pastor of St. Mary’s Church, whose Catholic congregation included the town’s Irish factory and railroad workers. In 1870 the state legislature decreed a shotgun wedding between industrial Hunter’s Point, aristocratic Ravenswood, and affluent Astoria. In 1872 the county seat was transferred from Mineola to the new Long Island City, and by 1876 a grand new courthouse had been completed at Thomson and Jackson avenues.

It soon became apparent, however, that ambition had outrun reality. Vast marshes separated the new city’s component regions. These marshes, once drained by tidal flows, were now fouled with factory and slaughterhouse effluvia and had become breeders of endemic malaria. Some heroic (and lucrative) draining and filling was undertaken, but the task was beyond the fledgling city’s means. Though the Long Island Rail Road tried to knit together a transportation infrastructure by acquiring its competitors, it failed. Long Island City, moreover, was as politically fragmented as it was spatially divided, riven by endless contention between wealthy families to the north and immigrant workers to the south.

Lacking a nucleus around which to crystallize, Queens, as in the past, would be developed by discrete local initiatives—chiefly, in this era, company towns launched by big-city industrialists, and residential suburbs founded by speculators. The preeminent postwar company town was developed by William Steinway. After the Civil War, Steinway and Sons’ success at marketing its upright pianos outgrew the production capacities of its 52nd Street factory in Manhattan. Steinway was also concerned to shelter his workforce from “the machinations of the anarchists and socialists, who,” he said, “were continually breeding discontent among our workmen and inciting them to strike.”

In 1870 Steinway began buying up farms and estates in northeastern Astoria overlooking Bowery Bay. He acquired four hundred acres of the most lightly taxed land in the city, including woodland, salt meadows, and open fields in virtually primeval condition, plus half a mile of waterfront property. At water’s edge he constructed a pianoforte production complex, which included an iron and brass foundry, a steam sawmill, boiler and engine houses, and a large building for making iron frames. On the waterfront, an enclosed dock and basin could hold millions of square feet of lumber—the logs floated in and kept moist while awaiting processing—and receive barge deliveries of foundry sand and pig iron.

Steinway set up summer quarters in the old Pike mansion overlooking the bay (the family wintered at Gramercy Park). His German laborers camped out in Long Island City hotels or commuted from Yorkville via the 92nd Street ferry (soon known as the Piano Ferry), where they were picked up by stage and brought to the factory. In 1873 Steinway began building a town—grading, leveling, and macadamizing the roads at his expense. Private money also built the waterworks, installed the sewer system, constructed a railroad spur, and installed a telegraph line connecting the new facilities with the Fourth Avenue factory and the 14th Street showrooms. Finally, Steinway’s Astoria Homestead Company erected frame houses for sale to workingmen and more substantial homes for “well-to-do refined people.”

Steinway’s efforts were matched by Florian Grosjean. After outgrowing his Manhattan factory, which churned out tin cooking utensils, Grosjean settled on Woodhaven Village (bounded by today’s 95th and 97th avenues, Woodhaven Boulevard, and 85th Street, in what is now Ozone Park). Here Grosjean built a new factory, over a hundred workers’ cottages (half he sold, half he rented), a hotel, shops, churches, a market, and a school. By 1873 Woodhaven—which was accessible by rail (along Atlantic Avenue) and wagon (along the Jamaica highroad)—had become a going concern.

Corona, on the other hand, was a residential development, not a factory town. In 1867 music publisher Benjamin W. Hitchcock had successfully launched the village of Woodside. Now the peripatetic developer moved east (along today’s Roosevelt Avenue) to West Flushing, home since the 1850s of the Fashion racetrack. Hitchcock bought twelve hundred lots, christened the area Corona, prevailed on the Flushing Rail Road to open a station at National Avenue, and, after a brisk sales campaign in 1870, sold off hundreds of lots (P. T. Barnum bought two).

Next, in 1871, Hitchcock organized the New York Suburban Building Society, offering loans to the land buyers (repayable in easy ten-dollar monthly installments) to help them build on their plots. (Adding a western touch, he called this the “homestead system.”) So many “homesteaders” erected homes that professional builders and masons from nearby Flushing flocked in, and Hitchcock had to install a sawmill to keep up with demand. The paraphernalia of social life followed: a firehouse, stores, saloons, meeting halls. A Catholic church went up on the former racetrack’s property in 1872, and a Sunday school was opened by the president of the Bank of New York, who owned a mansion nearby. In 1873 the well-established village, having met the requirement of six hundred people within one mile, was crowned with a post office. In 1875 the restless Hitchcock floated farther east to begin yet another project.


In the wide-open spaces of Queens, Brooklyn, and uptown Manhattan, planned developmental initiatives were the norm. Lower Manhattan, by contrast, evolved out of countless calculations and decisions by an astounding number of participants, none of whom was capable of exercising a decisive influence. Businesses jockeyed for position, with the real estate market serving as the principal sorting mechanism; the soaring costs of land, assessments, and rents reserved the most valuable space for the most prosperous users. Through a ceaseless process of tearing down and building up, the once compact business district was rapidly reconstructed and broken down into discrete clusters devoted to particular functions: finance, communication, shipping, retailing, and commercial entertainment.

The financial district grew both laterally (it now stretched to City Hall) and perpendicularly (beginning its ascent toward the sky). Hundreds of private banks and trust companies were founded in the late 1860s and early 1870s, and they spawned scores of new headquarters buildings, like Drexel, Morgan’s at Wall and Broad. Brokerage firms multiplied like bees and settled into rented office space; their agents hived together at the New York Stock Exchange, John Kellum’s Tuscan palazzo.

Galvanized by the wartime risks of military service, the life insurance business had surged as well. The assets of New York companies (who controlled some 85 percent of the national market) multiplied eleven times during the postwar decade, rising to nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. Growth led to a spate of headquarters construction by the likes of Equitable, Mutual, and New York Life.

The burgeoning office district was not, however, primarily built and tenanted by the corporations directing western development—railroads, mines, oil—but by the host of businesses and professionals that sprang up to serve their needs. Corporate law firms multiplied (by 1870 there were two and a half times the number of lawyers as in the mid-1850s boom). Express firms expanded their outreach. American Express, which had concentrated on transport of goods, currency, and securities in New York State, now offered services nationwide and moved into the former Taylor’s building—the 1850s “restaurant of the age” had closed in 1866—on Broadway and Franklin. Lewis Tappan’s old Mercantile Agency, wholly owned since 1859 by R. G. Dun, soon had twenty-eight branch offices in the nation’s major commercial centers and over ten thousand reporters or investigators handling the five thousand requests for information that poured in each day. The tremendous demand for credit information on ever more distant clients kept the rival Bradstreet Agency booming as well.

Railroad and telegraph revolutions transformed the marketing of commodities too. Old-style cotton factors, who had extended credit to planters, were replaced by jobbers, who bought cotton directly at southern railheads and resold it to British or New England textile mills. In 1870 the New York Cotton Exchange was established, allowing these brokers to collectively standardize grades of cotton, inspect samples, and begin a market in futures, to reduce risk. In 1873 the Butter and Cheese Exchange opened on Greenwich Street, near the railroad terminals where dairy shipments arrived; here too buyers and sellers met to examine products, negotiate prices, and get information on future crop prospects. The New York Produce Exchange similarly let merchants examine samples from individual lots of grain, and in 1874 it established trading pits for such transactions.

All these businesses, and swarms of others, needed two things: proximity to one another—as profitability depended on access to information, markets, and capital resources—and space, for their burgeoning staffs of administrative and clerical workers (Equitable Life, in addition to top management, administrators, and agents, had two hundred clerks processing policies). The only way to achieve both proximity and space, given downtown’s circumscribed terrain and sky-high land prices, was by thinking big and building tall. Before the war, five-stories was the rule, and commercial life was carried on primarily at ground level—in streets and showrooms, at sales counters, on exchange floors. After the war, office buildings went vertical, climbing to unprecedented heights—six stories, seven, eight. “Our business men are building up to the clouds,” one newsman exclaimed.

The elevator made this possible. Lift technology had improved since the vertical screw used at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Now the “steam and drum” method was available. Steel wire cables were run over a drum at the top of the shaft, which was then revolved to raise or lower the cab. An alternative model hauled the cage up and down the shaft by looping its wire cable over a pulley, then attaching a wrought-iron bucket almost as weighty as the cage. When filled with water from a tank, the bucket descended by gravity, pulling the cage up. At the bottom, an operator emptied the bucket, shifting the weight balance in favor of the cage, which then descended and pulled the bucket back up.


The “Metropolitan Steam Safely Elevator” in Lord and Taylor’s store at Broadway and 20th Street. (Courtesy of Otis Elevator)

Elevators made upper floors profitable, bringing in the rents required to offset the rising cost of land. Directors of Equitable Life were skeptical of consulting-engineer George Post’s plans to make their proposed seven-and-a-half-story headquarters at Broadway and Cedar into New York’s first office structure with steam passenger elevators. They were reassured somewhat when the young man rented an upper-floor suite of offices at twice the market value to demonstrate his confidence. Two months after it opened in 1870, Equitable easily leased out the fifty upper story rooms to financial and legal firms, and four months later Post sold his lease for a profit of six thousand dollars. Multitudes came to ride the iron-framed building’s elevators to see the panoramic view afforded by this first example of what in time would be called a skyscraper.

Tall buildings raised stylistic problems, and possibilities too. Many owners played it safe, commissioning structures modeled on the commercial palazzos of the 1850s. A more adventurous solution was to make the building “modern” by topping it with a mansard (or “French”) roof. This transformed “Italianate” into “Second Empire,” drawing on the cachet of Napoleon Ill’s France and the elegance of Haussmann’s Paris. Continental Life introduced the mansard roof to the business district at 100-102 Broadway; New York Life Insurance Company followed suit; and Mutual, to stay in vogue, was forced to call John Kellum back to add two mansarded stories.


The Second Empire solution was also adopted by the federal government for its new post office, which went up in City Hall Park in 1875. The tremendous increase in business correspondence, the emergence of the railroad mail car, and Congress’s approval of free urban delivery in 1863 had channeled staggering amounts of mail into the metropolitan area. Some six million letters were delivered locally in fiscal year 1867-68 alone, despite complaints that it was easier to get mail to Boston than to Gramercy Park. The post office was still headquartered in the dark, overcrowded, seventeenth-century Middle Dutch Church on Nassau Street, where it had moved in 1845. So when Alfred B. Mullet was asked to build a new central post office he thought big and raised a colossal Second Empire structure in City Hall Park; widely hated for overshadowing City Hall itself, it was contemptuously nicknamed “the Whale.”


Construction of the new Post Office, Harper’s Weekly, October 23, 1869. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

A more revolutionary architectural development lay two blocks south, at Broadway and Dey, where, in 1872, the cornerstone was laid for what was about to become the nation’s tallest office building and home to the nation’s first continental-scale enterprise: Western Union. The company had done well in the war, receiving massive government subsidies and fourteen thousand miles of government-built lines, and in 1866 had merged with its leading rivals, using massive quantities of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s money, and relocated to New York City. Its virtual monopoly on national telegraphic communications gave Manhattan the technological wherewithal to monitor capital and commodity movements on a national scale and also helped triple the volume of messages between Manhattan and Europe by 1875. New York’s lock on the new information order was further secured with a December 1865 compact between Western Union and the Associated Press, in which each agreed not to patronize one another’s competitors or accept clients who did.

When Western Union commissioned construction of a nerve center to coordinate its over 12,600 offices—and to reflect its wealth and glory—it turned to Equitable’s George Post. The architect-engineer had several novel problems to solve, stemming from the building’s projected height, a hitherto unimaginable ten stories—notably the question of how to design surfaces lifted far beyond any street watcher’s ability to grasp them. Post opted for a tripartite organization that would become standard for tall towers. A massive base—required by masonry construction, which needed thicker walls to support additional higher stories—supported a shaft section, boldly striped with red pressed brick and granite. Atop this was perched a showpiece capital—a Renaissance palace—and a clock tower, which featured a ball, synchronized with the Naval Observatory in Washington, that fell precisely at noon, allowing mariners in the harbor to set their chronometers and ground-level businessmen to adjust their watches.

When completed in 1875, the Western Union building stood at 230 feet, featured one of the first hydraulic-gravity elevators, and had its own wells beneath the cellar, from which water could be pumped to the roof by steam pumps in case of fire. The office, which housed one hundred telegraph operators in the vast open reaches of the eighth floor, was open 24 hours a day and brilliantly illuminated through the night. New York had become a city at least part of which never slept.

The great newspapers too began to climb skyward. Most still congregated just east of City Hall Park amid a thicket of magazines, news agencies, job printers, type foundries, lithographers, engravers, bookbinders, stationers, and publishing houses. The day’s copy (much of it taken from the telegraph wires) was assembled at night, and the giant basement steam presses rumbled until the predawn hours. Newsboys, some of whom slept on nearby streets, picked up the still-warm sheets and began their sunrise deliveries. The newspapers, already voracious consumers of space, with their extensive staff and bulky presses, were also expanding rapidly. This dictated larger headquarters, for purposes of practicality and for competitive display.

James Gordon Bennett’s Herald hunched the process. When Barnum’s American Museum burned down in July of 1865—a spectacular blaze, which left a dead whale in the street for two days—Bennett decided to erect a showpiece building on its Broadway and Ann Street site. He selected architect John Kellum, who by 1867 had turned out another of the mansarded Second Empire structures that were now the rage.

Perhaps Bennett’s project, together with Oswald Ottendorfer’s construction of new quarters for his Staats Zeitung at the corner of Chatham and Tryon, inspired Greeley to outdo them all and trump even Western Union. He commissioned Richard Morris Hunt—the first American architect trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris—to raise an eleven-story mansarded building, the Tribune Tower, on the corner of Nassau and Spruce. Like Post, Hunt divided his granite and brick structure into an imposing base, a repetitious shaft, and a dramatic summit: a clock-campanile that, when completed in 1875, soared to 260 feet, now within nine yards of Trinity’s crown.


Some of Louis Napoleon and Baron Haussmann’s most dramatic interventions in the Parisian cityscape had been designed to integrate the French capital into the national rail network. Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose consolidated lines now connected the western heartland to the heart of Manhattan, similarly realized that to maximize his system’s efficiency, he (and his son William) would have to complement their rail building with city building.

Vanderbilt’s primary effort lay far uptown, where he decided to build a passenger terminal that would service both the Central and Hudson road (which ran down Tenth Avenue) and the Harlem and New Haven lines (which ran down Fourth Avenue to the shed at 26th Street). Ridership on the three roads had doubled in the 1860s, a function of increased suburban commuting and an increase in long-haul travelers, enticed by new luxuries such as through-ticketing, sleepers, diners, and parlor cars.

Neither existing terminal seemed suitable. Tenth was too far west, and 26th too far south, given that the city still required that any train running below 42nd Street be hauled by horsepower, not steam power. So Vanderbilt settled on Fourth Avenue and 42nd Street as a suitably central location. To make the East Side venue accessible to his West Side line, he had tracks laid along the north bank of the Harlem River from Spuyten Duyvil to Mott Haven. This allowed Hudson trains coming south from Albany to enter the city via the Harlem’s Fourth Avenue route.

Construction of Grand Central Depot began in 1869. It took two years and three million dollars to finish, a sum raised partly by selling off the old station at 26th Street, which was soon converted into the first Madison Square Garden. When the depot opened in 1871, the five-acre complex included a brick and granite neo-Renaissance station, twelve parallel tracks, and an immense iron vaulted shed, the largest enclosed space on the North American continent and a close runner-up to London’s St. Pancras as the biggest train station in the world.

After Grand Central Depot opened, a hundred trains rattled to and fro each day, creating such a din that Columbia College, near the tracks at 49th Street, couldn’t conduct classes. Under mounting pressure, Vanderbilt agreed to sink the tracks—if the city came up with half the six-million-dollar price tag. The municipality grumbled but paid, and by 1876 the tracks dropped below ground at 56th, not to emerge again until 96th. With his usual keen eye for developmental possibilities, Vanderbilt began buying up land cheaply along the still-unappealing Fourth Avenue—the future Park Avenue.

Way downtown, meanwhile, Vanderbilt was building a new freight terminal for the Central and Hudson. He purchased the once exclusive suburb of St. John’s Park from Trinity Church and its co-owners for a million dollars. In its place he erected a massive three-story granite structure, topped with a 150-foot bronze pediment memorializing his achievements on land and sea, featuring a giant statue of himself. (“As a work of art,” grumbled George Templeton Strong after the 1868 opening, “it is bestial.”)

The new terminal revolutionized the Lower West Side. An enormous complex of grain depots, stockyards, and stables arose along the waterfront. Here, also, midwestern cattle, sheep, and hogs—fifteen thousand head each week—were dispatched in efficient new assembly-line abattoirs and dressed for transshipment to European markets.

The transport complex acted as like an enormous magnet, pulling wholesalers and related businesses west from old haunts near the East River seaport. Access to the national rail grid had already transformed commercial relations between New York and the interior. Before the war, rural shopkeepers had made semiannual pilgrimages to Manhattan to purchase imported consumer goods for the coming season at Pearl Street auction houses. With the spread of rail and telegraph links, the city went to the countryside instead. Wholesale merchants—jobbers—bought goods en masse from manufacturers; unlike the old commission merchants, jobbers actually took title to the commodities, pleasing manufacturers, who no longer had to await a final sale for payment. Then merchants like A. T. Stewart and H. B. Claflin established nationwide sales networks of “drummers.” In the late forties such men had drummed up business from country merchants lodged at Broadway hotels. Now they swarmed west and south, displaying samples, reporting back on changing demand. Rural stores and urban shops then wired in orders to jobbers, who dispatched shipments immediately to the buyer’s doorstep, no longer constrained by the seasons. The same rail-and-wire system would make it feasible for rival jobbers to emerge in the midwestern cities themselves, and soon Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis would be major dissemination centers in their own right.

Many mercantile establishments fled the venerable East Side slips. South Street would remain the port’s ground zero, but wholesalers, express companies, packing-box firms, and dry-goods commission merchants set up shop on the West Side near the freight depot. Economical and efficient cast-iron warehouses, equipped with the newest in freight elevators and “modelled after the sumptuous palaces of Italy,” went up due west of City Hall and then north to Canal, and on into today’s SoHo. These new warehouses—over two hundred went up in the Fifth Ward alone in the postwar decade—quickly filled with midwestern farm staples, New England manufactured products, and luxury goods from Europe and East Asia.

Other wholesalers followed the dry-goods giants. The city’s hardware district had migrated from upper Pearl to Chambers by 1877, and the iron shops from lower Broadway to Washington and West. Only the leather-goods traders remained in their ancient territory: the Swamp (bounded by Beekman, Gold, Frankfort, and the East River). Workshops too tagged along. Processing and consumer-finishing manufactories flourished, finishing goods that moved in and out of the warehouses. Extra loft space was turned over to pieceworkers making boxes, notions, artificial flowers, or cigars.


The spread of warehouses and factories bumped fashionable retailers from Broadway below Houston northward toward Union Square. A. T. Stewart had pioneered this transition during the war, when he shifted operations from his Chambers Street Marble Palace to his New Store at Broadway and 9th Street. Now competitors overleaped him, spilling into Union Square itself and pressing on toward Madison Square.

Some department stores opted for Broadway. Arnold Constable remoored itself just north of Union Square, on Broadway at 19th Street in 1868, and Lord and Taylor soon resettled a block farther uptown, in an ornate cast-iron five-story structure, replete with steam elevators fined out with divans and plush carpets.

Others preferred Sixth Avenue, well serviced by horsecars. At 14th and Sixth, Rowland Macy expanded his original shop by taking over adjacent stores and adding departments rapidly. Macy, a close friend of P. T. Barnum, used his talent for publicity to draw clientele, producing thematic exhibits and fashioning elaborate Christmas extravaganzas that featured a store Santa and illuminated window displays, introduced in 1874. His competitors used architecture as publicity, erecting gigantic palaces of consumption. Majestic cast-iron frigates lined Sixth by the 1870s, including Hugh O’Neill’s Byzantine-style building, domed and painted yellow and burnt umber, along with Altaian’s, Best, and Stern Brothers, the latter a two-hundred-foot-wide, sevenstory monster on 23rd Street.

In the wake of these frigates sailed the sloops and schooners of retailing. Many moved into the basements and parlor floors of Union Square mansions and brownstones, none more than twenty years old, but vacated now by wealthy families fleeing north to Gramercy Park and Murray Hill. Silversmiths, dry-goods stores, confectionery shops, F. A. O. Schwarz, and W. and J. Sloane were among the newcomers. Tiffany’s purchased the Church of the Puritans, demolished it, and in 1870 had Kellum put up a cast-iron palace that boasted a storage vault where the affluent could leave their plate and jewels during the summer Saratoga season.


R. H. Macy’s store, corner of Sixth Avenue and Fourteenth Street, from Devorkin, Great Merchants of Early New York. (The Collection of Macy’s)

The cast-iron arcades and glass show windows attracted armies of shoppers, mainly women. Broadway and Sixth were choked with female-filled victorias, landaus, broughams, and coupes during afternoon hours, and the sidewalks thronged with elegantly attired women, promenading and perusing the windows. So emphatically female an area was eventually dubbed the Ladies’ Mile. The women were served by armies of salesclerks, mainly male (though increasing numbers were female), whose lot was a difficult one, as authoritarian management banned talking and imposed six-day weeks and lengthy hours. During Christmas, when Macy’s stayed open till eleven, male clerks would often not bother going home but curl up in their bluish-gray uniforms and sleep on the counters.


As department stores relocated to the Union-Madison Square area, another flock of northwardly migrating institutions, the city’s theaters, were touching down in the same terrain. Theaters and emporiums coexisted amicably, in part because each increasingly resembled the other. Stores had a new dramatic flair, and theaters, induced by new opportunities out west, adopted the latest marketing techniques.

Railroads wrought a revolution in the New York stage. For over a century, the basic unit of theatrical business had been the stock company. A Broadway or Bowery manag­er—often a prominent actor—would buy a theater, equip it with sets and costumes, and engage a resident company to perform plays in repertory. Such companies did survive in the postwar world. Lester Wallack’s theater, on Broadway and 13th Street, was considered by many the finest stock company in town, and it offered a steady diet of British Restoration comedies and the occasional romantic melodrama. Edwin Booth, who had retired temporarily after his brother John Wilkes assassinated Lincoln, returned to the New York stage in 1866 to thunderous ovations. He used his profits to open Booth’s Theater on Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street, a technologically sophisticated and magnificently florid Second Empire temple to Shakespeare. Another prewar giant fared less well: the younger generation wrote off Edwin Forrest as a “ranter,” and he gave his final New York performance in 1871.

Stock companies themselves were on the way out, along with the minstrel outfits. The future lay with the “combination” system. A star or manager would pull together an ensemble for a single play. It would showcase in New York, then take to the road on the new rail networks and tour the country. When the run was over, the company disbanded, and the promoter reinvested his profits (if any) in another New York production. The city had become a manufacturer of dramatic commodities.

This transformation of the entertainment industry affected the theater district’s location and structure. Before the war, playhouses had been beaded along Broadway and the Bowery, with the Academy of Music on 14th Street at the apex. Now entrepreneurs—drawn by the crowds of shoppers in Ladies’ Mile—opened playhouses between Union and Madison squares, along Broadway and Sixth Avenue, with the idea of renting them out for the length of a booked run.

The new combination system also required a complex array of support services. Since the tools of the theatrical trade—costumes, props, scenery—were no longer owned by each house, they had to be rented for each particular performance. Specialized businesses met the need, beginning with the Eaves Costume Company, formed by a former actor, which furnished wigs and beards, boots and shoes, tights and swords.

Actors too had to be assembled on a show-by-show basis. At first this was done in an impromptu way, with deals cut on benches in Union Square (known to some as the “slave market”) or in nearby restaurants. Then professional talent brokers emerged, theatrical agents who mediated between actors and impresarios. They too set up offices around the square (the first being the Simmonds and Wall Dramatic Agency in 1875). To stay near the action, hundreds of young actors settled into theatrical boardinghouses nearby.

Actors aiming for the big time, and stars who kept their image brightly burnished, both turned to stage photographers like Napoleon Sarony, who opened his famous Union Square studio in 1871. Here actors posed in costume, with arresting props, before painted backgrounds, while the “father of artistic photography” worked his flamboyant magic, deepening New York’s capacity to manufacture “celebrities.”

Publicity was crucial to theaters, and the increased competition spawned a flourishing poster and playbill business. This in turn boosted the theatrical printing industry, which also turned out tickets, which were hawked by scalpers who wandered the Rialto crying, “I have seats in the front!” Printers ran off new trade newspapers, which covered the drama industry, playscripts, in great demand out in the country, and sheet music, for sale to middle-class families with parlor pianos, likely purchased at Steinway’s Union Square showroom.

Trade papers, scripts, and music alike were also sold at the bookstores that clustered in the Rialto. Agosto Brentano, a Sicilian immigrant, had for years run a newspaper stand in front of the New York Hotel. In 1860, gambling his earnings, he bought in bulk an issue of the London Timesrecounting the Heenan-Sayer fight. With the windfall profits he garnered selling these to sporting men, Brentano opened a larger stand in Union Square. After amassing capital selling foreign and domestic papers, he branched into books and playscripts, opening Brentano’s Literary Emporium in 1876. It became a popular rendezvous for the theatrical elite, as did specialty shops like Gustave Schirmer’s and Samuel French and Son; another favorite haunt was the Lambs Club (1874), which met in restaurants around Union Square.

Rialto restaurants also drew evening crowds of theatergoers and men-about-town. Many local oyster and chop houses—like Shakespeare Inn and Browne’s Greenroom—were opened by actors. Italian restaurants catered to Italian singers from the Academy of Music. As ever, the preeminent establishment was the ever prescient Delmonico’s at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street, where it hosted champagne and canvasback dinner parties—pre and après the theater—for wealthy patrons of Wallack’s and the Academy of Music. In 1876, sensing another impending shift in the center of theatrical gravity, Delmonico’s closed its 14th Street operation and moved to sumptuous quarters at 26th Street.


Lower Manhattan had emerged as a well-oiled business machine, whose discrete parts related synergistically. Capital, legal expertise, trade information, wholesale goods had easy access to one another. Commodities flowed smoothly from train station to warehouse to workshop to emporium or harbor. But while the marketplace had in many respects reordered the cityscape to meet the needs of the new economic order in a rational way, vexing irrationalities remained.

Nowhere were these more manifest than in the streets. As property values rose, and buildings rose with them, more people and goods were accommodated in the commercial quarters. As a result, traffic levels—chaotic enough before the war—now approached the point of paralysis. Costly paralysis, the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide noted, as it forced merchants “to pay as much for the removal of a load from Courtlandt to Canal street as is required to bring it from Chicago to New York.” When to gridlock were added spectacular accumulations of garbage—filth that sometimes reached knee level—the judgment of the Evening Post that “New York is the most inconveniently arranged commercial city in the world” was uncomfortably close to the mark.

Some of the disarray was a consequence of success: the terrific increase in flow of bulky agricultural goods, fuel, and manufactured products. Much of the muck followed, from the still-unavoidable reliance on horses—forty thousand of them, who each working day generated some four hundred tons of manure, twenty thousand gallons of urine, and almost two hundred carcasses—exacerbated by municipal incompetence and corruption in garbage removal. Some difficulties stemmed from cramming a nineteenth-century economy into a seventeenth-century matrix of narrow and crooked former cowpaths. Others were the fault of the grid’s blithe disregard of Manhattan’s topography, or actual exacerbation of its shortcomings, as in emphasizing north-south arteries over east-west river-to-river connections. (Only Fulton Street spanned the lower island, and it perforce slammed head on into the torrent of eighteen thousand vehicles that daily made their way up and down Broadway, to say nothing of the flood of pedestrian shoppers.)

Some of the problems reflected limits of the era’s technology. The city did replace cobblestones in Broadway, Wall, and West streets, among other key arteries, but replacements were not necessarily improvements. With asphalt still decades away, Department of Public Works officials relied on the “Belgian” method of setting granite blocks in sand. The slabs were durable (if horrifically noisy), but as they shifted in their foundations they produced a jarring, undulating ride; “carriages,” reported one French visitor, “appear to rise and fall as if on a troubled sea.”

Much of the difficulty lay in the inability to bring concerted public power to bear on the issue. Many of the city’s business leaders, public officials, and journalists—thoroughly disgusted with the effects of the preceding generation’s laissez-faire policies—clamored for a sustained and systematic approach to coordinating essential improvements in the built environment. “NO PIECEMEAL IMPROVEMENT WANTED,” blared the Guide in 1870: “What is wanted is one, general, comprehensive plan for . . . the thoroughfares of the whole city.” But the resistance of property holders to any constraints on short-term profitability, and the tremendous number of interested and competing parties, few if any of whom were willing to subordinate their interests to some larger vision, raised insurmountable obstacles to reform.

The docks provided a particularly egregious case in point. Thrown up in slipshod manner during the prewar boom, then neglected and abused, by the mid-1860s fewer than 10 percent were in good or fair repair. Docks periodically collapsed from the weight of merchandise piled high on rotting timbers or were swept away by the current. Wharves were too short and narrow for the era’s larger vessels and increased volume. They lacked such modern improvements as the steam-powered hoists commonplace at seaports in Europe, along the eastern seaboard, and across the East River. Unsheltered and unsecured, they were subject to weather, fire, and theft.

Ship captains could wait a week to land cargoes; without paying bribes, they could wait forever. Municipal piers adhered to the strategy of underpricing rivals by keeping rents and wharfage costs low, but this failed to generate enough income to maintain, much less upgrade, them. Regulation was inconsistent or absent and occasionally perverse: the Albany legislature, to boost the toll-earning capacity of the state’s waterway system, reserved the lower East River for its canal boat fleet, which clogged the piers around Coenties Slip, hindering deliveries of western grain.

Shipping continued to slip away to Brooklyn’s modernized facilities. Following the huge financial success of the Atlantic Docks, extensive waterfront improvements flowered after the war. The vast Erie Basin complex at Red Hook sped barged-in grain to Liverpool steamers using steam-driven elevators. Public works complemented private metamorphoses, transforming Wallabout Bay marshlands into the Kent Basin municipal docks. From Main Street to Red Hook Point, three thousand vessels (not counting canal boats) tied up each year, disgorging molasses, sugar, coffee, hides, and wool into the burgeoning warehouse districts and grain into elevators capable of storing fifteen million bushels.

Frustrated Manhattan merchants cried out for port improvements. For a city that had “a whole country tributary to its power, a whole nation concerned in its welfare,” said the Citizens Association, it was astonishing how little New York had done “to improve the commercial advantages which nature affords.” The group sponsored a meeting of indignant merchants in 1867, which proposed formation of a state Harbor Commission to unite the Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts. Other merchants, shipowners, and marine insurers formed a New York Pier and Warehouse Company to build and lease a complex of stone quays, iron piers, and dockside stores with steam hoists and railheads.

The rise of Tweed’s Democracy scuttled these plans—the machine was not willing to forego the patronage possibilities inherent in waterfront development—but Tammany proposed an even more ambitious agenda of publicly sponsored and planned development.1 Tweed’s 1870 charter created a strong, centralized, municipal Department of Docks, which sent engineers to London and Liverpool to study current approaches and commissioned General George C. McClellan to design a master plan. McClellan proposed a waterfront revamping similar to Tweed’s projected Viaduct Railway in grandeur and potential cost. It called for ringing the riverside, from the Upper West Side round to Corlear’s Hook, with a massive masonry bulkhead, a grand waterfront highway, and a uniform system of piers, with all private wharves to be absorbed by the city.

Some land acquisitions began in 1872, but the project soon slowed to a crawl. Owners of waterfront property, including some of wealthiest men in New York City, fought the project. Transport magnates like Vanderbilt lobbied hard to be given control of dock improvements, but rivals and concerned merchants blocked that initiative too. Other merchants agitated for complete deregulation rather than municipalization. In the end, the multitudinous shipowners, wharf owners, insurance firms, canal interests, rail lines, ferry companies, real estate promoters, wholesalers, and assorted corporations and individuals were utterly unable to agree on a collective solution. The very diversity of competing forces led to stalemate.

And worse. Land values stagnated along the East River waterfront, reflecting the rapid decline of the East Side shipyards and the rise of superior portside facilities in Brooklyn and New Jersey. Low-cost land attracted space-hungry industrial users—breweries, stables, refineries, grain and construction mills, coalyards—which further devalued the area, leading to disinvestment and accelerating squalor. The result was a downtown landscape that, for all its efficiencies and its lucrative centers of finance, communication, wholesaling, and retailing, coexisted with an inefficient public sphere and decaying, overcrowded communities.

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