- Historic Sites
Is it really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Once upon a time, before the bureaucratic society, before modern war and technology, there was a very different world, and not so long ago. Let us revisit, picking at random, the year
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
The cities are swelling, and over 15 per cent of Americans now live in them, against 5 per cent in 1790. The biggest are New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and New Orleans, in that order. They swarm with horsecars and omnibuses, and most of them have some sort of water supply, but the disposal of garbage and sewage is only rudimentary. Hogs and mongrel dogs prey on the refuse, and in many places one walks ankle-deep in mud. Disease in epidemic form—cholera, yellow fever, typhus, smallpox— swoops down occasionally, with fearful results in this day of primitive medicine. Not a single microbe has been identified. In Boston, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes remarks that “if the whole materia medica as now used could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.”
But the people keep pouring in. New York is pressing northward; the Vanderbilts, fugitives from the expanding commercial district, are building uptown, near Thirty-fourth Street. (The Astor country estate is at Eighty-eighth Street, near the East River.) Park Row is the main shopping street, and Broadway between Broome and Spring streets is the grand carriage drive and promenade. Here is the opulent St. Nicholas Hotel, which has quite eclipsed the old Astor House farther downtown. Fifth Avenue is cut through now north of Twenty-third Street, but it still resembles a country road; on Sundays people drive out along it to visit the Croton Reservoir, at Forty-second Street. Farther east on Forty-second Street is a shantytown called Dutch Hill, where immigrant laborers live, and there are other such settlements among the farms and woods and country places north of Fiftieth Street. But there is a grand design afoot that will transform a large section of this nondescript wilderness into a great Central Park. Two and one-half miles long and a half mile wide, handsomely landscaped, it is to cost some nine million dollars. No other city can boast of anything like this!
Everything about New York seems to be superlative; its new millionaires, its mansions, its gala balls, its hotels, its wonderful Barnum museum, its theatres, its galaxy of races, its beautiful ladies, its killing pace. Nothing matches its venal politics either, or its crime, which reaches dizzy heights in the Five Points, the worst of all the city’s slum areas. Here are streets like Cow Bay and Murderer’s Alley, and policemen, for protection, walk in pairs between the grogshops, the tenements, and the headquarters of thieves and prostitutes (in this area, any girl over twelve). Here power rests in the hands of a gang of hoodlums called the Dead Rabbits, who spend their nights in battle with such rival gangs from other wards as the infamous Bowery Boys, or the Plug Uglies. The sketch artists of the times spread the likenesses of those colorful troublemakers about the country; songs celebrate their lootings, their arsons, their robberies, and their internecine wars. Hung about with brass knuckles, guns, razors, knives, bits of iron pipe, and other concealed weapons, they are neither rabbitlike nor boyish. But only a rube inquires how they can continue to flourish.
The leaders of all these gangs are members of Tammany Hall, whose chieftain at this time is dapper, handsome Fernando Wood, a fashion plate of a man with his snappy clothes and drooping black mustache. He has elected himself mayor and allows the profitable business of crime to proceed unchecked. Is New York a den of vice? When a bishop later proclaims that there are as many prostitutes in New York as there are Methodists, the city administration sniggers. Why, says the commissioner of police, here are the statistics; only 621 houses of prostitution, 99 houses of assignation, and a mere 75 “concert saloons of ill repute”! (At these houses lights burn in tinted bowls, usually red, illuminating the name of the establishment or its proprieter: Flora, Lizzie, The Gem, Sinbad the Sailor. One proprietor keeps a Bible in every room. The Seven Sisters is more elegant and has no sign, but visitors in the better hotels receive its engraved card in their mail.) The commissioner, of course, is not discussing Five Points girls, or streetwalkers. Who can count them?
This year, after a number of particularly blatant murders and lethal riots, the Republican legislature amends the city charter, takes the police power away from Wood, and sets up a new Metropolitan Police, to be run by the governor. But Wood will not give up so easily and, by maneuvering in the courts, stalls off disbanding his bluecoats. Thus there are two rival forces and soon a pitched battle between them, broken up only by the Army. This situation continues all summer, until the gangs take advantage of police inattention to stage a general riot, which engulfs half of lower Manhattan and leaves many casualties on the streets before the rival constables at last unite and, supported by the regiments of militia, beat the criminals back into their slums. But the evil has not been cured.