Before Urban Renewal

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New York during the Revolution was, a loyalist wrote, “a most dirty, desolate and wretched place.” And indeed it was. No other American city suffered as much from the war. It had been dug up by Americans for defense, shelled by British warships, ravaged by two severe fires, looted by enemy soldiers, even denuded of its trees for firewood. More than half its citizens had fled when the British began their seven-year occupation in the fall of 1776. Yet, astonishingly, by the turn of the century New York was on the threshold of becoming the largest city in the new Republic. By then it had already been—briefly, to be sure—both the nation’s first capital and the capital of New York State. The number of its inhabitants had swollen from thirty-three thousand at the time of the first federal census in 1790 to sixty thousand in 1800 and to ninety-six thousand in 1810. Landfills joined new streets by the waterfront to the once-meandering cow paths of Dutch New Amsterdam. Spurred by the population growth, residents moved northward. In the spring of l8l0 alone, more than six hundred stores and dwellings were being erected, and the next year the city fathers adopted a street system that led eventually to the later famous grid plan above the city’s early settlements. It was during this spurt of activity that an obviously self-taught amateur painter named William Chappel did twentyfour known oil paintings of city life. On the back of each is a title or brief caption, but whether Chappel wrote them is not certain. Little is known about the artist, though one can surmise that he lived and worked on the Lower Last Side, for his paintings are limited to scenes along the East River, in the Wall Street area and in what was called the Out Ward—sections of the city that were inhabited for the most part by laborers, shopkeepers, and tradesmen. But despite what little record he left of himself, Chappel did bequeath tous an image of New York as it once was, a city that, as an English visitor wrote in 1807, “is the finest and most agreeable.…”

—N.B.