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Humanities and Social Sciences Library > Collections & Reading Rooms > Print Collection > MOVING UPTOWN

Section VI (Urban woes)

Urban Woes

Although the city was growing and prospering, there were many who did not share in the wealth and the optimism. By the 1850s, the Daily Tribune observed that "underneath this gay varnish of wealth, luxury and prosperity, there is an abyss of poverty and destitution, whence issue ominous though subdued moanings of discontent and misery."

As early as 1829, the Five Points area (the intersection of Mulberry, Anthony [now Worth], Cross [now Park], Orange [now Baxter], and Little Water [no longer exists]), approximately at what is now Foley Square, was considered "the most dangerous place in the city." Located on a marshy landfill on the site of Collect Pond, miserable, overcrowded, and filthy buildings bred disease (one-third of all the cholera cases in the 1832 outbreak occurred here) and crime. The slums spread beyond the Sixth Ward near Mulberry Bend, and during the 1840s and 1850s moved north past Grand Street on to Delancey, Rivington, Stanton, past Houston, and into the numbered streets around Tompkins Square. In 1857 the Herald predicted, "the destiny of all the east side of the island seems to be as an abiding place for the poor."

The Old Brewery at the Five Points N.Y. 1852

Charles Parsons (American, 1821–1910)
for Endicott and Company (American lithographic firm, 1852–86)
Tinted lithograph
Eno Collection

The most infamous site in the Five Points district was the "Old Brewery," a rotting frame building that allegedly housed as many as 1,200 people. Streets surrounding the Old Brewery were named "Murderers' Alley" and "The Den of Thieves," and by mid-century a number of Irish gangs with such picturesque names as the "Plug Uglies," "Dead Rabbits," and "Roach Guards" controlled the area.

In 1852, the Ladies Home Missionary Society purchased the Old Brewery and replaced it with the Five Points Mission –a chapel and parsonage, school house, a bathing room, and dwellings for poor families. But before the Old Brewery was demolished, the Society offered tours of the squalid building. These tours and an increasing number of newspaper exposés on tenement conditions provided middle-class citizens with vivid evidence of the terrible poverty that existed in New York.

The Five Points in 1859

Tinted lithograph, from D. T. Valentine's Manuals of the Corporation of the City of New York, 1860
Emmet Collection

Housing was an ongoing problem in the mid-19th century. Walt Whitman complained that "nothing" was being built in New York "between a palatial mansion and a dilapidated hovel," and the Times in 1865 reported, "New York furnishes the worst place of residence of any city in America."

Between 1820 and 1860, the population of lower Manhattan had changed considerably as the number of European immigrants quadrupled. Large numbers of primarily Irish and German immigrants arrived to join free blacks who lived mostly in the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Wards. Most settled not far from the docks where they arrived, and close to where they worked in the shipyards, abbatoirs, factories, textile and tobacco industries. Work had to be close to home; on a salary of $1.75 a week, a standard wage, even a 12 1/2 cent carfare was expensive.

To accommodate the flood of new citizens, private homes, churches and breweries south of Canal Street were being converted to low-rent, multiple residences (rookeries) –dark, cramped, airless apartments –which served as models for the tenements which followed. In the 1830s and 1840s, large tenement neighborhoods grew up in the area between Fulton Street and Corlear's Hook on the Lower East Side as well as in the Five Points District. Landlords not only crowded more than one family into a single room, they also rented out cellars (in 1850, nearly 19,000 people lived below street level), and built buildings in the yards behind buildings

Some of the conditions existing in the Five Points District were addressed by the first Tenement Home Law (1867), which required that buildings be equipped with fire ladders, that there be a privy for every 20 tenants, and that there be connections between inside rooms and those that received outside air.

In spite of the neighborhood's terrible poverty and reputation, artifacts of domestic life –tea sets, pins and thimbles, and fabric swatches –uncovered recently during construction of a new federal courthouse on Foley Square, suggest that many of the area's residents clearly were hard-working citizens. .

The Residence of Wm. B. Crosby Esqr. Rutgers Place New-York. About 1835

Mesier's Lithography (Peter A. and Edward S. Mesier; American lithographic firm, active first half of the 19th century)
The Phelps Stokes Collection

The history of the Crosby house on Rutgers Place (Cherry, Jefferson, Monroe, and Clinton streets on the Lower East Side) is a typical story of a changing neighborhood. Originally the country residence of Hendrik Rutgers (many of the descendants of the original Dutch settlers owned land along the Bowery), the property was purchased in 1830 by William Crosby, who renovated the estate at a time when the streets along the East River, north of Franklin Square, were graced with handsome residences: homes for shopkeepers, craftsmen, merchants, and ship's captains. In the 1840s, the Lower East Side neighborhood changed; the middle class moved out and the poor, particularly immigrants, moved in, as homes were turned into boardinghouses or replaced by tenements to accommodate them. In 1860, the Crosby heirs sold the property to a cooper, who stripped the house and filled the garden 70 feet high with barrels. When he, in turn, sold the house in 1872, it was razed and supplanted by tenements and sweatshops.

Lunatic Asylum, New York. 1834

James Smillie (American, b. Scotland, 1807–1885)
after Robert W. Weir (American, 1803–1889)
Etching and engraving, from The New-York Mirror
Eno Collection

Although New York was slow to acknowledge poverty and other social ills, the city provided some services for the ill and unfortunate, and maintained a penal system. Whether hospital, almshouse, or jail (and often these organizations were housed together), the institutions were usually located away from the rest of the community, relegated to an area north of the city or to an island off of Manhattan.

Bloomingdale Insane Asylum of New York Hospital was opened on Broadway and 116th Street in 1821 (earlier the mentally ill had been treated at New York Hospital at Anthony [now Duane] and Catharine [now Worth] streets), guided by new European practices of enlightened "moral treatment." When this facility became overcrowded, the poor patients were sent to Bellevue, and later to a mental hospital on Blackwell's Island (1839).

As real estate interests developed the Upper West Side in the 1880s, pressure was exerted on the governors of New York Hospital to relocate the Asylum. In 1894, the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum moved to White Plains. The site of the asylum is now part of Columbia University.

Deaf and Dumb Asylum [New York School for the Deaf]. About 1830

Eno Collection

The New York School for the Deaf opened in 1818 in the city almshouse, the second institution of its kind in the United States; in 1829 the organization moved to a new building on the south side of 50th Street, between Fourth and Fifth avenues. This innovative school used a French method of instruction that relied upon sign language. The success of some of the advanced students, who took college preparatory classes, led to the establishment of the first college for the deaf, now known as Gallaudet University.

The New York School for the Deaf and other less "genteel" institutions, including hospitals, mental hospitals, prisons, and almshouses, usually were located on the fringes of the community; in 1829, the area around the present Rockefeller Center was well north of the city. By 1856, as the population expanded north (and real estate values skyrocketed), the Deaf and Dumb Asylum relocated to Washington Heights; Columbia College moved from Park Place to 50th Street in 1857.

Bellevue Hospital

Wood engraving
Emmet Collection

In 1794, the city purchased a building on 26th Street and First Avenue to house victims of epidemics, and 150 acres (from 23rd to 28th streets, from the East River to Second Avenue) were set aside in 1811 for an almshouse, Bellevue Establishment. In 1825, the hospital served mostly epidemic victims, but also accommodated the poor, criminals, and the mentally ill. By mid-century, conditions in the institution were so deplorable that the hospital separated from the almshouse, and was reorganized solely as a hospital.

Alms House Buildings, Blackwells Island. About 1853

"ER" [artist unidentified]
Eno Collection

The city set up the first publicly financed almshouse as early as 1736, and in 1832 established an Alms House Department, which was guided by the belief that problems of health, housing, and unemployment were caused by moral deficiencies, and could be redressed by hard work, thrift, and temperance. Bellevue included a large almshouse, and about mid-century, Blackwell's Island (later Welfare Island, now Roosevelt Island) became the site of an almshouse and workhouse, at about the same time as almshouses were established in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. Commissioners complained that these facilities were strained by the numbers of immigrants; between 1854 and 1860, about 86 percent of the almshouse population was foreign-born.

Penitentiary Blackwell's Island. About 1853
Etching and engraving
Eno Collection

In 1836, a penitentiary opened on Blackwell's Island. By 1860, in addition to the prison, there were an almshouse, workhouse, and three hospitals, including a mental institution, on the island.

Ward's Island Buildings, N.Y. 1860

George Hayward (American, b. England, about 1800; active 1834–72)
Lithograph, from D. T. Valentine's Manuals of the Corporation of the City of New York
Eno Collection

Wards Island, at the northern end of the East River, housed a hospital for destitute immigrants, an immigration station, and the City Asylum (later to become Manhattan State Hospital and then the Manhattan Psychiatric Center), and in 1850 was the site of a home for juvenile delinquents.

View of the Quarantine Grounds and Buildings, Staten Island, May, 1858

George Hayward (American, b. England, about 1800; active 1834–72)
Lithograph, from D. T. Valentine's Manuals of the Corporation of the City of New York, 1859
Emmet Collection

In 1799, against local protest, the State of New York moved the quarantine station for passengers and seamen with contagious diseases from Governors Island to the northeastern shore of Staten Island. When the station was to be expanded in 1857 and 1858, and again local objections were ignored, Staten Islanders burned the entire facility to the ground.

Staten Island also accommodated a number of less controversial institutions: Sailors' Snug Harbor and Seamen's Retreat, Mariners' Family Home, and the Society for Seamen's Children.