new york becomes the marvel of the world -- 12/08/17

Today's selection -- from The Unexpected President by Scott S. Greenberger. A mere seven decadesafter the United States gained independence, New York City had already ascended to become the marvel of the world. But half of its children never reached the age of six:

"By ... 1853, English visitors marveled that Broad­way's stores and hotels were 'more like the palaces of kings than places for the transaction of business.' Scarlet and yellow omnibuses thundered up and down Broadway, the biggest fish in a river pulsing with private car­riages, hotel stagecoaches, two-horse hackneys, and carts and wagons piled high with merchandise. ...

"There were hundreds of oyster cellars, coffee houses, ice cream saloons, and restaurants on Broadway, but 'the most superb of these,' ...many ... believed, was on the corner of Broadway and Franklin Street. At a time when most eateries were reserved for men, Taylor's Saloon was known as a mecca for lady shoppers, who made the rounds of Broadway's fashion­able stores wearing costly silks and rich brocades that swept the sidewalks like so many dustmen. ...

Thomas Horner, "Broadway, New York" 1836. 

"Clustered around Mercer Street, just west of Broadway, were gambling houses and brothels so 'open, free, and undisguised,' the Tribune noted sar­castically, that surely they could not be what they seemed. They had to be respectable, the paper declared, because 'they are frequently visited by gen­tlemen of the best standing ... such as aldermen, judges, lawyers, assem­blymen, state officers, country merchants and others.' ...

"And yet there was another side of New York, one that could be glimpsed by peering down Broadway's side streets, where pigs picked over rotten veg­etables and the detritus of modern life -- old hats without crowns, worn-out shoes, lidless flour barrels, and toppled earthenware jars full of coal ashes­ made it difficult for pedestrians to pass. On those streets, ragged women carried bundles of broken boards and old timbers from demolished build­ings, trailed by children loaded down with only slightly lighter burdens. Hobbled old men and shoeless scrawny girls in filthy cotton frocks carried cedar pails filled with ears of corn, crying to tempt well-dressed New Yorkers with their plaintive cries of 'Hot corn! Here's your nice hot corn -- smoking hot, smoking hot, just from the pot!'

Tenement life in New York -- sketches in "Bottle Alley" (1879)

"Many of the vagrant children who wandered lower Manhattan -- an estimated three thousand of them in 1850 -- survived by scavenging or selling fruits, nuts, or petty merchandise. Others stole from stores or the docks, or became pickpockets or junior mem­bers of adult gangs. In 1851, a fourth of the 16,000 criminals sent to City Prison were younger than 21 -- eight hundred were younger than 15 and 175 were younger than 10. To many New Yorkers, the specter of young girls living on the streets was especially horrifying. 'No one can walk the length of Broadway,' George Templeton Strong wrote in 1851, 'without meeting some hideous troop of ragged girls, from 12 years old down, brutalized be­yond redemption by premature vice, clad in the filthy refuse of the rag pick­er's collections, obscene of speech, the stamp of childhood gone from their faces, hurrying along with harsh laughter and foulness on their lips ... with thief written in their cunning eyes and whore on their depraved faces.'

"Many of the poorest New Yorkers were recent immigrants -- by 1850, nearly half of the city's residents had been born overseas. The newcomers, most of them Irish and German, were packed into squalid, suffocating tene­ments in slums such as Five Points, where cholera, typhus, and tuberculosis were rampant and the murder rate was the highest in the Western world. ...

"Then there was the smell. The horses of New York -- some 22,500 pulled the city's omnibuses and streetcars, and individual households owned many more -- left steaming tons of manure in the streets. ... Poor sanitation contributed to periodic cholera outbreaks; during an epidemic in 1849, one out of every hundred New Yorkers perished. But even in years without cholera, the mor­tality rate was extraordinarily high: fewer than half of the children born in the city in the 1850s survived to the age of six."



Scott S. Greenberger


The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur


Da Capo Press


Copyright 2017 by Scott S. Greenberger


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