About VNY

New York in the early 1830s brimmed with energy. The harbor had been a thriving port since the 1700s, but the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 linking the city with the vast agricultural resources in the nation’s interior solidified New York’s centrality to the national economy. By the 1830s, nearly 250,000 people lived in New York City. Traders, bankers, speculators, shipbuilders, craftsmen, canal diggers, cart-pullers, and workers in the city's early manufacturing trades peopled an island still only sparsely settled above 14th Street. While the city was nowhere near the polyglot metropolis it would become over the next century, there were still significant and visible class and ethnic divisions within New York society.

One factor affecting the growth and increasing diversity of the city was immigration. In the 1830s New York City was in the process of attracting large numbers of poor Europeans, including a massive wave of Irish immigrants seeking relief from British colonial rule. (Between 1830 and 1850, the foreign-born population of New York grew from 9% to 46%.) Most Irish newcomers settled in and around the Five-Points neighborhood in the city's Sixth Ward. A high percentage of them practiced Catholicism, a fact that nurtured a simmering anti-Irish sentiment in the still overwhelmingly Protestant city. Many Americans viewed Irish Catholics, because of their loyalty to the Pope and strong communal ties with one another, as unsuitable candidates for participation in American democratic life. In addition, that many Irish immigrants came to New York without employment and had to scrounge for whatever low-paying work they could find further contributed to the sense of the Irish in New York as a depraved community.

A significant free-black population also existed in Manhattan, as well as in Brooklyn. Slaves had been held in New York through 1827, but during the 1830s New York became the center of interracial abolitionist agitation in the North. An active black middle-class pushed for African-American rights in the city, setting up free black schools, literary societies, newspapers, and orphanages. This segment of black New York remained tiny, however. In 1821 the New York State legislature decreed that black men could vote if they owned property worth more than $250. By 1835, only sixty-eight African Americans were registered to vote in the state out of more than forty-five thousand black residents. The vast majority of the 14,000 blacks in New York City were working-class, and settled in the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth wards.City commissioners had imposed a grid system on the city's landscape in 1811 that would organize all future economic and real estate development. Many artisans, craftsmen, and other small businessmen continued to live where they worked, near or above their shops in neighborhoods such as Corlear's Hook, the shipbuilding district in the Seventh Ward on the East Side. Wealthier New Yorkers, however, increasingly moved away from the congestion of the downtown trade and business districts to the more open land above Houston Street on the East and West sides, in the Ninth and Eleventh Wards. In many of these tonier neighborhoods, developers used restrictive covenants to prohibit certain types of businesses, and also proscribed the style and dimensions of buildings that could be constructed. This spread of settlement was both a product of and contributor to the booming economy of the 1830s. Merchants and bankers who profited from New York's growth poured money back into the local economy by hiring contractors and builders as settlement spread uptown.

Increasingly refined sections of the city emerged in proximity to neighborhoods defined by deepening poverty. Many New Yorkers who stayed in Manhattan’s lower wards as settlement spread north lived in crowded, dark apartments in buildings that were often converted churches, breweries, or single-family homes. Called "rookeries," such units were precursors of the tenements that dominated working-class housing in New York later in the century. Many uptown neighborhoods developed specific residential identities, while poorer areas continued to mix commerce and residences. The result was overcrowding — and not just of humans. Horses and scavenging pigs contributed to the "messiness" of the poorer wards, and the refuse left by such animals mixed with the noxious byproducts of local tanneries, slaughterhouses, and distilleries to dirty the streets and foul the air. Human waste was collected in privies (outhouses). Usually located behind or in the gaps between buildings, privies typically were shared by more than a dozen families, and almost always were overflowing. Municipal sanitation services were extremely limited, and African-American workers held the exclusive privilege of emptying privies for low wages. In summer months, the stench was overwhelming, and disease commonplace.

When disease hit the city, it invariably hit working-class neighborhoods the hardest. In an era before the transmission of communicable diseases was understood, this was read by genteel New Yorkers as further proof of the moral depravity of the working-classes. When cholera first hit New York City in late June 1832, understanding of the disease was filtered through this worldview, which also shaped the responses of city leaders to the outbreak.

The Many Meanings of Cholera