Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City. By Catherine McNeur

Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City. By Catherine McNeur New York in the years after 1815 experienced unprecedented growth. As buildings and populations surged northward on Manhattan Island, and as problems caused by incredible levels of pollution intensified, the municipal corporation proved largely unable to respond in ways that protected public health and the quality of life for most of its residents. Taming Manhattan largely follows Edward K. Spann’s characterization of the city’s government as a giant without direction, completely unprepared or unable to deal with the challenges of its rapid growth. This is an intelligent, well-researched, and well-written analysis of the efforts, largely unsuccessful, that elites and government officials took to address the city’s daunting environmental challenges. McNeur presents her analysis in five chapters, each tackling a different problem. Throughout, though, she is careful to delineate the ways solutions to each problem benefited one class, usually wealthy New Yorkers, and harmed others, principally African Americans and Irish immigrants. This is essentially the case in her first chapter, “Mad Dogs and Loose Hogs.” The case against free-ranging dogs was largely motivated by the fear of bites and rabies, which then was untreatable and often resulted in death. Many dogs were owned by immigrants, and others were the property of elite New Yorkers. In the sentimental literature of the day, dogs were becoming a component of the culture of domesticity, members of the family, that effectively halted regulations to capture and kill free-ranging animals. The many thousands of pigs, however, were largely the property of African American and Irish immigrant owners. The pigs patrolled the city’s streets, and consumed much of the uncollected garbage that sat for interminable periods on the sidewalk. But as elite New Yorkers argued, the pigs were a threat to public health, were an affront to genteel ladies walking on the city’s streets, and were a disgrace in a modern metropolis. Predictably, with the prohibition of loose pigs, the poor lost an essential source of protein in their diet and the sale value of their pigs, and again the elites won. Chapter 2, “Unequally Green,” examines a largely unstudied history of public space in Manhattan, the creation of private and public squares in the 1830s. McNeur adds significant new information on the development of projects including St. John’s Park, long ago transformed into the Manhattan entrance of the Holland Tunnel, Union Square, and the park in the Five Points that Gaslight Foster vilified as Regent’s Park. She again demonstrates sensitivity to class issues. Reliance on land speculation left enormous swaths of lower Manhattan, where many poor people lived, without a square foot of park space. These same themes, an acute awareness to the environmental consequences of the antebellum city as well as to the efforts of elites to address them and their impact on poorer residents, are evident in subsequent chapters on manure, the prevalence of swill milk (milk from cows fed with the offal of distilleries, which was thin, somewhat discolored, and has a significant alcohol content), fed to the city’s children, and a chapter entitled “Lungs of the City.” Taming Manhattan is an excellent book although not without flaws. First, the Croton water system allowed New Yorkers to drink, cook, and wash with clean water from Westchester, but the absence of a sewer system, installed in only rudimentary fashion almost two decades later, left Manhattan awash in runoff in the streets and in undeveloped land, including privies. In effect, for all of its manifest benefits, the Croton system created its own environmental problems. Second, McNeur devotes a chapter to cleaning New York’s air but leaves unexplained how the city, in an age when homes and businesses were heated with wood-burning stoves, disposed of those ashes. Ash heaps, at first located far from the built area of the city, proved to be a nuisance as the urban area expanded: the ash, without the density of clay or other soils, would settle and destabilize buildings. A chapter on ash could have added a nice dimension to this informative book. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Environmental History Oxford University Press

Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City. By Catherine McNeur

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com
ISSN
1084-5453
eISSN
1930-8892
D.O.I.
10.1093/envhis/emx152
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

New York in the years after 1815 experienced unprecedented growth. As buildings and populations surged northward on Manhattan Island, and as problems caused by incredible levels of pollution intensified, the municipal corporation proved largely unable to respond in ways that protected public health and the quality of life for most of its residents. Taming Manhattan largely follows Edward K. Spann’s characterization of the city’s government as a giant without direction, completely unprepared or unable to deal with the challenges of its rapid growth. This is an intelligent, well-researched, and well-written analysis of the efforts, largely unsuccessful, that elites and government officials took to address the city’s daunting environmental challenges. McNeur presents her analysis in five chapters, each tackling a different problem. Throughout, though, she is careful to delineate the ways solutions to each problem benefited one class, usually wealthy New Yorkers, and harmed others, principally African Americans and Irish immigrants. This is essentially the case in her first chapter, “Mad Dogs and Loose Hogs.” The case against free-ranging dogs was largely motivated by the fear of bites and rabies, which then was untreatable and often resulted in death. Many dogs were owned by immigrants, and others were the property of elite New Yorkers. In the sentimental literature of the day, dogs were becoming a component of the culture of domesticity, members of the family, that effectively halted regulations to capture and kill free-ranging animals. The many thousands of pigs, however, were largely the property of African American and Irish immigrant owners. The pigs patrolled the city’s streets, and consumed much of the uncollected garbage that sat for interminable periods on the sidewalk. But as elite New Yorkers argued, the pigs were a threat to public health, were an affront to genteel ladies walking on the city’s streets, and were a disgrace in a modern metropolis. Predictably, with the prohibition of loose pigs, the poor lost an essential source of protein in their diet and the sale value of their pigs, and again the elites won. Chapter 2, “Unequally Green,” examines a largely unstudied history of public space in Manhattan, the creation of private and public squares in the 1830s. McNeur adds significant new information on the development of projects including St. John’s Park, long ago transformed into the Manhattan entrance of the Holland Tunnel, Union Square, and the park in the Five Points that Gaslight Foster vilified as Regent’s Park. She again demonstrates sensitivity to class issues. Reliance on land speculation left enormous swaths of lower Manhattan, where many poor people lived, without a square foot of park space. These same themes, an acute awareness to the environmental consequences of the antebellum city as well as to the efforts of elites to address them and their impact on poorer residents, are evident in subsequent chapters on manure, the prevalence of swill milk (milk from cows fed with the offal of distilleries, which was thin, somewhat discolored, and has a significant alcohol content), fed to the city’s children, and a chapter entitled “Lungs of the City.” Taming Manhattan is an excellent book although not without flaws. First, the Croton water system allowed New Yorkers to drink, cook, and wash with clean water from Westchester, but the absence of a sewer system, installed in only rudimentary fashion almost two decades later, left Manhattan awash in runoff in the streets and in undeveloped land, including privies. In effect, for all of its manifest benefits, the Croton system created its own environmental problems. Second, McNeur devotes a chapter to cleaning New York’s air but leaves unexplained how the city, in an age when homes and businesses were heated with wood-burning stoves, disposed of those ashes. Ash heaps, at first located far from the built area of the city, proved to be a nuisance as the urban area expanded: the ash, without the density of clay or other soils, would settle and destabilize buildings. A chapter on ash could have added a nice dimension to this informative book. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

Environmental HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Apr 1, 2018

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