New Scholarship: Taming Manhattan

December 4, 2014

By Nancy Kuhl

Streets of Gold? Sure Smelled Like Something Else, ‘Taming Manhattan,’ Catherine McNeur’s Environmental History, from the New York Times

TAMING MANHATTAN:Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City, By Catherine McNeur, Harvard University Press.

Travel with me all you Red Hook farmers and Inwood foragers, you artisanal visionaries ofQuooklyn, to a time and place called antebellum Manhattan, a city that’s less an urban jungle than an urban barnyard, famous the world over for its filth. Hogs and dogs roam free, eating garbage that nobody bothers to collect; “hogtown” (today, roughly, the billionaires’ enclave of 57th Street) welcomes the intrepid visitor with the smell of boiling porcine remains. Distillery discharge is recycled as feed for cows, who produce a bluish “swill milk.” Human waste is claimed by companies that turn “night soil” into fertilizer. The city is green. But it is also brown.

This is the stinky state of affairs that the historian Catherine McNeur describes in “Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City,” a scholarly history that tells an odd story in lively prose. This book implicitly alludes to the urban revival now stretching from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Me., but whatever your thoughts on brewpubs and bike lanes, you probably haven’t read a municipal history that has a mayor “ready to tackle the hog problem.”

That issue was one of several town-country conundrums facing a settlement that, in 1790, was only 33,000 strong. The rectilineal Manhattan we know was still decades away, and parts of the island remained rural and rugged. The very notion of order seemed so foreign that in 1808, as she recounts it, surveyors mapping Manhattan’s street grid were “pelted with cabbages and artichokes while they worked.”

While admitting that the attack may be apocryphal, Ms. McNeur, a historian trained at New York University and Yale who teaches at Portland State in Oregon, persuasively makes the case that these were mean streets long before Martin Scorsese trained his lens upon them: “Garbage filled the streets and sewage contaminated the drinking water. Epidemics, fires and endless inconveniences made the city practically unlivable.”

Those who treasure the rosy image of Wilbur from “Charlotte’s Web” will be unsettled by the anti-hog sentiments of antebellum Manhattanites, many of whom grasped that the “walking sewers” ranging free down Broadway would make for less than salubrious pork loin. Visiting the city in 1819, an English tourist bemoaned the “innumerable hungry pigs of all sizes and complexions, great and small beasts prowling in grunting ferocity,” which would presumably “arouse the indignation of any but Americans.” Maybe, but those beasts were a source of sustenance to the poor, especially immigrants who had not ceded their rustic roots by stepping on Manhattan soil.

And while the appearance of a dog spa in brownstone Brooklyn these days elicits no more than a few outraged tweets, antebellum Manhattan was decidedly conflicted about its canine denizens. Some saw them as little more than “four-legged, foaming terrorists.” Most dismayed were elite New Yorkers who wanted a city that resembled London or Paris, but lived in a place deemed “the dung heap of the universe.” (“Elite” is Ms. McNeur’s favorite word, deployed more than 80 times.) Eventually, the Common Council allowed for what amounted to animal control: In 1836, 8,000 dogs were killed.

The city Ms. McNeur depicts in “Taming Manhattan” is the pestiferous obverse of the belle epoque city of Henry James and Edith Wharton that sits comfortably in many imaginations. Ms. McNeur’s town is a “veritable manure factory” in which some 10,000 horses each deposit up to 40 pounds of manure a day, while the East River serves as a repository for human waste. (Another historian, Peter C. Baldwin, has noted that “well over 6,000 cartloads of night soil” found their way into the waters off Manhattan in August 1853 alone.)

As for the streets themselves, they aren’t quite the shaded lanes of “established repose” James evokes in “Washington Square”: “Rotten food such as corn cobs, watermelon rinds, oyster shells and fish heads,” Ms. McNeur writes, “joined with dead cats, dogs, rats and pigs, as well as enormous piles of manure.” And we complain about the stray plastic bag floating across the Sheep Meadow.

Parks and trees were luxuries available only to the rich, financed by neighborhoods that could pay the necessary special assessments. “The way the city financed public parks laid the foundation for the unequal distribution of green spaces throughout the urban landscape,” Ms. McNeur writes.

Inequality is a running theme here, as is the racism of the native rich toward immigrants (the Irish in particular) and African-Americans. During the Piggery War of 1859, the city tried to shut down the offal-boiling plants clustered in what today is Midtown. The remnants of pigs could be used for many purposes, and smells aside, one could praise the enterprise as snout-to-tail sustainability at work. But reformers could not transcend their visceral disgust. One visitor to Pigtown (a journalist for The New York Times) sneered at “shanties in which the pigs and the Patricks lie down together.”

But no version of Manhattan is permanent. Cholera, which first visited New York in 1832, alerted city residents to the need for a house cleaning. While the miasmatic theory of infection, wherein cholera spreads through bad smells, missed the epidemiological mark, New Yorkers finally agitated for clean water (the Croton Aqueduct opened in 1842) and other improvements to basic services and infrastructure.

“Taming Manhattan” exists in an intriguing space: It isn’t one of those popular histories whose quirky edifice collapses by the third chapter (“Napoleon’s Bouillabaisse, Churchill’s Marmite: A Culinary History of War,” say, a book which doesn’t exist … yet). Nor is it undercooked dissertation gruel, sticking thickly to the gums. It is a smart book that engages in the old-fashioned business of trying to harvest lessons for the present from the past.

Best of all, a quiet rage animates Ms. McNeur’s writing, a dismay at the inequalities of the past that, she clearly believes, have survived into the present. Maybe her constant reference to “elites” isn’t lazy writing, after all, but a need to point her finger, again and again, at the culprits of this tale.

She ends “Taming Manhattan” with the Draft Riots of 1863, during which Irish mobs uninterested in fighting Lincoln’s war rampaged through Manhattan, killing around a dozen African-Americans. Some of this was just ugly racism, but some of it was also class resentment directed against those who could pay the $300 fee to escape the draft. “The rioters,” Ms. McNeur writes, “seem to have included many of the city’s piggery owners, swill milk producers, and squatters.”

They had been pushed to the outer bounds of the city to make way for the wealthy, who surely hoped to make Manhattan their own. But as Ms. McNeur suggests with her closing words, “Perhaps the city was never truly tamed at all.”

Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City
By Catherine McNeur
Illustrated. 312 pages. Harvard University Press. $29.95.
Alexander Nazaryan is a senior writer at Newsweek.