Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bury Them Not

New York City Continues Transforming in 1830

By David Minor

Apart from the stone water tower being erected on 13th Street now in 1830, few major construction projects were under way but, as usual, the layout of lower Manhattan was undergoing constant change. Settlement of the affairs of the late (29 years ago) property owner Captain Robert Richard Randall finally drew to a close when the U. S. Supreme Court cleared his land title to the area around today’s Washington Square. The original will, by the way, had been drawn up by no other than Alexander Hamilton. The freed funds will be used to purchase land on Staten Island for construction of Sailors’ Snug Harbor, a retirement home for, “aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors”, and to provide for its maintenance.

As for the Square itself, it had at one time been a potter’s field, where the city’s poor were buried in unmarked graves. Which made it a handy repository for criminals hanged on a nearby gibbet. But in New York, real estate rules and over the last four years the poor were reburied elsewhere and expensive homes constructed around the perimeter. New graveyards, especially for the poor will, of necessity have to be located away from lower Manhattan as the Common Council this year bans them from all land south of Canal Street. Meanwhile street construction goes on between 13th Street and Canal Street. Eleventh Street is laid out except for the two-block section between Broadway and the Bowery, construction there blocked by the apple orchard of council member Henry Brevoort, a buddy of Washington Irving’s. The second incarnation of Grace Church will rise on the site in 1843. Four blocks to the south, on lower Third Avenue one of the city’s many public markets will be laid out this year and named for the previous owner of the land, the late former governor and U. S. vice-president Daniel D. Tompkins. More changes to the city’s infrastructure are in the works this year as incorporation papers are filed for the Manhattan Gas Light Company, which will soon be providing gas street lights for the new neighborhoods.

Part of the impetus for the move of old money further uptown is the deteriorating condition of the area known as Five Points on the east side of the city a few short blocks northeast of City Hall. Here, where Park and Baxter streets intersect and Anthony Street thrusts its way into the crossing, buildings erected on formerly filled-in swamp land, the old Collect Pond, have begun to collapse in on themselves, driving out all but the most destitute. And there are over 13,000 of these unfortunates, existing in streets of flophouses and taverns, precursor of the tenements of the Lower East Side and the Bowery of future decades. Letters are beginning to appear in the New York Sun, complaining that these slums are not being demolished.

Across town (in today’s Triangle Below Canal Street, or Tribeca neighborhood), sits St. John’s Park, one of the city’s more exclusive neighborhoods. Now, in 1830, the residents have erected an iron replacement for the wooden fence that had surrounded the park they all face. As in a latter-day Gramercy Park, the gates are kept locked, the property owners all having their own keys. After the U. S. Civil War our budding millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt will knock down the fence, level the park’s greenery and convert the area into a stable for new toys, the iron steeds of his New York Central & Hudson River Rail Road.

© 2006 David Minor/Eagles Byte

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