Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Touring Gotham's Unclean Streets

New York's streets may not be the tidiest in 1830, but there's lots to see

When John Fowler wakes up in Brooklyn on the morning of August 3rd, 1830, his first bug-free night in New York, he’s feeling refreshed and is raring to hit the tourist trail, crossing over to Manhattan and taking in the sights. He’s impressed with City Hall, the business exchanges, the banks, and hotels. He heads down Broadway for a look see at the Battery and Castle Gardens. We’ll go into some details of these shortly. But his first general impression is of chaos.

He mentions a “want of uniformity” in the buildings (he should see it today) and that all the business streets “show a total inattention to neatness, if I may not add cleanliness.” It would seem that urban streets in London, Bristol and other English cities are very neat and orderly. Sedate, even. Not so here. As goods are brought up from the various wharves surrounding lower Manhattan they are left stacked in the streets, barrels, crates, cases and unpacked goods strewn about. When the goods are taken out of their containers the packing materials - straw, wood shavings, and the like - are thrown down in the nearest open space.

But back to the tourist attractions. City Hall contains not only the mayor’s headquarters and other principal city offices, but the courts as well. The inner foyer - Fowler calls it the Mayor’s court - contains handsome portraits of George Washington, the former state governors, and celebrated U. S. army and navy commanders. The only fly in the ointment, so to speak, is the inescapably reeking, overwhelming presence on floors, landings and staircases of tobacco spittle.

Out in the fresh air again Fowler heads down Broadway a few blocks to Wall Street. At the corner of William Street, sitting atop a post office in the basement, a two story marble building contains the city’s main exchange. A flight of stairs on the building’s exterior lead to an open 27-foot-high portico rimmed with Ionic columns. Semaphores housed on the building’s roof communicate with ships in the harbor.

Our visitor’s impressed by the white marble United States Branch Bank (one of fifteen banks presently operating in the city). He notes in the published weekly bank note tables such comments as, “Uncertain”, “No value”, and “Seventy percent discount”, perhaps a foreshadowing of the money crisis to come some seven years in the future. The nearby four-story brick Custom House makes a poor impression.

Back on Broadway, set back from the street, on a rise near where the Woolworth Building stands today, sits the city’s main hospital, a stone building complete with maternity hospital and lunatic asylum, the various components treating between 140 and 180 patients annually.

As he heads back across Broadway to City Hall he takes note of Columbia College just to the north, and several buildings housing such other learned bodies as the Lyceum of Natural History, and the Literary and Philosophical Society. Not to mention the Historical Society, with 10,000 volumes lining its shelves. 20,000 more can be found at the New York Society Library in Nassau Street.) The main Manhattan public library will one day hold over eleven million books, but for now it’s a start).

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