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Density and Class in Early Manhattan

A new study maps the borough’s rapid development and changing land-use patterns.

Library of Congress

New York is America’s largest and most dynamic city. But how did it transform during the 19th century from a small mercantile city to an industrial powerhouse?

A recent study from Gergely Baics and Leah Meisterlin at Barnard College provides a detailed look at Manhattan’s rapidly evolving land-use patterns in the mid-19th century—after its infamous grid was laid out, but before the onset of modern zoning. What is especially intriguing about the study is its use of GIS and other modern analytic techniques to examine archives from the extensive holdings of the New York Public Library—specifically, the Perris Fire Insurance Atlas—for more than 60,000 residential, commercial, and industrial buildings during the early 1850s.

The maps below show the density and distribution of residential, commercial, and industrial activity across Manhattan. Together, they reveal the basic organization and shape of New York City—a diverse landscape of buildings, from mansions along Fifth Avenue to tenements on the Lower East Side to factories along the riverfront.  

(Baics and Meisterlin)

Take a look at the map of commercial activity (in red), which shows the large concentration of commercial buildings downtown, starting at the tip of Manhattan and ending near City Hall Park on Broadway Street in Lower Manhattan. During this time, commercial activity also expanded to the business corridors of Broadway and the Bowery, and the commercial waterfront on both sides of the borough.

Next, consider the map of industrial activity (in purple). Industrial uses are highly concentrated along the Hudson and East Rivers, just beyond the commercial core. The second map shows how industrial activity not only hugged the rivers—an advantage for trade and transportation—but was also located farther north (particularly in the northwestern corner near 38th and 39th street), where larger factories could be accommodated.

Now look at the map of housing and residential activity (in yellow), which accounted for the great bulk of land use across the city. According to the study, residential buildings made up more than 80 percent of built land in the mid-19th century. During this time, residential buildings were often built alongside industrial workplaces to house the working-class citizens who powered the city’s factories.

The next map (below) calculates the average distance between residential buildings and the 30 nearest commercial buildings for each block in Manhattan. Distances that are shorter than average are shown in red, while above-average distances are shown in yellow. Ultimately, the map displays a deep geographic divide: Residential and commercial activities are crammed much closer together in the south, from the tip of the island to around Washington Square.

(Baics and Meisterlin)

Interestingly, there is much less commerce along Midtown avenues, and much more between Third Avenue and Eighth Avenue in Upper Manhattan, according to the study’s street-level analysis of urban retail. There are two reasons for this: On the one hand, commercial activity followed early mass transit—in the form of omnibus lines—along these two avenues. On the other, commercial development was prohibited along key avenues due to private restrictions for residential-only development. This was a kind of “zoning before zoning” (as the study puts it), or early form of NIMBYism, that allowed affluent residents to control the way their neighborhoods developed.

All together, mid-century Manhattan was a very dense place, as the map below shows. The highest densities (shaded in darker green) were in the working-class zones of Lower Manhattan, particularly the Lower East Side, which housed the city’s growing immigrant workforce. In fact, these areas housed two to three times more people than they do today. Densities were considerably lower in the more affluent residential areas above Washington Square, between Third Avenue and Sixth Avenue.

(Baics and Meisterlin)

Given such densities, a big concern of the day was overcrowding, especially among poor residents. Take a look at overcrowding in the two maps below, where dark purple indicates high levels of overcrowding. The first map provides a general picture, while the second is weighted by population density. The highest levels of overcrowding were on the Lower East Side, reflecting the tenement housing of its immigrant, working-class communities. At the time, residential densities were about five to six times greater in these tenement blocks than in more northern neighborhoods. Still, the maps show pockets of overcrowding and tenement housing throughout the city, even around posh residential districts.

(Baics and Meisterlin)

Overall, the study identifies two general patterns of land use in mid-19th century Manhattan: The first is the dense concentration of industry and working-class residents, especially in and around the Lower East Side and the city’s growing industrial districts. The second is the less dense intermixing of upper-class residences, small shops, and commercial areas in higher-income neighborhoods like Washington Square and Greenwich Village proper. These different patterns of land use and economic activity reflect the deep class divisions that shaped the city during its early expansion and evolution. Ultimately, the study finds that “the ability to command distance from undesirable conditions and social groups was a vital commodity in the nineteenth-century city’s spatial markets, so much so that it functioned as a key determinant of its geography.” These land-use patterns have shaped New York’s development ever since.

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