In 19th-century New York, urban livestock were perceived as a threat to the image and future of the nation's largest city.
These days, an urban chicken coop or beehive can be a status symbol. From New York to San Francisco, city dwellers—many of them well-educated and well-heeled—are reasserting their right to keep poultry, rabbits, and even goats, in their back yards. By tending these small critters in the heart of the city, these people are making a stab at going back to the land without leaving the concrete jungle.
Back in 19th-century Manhattan, though, where aggressive hogs and wild dogs roamed the filthy streets, urban livestock were perceived as a threat to the image and future of the nation’s largest city, and members of the elite did everything they could to distance themselves from such animals and their smelly products. “Today, proponents argue that urban agriculture and local food sources promote ‘sustainable cities,’” writes historian Catherine McNeur in her new book, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City. “In the nineteenth century, many Americans would have believed the opposite.”
In order for Manhattan to become the center of a nation’s wealth and high culture, as McNeur illustrates, the dirty work of agriculture and food production had to be pushed out and made invisible—along with the lower-class people who made their living from animals and their by-products. The result, she writes, was a volatile and unsettled period in which rancor and division among citizens was heightened by the question over who had the right to use the city’s rapidly vanishing common spaces.
The New York of the early 1800s was still a place where the separation between rural and urban was still being defined and negotiated, often with violence. McNeur, who teaches at Portland State University, writes vividly about the ugly battles over Manhattan’s hog farms, rendering plants, and bone-boiling facilities, including the Piggery War of 1859, in which public health officials moved in with force to eradicate the pork industry in the southern part of Manhattan.
She documents the nasty practice of feeding swill—the waste product of distilleries—to dairy cows, whose tails fell off as a result of poor nutrition and whose milk was thin and contaminated. She chronicles the xenophobic crackdowns against the Irish and German immigrants who made their meager living gathering scraps from the garbage-strewn streets, retreating to their shantytowns in the island’s northern reaches to sort the refuse for processing.
In a city where epidemics of cholera and other sanitation-related illnesses were a regular and terrifying feature of life, the fight against disease became entangled in a web of class, ethnic, and racial prejudices. Manhattan’s poorer inhabitants were sometimes explicitly compared to animals. McNeur quotes former New York mayor John Pintard, who in 1832 wrote this about the city’s first great cholera epidemic: “At present it is almost exclusively confined to the lower classes of intemperate dissolute & filthy people huddled together like swine in their polluted habitations.”
Class pervaded every aspect of the relentless drive to create a great American city on the once-rural island of Manhattan. Its parks and public spaces were, in large part, funded by fees that the wealthy paid in the hope of creating a place where bourgeois ladies could stroll unbothered by those of lower status.
While the city’s greatest green space, Central Park, was envisioned as a retreat for poor and rich alike—“the lungs of the city”—its creation was fraught with class and racial fallout. The homes of many poor immigrants who survived by processing trash, as well as the thriving African-American settlement of Seneca Village, were seized through eminent domain and destroyed to create a manufactured pastoral landscape, with its bucolic Sheep Meadow and Dairy that invoked an idealized European past.
“The government and newspaper accounts that mentioned the park’s residents made their lifestyles seem so foreign and lowly that they might as well have been intruders standing in the way of civilizations,” writes McNeur. “They were, it seemed, pests needing eradication.”
Class resentment in New York peaked during the Draft Riots of 1863, which McNeur links convincingly to the decades-long drive for public health and order. Rioters, fueled by anger over conscription for the Union Army, targeted African Americans and wealthy landowners alike, burning grand houses, lynching black men, beating black women, and torching the Colored Orphan Asylum.
The riots, McNeur writes, “were, in part, a culmination of all the discord and conflicts over public space and the urban environment that had marked the previous half-century.” Many of the participants, she notes, were the “piggery owners, swill milk producers, and squatters” who had been systematically deprived of their livelihoods and reviled by the city’s elites for many years.
Many of the underlying conflicts in McNeur’s riveting, meticulously researched account resonate strongly in the New York of today, where deepening economic inequality is fraying the ideal of a prosperous city that can be shared by all its residents: where the churning real estate market is constantly displacing the less wealthy; where rich neighborhoods get pristine parks and poor ones get cracked asphalt; where investment bankers live in lofty Manhattan glass towers and fast-food workers struggle to hang on to vermin-infested rooms on the fringes of the outer boroughs.
“[T]he increasingly tamed city privileged one group’s vision for the city and its environment, while amplifying environmental and economic disparity,” McNeur writes of 19th-century Manhattan. That assessment could arguably be applied as well to the city of today—the city of rooftop vegetable gardens and high-end chicken coops. The New York of the 21st century.