‘Manhattan Phoenix’ Review: From Courage to Greatness


If you think today’s Manhattan doesn’t have much in common with the narrow little island of about two centuries ago, you may need to think again.

During the early to mid-1800s, Manhattan became the financial and commercial center of America. The top 1% controlled a third of the city’s wealth. In 1856, Walt Whitman observed that, with the exception of the poorest, New Yorkers were addicted to “the occupation of outrageously and absurdly overpriced houses”. The great American poet – along with Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe – then contributed to making New York the literary capital of the country.

It was already the capital of the performing arts. The Philharmonic had been founded in 1842, and the theaters that lined Broadway at the time were home to the brightest stars west of London, including Junius Brutus Booth, father of John Wilkes. By 1850 Columbia and New York University, along with the New York Yacht Club, the Racket (as it was then spelled) Club, and the Century, were already established although (with the exception of NYU) based further afield downtown than they are today. The rectangular Manhattan street grid, proposed in 1811, was fully designed but was just beginning to gain traction.

The streets could be dirty and rats were everywhere. Traffic was so bad that shoppers needed escorts to cross Broadway safely. Yellow fever and cholera were the Covids of the time. Successive waves of deadly plagues closed offices, workshops, stores and theaters. Hospitals were overwhelmed. Thousands of those who could afford to escape the fetid city fled to rustic retreats like the swampy Rockaways. Anticipating a 21st century New York politician, the scandal-ridden Fernando Wood proclaimed in 1854: “The people will elect me mayor even if I should commit murder in my family between [now] and the election.

The turbulent saga of how this pocket metropolis of perhaps 250,000 souls experienced a profound growth spurt in the early 1800s that transformed New York into mighty Gotham is told in the riveting “Manhattan Phoenix: The Great Fire of 1835 and the emergence of modernity” by Daniel S. Levy. New York.” This is one of the best books about old New York that I know of.

There were countless differences, of course, between Manhattan then and now. Five decades after the British abandoned the city, a Protestant elite ruled politics, business, the arts and the social whirlwind of extravagant balls and costume parties. Negroes (who were banned from trains, ferries, dance halls, pool halls and museums), most Jews and hated Irish immigrants jostled for places on the sidelines. Manhattan’s main fire alarm was a bell in the dome of City Hall rung by a guard who scanned the low horizon for flames.

Manhattan Phoenix: The Great Fire of 1835 and the Emergence of Modern New York

By Daniel S. Lévy


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Manhattan at that time has been New York, unaffiliated with the other boroughs until 1898—an island, the author writes, “of ponds and streams, winding roads, little houses, and local markets.” Mr. Levy’s conceit – that the conflagration which in 1835 turned the bustling Lower East Side into the “Burnt District” was the spark for the island’s explosive development – may be debatable; the opening of the Erie Canal a decade earlier certainly played a role. No matter, his book is in fact a sparkling social history of the town in adolescence. It’s filled with lively anecdotes and intriguing facts – on the one hand, that the name of the distinguished Gramercy Park is a corruption of Dutch krom moerasjeor “crooked little swamp”.

It covers everything from Astors (the richest family in town) to grave robbing ($2 or $3 per corpse for doctors and medical students to dissect) to sewage disposal (unsanitary) to corrupt Tammany Hall boss William M. Tweed (and his ’40 Thieves’). illuminating.

The Great Fire itself is the least of them. On the freezing night of December 16, 1835, the fire broke out in a haberdashery on tiny Merchant Street near Hanover Square. It raged for 10 hours, eventually destroying 17 city blocks – 674 buildings and several ships at the South Street wharf. Only two people died, but millions of goods were consumed; even imported silks and other stocks salvaged from burnt stores in huge heaps in the gutters.

The recovery was rapid and spectacular. Mr. Levy revives the New York which is reborn from its ashes with all its ambitions, its corruption, its tumultuous hatreds, its contradictions and its achievements.

Racial and despised immigrants were flashpoints, particularly because native-born New Yorkers feared slaves and freed immigrants would take their jobs. The town was full of nativist gangs and their Irish counterparts – the Plug Uglies and the Dead Rabbits, the True Blue Americans and the O’Connell Guards, the Shirt Tails and the Roach Guards. They regularly fought their enemies and against each other. So did the noisy fire companies and their supporters.

And there was always a strain of sympathy for the slave-holding South because of the lucrative connection between New York’s banks and brokers and the cotton kingdom. But the city was also a bastion of the abolitionist cause, defended by figures such as the Tappan merchant brothers and the pastors led by Henry Ward Beecher.

As the Civil War unfolded, the Draft Riots exploded. Affluent New Yorkers could buy substitutes for $300, infuriating workers who couldn’t. In July 1863, mobs of nativists and enraged immigrants killed and maimed black people, looted the homes and businesses of abolitionists, and even burned down the Asylum for Colored Orphans on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. To protect itself, the Times had to arm its employees with guns and installed Gatling guns on its roof.

If the Project riots were one of the darkest episodes in New York’s history, the creation of Central Park – 843 acres in the heart of Manhattan lovingly sculpted by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux – was one of them. one of the most transcendent. Realizing that the booming grid city had left the rarest natural refuge for its citizens, visionary leaders of the 1850s pushed through the plan, the largest public works project in America. By the end of the Civil War, the park was attracting 7 million visitors a year. The park, Mr. Levy writes, “established a vast and permanent escape from the frenetic pace of a seemingly never-peaceful metropolis.”

Try to imagine today’s Manhattan, ravaged by crime and pestilence, without him.

Mr. Kosner has served as editor of Newsweek, New York, Esquire and the New York Daily News.

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