Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Attempted reform and revolution (more slum history)

Despite its curiosity and color, conservative Republicans still deplored the slums, blaming poverty on the slumdwellers themselves, while progressive Republicans tried their best to reform the poor, as if Catholicism were a disease and Protestantism its cure. The Children's Aid Society even cooked up a plan to wean the children away from their Catholic parents, sending them as unpaid labor to the age of eighteen in the Midwest, where the agrarian economy was starved for cheap labor and, equally important, there were no Catholics. It was a great success, from the reformers' point of view, and set forth a persuasive argument against the eugenicist insistence that the poor were doomed by nature. Stealing children from their parents seems barbaric today, but by 19th century standards, it was radically progressive: simply taking the child out of the slum will suffice to take the slum out of the child. Having completed their service to the frontier economy, the children were freed to pursue their lives, often achieving success. Today, New York City, under the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, sends its unwanted slum youth into permanent, life-long incarceration upstate, where the depressed economy depends on prisons. What success is theirs remains behind thick walls, steel bars and slamming doors. Not all change is progress.

From the 1840's on, the battle raged between the Protestant industrialist owners of the city and the immigrant – and largely Catholic – working class gangs. The immigrant cause advanced with the election of Tammany Hall Democrat and working class champion Fernando Wood, only to see the jealous Republicans, in control of the state government, undermine him from Albany. In 1857, while Wood was impressing both the downtrodden in the slums and wealthy progressive reformers with his programs to fight poverty and provide respectable employment – eighty years ahead of the New Deal – Albany conspired to shorten his mayoral term and replace his entire police force with a new one of their own. Standing firm on his city support and refusing to disband his municipal police, Wood forced a riot between the two police forces on the steps of City Hall. The military intervened to issue the mayor a summons at bayonette point and arrest him for inciting the riot.

The rest of the summer saw these two police forces engaging and subverting each other, turning the city into a lawless battleground. Tension broke into mass violence on July 4th, always a testy moment in the sweltering heat of midsummer New York. Responding to an incident in a bar on the Bowery, the city's busy commercial entertainment district, police and Protestant gangs attempted a full-scale assault on the Five Points, the Irish residential quarter, where the gangs and their families lived. Entering at Bayard Street, they attempted to push through the center of the neighborhood. Pelted by brickbats thrown from the rooftops, the invading Protestants were held at a stand-off. They piled up makeshift barricades out of carts and barrels, and brought out their firearms. By the time the military arrived the next evening, at least twelve were dead (perhaps many more dead had been carted away by family and neighbors), and both sides had exhausted themselves. The Times called the invasion a riot and blamed it on the Irish.

Worse riots were on their way. When, during the Civil War, Lincoln imposed a draft and allowed the wealthy to evade it for a fee (intending both to assuage the rich and raise funds for the war effort), the bitterly oppressed New York working class revolted. The draft riots of 1863 unleashed a fury of retribution expressing, especially among the long-abused Irish, decades of rage, lashing out in all directions. Four days of rioting, looting, lynching and arson shoved the mirror close to the city's face.

Towards the end of the century, political clout shifted from within the residential wards to the Bowery itself, lined now with flophouses, burlesque 'concert' halls, saloons, gambling parlors, beer halls, restaurants, pool rooms, theaters and sensational curiosity museums cheek by jowl with prosperous immigrant banks and insurance companies, radical labor union halls and early Marxist workingmen's associations. In its bars Tammany sachems rubbed elbows with their working-class support while unions organized in Bowery halls for the eight-hour day. The gangs fought over turf.

Following the Panic of 1873, the suppression of workmen's rights in the Gilded Age and reactionary fears of a rising immigrant labor force in New York, Bowery culture and business suffered. The erection of the elevated train, the "El," in 1878, casting the entire street into the shadows, sealed its prospects. The street declined. Meanwhile, the neighborhood to its east, known as the Lower East Side, became the new immigrant slum as millions of Jews and Italians filed into its tenements. Their gangs now took the place of the old Irish and Protestant gangs as they fought over control of illegal rackets. Legitimate political control of the city now belonged to the Irish, the underworld to the new immigrants, and the role of the gang evolved closer to the Prohibition-era bootlegger and racketeer we know so well.

Next: Italians and Jews


bryan said...

Hi, Rob -- really enjoying these installments!

Have you read Linda Gordon's Great Arizona Orphan Abduction? It's a bizarre tale of one group of CAS "orphans" shipped out West. Who knows what happened to the rest of them? Probably raised as good Lutherans in Minnesota.

rob said...

I haven't -- thanks for the tip. I think the single most interesting site in all New York is the Old St. Patrick's Cathedral with the Children's Aid Society parked opposite the entrance. Even a cathedral wall could not shelter the Catholic children from Protestant influence. There's another strategically placed CAS building across the street from St. Brigid's too
I've read that there were successes among the 'placed,' and Brace himself writes persuasively of his intentions.