Monday, May 18, 2009

A brief history of the slums

(-- Dont forget to sign the petition to save the Bowery --)

I was asked to write an introduction to a book on LES history which will be coming out soon. Unfortunately, after it was all written, the publisher asked us to cut out several thousand words, so now there's a published intro and a longer unpublished one.

While waiting for the Chinatown Working Group's June 1 Town Hall, I thought I'd serialize the original introduction here. It's a romp through the history of Manhattan from the perspective of its slums, a rich and surprising story, with great significance for the history of the city, the nation and, in fact, the world: the New Deal welfare state emerged from the slums of New York, and the welfare state has become the foundation of industrialized nations the world over.

If you've read the standard texts, Anbinder, Burroughs & Wallace, Riis, Sante and Shorto, you'll recognize many of the details. It's an intro essay designed to entertain, not a piece of original research. The book itself, by Eric Ferrara, contains a wealth of original research which cannot be found all compiled together anywhere else.
Gangsters Murderers and Weirdos of the Lower East Side, coming soon.

So here's the opening section of the original intro:

"I can lick any man in the House" thumped a braying John Morrissey, twice holder of the American bare-knuckles boxing championship, Dead Rabbits gang leader and the man who, after losing a humiliating fight to him, ordered Bill the Butcher murdered.

The "House" he mentions was not a local saloon. It was the United States House of Representatives, a gang to which Morrissey -- boxer, gangster, murderer -- had been elected, not once, but twice.

Politics was a violent affair back in the mid 19th century, especially in New York, which was a violent place. The country was expanding into lawless frontiers and fighting over them in the hills and fields and in the halls of Congress. The country was itself a kind of frontier, learning to define its laws and learning to abuse and subvert them once defined. Even more astonishing than the scale of 19th century corruption – government is always corrupt on the largest possible scale -- was its acceptability. In his half-serious distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft, as if graft itself were no wrong, only lying about it, Tammany Hall's George Washington Plunkitt offers a blunt clue: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em…What's dishonest about that?" Politics was unabashedly criminal, and unabashed criminals became politicians. In New York, it was not uncommon for candidates to rise from the ranks of the gangs.

"The history of the gangs of New York has never been written. Could it ever be told with a tolerable degree of accuracy, it would make a thrilling chapter in the history of Manhattan. It would be a tale of bold and lawless deeds, of affiliation with more or less corrupt public officials, of protection … and of the evolution of some of the abler members of the ruffian class into "honest" gamblers, high-class sports, or even influential politicians." The New York Times, 1912

The relationship of the 19th century gangs to the city's politics reflects the broad history of post-Revolutionary New York and its emergence in the 20th century, after a hundred years of struggle, as a progressive vanguard for the nation. Early19th century New York was a world in rapid transition towards industrialization, succumbing to the depressed wages and social instability that industrialization brings. Pre-Revolutionary New York had been a wealthy port with a stable, if uneven, social fabric of lavishly aristocratic landowners surrounded by modest artisans and "mechanics," the highly skilled laborers who, through the traditional artisanal guild systems, regulated prices and wages. It wasn't always smooth, but it was a kind of communal society -- albeit with an extravagant top end --tacitly governed by a communal ethic, with a grousing recognition from the heights that no part of an integral society could be entirely neglected.

When industrialization arrived, it marched over Manhattan with little regard for its quaint integrity. Industrialists quickly saw the advantage of unskilled labor over these high-cost craft masters supporting their live-in apprentices. Industry needed a limitless source of such labor to replace the artisan and drive wages down. That source was handily offered by the tens of thousands of impoverished and desperate immigrants flooding the New York port in search of a start at the very bottom. And that's exactly what those immigrants got, although the bottom had dropped much lower than anyone had ever thought possible.

This was a perfect marriage of convenience for industry, the well-appointed groom, although it did little for the underpaid immigrant labor force wedded to him, less for the jilted out-of-work artisans. For society as a whole it was a disastrous union, unstable and antagonistic from the start, eventually ripping apart that precarious communal social balance, finally throwing the city's politics into confusion of spite, brutality and rapine.

In a true oligarchy, labor has little recourse against wealth in power: wealth rules. But in a democracy, the industrialist is not the only card sharp looking for a good game. Politicians play too, and often deal. Their game, moreover, is indispensable to the industrialist. The government builds infrastructure – like the Erie Canal -- that can send young industries into boomtime. The politicians are suitably positioned to speculate on the future they are themselves creating, and take a kickback as well. There's not quite as much money in politics as industry, but there's plenty. All the politician needs is a limitless source of voting support.

And so New York became a battleground between wealth and political power; on the one side the industrialist, intent on immiserating the immigrant to keep wages low, and on the other side, the political clout of the sheer numbers of immigrants cultivating their local favorites as candidates.

Wealth had created its own worst enemy, a vast working class. Industrialization, without intending it, had pushed New York into political transformation. It played out at first in Tammany Hall graft and deadly riots, but eventually gave us a successful labor movement and the New Deal. It all started with the gangs and the gangs all started with Five Points.

Next: The Five Points

1 comment:

schwa said...

OMG! I finally read the first of your history posts, and it's so exciting! Thank you for sharing your intro here. :)