New York’s filth inspired this West Side fountain

Much of Manhattan in the late 19th century was a revolting place.

The stench from factories filled the air. People routinely spit inside streetcars and elevated trains. Manure piled up on streets. Milk carried deadly bacteria. Water wasn’t always pure. Garbage was often tossed out of tenement windows.

To address the filth, Gilded Age organizations like the Metropolitan Board of Health were formed, hoping to brush up the hygiene of the city.

But fed-up private citizens also sprang into action. That was the genesis of the Women’s Health Protective Association, formed in 1884 by a group of prominent, reform-minded women tired of living in an unclean New York.

The group launched in a moment of utter disgust. Eleven prominent ladies whose homes overlooked the East River in today’s Beekman, “were so outraged at the continuance of foul odors which polluted the atmosphere of the entire neighborhood, causing them to keep windows closed in the hottest weather, and depriving them of their inalienable right to pure air, that they resolved the investigate the cause of this nuisance,” states an 1898 text.

Their proximity to the slaughterhouses, bone-boiling factories, and other stinky industry along the East River waterfront at the time was the reason they couldn’t open their windows.

So they did something about it, and helped clean up the city.

The New York of today is a lot more hygienic in many respects (most of us can open a window without smelling boiling bones), and the WHPA has long since disbanded.

Their efforts would otherwise be lost to history. But the group gave to the city a lovely drinking fountain on Riverside Drive and 116th Street in 1909.

Designed by Bruno Louis Zimm (he also created the Slocum Memorial in Tompkins Square Park), it was unveiled in a ceremony honoring the progress WHPA made “toward the betterment of the health of the public,” according to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article.

The fountain is in an out-of-the-way spot, and it could use some spiffing up…kind of the way the city needed a deep clean back when these ladies got together.

[Top photo: Varick Street in 1895, by Jacob Riis, MCNY]

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5 Responses to “New York’s filth inspired this West Side fountain”

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    Leave it to women!! Sorry; but we do get things done like this!
    Beekman and Sutton Place South are my favorite parts for residences. Although….gorgeous places on Fifth and Park.
    My favorite is the view of the East River….probably because I am from California…..I love the water!

  2. thekeystonegirlblogs Says:

    The City came up with a simple remedy – send the trash to ‘The Dump’ on Staten Island!

  3. Ricky Says:

    Why is the fountain on the opposite side of Manhattan from where these great ladies resided?

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I’m guessing because there was no room in Beekman…meanwhile, Riverside Park at the time was wide open. Lots of statues and monuments ended up there.

  5. David H Lippman Says:

    Fascinating…my grandparents grew up in the early 1900s in New York, and they knew about the horrible sanitation issues in Manhattan. Diseases would wipe out whole buildings in days.

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