A yellow fever outbreak made Greenwich Village

Epidemics can shape the way a city develops. And it was an outbreak of a lethal disease that helped create the Greenwich Village that’s been part of the larger city since the 1820s.

In the 17th century, the village of Greenwich was a mostly rural suburb of farms and estates (below, Aaron Burr’s home, Richmond Hill) along the Hudson River a few miles from the city center. (Seen here in a 1766 map, use link to zoom in.)

Periodic outbreaks of yellow fever (among other deadly illnesses) in the lower city—in many spots a filthy place of sewage, stagnant water, and garbage-eating hogs—would cause residents with means to leave, at least for the summer.

“Successive waves of yellow fever drove many New Yorkers to summertime residences in the countryside,” wrote John Strausbaugh in The Village: A History of Greenwich Village. (Another fine home, above, and the oldest house in the Village, at left, from 1799.) Many decamped to Greenwich, “a refuge from pestilence with its former swampland drained and its air fresh.”

But it was the especially pernicious yellow fever epidemic of 1822 that forced thousands to flee the city center for good and recreate their lives in Greenwich permanently, which only five years earlier had installed water mains and sewers.

“Many New Yorkers who had not evacuated during the previous epidemics did so during this final rampant pandemic, states a writer at creatingdigitalhistory.

“As residents moved to Greenwich Village, they built homes and businesses in attempt to replicate their downtown lifestyles. In essence, they created a makeshift city center that has since evolved into the Greenwich Village of today.”

The hurry to leave the main city was noted by Greenwich residents. “Our city presented the appearance of a town besieged,” wrote the former secretary of the city’s Board of Health in 1822, according to Anna Alice Chapin in Greenwich Village. “From daybreak till night one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandise, and effects were seen moving towards ‘Greenwich Village’ and the upper parts of the city.”

Another resident recalled the mass exodus and influx like this: “The town fairly exploded…and went flying beyond its bond as though the pestilence had been a burning mine.” (Above right, a house on Bedford Street, circa 1820s.)

Buildings went up in Greenwich fast. “Temporary stores and offices were erecting, and on the (ensuing day) Sunday, carts were in motion, and the saw and hammer busily at work,” according to Chapin.

A post office, customs house, and newspaper offices sprang up in the formerly sleepy village. “Bank Street got its name in this way, the city banks transferring their business tither literally overnight, ready to do business in the morning,” wrote Chapin.

“Stores of rough boards were constructed in a day,” recalled Charles Haynes Haswell in Reminisces of an Octogenarian of the City of New York. With the lower city all but deserted, ferries from Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Hoboken began docking up the Hudson at Greenwich, wrote Haswell.

A growing neighborhood needs a church, and St. Luke’s, still on Hudson Street, also went up at about this time. St. Luke’s was not by accident named for Saint Luke—the patron saint of physicians and surgeons. (Above left, in 1828)

In total, 388 people died in the yellow fever outbreak, according to Haswell. Many of those victims from the lower city were buried beneath Washington Square, which was the far-away potter’s field of New York in the early 1820s.

By the end of 1825, Greenwich Village now was filled with handsome wood and brick houses. (Above right, on Van Dam Street.) “Between 1825 and 1835, the population of the Village doubled,” wrote Strausburgh. By 1850, it had doubled again.

“Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects,” according to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation. “Blocks of neat row houses built in the prevailing Federal style soon accommodated middle-class merchants and tradesmen.

This sleepy hamlet (which thankfully kept some of its own original street grid) was no longer separate from the city—it became a part of the city. (Above in an 1831 map). Would it have been subsumed by the city if the yellow fever epidemic never happened? Almost certainly. But the outbreak rushed it into joining Gotham, going from countryside to urbanized in a hurry.

[First through third images: NYPL Digital Collection; fifth and sixth images: NYPL Digital Collection; Eighth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

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22 Responses to “A yellow fever outbreak made Greenwich Village”

  1. pontifikator Says:

    Having lived downtown for much of my adult life, this was one of my favorite posts of all time! Thank you!

  2. pontifikator Says:

    Having lived downtown for much of my adult life, this was one of my favorite posts of all time! Thank you!

  3. Olivia Hamilton Says:

    Its a cool blog- they send stuff out every few weeks – its always interesting


  4. thekeystonegirlblogs Says:

    Thanks for explaining how the ‘village’ became what it is (or was!).

  5. beth Says:

    i had no idea, this is so interesting!

  6. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Fascinating! Wondering if “Between 1825 and 1825, the population of the Village doubled” is a typo?

  7. greg chown Says:

    A small note. A Hamlet is the name given to a small village that does not have a church.

  8. Bill Wolfe Says:

    Now I can see the Village’s own distinct street grid, and it makes sense. Previously, I’d see the larger street grid of Manhattan and wonder why this one little area appeared to make no sense as part of that larger grid. Thanks.

  9. ironrailsironweights Says:

    I’ve read that the area was spared most high-rise development in the middle of the 20th century because the bedrock was too far below surface level to support heavy construction.


    • Holland Tunnel Says:

      True Peter, see the link below for an in depth description.

      The Village and just south of it down to Chambers st area isn’t ideal for massive skyscrapers. Thankfully, that geological uniqueness and later, Jane Jacobs, would be the two forces of nature that saved the old village from hideous modernization.

      I’m biased and think it’s the most unique, warm, neighborhood-ly area in NYC. Grateful to have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing its oldest, oddest, residents, walked its streets for decades for work and to flaneur. It’s rich history, brownstone, brick and cobblestones, quirks, modern ebb and flow, plentiful sunlight and overall character combined creates a magnetic pull I happily surrender to.


  10. Ellis James Says:

    I think things are the way because things had happened in sequence and the path was clearly determinedly chance and relative altitude compared with the park and other natural boundaries and influence. Also, the article fils to recognize that new restaurants rarely succeed past a year in certain areas, which was a trend even before the “chains” took over. The Village will always remain in the same relative area of the boundaries – not likely to move uptown to “high-rise” areas.

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