Posts Tagged ‘New York slum’

Everyone in 19th century New York loved oysters

January 5, 2017

oysters1900mcnyx2010-11-10037Oysters in the booming 19th century city were kind of like pizza today: sold in exclusive restaurants and lowly dives, prepared in countless styles, and devoured by rich and poor alike.

“Oysters were the great leveler,” wrote William Grimes in his book Appetite City. “At market stands, the New Yorker with a couple of nickels rubbed shoulders with the gay blades known as ‘howling swells.'”

“In humble cellars and lavish oyster palaces all over the city, oysters were consumed voraciously for as long as the oyster beds held out.”


Oyster saloons popped up near theaters. Fisherman sold them off boats on the rivers. Fancy oyster houses fed the wealthy. Vendors at curbside stands sold them on the cheap, often adhering to what was called the “Canal Street plan”:

oystersmcdonaldsbowerynypl1907“All the oysters you could eat for six cents, usually sprinkled with vinegar and lemon juice, or perhaps just a little salt,” wrote Grimes. “By the 1880s, ketchup and horseradish were standard as well.”

As the ultimate democratizing food, oysters were enjoyed on Fifth Avenue the same as they were in Five Points (see illustration below).

Even Charles Dickens was amazed by their abundance and popularity at cheap Bowery dives during his visit to New York in 1842, which he famously chronicled.

“Again across Broadway, and so—passing from the many-coloured crowd and glittering shops—into another long main street, the Bowery. . . .” he wrote in American Notes.


“These signs which are so plentiful, in shape like river buoys, or small balloons, hoisted by cords to poles, and dangling there announce, as you may see by looking up, ‘oysters in every style.’

“They tempt the hungry most at night, for then dull candles glimmer inside, illuminating these dainty words, and make the mouths of idlers water, as they read and linger.'”

[Top image: MCNY, 1900, x2010.11.10037; second image: NYPL, 1870; third image: NYPL menu collection; fourth image: NYPL, 1873]

The slums of dark, forbidding Duane Street

May 17, 2012

Louis Comfort Tiffany—son of Charles Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Co, the famed jeweler then located on Prince Street and Broadway—is better known for his lovely stained glass works.

But as a young man, he studied painting, and from his rented studio at a YMCA he depicted impoverished Duane Street in 1877.

The Belgian block paving is uneven and dirty; a wood frame building appears to house a plumber, while a man out front seems to tinker with potted plants.

It’s certainly not the Duane Street in posh Tribeca we’re used to today.

The filthiest part of an old-law city tenement

January 30, 2012

That would be the air shaft—the slender opening between tenements that developers built to satisfy an 1879 requirement mandating a window facing outdoors in every room.

These shafts did provide a bit of air and light. Unfortunately, they also functioned as dumps, with tenants tossing their waste down the air shaft, rendering them funnels of filth and disease.

Just how disgusting was it? This passage conveys it well. It’s from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty’s Smith’s account (based on her own childhood) of a young girl growing up in a Williamsburg slum:

“The airshaft was a horrible invention. Even with the windows tightly sealed, it served as a sounding box and you could hear everybody’s business. Rats scurried around the bottom. There was always the danger of fire. A match absently tossed into the airshaft by a drunken teamster set the house afire in a moment.

“There were vile things cluttering up the bottom. Since the bottoms couldn’t be reached by man (the windows being too small to admit the passage of a body), it served as a fearful repository for things that people wanted to put out of their lives. Rusted razor blades and bloody clothes were the most innocent items.

“Once Francie looked down into the airshaft. She thought of what the priest said about Purgatory and figured it must be like the airshaft bottom only on a larger scale.”

A squalid lane nicknamed “murderers’ alley”

December 15, 2011

If the Five Points section of Manhattan was the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhood of the mid-1800s, then perhaps Donovan’s Lane was the worst part of Five Points.

Called “Murderers’ Alley,” it was a tiny rookery a few blocks from City Hall that linked Baxter and Pearl Streets, providing an escape route for criminals as well as a resting place for drunks.

“One reporter described Donovan’s Lane as an ‘Arcardia of garbage,’ filled with ‘rambling hovels and Alpine ranges of garbage heaps,'” writes Timothy J. Gilfoyle in A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth Century New York.

“Like other Baxter Street alleys, such as Bandit’s Roost and Bottle Alley, the thoroughfare was more accurately a small, unkempt courtyard behind the teeming, densely packed tenements.”

Inside Donovan’s Lane were opium dens—and mixed race couples, wrote Thomas N. Doutney, a temperance reformer, in his 1883 autobiography:

“Miscegenation held high carnival in Donovan’s Lane; black men and white women cursed and stunk and loafed and brawled and suffered there; the ‘basements’ in some of the old houses in the lane were so vile, that we approached their broken-down doors with our fingers to our nostrils.”

In the late 19th century, social reformers built a wall that cut off Donovan’s Lane, making it a dead end—eventually paved over and de-mapped.

[Above: Baxter Street in 1875, where Donovan’s Lane ran from]