Magazine article Humanities

A Glimpse of Gotham

Magazine article Humanities

A Glimpse of Gotham

Article excerpt

The NEH-supported GOTHAM: A HISTORY OF NEW YORK CITY TO 1898 recently won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in History. The product of a twenty-year collaboration between Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, the book draws on the work of hundred of scholars to offer a vibrant retelling of the city's history. The following excerpt describes the search by the emerging prefessional-class for a decent place to live.

Manhattan's middle classes had their own territorial enclaves, spatially distinct from both Hell's Kitchen and Fifth Avenue. They settled in the West Village, in Chelsea, along cross streets in the rectangle bordered by 14%, 59%, Eighth, and Second, and on the Upper East Side and Harlem. Their travels to and from work downtown helped swell the annual ridership on New York's thirteen streetcar lines to 150 million by 1873, up fourfold since 1860, despite crammed conditions on the commuting cars (it "would not be decent to carry live hogs thus," huffed Horace Greeley). Shopping soon followed them northward, and drygoods stores spread up Third, Sixth, and Eighth avenues making them the commercial thoroughfares of middle-class neighborhoods.

When they could afford to, middling New Yorkers purchased their own homes. In the post war years, however, clericals and even professionals found this increasingly difficult to do. Soaring land prices put single-family twenty-five-foot-wide row houses out of reach. Middle-class salaried employees making two thousand dollars a year could seldom afford a ten- to eighty-thousand-dollar town house, and for a skilled mechanic making an annual thousand dollars it was quite impossible.

Many abandoned private ownership altogether and became boarders. As commerce marched into Union Square, the rich decamped northward, and their elegant town houses along Fifth and Madison avenues were subdivided and converted into respectable boardinghouses for doctors, lawyers, professors, and smaller merchants. Rooms here might cost from twelve to fifteen dollars a week in 1869. Hotels were another option, and those willing to settle for modest accommodations had a wide choice. By 1869 the construction boom had boosted the total number of metropolitan hotels to between seven and eight hundred, many of which offered rooms for residents as well as for transients. …

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