New-York Historical Society

The Shantytown: Nineteenth-Century Manhattan’s “Straggling Suburbs”

This posting was written by Catherine McNeur, a Bernard & Irene Schwartz Postdoctoral Fellow at the New-York Historical Society. 

In the spring of 1855 Charles Loring Brace, who had recently started running the Children’s Aid Society, ventured into a neighborhood on the edge of the city called Dutch Hill. Located near East 41st Street and the East River, Dutch Hill (also known as Goat Hill) was in the area that is now the U.N. and Tudor City. Brace was there to look for children to send west or enroll in his industrial schools. Taken by the conditions he experienced in Dutch Hill and hoping to solicit donations, Brace decided to write an account of what he found for the New York Times of this foreign-feeling suburb.

The shantytown that Brace described towered high on a rocky outcropping, with the “little board or mud shanties scattered around like the wigwams of an Indian village, with most perplexing paths winding among them.” Brace lingered on characteristics that made the village seem foreign and much less civilized than the rest of the city. He called the architecture “primitive” and noted how goats, pigs, hens, and dogs walked in and out of the buildings, climbing over everything. While most of the male Irish and German inhabitants worked in nearby quarries, their wives and children picked through the city’s garbage for rags and bones that they might sell to various industries.

Dutch Hill in 1863, “View from School House in 42nd Street Between 2nd & 3rd Avs. Looking North” (PR 020 Geographic File)

Shantytowns, by nature, are difficult to find in the archives. Brace’s writings aside, downtown residents rarely visited these communities that were primarily north of 34th Street. Authors of guidebooks aimed at tourists deliberately avoided mentioning these less-than-sparkling locations. Writers from Charles Dickens to George “Gaslight” Foster investigated mid-nineteenth century Manhattan’s poverty and crime by visiting to Five Points, not Dutch Hill or the other shantytowns. As a Schwartz Fellow at the New-York Historical Society this year, I’ve been trying to unearth more information about these ignored and semi-ephemeral communities in the library’s collections.

In addition to the papers of the Children’s Aid Society that contain Brace’s and other employees’ writings, the New-York Historical Society has a range of materials that help to reveal details about the city’s mid-nineteenth century shantytowns. One of the least expected places where I found evidence of shantytowns was William Perris’ 1859 insurance maps of New York. Insurance maps typically focus on the more developed section of the city downtown where the threat of fire is greatest but Perris’ maps extend further north, revealing blocks with tiny scattered wooden homes that defy the rectilinear order of the grid.

Though perhaps not a complete representation of the east side shantytowns, the small yellow squares note the placement of the wooden shanties in 1859, William Perris, Maps of the City of New-York, vol. 5, Plate 76 (1859)

Another great source includes the handwritten notebooks of the Citizen’s Association of New York’s Council of Hygiene and Public Health, which reveal the locations and conditions of the city’s shantytowns in the middle of the 1860s. With varying levels of detail, Manhattan doctors went block by block listing the characteristics of New York’s property and homes with hopes of inspiring widespread environmental and housing reforms. While their eyes were mainly trained to see issues with tenement houses, their maps and descriptions sometimes fixed on shanties as well.

“Goat Hill” from Citizens’ Association’s Record of Sanitary Inquiry, 1864-1865, Ward 19, (BV Citizens’ Association page 67)

The Citizens’ Association notebooks reveal many of the scattered uptown shantytowns in 1864 Manhattan. Dr. H. Mortimer Brush toured part of the 19th Ward that included several shantytowns including “Goat Hill,” another name for Dutch Hill. Brush’s enthusiasm for the project was evident early on in his notebook where he includes wonderfully detailed maps of each block. Unlike Brace’s description, Brush’s wasn’t completely negative. He noted that the community was relatively healthy, well ventilated, and inhabitants were able to get fresh water from a hydrant on 44th Street. Some of what he mentioned shows the changes the community had undergone since Brace’s visit almost a decade earlier. The inhabitants of the shanties were now almost exclusively Irish (the Germans moved on). Even the animal inhabitants had changed: while goats and chickens still ruled the roost, the inhabitants no longer kept pigs. In 1859 New York City made it illegal to keep pigs below 86th Street and apparently the Dutch Hill residents abided by the law.

As the Dutch Hill community became increasingly Irish, it took on several other nicknames including “Corcoran’s Roost” and became notorious for gang activity. James “Paddy” Corcoran, who became a leader of the Irish-American community, lived on Dutch Hill from about 1850 to 1880 and was perhaps its most famous resident even after developers replaced the shanties with tenement buildings in the late nineteenth century and later Tudor City in the early twentieth century.

While searching for shantytowns in the historical record can often seem like looking for a needle in a haystack, the search is worthwhile.  Shantytowns provide a wealth of information about the way the city expanded during a period of massive urbanization, how immigrant communities scraped by, and how the government, landowners, and benevolent organizations tried to intervene. These were Manhattan’s forgotten “straggling suburbs” of the nineteenth century.

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