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New York - The City And Its Streets

( Originally Published 1902 )



No city was ever more beautifully situated than New York. Commercially, also, its favourable position could not help rendering it the metropolis of a hemisphere. During the early years of its settlement, every traveller was struck with its natural beauty. Coming up the bay, whose shores at that date were abundantly wooded, the quaint little town lying at the southern point of Manhattan Island must have formed a picture that was perfectly delightful. It is doubtful if any city was ever so important commercially and politically in proportion to its size. What Goa or Batavia was to the Orient, New York was to the Western Hemisphere. Ships with manufactures and the products of the earth arrived daily from Europe and the West Indies. This little port was a great mart and clearing-house.

Its size, however, remained insignificant all through the Eighteenth Century. In 1712, two years before George I. came to the throne, the city contained only 5,816 inhabitants, of whom 970 were blacks. This number rose to 8,882 in 1731, and 21,863 forty years later. In 1744, there were only 1,141 houses ; and in 1751, only 2,059. Four years later the number was 2,200. In 1766, there were 3,223, distributed as follows : East Ward, 521 ; North Ward, 487 ; South Ward, 314 ; Out Ward (exclusive of the district of Harlem), 270 ; Dock Ward, 287 ; and Montgomerie Ward, 664. In 1773, the city contained 18,726 whites, and 2,737 blacks.

Approaching the city, the principal front of which faced Long Island, the first building that struck the eye was the Fort, the southern end of which was built on rocks at the water's edge. It extended from the present Greenwich Street and Battery Place to the junction of Whitehall Street and Front Street. Beyond this, old prints show a cluster of quaint houses topped by a few spires, and then the ground undulates with low hills and woods in the distance. Within the Fort, lived the Governor, whose house was burnt in 1741, and again in 1773. On this site, the new Custom House is now (1902) in course of erection.

In early days, the city had been stockaded as a protection against Indians. In 1745, the dread of a French and Indian invasion was so great that a line of palisades and blockhouses was built around the northern end of the town from river to river. It was constructed of cedar logs about fourteen feet long and nine or ten inches in diameter, placed in a trench with loop-holes for muskets. The breast-work was four feet high, and four feet wide. There were three blockhouses, thirty feet square and ten feet high, with six port-holes for cannon. They were made of logs.

There were four gates, or outlets, to the city : in Pearl Street, Chatham Square, Broadway and Greenwich Street. The palisades started from James and Cherry Street, ran diagonally across Duane Street and Pearl Street, and so irregularly west, south of Fresh Water and north of Warren Street.

In 1753, an enthusiastic author writes

" With respect to what Nature has done for us there is not a happier People in the World than the Inhabitants of this Province. I have myself spent a month in their Metropolis, the most splendid Town in North America. Everything in it conspires to make New York the best Mart on the Continent. Our Coasts are regular and by a good Lighthouse might be rendered safe and easy.

"The City of New York consists of about twenty-five hundred buildings. It is a mile in length, and at a Medium, not above half that in breadth. On the South it forms a Point into a large Bay. The East side lies on a Streight which at eighteen or twenty miles Eastward opens to the Sound. It adjoins to the Hudson river on the West and such is its Figure, its Centre of Business and the Situation of its Buildings, that the Cartage in Town from one part to another does not at a Medium exceed one-quarter of a mile. The prodigious Advantage of which to a trading City is more easily conceived than expressed. It facilitates and. expedites the lading and unlading of Ships and Boats, saves Time and Labour, and is attended with Innumerable Conveniences to its inhabitants."

A few more impressions recorded by contemporary visitors will help us to give a clear idea of the aspect and character of the town. In 1748, Kalm wrote :

" In size it comes nearest to Boston and Philadelphia; but with regard to its fine buildings, its opulence, and extensive commerce, it disputes the preference with them."

Describing the streets, he said :

" Most of them are paved, except in high places, where it has been found useless. In the chief streets there are trees planted, which in summer give them a fine appearance, and during the excessive heat at that time, afford a cooling shade. I found it extremely pleasant to walk in the town, for it seemed quite like a garden.

" The trees which were planted for this purpose are chiefly of two kinds ; the water beech is the most numerous, and gives an agreeable shade in summer, by its large and numerous leaves. The locust tree is likewise frequent; its fine leaves and the odoriferous scent which exhales from its flowers make it very proper for being planted in the streets, near the houses and in gardens. There are likewise lime-trees and elms in these walks, but they are not, by far, as frequent as the others. One seldom meets with trees of the same sort adjoining each other, they being in general placed alternately. Besides numbers of birds of all kinds, which make these trees their abode, there are likewise a kind of frogs, which frequent them in great numbers during the summer. They are very clamorous in the evening, and in the nights (especially when the days have been hot, and the rain is expected,) and in a manner drown the singing of the birds. They frequently make such a noise that it is difficult for a person to make himself heard.

" Most of the houses are built of bricks; and are generally strong and neat, and several stories high. Some had, according to old architecture, turned the gable-end towards the streets; but the new houses were altered in this respect. Many of the houses had a balcony on the roof, on which the people used to sit in the evenings in the summer season ; and thence they had a pleasant view of a great part of the town and likewise a part of the adjacent water and of the opposite shore. The roofs are commonly covered with tiles, or shingles ; the latter of which are made of the white fir tree, or Pinus Strobus, which grows higher up in the country. The inhabitants are of opinion that a roof made of these shingles is as durable as one made in Pennsylvania of the white cedar or Cupressus thyoides. The walls were whitewashed within, and I did not any where see hangings, with which the people in this country seem in general to be little acquainted. The walls were quite covered with all sorts of drawings and pictures in small frames. On each side of the chimnies they usually had a sort of alcove; and the wall under the windows was wainscoted, and had benches placed near it. The alcoves and all the woodwork were painted with a bluish grey colour."

In 1781, the traveller, Anburey, wrote :

" The city of New York stands on the southern extremity of the island, and its situation is extremely delightful ; commanding such a variety of prospects, as are the most charming that can be conceived. The city is mostly built upon the East River, on account of the harbour. In many of the streets are rows of trees on each side to shelter from the amazing heats in summer. Most of the houses are built with brick, very strong and neat, and several stories high ; many of them have balconies on the roof, where company sit in the summer evenings, to enjoy the prospect of the opposite shores and harbour; and the roofs are covered with shingles. The streets are paved and clean, but in general very narrow; there are two or three indeed which are spacious and airy. The length of the town is somewhat more than a mile, and the breadth of it about half a mile."

The authorities of the city were then possessed of a great deal of civic pride. They took pains to make the city beautiful and keep it neat. Many laws show this. Before examining the houses, it will therefore be well to look at a few of the ordinances dealing with streets and city life.

In 1713, an Act was passed for mending and keeping in repair the post road from New York to Kingsbridge. The road was in a ruinous condition. It was to " Be laid out the breadth of four rod and cleared the breadth of two rodd at least."

The constable had a plenty of work to do, for the city contained a considerable amount of lawlessness. It must be confessed, however, that the law's retaliation was at least as savage as the crimes that offended it. Negroes often gave trouble, though probably they were not as bad as the low piratical whites who haunted the wharves and drinking dens of New York as of any other port. Coiners and note forgers often " found how hard it is apt to go when the law and the thief have quarrels." The more humane punishments were imprisonment, ducking, whipping, pillorying, branding and hanging. In 1736, the Public Whipper was Edward Breuwen. On Jan. 15th of that year he received L2—10—0 for his quarter's salary and fifteen shillings " for sitting in the pillory, and whipping through the town at a cart's tail one Pat-rick Butler for issueing counterfeited dollars." Fifteen years later this official's pay was increased. In 1751, it was announced that " The Public Whipper of the City of New York being lately dead ; if any Person inclines to accept that office with 20L a year, he may apply to the Mayor and be entered."

Punishments were innumerable. Among many may be instanced the case of John Morris, who in 1768 for sheep-stealing was found guilty, but was granted the benefit of the clergy, burnt in the hand and discharged. The following year Daniel Martin received fifteen lashes for stealing fiddle strings. For defrauding and cheating, Richard Ely " was exalted on a wooden horse on a triumphal car with labels on his breast ; after which he was conducted to the public whipping-post where he received a proper chastisement." In 1769, a certain John Jubeart, for passing false dollars, was executed " at the stone fence," near the city. The frail of the opposite sex were treated with equal severity, and negroes were sometimes burnt at the stake. The savage nature of the punishments did not always instil greater respect for the law. On one occasion while witnessing an execution for grand larceny a gentleman had his pocket picked beside the gallows. From 1725 to 1756, the site of the gallows was on the Common : in the latter year this was removed "to the place where the negroes were burnt some five years before called Catiemut's Hill near Fresh Water."

Looking after the safety of the city was considered the duty of every inhabitant. In 1731, there was declared to be a great necessity of a strong and sufficient watch to be kept every night in New York for the safety and peace of the said city. Therefore, all householders in the six wards, " Being able and fit to watch, or to find an able and fit person to watch for him, her or them, or in his, her, or their stead, do and ought, by reason of their habitation, occupation and dwelling, to keep watch within the said city for the preservation of the king's peace and for the arresting and apprehending of all night-walkers, male-factors and suspected persons which shall be found passing, wandering and misbehaving themselves." Of late years great numbers were declared to have come privately into the city, some of whom were suspected to be English convicts. Hence the necessity for a strong watch. The Act called for a constable and eight watchmen every night, and equal duty was to be performed by every ward in the following order : East, Dock, North, South, West and Montgomerie. No boys or servants were to be admitted as watchmen. The Negro Plot afterwards for a time made necessary military watches.

Night-hawks and Mohocks were by no means unknown in New York. They do not appear to have committed such brutal excesses as made them hated and feared in the English metropolis, but they some-times indulged in the gentle and joyous pastime of beating the watch, wrenching off door knockers and breaking street-lamps. In 1751, a law was passed to curb the exuberance of nocturnal vivacity. It recites that sundry of the inhabitants of the City of New York, as well for the prevention of several evil practices usually committed in the night-time, as for the convenience of persons using the streets about their lawful business, are willing at their own expense to hang out lamps to illuminate the streets of the said city, but are discouraged therefrom for fear that such lamps may be broken, taken down, destroyed or carried away, or the lights therein put out or extinguished. For every such offence a forfeit of L20 was provided.

We occasionally come upon evidence of the pranks played by those Roaring Boys. Two months after the passage of the above Act, we find the following (February 3, 1752) : " Last Monday night several of the glass lamps put up about the City were taken down by Persons unknown and left whole in the Meal Market altogether. It is thought to be done by some daring Rakes, in order to convince the owners how easy those lamps might be demolished with-out discovery." Another and more serious occurrence is reported in July, 1766 :

" Four officers sallied from a tavern where they had drunk too freely and near the college began to break the city lamps. A man who keeps a public house there happened to be up and leaning over his door, upon his reproving them, they gave him abusive language, rushed into the house, attacked him with their swords and wounded him in the arm. Then they alarmed and terrified the family and lodgers, some of whom they pulled from their beds. After this—they proceeded down the Broad Way and broke 34 lamps. Meeting the watch they wounded several, but one officer was arrested. The others then went for help and rescued their companion. The next day they were held under heavy bail for the Supreme Court. The penalty was L20 for each lamp."

In 1771, suggestions were made for improving the lighting of the streets. It was recommended that the lamps should be ten feet high and at a distance of fifty feet from one another and four feet out from the houses, the diameter of the lamp globe being ten inches.

Among the acts regulating good order in streets we find that in 1725, the nuisance of dogs running loose was remedied by legislation. The Act recites that "The butchers and other inhabitants of this city superabound in a very great number of mischievous mastiffs, bull-dogs and other useless dogs, who not only run at coaches, horses, chaises, and cattle in the daytime, whereby much mischief has ensued, but in the night-time are left in the streets of this city and frequently tear, bite and kill several cows and render the passage of the inhabitants upon their lawful occasions very dangerous by attacking and flying at them."

In 173 several important municipal ordinances were passed. One was intended to check mad riding through the streets by slaves as they took their masters' horses to water. If the streets were sometimes in a deplorable condition, as complaints in the papers would argue, this was not because the city fathers were in-different. In 1731, a law declared that "the former laws of this city made for paving the streets within the same have been much neglected, whereby the citizens and sojourners within the said city are much annoyed, and the intercourse of trade among the in-habitants thereby much lessened." All inhabitants of houses or owners of lots fronting on any street, lane or alley were therefore commanded (at the expense of the landlord) to pave the walk in front and keep it in repair.

In the same year, a law was passed prohibiting any person from casting into the streets, docks, or slips, ashes, oyster-shells, or any kind of carrion or filth. People were forbidden to encumber the streets with building-material. The inhabitants, moreover, " shall on every Friday, rake and sweep together all the dirt, filth and soil lying in the streets before their respective dwelling-houses, upon heaps, and on the same day, or on the Saturday following, shall cause the same to be carried away and thrown into the river, or some other convenient place."

The law for the observance of the Sabbath in New York in 1731 prohibited servile work and buying and selling. It also forbade children, youths, maids or other persons to meet and sport, play, or make noise or disturbance. No tavern-keepers were to serve customers other than travellers during divine service or preaching. During service, two or more of the constables of the six wards walked through the several streets and lanes of the city with their staffs and took care that the law was duly observed. It was enacted " that if any children, youth, apprentices, servants, or other persons, do fire and discharge any gun, or pistol at any mark, or at random against any fence, pales, or within any orchard or other inclosure, or in any place where persons frequent to walk," the offender should be fined twenty shillings.

It was customary in those days, as now, to welcome the new year with great noise. We are told, in an Act of 1773, that great damages are frequently done on the eve of the last day of December, and on the first and second days of January, by persons going from house to house with guns and other fire-arms, and being often intoxicated with liquor they have not only put the inhabitants in great terror, but committed many mischiefs. A penalty of twenty shillings was provided to stop this.

In 1769, a law was passed inflicting a penalty of twenty shillings for firing "any gun, pistol, rocket, cracker, squib, or other fire-work, in any street, lane, or alley, garden or other inclosure, or from any house, or in any other place where persons frequently walk."



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