This article is by Jack Kelly, the author of Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal (St. Martin’s Press), a lively account of the canal and the many excitement generated along its banks that was published in July.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Erie Canal made the Big Apple. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, a number of cities were competing to be the nation’s greatest port and commercial center. That honor depended on tapping the abundant supply of grain, lumber and other resources of the vast Middle West. The audacious, 360-mile waterway that New York State built between 1817 and 1825 solidified New York’s claim, pushing the city ahead of New Orleans, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Today, signs of that great project are scattered around New York, although the city itself is the greatest symbol of the canal’s phenomenal success.
Photo via Chrysalis Architecture
On a regular basis, sites of an older New York City are exposed by heavy construction, allowing archaeologists to give New Yorkers a more detailed history of their city’s roots. Here are a few notable archaeological sites found in Manhattan.
On an otherwise calm September 16th in 1903, only a day and a half before the massive “Vagabond” hurricane devastated portions of the city, rival members of two notorious Lower East Side gangs squared off under the elevated platform of the Second Avenue train line. The lengthy and bloody gunfight that ensued was possibly the largest of its kind in American History.
In dispute was a narrow strip of real estate considered to be old New York’s premiere red light district – the Bowery. The largely Jewish “Eastmans,” named for their brutish, pockmarked leader, Edward “Monk” Eastman, held the territory south of 14th street and east of the Bowery. Paul Kelly, a charismatic former pugilist, ran the predominantly Italian “Five Points Gang” under the guise of a political club called the Paul Kelly Association. Five Points territory covered much of lower Manhattan west of the Bowery.
The Draft Riots of 1863 are regarded as the deadliest racially incensed insurrection in American history, aside from the Civil War. Image via history.com
A number of factors led to the worst series of street riots in American History. With the Civil War well underway and the Union army strapped for supplies and soldiers, draft officers were forced to make a difficult decision in New York, whose economy was still tightly connected with the South and whose population contained a large number of working class Irish citizens and families who resented the laws that allowed wealthier men to circumvent the upcoming drafts. What followed the second drawing of the Union Army draft in New York was four days of destruction cutting a swathe across the entire island, ending only when President Abraham Lincoln ordered military force against it.
The riots reached far and wide throughout 19th century Manhattan; here are seven notable spots, famous now for their fighting, or their surprising lack of fighting.
Manhattan’s Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest concentrations of Chinese people outside of China. Still comprising more than 90,000 inhabitants as of today, its colorful banners and bustling street marketplaces are a persisting fixture of Lower Manhattan. It can trace the inklings of its history down to a single person, Guangzhou-born businessman Ah Ken, who was the first person to permanently settle in the area that is now known as Chinatown in 1858. Today, it faces decline due to rising rents and the looming threat of gentrification, but holds with it an illustrious history, from Ah Ken’s original cigar shop to the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act to the immense expansion and diffusion to other New York Chinatowns after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
And yet, amid the changing times, demographics, and culture of what began as a small outcropping of the first Chinese immigrants to America, are the conversely unchanging roads and alleys that frame it. Some, like the infamous Doyers Street, are able to be traced back to the late 19th century. Others, like Pell Street, have only become recently recognizable due to its exposure on film and television.
In any case, if you ever find yourself wandering around Canal Street with little to do but learn about Chinatown’s history and people (as is frequently the case), the only thing you need to do is follow the streets. Here are a 5 notable alleys to check out:
Photo Eddie Hausner, from the NY Times, 1959
Yesterday, we covered 10 buildings that refused to be demolished in the face of development. These spunky buildings (and the people who lived in or owned them, of course), make for some of the best New York City stories. Sometimes however, whole neighborhoods get lost in New York. Many have made way for some of New York City’s most famous neighborhoods, but today we’re highlighting some of the stories and people who once traversed the streets daily.
Radio Row, which became the World Trade Center. Image via ArchRecord.