By Robert M. Dowling
Manhattan’s major waterfront area in the late nineteenth century was located in the Fourth Ward, a district that formed an apron around the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. In 1885, the Fourth Ward contained 30 acres of tenements that housed around 17,000 people. The area had been awash with cheap groceries, rat pits, and stale beer dives for years, and due to the growing population of transient sailors, prostitute traffic thickened exponentially; at this time in New York history, the Fourth Ward was, as historian Timothy Gilfoyle describes it, “the most significant and the poorest waterfront zone of prostitution” (218). But the waterfront was also the centerpiece of an international trade city, signifying plurality and opacity. The vortex of sailors and longshoremen from all parts of the globe swelling into and out of the shops and bars along the East River was in continuous motion. Significantly, the district appealed to no one ethnicity, class, race, or gender. Ethnically cohesive neighborhoods, or “ghettoes,” would only emerge when jobs and industries became associated with specific ethnic groups–garments for the Jewish, cigars for the Bohemians, etc. But through the 1870s and ’80s, the East Side waterfront region of New York, though perhaps mainly Irish, was still composed of workers and unemployed groups that largely allied themselves with trade and the lifestyle of the wharves rather than with any particular language, religion, or national origin.
But rather than emphasizing class distinctions, middle-class reformers maintained through the 1880s that the slum was an inevitable symptom of deviant lifestyles as opposed to group identity or even collective class consciousness–social historian David Ward reports that “popular indictments emphasized moral and personal relationships rather than structural and social conditions” (48). The underprivileged, therefore, became preeminently associated with both geographic space and individual interactions within that space. One all-night missionary on Baxter Street vividly renders the culturally diverse nature of the waterfront population in this way:
The audience was gathered from neighboring alleys, narrow streets, saloons, dance-halls, and dives. Jews, Gentiles, olive-skinned Italians, and almond-eyed Chinamen, sat side by side. Sailors were in the majority. Dissolute women, both white and black, and a few loafers . . . A scattering of beggars and tramps sought refuge from the wintry blast. Several boys and girls, attracted by the singing, helped to fill the room. (Campbell Darkness 194)
Reinforcing this image during a walk along the waterfront, the moral reformer Helen Campbell discovers “one of the most curious features of night life in New York,–the sidewalk restaurants” (215). In these odd venues, “no one is turned away, and sailors, negro longshoremen, marketmen, and stray women, come and go, and fare alike” (215). If New York was the quintessential American trade city, with all of its side streets and subcultures, the waterfront was at its pitiless core the ideal location for proving the effectiveness of immersing oneself in the climate of poverty and moral laxity–comprehend it and the remainder of the city would be an open book.
New York writing after the Civil War reflected the growing popularity of the social sciences over Protestant evangelicalism to address the issue of New York’s increasingly identifiable and morally problematic “lower” districts. The corollary in literary history is the transition from sentimentalism to realism, from a preoccupation with plot-driven pathos to social concerns, material referents, deterministic scientific theories, and unheroic character play. Sentimental and sensational modes of representing New York life spliced with the social sciences during America’s Gilded Age into a new mode that might be called “moral realism,” a fusion of the romantic and the pragmatic practiced by such reform writers as Charles Loring Brace, Helen Campbell, and Jacob Riis, a group whose explicit aim was nothing less than to change the face of urban America. What comes into focus in the 1880s and ’90s is the conviction that moral systems are inherent to specific regions, that in order for mainstream outsiders to overcome the problem of urban representation in their documentary-style writing, they must adopt new methods of investigation and engage the “lower million” more objectively on their own ground–in the streets, missions, and tenements of New York neighborhoods that had thrived and developed mythologies and mysteries of their own.
Brace, Campbell, and Riis intermingled Protestant gospel with sociology, stark melodrama with appalling statistics, romantic characterization with interviews, and caricatured settings with specific sites of inquiry–urban neighborhoods that outsider audiences were encouraged to explore for themselves. Poverty then became a provable, tangible lifestyle that had deeply-rooted and seemingly irreversible effects. Like the sentimental or sensational text, characters in the new mode were rewarded for choosing the right moral path after experiencing a series of temptations, but the stories were “real” and the characters could be literally sought out at a neighborhood mission or downtown saloon. Moral realists condemned “low class” neighborhood cultures in favor of cultural assimilation. But rather than passively observing their subjects, they immersed themselves in the society of each site by exercising an inductive process of investigative journalism.
Although outsider texts like Campbell’s The Problem of the Poor (1882) and Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890) reflect an altruistic middle-class concern for the inhabitants of lower Manhattan, New York society and its urban investigators still retained their “moral interpretations of poverty” (Ward 43). A process of polarization was at work, regarded as both necessary and repugnant by uptown New Yorkers. This division was precipitated by increasingly isolated job sites, inadequate housing, and neighborhood displacement, and reformers mobilized to manage the crisis. The slums both emerged and were transformed from the 1850s to the Civil War, and by the late 1880s, the distinctive qualities of many neighborhoods that had been singled-out by moral suasion efforts were effectively incapacitated. If Paula Rabinowitz theorizes that “slumming” in the 1930s was “more likely the regulation of working people’s desires than the expression of middle-class pleasures,” a practice manifested in “ritual encounters between those whose lives were privileged to observe, regulate, and detail the behaviors of others” (188), the 1870s and ’80s were, in fact, the heyday of slumming as social regulation. By 1895, to give one high-profile example, the notorious Five Points area had been, as Helen Campbell recalled, “long ago reduced to order and decency by forces working for good” (51).
A precursor to the more celebrated “slum journalist” Jacob Riis, Helen Campbell, again, balances on the threshold between sentimentalism and realism in American literary history. On the one hand, she is a persistent Protestant moralizer, and her parabolic tales of lower-class woe come straight from the altruistic preacher Lyman Abbott’s pulpit. On the other, she is a part of the growing literary realist movement in the United States, one dedicated to rendering the lower classes in a humanistic light. In Campbell, prostitutes can be tough-willed fighters in a terrifying urban environment rather than “scarlet whores of Babylon,” convicts can be reformers not lost souls, and immigrants can be non-parochial. In some ways, like her contemporary William Dean Howells, Campbell “defected” from her middle-class foundation as a result of “dissatisfaction with reigning genteel conventions” (Burrows and Wallace 1179), and she did so by adopting insider voices for outsider consumption….
Earlier on, in the 1860s and ’70s, middle-class New Yorkers had become exasperated by the lowering moral standards on the waterfront, and expectations for reform there were high. Always responsive to popular demand, moral reformers soon poured into the area, but they abruptly found themselves ill-equipped to restrain the denizens of Water and Cherry Streets and eventually resorted to acting out publicity stunts to keep up appearances. The New York Times broke an incriminating story about one group of Protestant reformers led by the Reverend A. C. Arnold. The missionaries, as it turned out, had been bribing dive bar owners, rat pit proprietors, and gang members to act as if they had been “saved” by the area’s Howard Street Mission, at that time running prayer meetings in the worst dens. One businessman caustically referred to the carnival as “sheer humbug,” and the notorious rat pit proprietor Kit Burns laughed openly after finding out that a local saloon and brothel owner named John Allen was hosting evangelical prayer meetings: “I’ve known Johnny Allen fourteen years and he couldn’t be a pious man if he tried ever so hard. You might as well ask a rat to sing like a canary bird as to make a Christian out of that chap” (qtd in Bonner 32)….
It was a desperate fraud, and Luc Sante reports that “the actual congregants at the saloon services were almost uniformly businessmen from other parts of town, and even these were less steadfast in their attendance, being driven out of Kit Burns’s, at least, by the overpowering stench of rat and dog carcasses buried under the bleachers” (280)….Kit Burns’s rat pit prayer meetings at 273 Water Street drew a good deal of skepticism, and a public inquiry ensued regarding both Burns and the missionaries; but it was Burns himself that precipitated an end to the meetings. One night after the clergymen and ladies had over-stayed their welcome, Burns, the living embodiment of the stereotyped waterfront insider, announced to a group of reporters, “them fellows has been making a pul-pit out of my rat pit and I’m going to purify it after them.” “Jim!” he yelled over to his barman, “Bring out the vermin” (qtd in Bonner 32). Jim heartily responded by flinging rats into the meeting while gamblers howled hymns in grotesque mockery of the choir. Burns soon after mandated a nightly show and referred to his sacrament as one that “ratified” the meetings (Bonner 33). For the police, this was the last straw. Turning a blind eye to an illegal gambling ring that abused New York’s mushrooming rodent population was one thing, but to abuse respectable ladies and popular clergymen in such a foul-mannered way was quite another. Within a few weeks, they shut the place down once and for all.
Outsider reformers on the East Side waterfront clearly required more savvy methods of acculturation. Rather than rent out an immoral venue for moral suasion as Campbell’s predecessors had done at Burns’s and elsewhere, a method that did little but amuse the insiders it was designed to convert, Campbell chose to engage the waterfront on a more personal level. She saw the disturbing social constructions taking place on the waterfront as an unremitting cycle of destructive behavior that must be stopped dead in its tracks, and she rose to this reformist challenge by working to construct a new method of urban reform. She explains that rather than depend on dusty deductions producing outdated generalizations on the nature of poverty and the poor, she would immerse herself, for better or for worse, in the landscape and society of the slums. Thus, her matrix of action was not the industrial school or parlor discussions of the “low classes,” but the waterfront district itself…..By immersing herself in waterfront culture, Campbell accumulates first-hand knowledge that would aid her and her outsider compeers in the struggle to reform the urban poor; looking “from within, out,” she discovers a system of morality that was to be effectively torn down. In time, she implies, New York would experience a series of cultural implosions, and in their wake the city would emerge a shining moral example to the rest of the nation. One neighborhood at a time, New York would become the city on the hill–it would transform into the model American community, towering and knowable.
Robert M. Dowling received his Ph.D. from the City University of New York and is Associate Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University. He has taught seminars on New York writing, Eugene O’Neill, American Literary Realism, and many other topics in American literary studies. Slumming in New York: From the Waterfront to Mythic Harlem, his first book, appeared this summer. He is currently working on two new book projects, Critical Companion to Eugene O’Neill: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, and a critical anthology on Eugene O’Neill’s early bohemian and radical influences.
Bonner, Arthur. Jerry McAuley and His Mission. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1967.
Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Campbell, Helen with Thomas W. Byrnes and Thomas W. Knox. Darkness and Daylight, or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life. 1891. Hartford, Conn.: A.D. Worthington and Co., 1895.
Gilfoyle, Timothy J. City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992.
Howells, William Dean. “New York Streets.” In Impressions and Experiences. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1896: 245-81.
Rabinowitz, Paula. “Margaret Bourke-White’s Red Coat; or, Slumming In the 1930s.” Ed. Bill Pullen. Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture. Champaign: University of Illinois Press: 187-207.
Sante, Luc. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. 1991. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Ward, David. Poverty, Ethnicity, and the American City, 1840-1925. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.