The Emptying of Darby's Patch

By Joseph Alexiou

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On a cool November morning in 1883, George J. Hardy, Deputy Sheriff of Brooklyn, marched toward the city’s most notorious slum. Behind him followed a small army of fourteen “special assistants” — nameless men in frock coats and bowler hats — Sergeant Reeves of Brooklyn’s 10th Precinct with three of his own officers and some newspaper reporters.

Upon first approach it appeared as though nobody was lived among the meandering rows of one-story shanties. The officers commented that it seemed odd. Goats snacked on bits of scrap metal and old hoop skirts that littered the dirt-path while pigs of varying age frolicked, but no people could be seen. Still they advanced on Darby’s Patch as though ready to battle an absentee goatherd.

But when Hardy’s crew reached fifty yards from the bounds of “the Patch,” suddenly “the hillocks teemed with life, every male inhabitant coming up as if from the ground, armed to the teeth with every conceivable implement,” as described one reporter from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In 1883 this would mean metal rakes and ice picks, hammers or pokers, perhaps intentionally rusty. He added: “and the females also equipped with kitchen and other utensils, ready to defend their shanties.”

Hardy turned to the reporter, saying: “My letters must have been given to the goats and they forgot to read them.[1]

The emptying of Darby’s Patch, witnessed firsthand and colorfully documented by reporters from the winter of 1883 to spring of 1884, exploded as a news sensation in the style of a contemporary race or housing riot. The great interest in this story creates a unique convergence of primary sources on immigrant housing, and also reveals a tragicomic tone of reporting. The oft-mocking language of these reporters — from several popular newspapers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The New York World, The New York Truth, and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly— reveals as much about a middle-class 19th century writer’s insensitive attitude towards poor immigrants as the actual in which they lived. But foremost in their assessment was that the shantytown was unsavory, gave the area a bad name, and “hindered the improvement of property in that entire portion of the city.”

Bounded approximately by the blocks of Fourth Avenue, Fifth Avenue, Butler and Douglas Streets — and straddling the contemporary neighborhoods of Park Slope, Gowanus and Boerum Hill — Darby’s Patch was a rambling series of sunken lots, home to one of the largest and most infamous of Brooklyn’s shantytowns. Although many immigrant groups occupied shantytowns around the city, here the majority were laboring Irish immigrants. Other such locales reflecting similar provenance were named Kelsey’s Alley and Tinkersville, the latter example derived from a settlements of “tinkers,” a type of fix-all Irish laborer who could repair or patch all manners of metal tool or household object. It was only at this particular moment in recorded history that these were being wielded as weapons.[2]

“The Patch” had once been a useless piece of flooding meadow on the farm of early Brooklynite Thomas Poole, eventually inherited by the estate of Margaretta Remsen and her various “infant heirs,” scions of an ancient Dutch family. The land had sat undeveloped for decades, the taxes left unpaid while a modern red brick city grew up around it. Meadows gave way to modern sewers and paving stones and by the 1850s a trickle of poor Irish immigrants were soon followed by scores more, who built their homes out of scrap iron and wooden boards in rough pathways. Only a handful had some form of lease, while the rest lived rent-free, some for upwards of thirty years, as did their dogs, cats, ducks, chickens, pigs and especially, goats.[3]

But this tense scene had not yet erupted on the morning of November 14th. Sheriff Hardy and some other deputies had first visited the squatters two weeks previously, to personally deliver some unfortunate news: The Remsens had sold a large share of the Patch to developers who had obtained court orders to kick out the current residents. The squatters would have fifteen days to remove their belongings, shanties included.

“Any fool who comes this way at night with money in his pocket may be pretty sure not to keep it very long,” Hardy had told the Eagle reporter. “It will be no easy thing to remove people who have lived so long in a place they begin to regard it as their property.” Hardy had been selected for the task because had had “a reputation of knowing just how to treat with such a class of people.” The Eagle Reporter then confirms exactly to which class he was referring by this now clearly prejudiced characterization:

In answer to Mr. Hardy’s knock, a dumpy fat Irishwoman came to the door…

“Me name is Misthress Manning, if yer plase.” said the woman.

“You live here, I suppose?”

“Indade, I do. I’ve lived here fourteen long years and I expect to live as many more. But who be you? Be yeas the insurance man?"

Upon showing Mrs. Manning his badge she exclaims “O, bedad, I”ll have nothing to do with yea at all!” and attempts to shut the door. By the 1880’s, these depictions of “humorous” Irish speech patterns and lower or laboring class values were intentional and a common feature of such on-the-ground reporting in this era. They also appeared in comical stories and short anecdotes printed between longer stories, in a sort of condescending appreciation of “folksy” types, a grand American tradition. A humorous anecdote about the goats, usually eating eviction notices, appears in practically in every source at least once. The readership loved such scenes and colloquialisms, which demonstrate acceptable popular attitudes toward the urban poor. However the precision and consistency in rendering these patterns and pronunciation also demonstrate that the reporters were reporting the speech as they heard it — as most Brooklynites heard it, on the street every day. The words transport us more than a century backwards in time: “Ax me no quistions an’ I’ll yer no lies,” Mrs. Manning tells Hardy. “Go ‘way. I won’t be talkin’ to the likes o’ yea.”

The following homes Hardy visits get progressively more charmless. A six year old raven-haired girl wearing only “a torn and tattered faded calico dress” wanders around grasping a broken comb while her mother sports “a black eye and [is] evidently under the influence of liquor.” She snidely claims she can’t understand the officers, having “got the malerial [sic] fever so bad I can’t listen to yer,” and directs them to her abusive husband whom she then openly insults. The next home is a “mere shed” covered with scraps of tin. In each case, Hardy delivers the bad news to an increasingly large and disappointed crowd of squatters.

As the crowd swells the Sheriff insists he is not their enemy, but a “tool of the law” obeying orders to give the notice — on November 14th , or the very beginning of a brutal Northeast American winter — although it “gave him pain to oppress the poor.” Amid the grumbling one woman offers that he might be a respectable fellow after he hands some pennies to a young girl. After this, Hardy promises that if they move out without any trouble, he would treat them all to a beer. The crowd loudly applauds him, “That is the only way to handle those people,” he tells the reporter privately, otherwise in all future probability he will be the target of a “small shower of cobblestones.” [4]

Two weeks later, the settlers had ignored the notices and not budged an inch. Hardy had no choice but to empty out the shacks of the people and their possessions. According to the newspaper reporters, the men in bowler hats advanced through the crowd (which may have numbered several dozen based on the limited evidence) to the first of seventeen shacks on their list, knocking a pot of boiling water and the piece of corned beef from a red-hot stove once inside. “Shame on yez, to take away a pot of tay that’s been on the sthove [sic] the livelong day for twinty-five years post, och hone!” protested the woman being ejected.

The next resident, a “stout muscular woman” claims she didn’t have the key to her door and smil triumphantly having bested the law — until Hardy yells, “Get the ax, boys” to his crew and she suddenly finds it. The police and lackeys toss iron stoves, rickety furniture and old clothes out of the dilapidated hovels onto Fifth Avenue — One reporter from the New York World describes this as “carefully placed” with shamelessly cruel irony. The “motley crowd” grows rowdy and louder, pushing against the police line but somehow direct violence never erupts en masse. One resident, Mrs. MacEvoy, yells an offer to feed Hardy’s face to her goat, because it “needs the color.” Another, an old man corners a deputy and loudly promises him all kinds of vengeance to the entertainment of the protesters. At the very last house a “man stood at the door with an axe in his left hand and a carving knife in the other,” insisting the premises are empty.[5]

To the contemporary reader the tone of reporting by major newspapers contains conspicuous mockery for people whose only worldly possessions were being tossed into the street. An entire generation of Irish-Americans, born and raised in Patch, had witnessing their natal homes being razed. But in this era, such close documentation of poor immigrant plight was especially modern: In previous decades news reports would have given little no information at all about the people or their conditions and told no stories beyond that they were being kicked out. Newspapers like the Brooklyn Daily Eagleor the Evening Star published many interviews and reports of the brutality faced by the inhabitants of Darby’s Patch, including names and long histories of living in the neighborhood. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated weekly rendered the story with detailed woodblock illustrations so even illiterate audiences could comprehend the scene. [6]

Also, according to all accounts, the squatters simply returned to their homes the following day, possessions in hand and continued living there as though nothing had happened. Many of the unfortunate refugees complained later to the papers about the abuse of their stoves being broken, now written with noticeable hint of amusement or appreciation for the doggedness by the papers. Because of the cold weather, as the Eagle reported, or perhaps the sensationalism the story created, the authorities decided to delay and give Darby’s Patch until the Spring to clean out.

Right on schedule Hardy’s evictions began again on March 25, 1884. The crowd of protesters now numbered in the hundreds but they were outnumbered by the police. As with the first emptying, the stories are heavy with stereotypical renderings of the poor, although with one noticeable sign of empathy: one woman, described sobbing in the street next to her belongings, is seen being consoled by former neighbors. In a most outstanding example of 19th century Brooklyn ethno-politics, crews of Italian laborers — the “new” immigrants whose presence would become strongly visible in South Brooklyn by 1890 — were hired to tear down the Irish laborers’ shanties.[7][8]

One year later, in May of 1885, a news story detailing local public works declared the Darby’s Patch had been filled in with “ash and fresh earth.” The area, like many other “nuisances,” would now be ripe for development and the progress of the great city of Brooklyn. A small section of a larger story, it reads as a sort of civic obituary, describing the area as having been home to more than a thousand squatters, not to mention their cows, pigs, and so forth. Despite evolving to a gentler language regarding their conditions in the media since 1885, a dismissive and contemptuous attitude towards immigrants and working poor persists in our national conversation, including many who live in the New York area today.

And just like today, these working class 19thcentury immigrants were vital to the sanitation, construction, and delivery of goods that made possible the comfortable urban lifestyle of the literate and moneyed classes. Yet when these reporters described such livelihoods, which had afforded “the luxury of dirt-floor homes made of old scrap in a damp, sunken lot,” they couldn’t resist at one last stinging jab: “They had been junksmen, teamsters, longshoremen and day laborers, when they chose to labor.” [9]

Joseph Alexiou is the newsest editor of the Gotham blog, and the author of Gowanus: Brooklyn's Curious Canal (NYU Press, 2015).


Notes

[1]“Darby’s Patch: Forcible Dethronement of Squatter Sovereigns,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 16, 1883, 4.

[2]“A Deserted Village” The New York Truth, Nov. 17, 1883, 1.

[3]“Suing to Recover Arrears of Taxes and Assessments”, Brooklyn Daily Eagle Oct. 10, 1883, 4.

[4]“The Squatters,”Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 29 Sept 1883, 1

[5]Darby’s Patch: Forcible Dethronement of Squatter Sovereigns,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 16, 1883, 4.

[6]Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, Dec 8th, 1883, 45

[7]“Squatters, Ejectment Proceedings at Darby’s Patch,” Brooklyn Daily, Eagle, March 22 1884, 3

[8]“Spring Moving in Darby’s Patch,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 25, 1884, 2

[9]“The Fourth District: Good Work on the Sunken Lots, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 9 1885, pg. 1