As I mentioned earlier, we will start with the making of Five Points. The Five Points was originally a pond called "the Collect." "By the end of the eighteenth century, contamination from the tanneries, slaughterhouses, and other industries had transformed the Collect from a lovely landmark into a putrid nuisance."(1) A few ideas floated around about how to deal with the site before 1802 when it was settled that it would be filled in with land. Five Points emerged fairly quickly with the name coined in 1829 by the press. A number of factors contributed to the deterioration of the site and the establishment of Five Points. Nevertheless, it became a haven for migrants, immigrants and tenements. Initially, the community was made up of artisans and a large African American population. By the 1830s the neighborhood was attracting Irish and German immigrants. The fact that it was previously a pond and not well drained didn't help in that it made the ground muddy which helped in no small part to the spread of disease. For example, the cholera outbreak of 1832 hit Five Points pretty hard. At this juncture in the unit, I might use excerpts from the film
Gangs of New York
. It will give the students the opportunity to look at and evaluate Scorcese's vision of New York. Students should ask questions about how he chooses to communicate the story of immigration, ethnic identity, and historic formations. And how he specifically uses the landscape of New York City and Five Points to communicate these themes to his film audience.
I would present background information on The Five Points with a PowerPoint presentation. After providing the student with some information on the making of Five Points and it's population, I would have them read a chapter from Anbinder's book, "Prologue: 'The Wickedest House on the Wickedest Street That Ever Existed'" This chapter discusses the Bowery of Five Points. It serves as a nice historical introduction to the text,
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
which takes place in the Bowery. The portrait of the family in
appears to be an Irish family who is definitely plagued by the depravity of the tenements. The tenement is reminiscent of a hell where fighting and drunkenness are any everyday norm and promiscuousness, as the title suggests, can lead to a lady's downfall. Still, the landscape or environment itself is not without blame. A key component to the study of the book will be the environmental factors that contribute to Maggie's downfall.
In the mid-nineteenth century there were moralistic forces at work that advocated prohibition and the elimination of prostitution as well as environmental reformers. The environmental reformers are of special interest to this unit because they felt that changing the landscape, the environment would change the behaviors of the people. Environmental reformers believed that it was virtually impossible to lead a life of decency when living in squalor. The environment itself was the force making their lives unbearable not the moral fiber of the poor themselves.(2)
Further exploration of New York tenements will be aided by the book,
How the Other Half Lives
by Jacob Riis. Jacob Riis was a photojournalist and social reformer. He felt strongly that changing the environment for the better would cut down on the vice in the tenements. As part of his plight to eradicate slums, Riis took pictures of the tenement life and wrote,
How the Other Half Lives
. The photographs document the poor conditions of tenement life in New York City. This was tenement life post Five Points when reforms were already in the works. A sanitary survey in 1864 of New York prompted changes in the tenements such as windows in some of the rooms for ventilation. Some of the living quarters were in the center of the building without windows or ventilation.(3) Riis felt that the poor environmental conditions of the tenements made it virtually impossible for the residents to thrive or be expected to conduct themselves in a civilized manner. Students will look at both Riis' text and images and ask whether the two reinforce the same message or not. A map of the tenements on page 1190 of Homberger's, The Historical Atlas of New York City: A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City's History shows the preponderance of tenements in New York. The dilapidated housing lined the edges of the city on both the Hudson River side and the East River side. The wealthiest residents lived in the middle on Fifth Avenue and moved up the city to escape the squalor that threatened to bleed into their lives. Map page 100.
Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century
The Park and the People: A History of Central Park
it was evident that class structures and value systems were revealed through the parks of New York. As the American people, moved from a more formal and cultured mode of entertainment to one of the Coney Island variety, the people's values were clearly changing too. This is the type of progression of and interconnection of landscapes, values, and people I hope to delve into through the material I will present in this unit. Central Park was envisioned as a respectable place to enjoy nature as a respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. Frederick Law Olmsted and the Board of Commissioners of Central Park did their best to uphold certain standards of conduct through the rules of the park. First of all, the park was frequented by people in carriages or horses. This population represented a wealthy class that traversed the park to see and be seen. Although this was a small percentage of patrons, the rules and location excluded the poorer people of New York almost entirely. It was envisioned as a park for everyone, but excluded some who found entertainment to be something other than merely enjoying the scenic atmosphere. Some of the rules that Olmsted and the board worked to instill made it virtually forbidden to sit on or walk on the grass or touch the nature. There were no baseball fields for fear of the gambling and raucous behavior. Although there were some modes of entertainment like ice skating and music concerts, the sense of team activities was pretty rare. Central Park reflected a demure sense of amusement while catering to a mostly upper and middle class clientele. (4)
In contrast to Central Park, Coney Island catered to a more working class clientele. The actual landscape of Coney Island in the form of the parks illuminated the changing modes of entertainment and lifestyle among Americans. Mass industrialization and a massive rise in European immigration gave rise to consumers participating in Coney Island. The parks, Steeplechase, Luna, and Dreamland, each worked to outdo one another and succeeded. Frederic Thompson, one of the founders of Luna Park, was an architect by trade and used this knowledge to assist in the creation of a fantastical amusement park. He merged a multitude of architecture styles to create the illusion of being somewhere else for the customers. Between the amazing structures, the lights and the amusements the park transported its clients out of the humdrum, even arduous lives they lead outside the park to another world of grand entertainment. Not only did the creators utilize the landscape of the architecture to transform the leisure time of the customers, but the use of everyday urban transportation was transformed into something fantastical. The carts of coal mines and the railroads served as inspiration for rides. Hence, the first roller-coasters were invented. Unlike Central Park, Coney Island was alive with the technological advancements of the time. The people were brought together through the amusements themselves and the humor of self deprecating behavior. Between items such as the house of mirrors and rides that invoked physical closeness and thrills people were expressing themselves in very different ways than in Central Park.
There were plans for urban renewal between 1945 and 1965 in New York City. In a last minute 1946 deal, the United Nations building was destined for New York along the East River. Thus solidifying the role of New York city as THE international city. (5) Although New York had the reputation of a cosmopolitan city, race relations were not quite progressive. There was a lot of racism in New York and the United Nations soon found this out. Although the plans for urban renewal were plans for improvement, the reality was that sometimes new ghettos were created and people were displaced. Thus furthering the plight of certain classes and races of people.
West Side Story
is an interesting film for this unit because it takes place in the mid 1950s and was filmed in 1960 where Lincoln Center would soon take over. Therefore, the film documents the landscape pre-Lincoln Center and a little during the slum clearance or renewal process. This is the perfect opportunity for students utilize their close reading skills. The film opens with the an aerial view of the lower part of the city and works it's way through the city by highlighting various aspects of the cityscape from above. Finally, the film hits the ground and the lives of the Jets and the Sharks on 67
streets between Amsterdam and West End avenues.(6) If possible, it would be awesome to take the students to Lincoln Center after viewing the film, reading, and discussing the issues of it. We could do a little walking tour of the area using the map overlay application for our phones to view a map of the area in 1960 while meandering the center for art. Maybe we could even catch a film or ballet or maybe that is too much.
As I read
Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York
the complexities of urban renewal in 20
century New York are becoming clear. There are a number of forces at work in the undertaking of urban renewal and a whole other force advocating against it and exposing it as a problematic endeavor. Although it is a work in progress, I am thinking the students will examine urban renewal, visions of future cities, the interaction between landscapes and the individual, and their implications for city life. Some of the potential arguments students will be able to construct in the course of the unit relate to the complexities of urban renewal and city structures in general. For example, racial segregation, environmentalism, changing value systems, and class division are all issues that face cities. These are just some of the topics students could build arguments around as a result of our research as well as their individual research.