Magazine April 20, 2020, Issue

New York City in Crisis, from the Revolution to the Coronavirus

A worker moves hospital beds during the outbreak of the coronavirus in New York City, March 31, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
A history of perilous times

It’s official. Vice President Pence said the New York City metropolitan area is a “high-risk area.” Large problems happen to large numbers of people; inevitably they appear in New York, which has been one of the largest cities in North America for centuries.

George Washington had the Declaration of Independence read to his army in New York on July 9, 1776. He and they were about to lose the city to the enemy. Washington was outnumbered, 19,000 versus a British expeditionary force of 32,000. Worse, he was attempting to defend an island city, and only the enemy had brought a fleet. The last American post on Manhattan fell on November 16.

Early in the enemy occupation a fire destroyed about a third of New York. Patriot saboteurs may have set it; enraged inhabitants certainly thought so — during the blaze suspicious characters were summarily thrown into the flames. After that disaster the occupation settled into a long trying slog. The outflow of patriot refugees was matched by an influx of loyalists. In time the island was denuded as trees were cut for firewood. American prisoners of war fared worst; the British put them in disease-ridden ships in the East River; thousands died, their bones still turning up on the Brooklyn waterfront decades later.

The city became a hive of espionage. Our former NR colleague Alexander Rose detailed American operations in his book Washington’s Spies, and in Turn, the TV series made from it. On the British side, John André, based in New York, worked the recruitment of Benedict Arnold. After Arnold’s treachery was exposed, he fled to New York. Washington approved an elaborate plan to extract him. John Champe, a bold young cavalryman, staged a bogus defection and offered his services to Arnold. Champe planned to snatch the traitor from his garden one night and, with the help of agents in place, spirit him across the Hudson to patriot hands. But at the last minute, Arnold shipped out to lead an invasion of Virginia. Champe re-defected to his proper side later in the war.

Two years after the Battle of Yorktown, months after the Treaty of Paris, the British finally left New York, on November 25, 1783. The south-facing equestrian statue of Washington in Union Square Park represents his return. In a departing act of spite the British nailed the Union Jack to the flagpole at Manhattan’s southern tip and cut the halyard. A young American managed to clamber up and replace it with the Stars and Stripes.

New York’s next great disaster was natural. Cholera is a bacterial infection of the small intestine, typically spread by bad sanitation. The first cholera pandemic began in India in 1817. Then as now the world was interconnected, but things moved more slowly. The disease appeared in Russia and central Europe in 1830–31 — a century-plus later, my late father-in-law, of Russian-Jewish stock, used “cholyera” as an epithet — then England and France. In early June 1832 it arrived in Quebec, whence it moved up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal and Ogdensburg, N.Y. Patient zero in New York City was an Irishman named Fitzgerald.

One New Yorker who came down with a mild case was former mayor Philip Hone. Son of immigrants, Hone had become wealthy in the auction business. His politics were anti-Jacksonian, his manners upper-class, and he kept one of the great diaries of the 19th century. In it he complained of the dietary restrictions his doctors imposed during “these ‘cholera times.’” “Beef and mutton are allowed, but vegetables and fruit are strictly interdicted. The peaches and melons in vain throw their fragrance around. We look at them, we sigh for their enjoyment — but we don’t touch them. . . . It is too much [for the] frailty of human nature.”

Cholera bore more heavily on the frailty of other New Yorkers. The symptoms of a bad case were diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration. Skin turned blue; death could come in a few days, sometimes hours. Virtually all New Yorkers who had the means to do so — an estimated 100,000 of them, half the city’s population — fled. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s steamboats did a brisk business ferrying the lucky away. The poor remained, and suffered. Hospitals shut their doors against them; only Bellevue admitted them. Many of New York’s poor were immigrants. Hone, one generation removed, did not view them charitably. “Irish and Germans [are] filthy, intemperate, unused to the comforts of life, and regardless of its proprieties. They flock to the populous towns . . . with disease contracted on shipboard, and increased by bad habits on shore.” However bad their habits, they were felled now not by intemperance but by living in a booming city without a sewage system or clean drinking water. Three thousand died. Cholera visited again in 1849 and 1854, when it slew 5,000 and 2,000 New Yorkers, respectively.

As New York improved its infrastructure, the threat of cholera withered. The next disaster involved shooting in the streets — not by enemy invaders, but by Americans fighting each other. In 1863 the Union found it necessary to institute conscription. The well-heeled, however, could avoid service by paying for substitutes — a recipe for social discord. Another toxic ingredient was the feeling, strong among New York’s Irish poor, that they were being made to fight to free black slaves, even as they competed with free blacks for low-end jobs. A riot began on July 13 with the burning of a draft wheel — the contraption that picked the names of draftees at random. It quickly morphed into a citywide saturnalia of arson, looting, and mayhem, paralyzing New York for four days. The classic account comes from another copious diarist, George Templeton Strong, a lawyer, a trustee of Columbia College, and a vestryman of Trinity Church (Episcopalian, of course). Strong was also an active member of the Republican Party and a supporter of the war effort, who looked no more kindly on the lower orders than Philip Hone had. His nightly notations are flashes of detail in a fog of unease — like Twitter or cable news. “Eleven PM. Firebells clanking, as they have clanked at intervals throughout the evening. . . . Mob fired upon. It generally runs, but on one occasion it appears to have rallied, charged the police and militia, and forced them back in disorder. . . . Shops were cleaned out, and a black man hanged in Carmine Street for no offence but that of Nigritude.” As the hours became days, Strong’s rage against the rioters built. The “Irish anti-conscription Nigger-murdering mob” is “a jacquerie that must be put down by heroic doses of lead and steel.” It was. U.S. Army units, many of them with Irish-American troops, took over from local law enforcement, firing howitzers up the city’s avenues. In a gloomy poem on the riots, another observer, Herman Melville, described the end-game thus: “Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll / Of black artillery.” So much, Melville added, for “the Republic’s faith / . . . that man is naturally good, / And — more — is Nature’s Roman, never to be scourged.” The official death toll was 119, but Walt Whitman in Washington was told, by his brother Thomas writing from Brooklyn, that the real figure was much higher. “The papers are not allowed to publish this. I suppose it is much better not to let it be known.”

In my lifetime the city saw two catastrophes. I moved here in the summer of 1977, which was enlivened by a blackout and the murders of the Son of Sam (the nom de crime of David Berkowitz, a crazed postal worker who preyed on women and corresponded with Jimmy Breslin). There was only one killing during the actual blackout, but 1,600 stores were looted and 4,500 people arrested. One of my friends at the gym, a youth at the time, remembered yearning to join the fun until his mother told him, “You sit your black ass down!” He took her advice.

And then there was 9/11. It happened in a magazine week, as the editorial section was being put to bed — rewritten, in a daze. NRO was relatively new then; the impressions of that week, and month, were recorded there by Rich, me, Professor Hanson. They were horrible — uniquely so, in many respects. But we had also been there before. One rallying spot for bewildered, mournful, ultimately determined New Yorkers was Union Square. We hung George Washington’s statue with posters, flags.

This article appears as “New York City in Crisis” in the April 20, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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