Review of ‘Scenes from the Life of a City’

Scenes from the Life of a City
Eric Homberger
Yale University Press

New York — who can resist it? Beautiful and cruel, shameless, arrogant, crazed by greed and as American, always, as Main Street, New York exerts a fascination that never quits. New York seems in so many ways to be America writ large and gaudy, it's us to the nth, or as one 19th-century writer called it, "an intensification of the country."

And if that is so today, this book by an American expatriate living in England shows that it was just as true in the 19th century, when, rather like today, avarice, hypocrisy and combativeness underlay much of the city's life. New York in the past century was like life itself, an arena of constant struggle between vice and virtue, with the outcome never certain. The swindlers and dirty pols and abortionists along with the reformers and overmatched do-gooders who parade through these pages are like characters in an allegory or a splendid comic opera. This is rich, savory, overblown stuff — Mencken would have been irresistible with this material-and it leaves us with two contradictory messages: 1) things never change, and 2) OK, maybe they do, but not much.

We follow the careers of two heroes and two villains. Dr. Stephen Smith managed to buck the inertia of the New York gentry to establish the Metropolitan Board of Health in 1866. Smith made a sanitary survey of the city in the years before the Civil War that revealed the appalling disease-breeding conditions in the city's slums. The received wisdom of the time was that poverty was due to character defects, especially those peculiar to immigrants. It was also thought that without poverty there would be no labor and thus no wealth, and that "need" was therefore essential to the civilized order of things.

Smith battled these assumptions to achieve a health code that for the first time regulated the squalor permitted by landlords. The result was at least statistically impressive: in its first six months the new health board removed 103 dead horses from the city, 3,865 deceased dogs and cats, and 38,314 loads of "night soil," not to mention 155,520 pounds of "unsound fish."

The other hero is Frederick Law Olmsted, who emerged as a beacon of integrity and sensitivity as the designer and architect of Central Park. Olmsted managed what appeared to be an impossibility: he designed and built a tremendous, hugely expensive civic project without stealing or helping anyone else steal, and did a magnificent job in the process. Part of Olmsted's secret was his link to the city's upper crust, which smoothed his way, but his success was mainly due to his intelligence, foresight and sensitivity to the constituencies, including the poor, that he served.

The villains, of course, make for better reading. "Slippery Dick" Connolly was an up-from-the-streets Irish kid who paid his dues in the Tammany organization and was ultimately rewarded by becoming comptroller in a city administration where up to 65 percent of all expenditures wound up in the billfolds of Connolly, his leader "Boss" Tweed and their cohorts.

The Tweed Ring was New York moxie in action; they stole almost openly, with the attitude that they somehow deserved whatever booty they could pillage. When civic righteousness finally bubbled to the surface in 1871, Slippery Dick was abandoned by his sometime patron Tweed, but Connolly got the last laugh by jumping bail on New Year's Day 1872 and fleeing to a European exile made bearable by a rumored $6 million cushion. He also had the satisfaction of seeing one of his prosecutors on the reformist "Committee of Seventy" nailed for embezzlement.

There is ambivalence in these tales of shame and rascality, and there should be, because these are heroes with dirt on their boots and villains with the occasional semi-redeeming virtue. Connolly lived long enough to receive a strangely friendly obituary notice in the New York Times, which called him "a man of sagacity and shrewd common sense." And the final villain, the abortionist known as "Madame Restell," comes off as almost (but not quite) as much victim as victimizer.

An immigrant from England, Madame Restell became a wealthy if not venerated figure in New York, owner of a grand mansion on Fifth Avenue, by offering a service that was at first generally tolerated and later somewhat hypocritically condemned. Though illegal, abortions in 19th-century New York were an acceptable option for many high-caste women, and the newspaper ads offering a "remedy for married ladies whose health forbids a too rapid increase of family" were all but explicit. But Madame Restell, like so many who work the frontiers of permissible behavior, was overtaken by a change in the public mind. When reformers came howling after her she fought back with a blend of outspoken self-defense-contending that she was performing a useful social service — and discreet bribery, but it was too late. She endured one relatively comfortable jail term, but when she was about to be tried again she climbed into a bathtub and cut her throat with a carving knife.

Homberger might have had more fun with his material (though not Restell's suicide), but all in all he does a creditable job. He demonstrates that there have been few long-term victories in the eternal battle for New York City's soul, that greed, poverty, hypocrisy and corruption are always with us. But then there is also the occasional Olmsted, the surprising Smith, the recurrent saviors, offering just enough hope to make the struggle interesting.

Donald Dale Jackson is a writer based in rural Connecticut.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.