Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sick and the city

Check out John Noble Wilford's NYTimes piece on how Cholera outbreaks of 1832 and 1849 shaped the evolution of New York.

The initial response to the epidemic, Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia University, said recently, exposed more than ever the city’s divisions of class, race and religion. The disease hit hardest in the poorest neighborhoods, particularly the slum known as Five Points, where African-Americans and immigrant Irish Catholics were crowded in squalor and stench.

“Other New Yorkers looked down on the victims,” said Dr. Jackson, editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City. “If you got cholera, it was your own fault.”

Unlike most upper-class residents, John Pintard, the respected civic leader who was the historical society’s founder, remained in the stricken city. His letters to one of his daughters are included in the exhibition.

The epidemic, he wrote in an attitude typical of his peers, “is almost exclusively confined to the lower classes of intemperate dissolute & filthy people huddled together like swine in their polluted habitations.”

In another letter, his judgment was even harsher. “Those sickened must be cured or die off, & being chiefly of the very scum of the city, the quicker [their] dispatch the sooner the malady will cease.”