What New York’s story shows isn’t that people stay away until they have little to fear but that they are drawn by the rewards of risk. The American Revolution leveled New York and left its proudest landmark, Trinity Church, a roofless pile of rubble. In 1784, when Governor George Clinton addressed the first postwar meeting of the State Legislature, he called on his fellow elected officials to “survey the ruins of this once flourishing city … [and] sympathize in the calamities which have reduced so many of our virtuous fellow-citizens to want and distress.” Within two years, the population had doubled, demands to banish or punish Tory sympathizers had been rejected as bad for business, and cargo ships started sailing into the harbor again.1
We’ve forgotten how to live with epidemics, but generations of New Yorkers knew. Yellow fever sneaked into the city in the 1790s, and its unknown cause was instantly politicized. “Federalists tended to depict it as a foreign contagion … Republicans answered that it was the product of ‘nauseous stenches’ rising up every summer from the city’s ‘abominably filthy’ waterfront and other unsanitary conditions for which only the negligence and incompetence of Federalist magistrates were to blame,” write the historians Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham.
Disease mapped itself onto the city’s social topography. During epidemics, the bodies of the poor piled up, and Washington Square was cleared as a potter’s field.
- 1. After every great upheaval, refugees arrive and soldiers come home, creating a housing shortage that drives up prices and spurring a building spree. In 1835, a warehouse fire tore through Manhattan’s mercantile district, destroying most of the commercial buildings between Coenties Slip and Wall Street — nearly 700 in all — and their stockpiles of cotton, sugar, rum, lumber, coal, and documents. By the time the news reached London, it was already bundled with a reconstruction plan. “In the midst of this terrible visitation, it is, however, consolatory to see the elastic energy of the people,” reported The Gentleman’s Magazine. “Plans of rebuilding on an improved scale, and modes of borrowing money for that purpose, on sound securities, are under arrangement.” The fire entered New York’s mythology not as a saga of woe but as a tale of enterprise and pluck.