Then, one December night in 1835, a security guard smelled smoke. In one of the many jammed warehouses downtown, some scrap of wealth awaiting shipment went up—a bale of cotton, maybe, lit by a dropped cigar or a spilled oil lamp. In minutes, the frigid wind off the harbor tossed the flames from window to window and roof to roof. Firefighters flailed; pumps seized up and near the shore the East River was frozen solid. Crowds frantically hauled valuables to the Old Dutch Church, a solid brick building. It was said that when the fire swept into the nave, feeding on pews and salvaged ledgers, someone rushed to the doomed organ loft and played Mozart’s Requiem as the flames rose. More likely, the sound was hot air rushing through the pipes, producing eerie unmanned blasts. When the fire finally burned itself out on the second day, lower Manhattan was a charred hellscape. The Merchants Exchange and the Tontine Coffee House were gone. Dozens of ships, cut loose so the flames wouldn’t leap aboard, drifted offshore like so many Flying Dutchmen.
Today, as we tally the mountainous task of preparing for future onslaughts, it’s worth reflecting that New York has had to retool far more radically in the past. After the 1835 fire, with most of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century city wiped out, New York reseeded itself. Businessmen built a more lavish and durable set of storehouses, banks, and exchanges. Fire codes were rewritten. Water was piped in from upstate. Two days’ total destruction were a blip when what mattered most was that the flow of goods, people, and credit remain unobstructed. Just three years after the fire, in 1838, the S.S. Sirius chugged into New York Harbor, eighteen days out from Ireland, winning a transatlantic race with the Great Western. The era of the steamship had begun, and the pace of commerce accelerated again.
Just as environmentalists are scrutinizing the Bloomberg plan to gauge the collateral damage to nature, so in the nineteenth century some people felt that rebuilding was a greater calamity than the fire itself. In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe took a skiff into the East River and was gloomily entranced by the wilds of midtown. “The chief interest of the adventure lay in the scenery of the Manhattan shore, which is particularly picturesque,” he reported. But, he continued, “I could not look on the magnificent cliffs, and stately trees, which at every moment met my view, without a sigh for their inevitable doom … In twenty years, or thirty at the farthest, we shall see here nothing more romantic than shipping, warehouses, and wharves.” You can sense the same struggles between the conflicting needs for construction and conservation in the pages of the post-Sandy report, where new East Side towers jostle with restored wetlands and rocky shores. Commerce made the waterfront buzz, and also made it infernal. Jobs and pollution, liveliness and crime, prosperity and decrepitude, labor and leisure—all these opposites gave the industrial waterfront its schizophrenic allure.
As the island became more urbanized, it produced immense quantities of rubble and refuse. In 1811, the Commissioners’ Plan decreed that Manhattan would grow along a rectilinear grid, so hills were leveled and cliffs blasted away to make the terrain conform to the map. As the population grew, the tonnage of trash exploded: Between 1856 and 1860, its volume increased 700 percent. Huge loads of ash, offal, manure, dead horses, and household garbage were carted to the water’s edge and loaded onto floating “dumping boards” and into the shallows and slips, where they gradually became alchemized into real estate. The slow process haloed the city in stink, but in the long run it proved to be the most profitable form of recycling. Poe’s picturesquely irregular shoreline grew flat, straight, and smooth, the perfect staging ground for a great economy—and for wrenching social tumult.
The cogs that kept the intercontinental mercantile machinery running were the longshoremen, brave and powerful workers who spent their days heaving 300-pound sacks and were periodically crushed beneath tumbling loads of cargo. It was brutal work, but it was regular. It was also one of the few jobs open to African-Americans, making the waterfront one of the only areas where whites and blacks lived side by side. Proximity did not lead to racial harmony, though. The all-white Longshoremen’s Association complained that black dockworkers were driving down wages; shippers periodically hired them as strikebreakers. In March 1863, a rampaging white gang hunted down black porters, stevedores, and carters. When the Draft Riots broke out that summer, resentment spilled over into the waterfront’s racial turf battles. Black longshoremen were beaten and lynched, their bodies hurled into the river. Intimidation worked. By the time the chaos abated, the Manhattan waterfront was almost totally white, as blacks fled to Brooklyn and New Jersey.