A Legacy of Segregation: Buffalo, NY’s Fruit Belt (Pt.3)

Urban Renewal 

An economic development tool, urban renewal was used by local governments across the country including the City of Buffalo. It was a method that was meant to economically revitalize areas through public investments that stimulated private development. What it actually translated to was the wholesale destruction of what were deemed blighted areas or slums, almost entirely based on racial composition. In their places often went new highways extending to the racially-restricted suburbs.[1]

City officials expected the removal of blighted areas would increase tax revenue for the City, revitalizing decay in the urban core, and improving living conditions for the poorest slum dwellers.[2] However, urban segregation is an ongoing social war in which the state meddles in the name of “progress,” “beautification,” and even “social justice for the poor” but ends up redrawing spatial boundaries to the advantage of landowners, foreign investors, elite homeowners, and middle-class commuters.[3] Overcrowded, unsanitary, dilapidated districts would be replaced by clean, modern housing projects and civic institutions. There are four urban renewal projects that impacted the Fruit Belt, three of which affected the neighborhood indirectly. 

Ellicott District & the Kensington Expressway

The Ellicott District was located in an area south of the Fruit Belt. In figure 3 the Fruit Belt is still census tract 31 and the Ellicott District is tract 24. It is clear from this map that as early as the 1930s the district was densely populated and segregated from the rest of the city. 

Figure 3: 1930s African American Population Density Map

The combination of limited capital, slumlords, and a still growing population meant that by the 1950s the neighborhood was one of the most densely populated and impoverished in the city. Citing the prevalence of substandard and unsanitary housing, overcrowding, and inadequate public utilities, the city’s planning commission decided to demolish significant portions of the Ellicott District. In 1951, the City Planning Commission published their General Plan for the City of Buffalo, which laid out how urban decay would be combated.[4] What would go in its place was meant to be a medium density residential neighborhood, public buildings, and public green spaces.[5] 

The project displaced African American households and, just a few blocks north of the neighborhood, the Fruit Belt was one of the places they resettled. As previously stated, this sudden influx of African Americans accelerated the already creeping exodus of Germans. Though many of the German families moved away, many homeowners retained their properties choosing to rent them out to incoming African Americans. This too led to social and housing issues, however, as many of the new, absentee landlords practiced price gouging and rented their small properties to multiple families. 

Then, in 1954, the City announced its plan to build the Kensington Expressway, a massive, expensive highway that would help people reach downtown Buffalo faster making the city more car friendly in the process. The Kensington Expressway replaced a major portion of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Humboldt Parkway and because the expressway was built below grade it cut a trench between the Fruit Belt and the rest of the East Side.[6]

A proposal for the expressway states, “If this project is to be an asset to the city and surrounding area, it must be designed in a manner that will increase the real values of the immediate neighborhood, as well as serve the through traffic purpose for which it is proposed.”[7] This proposal also calls for green spaces along the expressway, an attempt in keeping with the parkway aesthetic. What Buffalo got, however, was not an asset but a concrete chasm that decreased property values and threw the surrounding communities into turmoil. Hundreds of buildings were torn down to make way for the expressway and many of those displaced sought refuge in the nearby Fruit Belt.

North Oak & the Medical Campus

Another major project that affected the Fruit Belt was the 1970 Oak Street Renewal Program. Located just west of the Fruit Belt, the project was meant to clear the land and expand Buffalo General Hospital and Roswell Park.[8] The program created many of the same problems the Ellicott District effort did 12 years earlier. Proponents of the project admitted that there would only be enough public housing for some of the displaced families, leaving over 300 others homeless.[9] 

Figure 4: North Oak Street Mid-Demolition (1973)

The renewal objectives included “the elimination of blighting influences” and the prevention of blight recurring in the future while improving the cleared land. There is no real mention of the businesses, schools, and churches that the program would be displacing let alone the people. In fact, it is said that some residents were displaced by demolitions before the relocation study was completed and the renewal project approved so they were ineligible for federal grants and assistance to find new housing.[10]

The looming issue for the Fruit Belt because of this is gentrification. The vacant lots are being filled, with renewed demand as the Medical Campus grows, by new housing. Rod Watson, columnist for The Buffalo News, described the situation well, “The fear is that while new residents are welcome, they will come at the expense of existing ones. Those stakeholders will be priced out as speculators, developers – and the politicians they buy – drive up prices near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus”.[11] Residents are afraid of being displaced yet again.

The increasing workforce at the Medical Campus caused a spillover of parking from its lots onto the streets of the Fruit Belt. Many residents complained that they would not find parking on their own streets let alone in front of their own homes. Initially, this spurred a call to ban outsider parking all together but the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) felt slighted. There was another plan issued that elicited a compromise: half of the parking spaces in the neighborhood would be set aside specifically for Fruit Belt resident only while the other half would be open to whomever.[12]

Masten Park 

Destruction of the Ellicott District, construction of the Kensington Expressway, and demolitions caused by the Oak Street Renewal Program played the largest role in shaping the Fruit Belt but the neighborhood was also part of the Masten Park Renewal Plan.[13] In 1958, the City’s Board of Redevelopment began efforts to rehabilitate the Fruit Belt through the Masten Park Renewal plan. They sent inspectors house-to-house to search for housing violations and hoped that, by enforcing them, it would slow or avoid the decay that appeared to affect other neighborhoods like the Ellicott District.[14]

Demolition as Urban Policy 

Some of the most visible components of decline are vacant and abandoned properties and real property disinvestment. These contribute not only to the perceptions of urban blight but to local government fiscal crises.[15] Conditions of disinvestment are more visible and widespread in some cities than in others. In the Rust Belt, spaces are often shells of their former selves with many of the structures missing, victims of scrapping, arson, and demolition.[16] Vacancy and abandonment have been a familiar sight in all of Buffalo but especially on the city’s East Side. The Fruit Belt was hit quite hard by these issues as the in-migration of African Americans never reached the numbers of the whites that were leaving, as evident in Table 1. The already aged housing stock was left empty to further decay. 

While demolition is a necessary tool in many Rust Belt cities, when rolled out in standalone form it is not an effective strategy to manage vacancy. This is because the usually “built-in” demand for developable land that tends to exist in growing cities is generally lacking in cities that have or are experiencing decline.[17] The City demolished houses in the Fruit Belt throughout the 1960s to 1980s, leaving the neighborhood a husk of its former self, and there was no demand for the newly vacant land to be redeveloped.

5-In-5 Program

Cities across the Rust Belt have used a variety of federal and state funding to demolish as much blight as they could. Vacancy and abandonment are significant obstacles to stabilization, reinvestment, and revitalization at both the neighborhood and city level. The logic of demolishing these buildings is that if a city can remove what is being used for criminal activity or targets of arson, or that are otherwise draining the value of surrounding properties, investors will return to the neighborhoods.[18] In the City of Buffalo, the “5-in-5” program aimed to demolish 5,000 vacant and abandoned properties over five years starting in 2007.[19] 

Figure 5: Distribution of all public demolitions from October 2005 to December 2017

Figure 6: Fruit Belt & North Oak Neighborhoods: Aerial Photo 1951 v. Satellite Image 2022

Figure 5 shows that the Fruit Belt (outlined) was affected by the 5-in-5 demolition program. In figure 6 , the Kensington Expressway construction and North Oak’s disappearance aside, holes in the built environment left by waves of demolition have become obvious. There are now numerous empty lots in a neighborhood that used to be fully built out.

The history of the Fruit Belt is often told in two separate pieces. There are the German immigrants whose story is full of hope and optimism and there are the African Americans whose story is one of displacement and decline. The African American story has long gone ignored due to shame over years of systemic and systematic racism. The Fruit Belt, no longer orchard filled, has watched its neighbors change drastically. The construction of the Kensington Expressway cut it off from adjoining neighborhoods. HOLC maps colored it orange and ensured its discrimination. White Flight and continued population decrease left buildings empty to rot. Urban renewal projects like the demolition of North Oak have had far reaching consequences.

Today, the threat of gentrification looms over the Fruit Belt. Parking is at a premium despite its abundance of houseless lots. There is renewed demand for vacant properties throughout the neighborhood due to the growth of the adjacent Medical Campus but what will fill them? The current residents are being threatened with displacement yet again but they are not helpless. Inhabitants have created the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust. Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are nonprofit organizations governed by a board of residents and public representatives that aim to provide lasting assets and opportunities for households and the community. They acquire vacant land and structures to develop housing, gardens, and commercial space selling homes for a low cost that remain permanently affordable.[20] 

[1] “Segregated by Design,” accessed October, 2022, https://www.segregationbydesign.com/buffalo/freeways.

[2] Thomas J. Sugrue, The origins of the urban crisis : race and inequality in postwar Detroit, First Princeton classics edition. ed., Princeton studies in American politics: historical, international, and comparative perspectives, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[3] Mike Davis, Planet of slums, Paperback ed. (London ; New York: Verso, 2007).

[4] City of Buffalo Redevelopment Project for the Ellicott District Redevelopment Project,  (Buffalo City of Buffalo 1957).

[5] Intensive Level Survey Of The Fruit Belt, Buffalo, New York.

[6] Intensive Level Survey Of The Fruit Belt, Buffalo, New York.

[7] Kensington Expressway Arterial Improvement, Downtown Buffalo to Airport : via Cherry Street, Humboldt Parkway, Kensington Avenue, Maryvale Drive, Buffalo, New York,  (Buffalo 1953).

[8] Intensive Level Survey Of The Fruit Belt, Buffalo, New York.

[9] “U.S. Awaits Bid for Aid on Renewal,” Buffalo Courier-Express, August 17 1965.

[10] Angela Keppel, “North Oak: Urban Renewal and the Lost Neighborhood of the Medical Campus,” Discovering Buffalo, One Street at a Time, 2021.

[11] Rod Watson, ” Gentrifying of Fruit Belt Tastes Sour,” The Buffalo News 2015; Watson, ” Gentrifying of Fruit Belt Tastes Sour.”

[12] Avery Schnieder, “City, state and union leaders announce agreement on Fruit Belt neighborhood parking,” (https://www.wbfo.org/local/2016-05-14/city-state-and-union-leaders-announce-agreement-on-fruit-belt-neighborhood-parking 2016).

[13] Intensive Level Survey Of The Fruit Belt, Buffalo, New York.

[14] Intensive Level Survey Of The Fruit Belt, Buffalo, New York.

[15] Weaver, Shrinking cities : understanding urban decline in the United States.

[16] Hackworth, Manufacturing decline : how racism and the conservative movement crush the American Rust Belt.

[17] Russell Weaver, “Can Shrinking Cities Demolish Vacancy? An Empirical Evaluation of a Demolition-First Approach to Vacancy Management in Buffalo, NY, USA.,” Urban Science (2018).

[18] Hackworth, Manufacturing decline : how racism and the conservative movement crush the American Rust Belt.

[19] Weaver, “Can Shrinking Cities Demolish Vacancy? An Empirical Evaluation of a Demolition-First Approach to Vacancy Management in Buffalo, NY, USA..”

[20] “What is a Community Land Trust?,” Fruit Belt Community Land Trust 2022.

A Legacy of Segregation: Buffalo, NY’s Fruit Belt (Pt:1)

There is no single factor that fully explains all instances of urban decline and its symptoms.[1] Redlining, white flight, urban renewal projects, and demolition as urban policy have contributed to distress, concentrated disadvantage, and decline in the Fruit Belt by reducing total population, housing stock, and housing quality.  There were 200 years of German heritage in the Fruit Belt which has given way to 70 plus years of African American community building in the face of injustice.[2] Once the population in the neighborhood was over 15,000 people, over 90 percent white. Today, the Fruit Belt population is around 2,600, of whom 83 percent are African American.[3] The neighborhood has seen a lot, from drastic population loss to mass demolition and the African American story of the Fruit Belt has long been ignored.

Defining Urban Decline

Decline is a relative concept, meaning it is not a static variable that can be measured or evaluated at a single point. It is an active phenomenon that must be detected over time. Distress and disadvantage, on the other hand, geographers argue to be more static. Distress can be interpreted as “the degree to which a community is vulnerable to detrimental changes” while disadvantage is “a quality or circumstance that makes achievement unusually difficult.” Thus, a place with a higher concentration of disadvantage and distress is more threatened by decline.[4]

Fruit Belt

Germans arrived in Buffalo throughout the 1830s and 1840s and primarily settled east of Main Street. Eventually, “the Great German East Side” was home to over 14,000 Germans, making them a majority population in the city.[5] The Orchard, later known as the Fruit Belt, was not the first German settlement in Buffalo but it did end up being the last enclave. The neighborhood takes its name from the once abundant orchards that the first residents cultivated. Holding true to their agrarian roots, the earliest residents planted fruit trees and vegetable gardens, the street names remaining testimony to the early nature of the neighborhood.[6] After World War I, the German immigrants who had settled on the East Side began leaving.

The World Wars were a major blow for the German community, resulting in anti-German sentiments throughout the country. The prejudice that permeated American culture led many to begin to hide their heritage, which had previously been fundamental to the East Side. With the German population moving out, other working-class groups started moving in. By the mid-1920s, the Fruit Belt was the last neighborhood with a majority German population. Like many Rust Belt cities, during this time Buffalo went from being separated largely by class to experiencing high rates of racial segregation.

Throughout the Great Migration, from the 1910s to 1970s, many African Americans moved to the North from the South in search of employment opportunities. As a major manufacturing city, Buffalo would become a prime destination for those in search of jobs after World War II.[7] Many factors spurred black relocation to the Fruit Belt and its transition to a predominantly African American neighborhood including a series of urban renewal projects and the construction of the Kensington Expressway.[8] The new arrivals started to settle in white, working-class neighborhoods like those of the East Side. 

[1] Jason R. Hackworth, Manufacturing decline : how racism and the conservative movement crush the American Rust Belt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

[2] “History of the Fruit Belt,” Fruit Belt Community Land Trust 2022, https://fruitbelt-clt.org/history-of-the-fruit-belt/.

[3] “History of the Fruit Belt.”

[4] Russell Weaver, Shrinking cities : understanding urban decline in the United States (London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017).

[5] Intensive Level Survey Of The Fruit Belt, Buffalo, New York, Preservation Studios (Buffalo, 2018), https://preservationbuffaloniagara.org/wp-content/uploads/Fruit-Belt-ils-report-final-1-4-2019.pdf#.

[6] The Fruit Belt: A Conservation District Proposal, University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning (Buffalo 2010).

[7] Anna Blatto, A City Divided: A Brief History of Segregation in Buffalo., Partnership For the Public Good (2018).

[8] Henry Louis Taylor, A Historical Overview Of Blacks In The Fruit Belt: The Continuing Struggle To Build A Vibrant Community, University at Buffalo Center for Urban Studies, School of Architecture and Planning (Buffalo, 2009), https://ubwp.buffalo.edu/aps-cus/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2015/04/The-Rise-Fall-and-Rise-of-the-Fruit-Belt.pdf.

Sundown Towns Pt.2: The Nadir

It wasn’t only towns, counties, and suburbs blacks were expelled from. Before the Nadir there were black masons, carpenters, foundry and factory workers, postal carriers, and more. After 1890, however, in both the North and South, whites pushed blacks out of these jobs. They were also pushed out of professional sports, as blacks had played major league baseball in the 1880s but the last player was forced out by 1889. In 1911, blacks were excluded from being jockeys in the Kentucky Derby. Boxing was still allowed but it served to reinforce the stereotype of black men being dangerous fighters.

It’s interesting to note that blacks were arguably treated more poorly in the North than the South after the end of the Reconstruction. In the South, whites would happily employ black folks to do any job deemed inferior. In the North, on the other hand, the attitude seemed to be that if blacks were so inferior why hire them at all? The lack of employment opportunities meant that many went jobless and their joblessness fed into negative stereotypes. Ironically, the worse the Nadir got, the more whites blamed blacks for it. Northern whites came to see blacks as disaffected, lazy, and dangerous. “They must not work hard enough, think as well, or have as much drive, compared to whites,” was apparently the consensus.

During the Nadir, stereotypes of white supremacy permeated all of American culture. Oddly enough, historians played a major role in this line of thought. After Reconstruction was overthrown in 1890, historians painted the era to be one of oppressed whites, “beset by violence and corruption.” The historical record became so distorted that interpretations of the Nadir in American history textbooks are still shaped by it today.

Minstrel shows, which were widely popular, perpetuated stereotypes of blacks as being ignorant, irresponsible, wide-grinning, loud-laughing, happy-go-lucky, shuffling, singing, banjo playing types that were devoid of any character traits valued among whites. In small towns across the North, where few blacks existed to correct the impression, these stereotypes were the bulk of what whites “knew” about blacks. Eventually minstrelsy gave way to vaudeville and vaudeville gave way to movies but the stereotypes remained. Unfortunately, this set the scene for, perhaps the most racist major picture ever, The Birth of a Nation in 1915. It praised the first Ku Klux Klan (1865 – 1875) as the savior of the “white race,” specifically white Southern civilization, which led to the revival of the Klan.

Worse than these spectacles, science was used to back up feelings of black inferiority with Social Darwinism, “an evolutionary rationale for the inevitability of poverty,” which gave way to eugenics. These were the ultimate way of blaming the victim. Not only was being poor their own fault but they were beyond help because they just plain had bad genes. While technically about improving genetic quality, eugenics was more about preserving white supremacy. People who found themselves targets of the eugenics movement were those who were seen as unfit for society: the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, and specific communities of color like blacks, latinx, or Native Americans. Organized eugenics got its foothold in a meeting of The American Breeders Association in 1904. I wish we were talking about animal breeding. Margaret Sanger, American birth control activist who established organizations that evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was unfortunately quoted as saying “we do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.”

All of this leads us back to places like Forsyth County, Georgia, where the sundown county was created by violence. That said, many of the shows or threat of violence have gone unrecorded even by local historians, much like the aforementioned story of Stockton, Missouri. Some towns were cleared out by sheer intimidation by way of massive Klan rallies. Still others created ordinances to keep blacks out of corporate limits after sundown or preventing the sale or rental of property to them. Those ordinances were, in fact, illegal but despite that, they began to appear around 1900 through 1930. Further “freezing-out” or barring blacks from establishments until they could no longer effectively live in a place was another method of creating all-white municipalities. There were also instances of town buying out their black families, or would-be residents, by offering to purchase their property from them so they wouldn’t live there. This sounds almost nicer than some of the other ways but it was made clear that they could not refuse the offer, if they did their property would just be taken either by eminent domain or condemnation.

To be continued…

Jaspin, E. (2008). Buried in the Bitter Waters. Basic Books.

Loewen, J. (2007). Lies My Teacher Told Me. (2nd ed.) Touchstone.

Loewen, J. (2018). Sundown Towns. (2nd ed.) The New Press.

Ortiz, P. (2018). An African American and Latinx history of the United States. Beacon Press Books.

Phillips, P. (2016). Blood at the Root. W. W. Norton & Company.

Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law. Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Taylor, C. (2016). The Roots of Route 66. The Atlantic. Retrieved 15 December 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/the-roots-of-route-66/506255/.

Urban Archaeology: St. John’s Ward, Toronto, ON

St. John’s Ward, or simply “The Ward”, is bounded by College, Queen, and Yonge Streets and University Avenue, centred on the intersection of Bay and Albert Streets. Historically, the Ward was one of Toronto’s earliest multicultural communities. In 2015, a team of archaeologists removed asphalt from a parking lot in this area to reveal a tiny corner of the old St. John’s Ward. When they completed their excavation 300,000 and 500,000 artifacts had been unearthed. Archaeologists found everything from animal bones to tools, toys, cosmetics, and more. Among the objects the were also the remnants of a 19th century Black church, a synagogue founded by Russian Jews, row houses, factories, cisterns, and a bevy of privy pits. Together, it was all evidence of how life was lived in the working class, immigrant neighborhood.

In the late 1830s, modest homes began to spring up north-west of Yonge and Queen streets, the northern edge of Toronto at the time. Rapid growth of the city created a demand for housing. The Ward, then known as Macaulaytown, after the first land owner, became Toronto’s first suburb. During the late 19th century, the Ward became the home of many of the immigrants and refugees arriving to Toronto. There were Irish fleeing the potato famine; Black Americans escaping from slavery along the Underground Railroad, and thousands of Jews escaping persecution in Eastern Europe in the 1890s. By the 1920s, the Ward had become home to a growing Chinese community and became the city’s first Chinatown.

While the Ward wasn’t the only neighborhood that saw large-scale immigrant settlement it became one of the densest and most over-crowded. It also had the first gay and lesbian bars in the city. Unfortunately, Toronto being predominantly white, anglo-Protestant, and politically conservative meant that the Ward provoked both explicit and thinly veiled racist responses. The Ward became associated with dirt and disease and moral impurity. As early as the 1910s, there began a push for measures to either contain or raze the Ward’s slums.

As long as there was poverty and destitution in the Ward, the City was working to “clean up” the area, usually by finding ways of demolishing it. In the late 1940s, the City started buying up land in the area, and encouraging inhabitants to leave.  There were plans for a new City Hall building to be located where the Ward was. Most of the old Chinatown had been torn down by the mid-1950s to make way for Nathan Phillips Square.

Which brings us back to today with the excavation of the parking lot. Many of the artifacts found on the site can be seen at the Toronto Ward Museum, “a community-engaged museum that facilitates the preservation and sharing of personal stories of migrants in Toronto’s history.” There is also the book, The Ward Uncovered, that both talks about the history of the Ward and shows pictures of items found there.

“About The Ward”. n.d. The Ward Museum. Accessed September 19. http://www.wardmuseum.ca/picturingtheward/theward/.

Bateman, Chris. 2012. “A Brief History Of The Ward, Toronto’s Notorious Slum”. Blogto. https://www.blogto.com/city/2012/06/a_brief_history_of_the_ward_torontos_notorious_slum/.

Martelle, Holly, Michael McClelland, Tatum Taylor, and John Lorinc. 2018. The Ward Uncovered. 1st ed. Toronto: Coach House Books.

Plummer, Kevin. 2013. “Toronto Feature: The Ward”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/toronto-feature-the-ward.

Sylvester, Erin. 2017. “Walking The Ward”. Torontoist. https://torontoist.com/2017/09/walking-the-ward/.

“The Ward Revisited”. n.d.. Myseum. Accessed September 22. http://www.myseumoftoronto.com/programming/the-ward/.

Urban Archaeology

Urban archaeology is a sub discipline of archaeology, its basics are the same as that of non-urban archaeology. However, it looks for clues about our past in cities or areas that have been developed for hundreds of years. It also plays a prominent role in new development. While many new projects go ahead without major archaeological studies, in places like New York City and Toronto, most developments only get greenlit after archaeologists have done at least a preliminary investigation.

One issue with urban archaeology, however, is that archaeologists cannot simply dig anywhere. They must be opportunists, swooping in before new construction projects to research and examine the site. Prior to a site being excavated a great deal of research about the area’s history must be done to tell whether or not the site has potential to relinquish anything significant.

Until the 19th century, civilizations did not remove refuse and debris from construction sites. The refuse was largely buried, reused, or broken down until the new structure was built on top. Due to this, cities are often higher in elevation than they used to be, with the land literally raised by the debris of the past. These artifacts help tell the stories of neighborhoods and heritage in a way that nothing else can.

To be continued…

Bateman, Chris. 2012. “A Brief History Of The Ward, Toronto’s Notorious Slum”. Blogto. https://www.blogto.com/city/2012/06/a_brief_history_of_the_ward_torontos_notorious_slum/.

Bryant, Charles W. 2020. “What Can We Learn From Urban Archaeology?”. Howstuffworks. Accessed September 19. https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/earth/archaeology/urban-archaeology.htm.

Etherington, Cait. 2017. “Excavating The City: A Look At Urban Archaeology In New York”. 6Sqft. https://www.6sqft.com/excavating-the-city-a-look-at-urban-archaeology-in-new-york/.

Smith, Monica L. 2014. “The Archaeology Of Urban Landscapes”. Annual Review Of Anthropology.

Webb, Thanos. 2017. “Artifacts Down The Street: Exploring Urban Archaeology”. Building Design + Construction. https://www.bdcnetwork.com/blog/artifacts-down-street-exploring-urban-archaeology.

Epidemics and the City: Cholera Pt. 2

There was a significant inequality in the infection and death from cholera. It seemed that it disproportionately affected the poor while seemingly passing over the wealthy and prosperous. Doctors, priests, and municipal authorities visited the ill and their quarters without incident. This, paired with the sudden onset of symptoms which mimicked poisoning, left many suspicious of a conspiracy of some Malthusian cull of the poor. Suspicion grew into violence as riots erupted.

In Naples in 1884, during the first weeks of the outbreak, the City sent out teams of municipal workers to enforce anti-cholera measures. They were meant to be, what we would call today, healthcare workers and disinfection squads but they conducted themselves as if they were military in enemy territory. With great shows of force they barged into tenements to remove those that were sick. These critically ill were taken to cholera hospitals which people saw as places of death and horror from which no one returned.

Hospitals became sites of rebellion. People losing loved ones thought they were being murdered and they were griefstriken and angry. Unwanted medical interventions were met with crowds armed with cobblestones and whatever they could find to fend off guards and doctors. The Neapolitans really believed they were there to kill them. In some cases the only way officials gained control of these riots were by show of force, brandishing weapons and opening fire.

Remarkably, the ravages of cholera did not trigger any great sanitation change at first. It makes me think about our current situation with COVID-19. People want life to “go back to normal” but change is clearly needed. It’s interesting too to see that there have always been people resistant to quarantine and other public health safety measures. Thankfully, anti-mask protests have not stoned anyone…yet.

Cohn, Samuel K. 2018. Epidemics: Hate And Compassion From The Plague Of Athens To AIDS. Oxford Scholarship Online.

Goodman, Ruth. 2013. How To Be A Victorian. 1st ed. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Jackson, Lee. 2015. Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Johnson, Steven. 2008. The Ghost Map. 1st ed. London: Penguin.

Snowden, Frank M. 2019. Epidemics And Society. 1st ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Epidemics and the City: Cholera Pt. 1

Germ theory had been floating around for some time but it came into its own in the last decades of the 19th century, roughly 1860 to 1900. Much like other revolutionary theories, germ theory was met with both excitement and resistance. It was an important advance in the history of medicine that led to a new understanding of the nature of disease.

Cholera is thought to have originated in India in the delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. There had been an epidemic in India but it was unknown elsewhere until it burst onto the scene with the epidemic of 1817. Initially, cholera was trapped in India as it does not travel easily. That changed, however, when throughout the 19th century, people began to vastly increase their movement between India and the West. Once it got to the West the industrial revolution had created conditions that facilitated the disease.

Cholera thrived on the chaos of rapid growth and unplanned urbanization. Ubiquitous filth and overcrowded, substandard housing and a lack of adequate, secure water supply nor sewers made for ideal conditions for the spread of the disease. To give an idea of the level of pollution in industrial cities like London, during a heatwave in 1858, water levels in the Thames dropped leaving layers upon layer of fecal matter and other waste to ferment in the sun. The stench was so overwhelming they called it “The Great Stink.” Miasma theory blamed the smell for the recent cholera outbreaks; germ theory blamed the water contamination.

Gentility of speech is at an end—it stinks, and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.

City Press on the Great Stink

Cholera was (is) a terrible way to die. Symptoms could develop in a matter of hours after ingesting contaminated water. In most people, stomach acid would kill the bacterium. But if the number of bacterium ingested is overwhelming and for those who are compromised by some gastrointestinal disorder or chronic alcoholism it escapes the stomach and its acids into the small intestine. Once in the small intestine it reproduces and causes infection as it attaches to the mucous lining of the bowel. From there the body reacts by attacking the bacteria, killing it. This is where things go terribly wrong.

When the bacteria dies it releases and enterotoxin, one of the most powerful poisons in nature. It effectively makes the intestine work in reverse, instead of allowing nutrients out into the bloodstream it allows blood plasma to move from the bloodstream into the intestine. This colorless liquid is then violently expelled from the body. The loss of plasma makes the blood thick and reduces circulation. The body’s temperature falls and the massive amount of fluid loss makes the skin seem to shrivel and shrink leaving the person looking gaunt and cadaver-like.

Then, in the second stage, people would appear to get better but it was not necessarily true. The duration of the first stage would determine the likelihood of surviving the second; the longer the first stage lasted the less likely they were to survive. Then, once deceased, the body had a habit of continuing to spasm and tremble. It was It is said that this process could be so swift that someone fine at lunch could be dead by dinner. Between 1831 and 1866, approximately 40,000 people died from cholera in London alone.

Effective treatment for cholera took a long time to come by. Bloodletting was the initial go-to, it was used as a remedy for a great deal of things. The loss of blood plasma, however, made the blood thick and impeded circulation so traditional venesection was ineffective. Desperation led doctors to experiment with new treatments. One such treatment, conceived in the 1830s, involved administering fluids. However, not knowing how much fluid to give the patients they often overdosed. Plus, with germ theory not yet widely accepted, doctors didn’t think to use sterile water and so it induced septicemia. It wasn’t until 1908 when a British physician, Leonard Rogers, created the “cholera bed” to measure fluids lost by the patient paired with a drip of a distilled saline solution did the death toll of cholera drop.

To be continued…

“10 Amazing Facts About Cholera And The Great Stink Of London”. n.d.. 5-Minute History. Accessed September 6. https://fiveminutehistory.com/10-amazing-facts-cholera-great-stink-london/.

Goodman, Ruth. 2013. How To Be A Victorian. 1st ed. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Johnson, Steven. 2008. The Ghost Map. 1st ed. London: Penguin.

Snowden, Frank M. 2019. Epidemics And Society. 1st ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Epidemics and the City: Models

In response to the poor health conditions in cities like New York, between the 1890s and 1930s urban planners and architects, Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier, looked combine the benefits of town, country, and new technologies to create new city models. Each came up with their own version of utopian society. They planned their cities in great detail, leaving little to nothing to chance.

Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City was a direct response to the idea that fresh air and sunlight made for more healthy environs. The ingredients for his Garden City were far from original but he combined them in a unique way. His ideas were influenced by Benjamin Ward Richardson’s 1876 Address, Hygeia, which called for wide streets, underground railways, and low population density. He also pulled from others like Herbert Spencer and Thomas Spence for his ideas on land nationalization and communal farmland.

Many may be familiar with Howard’s three magnets. Each magnet lists pros and cons of towns and country and then the advantages of his proposal to meld the two together into town-country. His plan for this “town-country” (top middle) was made up of circles. The central city, with a population around 55,000, features gardens, boulevards, grand avenues, and ample room between houses. The generous green spaces ensure that the city could not become over crowded nor as polluted as traditional cities and allow for the plentiful fresh air and sunlight thought to reduce disease.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City was first proposed in a book called The Disappearing City in 1932. Broadacre was meant to illustrate what a modern low density city could be. It seemed, however, to achieve its low density by essentially removing everything urban from the city. The majority of the model was set aside for “minimum houses” with areas set aside for recreation. Each childless family would be guaranteed one acre of land and bigger families would get more. As the plan evolved over the years it ended up with a proposed population density of around 2.5 acres or roughly two football fields per person. Once again, plentiful fresh air, green space, and sunshine surely to suffer none of the ills of the typical city (because it was hardly a city at all).

Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, meant to a linear and ordered metropolis of the future, was proposed in 1924. It was to operate as sort of a “living machine.” The city would be split up into zones designated for commercial, business, leisure, and residential. A transportation deck in the city center would connect city dwellers, via underground trains, to housing districts consisting of towering premade buildings called “Unités.” The city, however, lacked public spaces and seemed to generally disregard actual livability and was criticized for it. Le Corbusier also wanted to raze historical parts of Paris to build his idea which, again, was met with criticism. It’s less clear how his vision was a response to public health concerns.

To be continued…

“AD Classics: Ville Radieuse / Le Corbusier”. 2013. Archdaily. https://www.archdaily.com/411878/ad-classics-ville-radieuse-le-corbusier.

Carr, S. (2014). The Topography of Wellness: Mechanisms, metrics, and models of health in the urban landscape (PhD). Berkeley.

Fishman, R. (1982). Urban utopias in the Twentieth Century (1st ed.). Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

Hall, P. (2002). Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century (3rd ed.). Blackwell Publishing.

Kohlstedt, K. (2018). Ville Radieuse: Le Corbusier’s Functionalist Plan for a Utopian “Radiant City.” Retrieved 5 September 2020, from https://99percentinvisible.org/article/ville-radieuse-le-corbusiers-functionalist-plan-utopian-radiant-city/

Nevlus, J. (2017). Is the world ready for Frank Lloyd Wright’s suburban utopia?. Retrieved 5 September 2020, from https://www.curbed.com/2017/1/4/14154644/frank-lloyd-wright-broadacre-city-history

The Disappearing City, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Retrieved 5 September 2020, from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015047936219&view=1up&seq=11

Epidemics and the City: Density

Side Sectional View of Tenement House, 38 Cherry Street, NYC, 1865

Workers or, more accurately, the working poor and immigrants were disproportionately affected by the means to make way for new public health improvements. Many, in cities, lived in tenement buildings which were, almost by definition, overcrowded and dirty. Initially, the buildings were divided into impossibly small apartments with interior spaces completely devoid of windows or ventilation. Conveniences like indoor plumbing was not included in the cheaply built buildings. Most had both the water source and outhouses in their shallow backyards. Overflowing and ill maintained privies contaminated water supplies spreading cholera. Cramped quarters were ripe with diseases like yellow fever and tuberculosis. The Tenement House Acts of 1867, 1879, and 1901 would make an effort to change that.

Tenement House Act of 1867 was a comprehensive legislation on housing conditions which prohibited cellar apartments unless the ceiling was one foot above street level, required one water closet per 20 residents, and required fire escapes. It was amended in 1879 to limit lot coverage to no more than 65%. Without enforcement these regulations the “dumbbell” shaped tenement came into being. These included air and light shafts on either side of the center of the building (as seen below).

The publication of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives in 1890 spurred public concern about the conditions in New York tenements. This lead to the US Department of labor publishing The Housing of Working People in 1895 which looked at housing conditions and solutions. Which ultimately lead to the Tenement House Act of 1901 which required running water and water closets in every apartment, a window in every room, issued fire-safety regulations, and more. Riveting stuff, eh? Let’s move on.

As mentioned, tenement residents were uniquely affected by these advances, for better and worse. With the new sanitation and building practices steadily expanding urban planners and designers began thinking of ways to harness the emerging thoughts on humans’ relationship with nature. This lead to the first public parks. City parks, as we know them, came to be in the 19th century. These parks were considered to be an answer to most of the ills of the times. By transplanting residents to country-like atmospheres it was thought to “instill a hallowed calm, and a spirit of reverence into the mind and heart of Man.” In other words, parks were meant to give people some respite from the filth of the city. Their attractiveness aside, parks became a way to break up the city’s high density.

New York, New York c. 1923 Aerial view of Central Park from Midtown NYC

New green spaces came at the expense of the poor as it was often an excuse to for slum clearance. For example, Seneca Village which was located along what is known today as Central Park West. Nearly 300 residents were evicted via eminent domain. Then all of the homes, churches, and even a school were demolished to make way for Central Park in NYC. The neighborhood was painted as a shantytown with squalid conditions and people seemed to quickly forget it once it was gone. It had been, however, a vibrant community for black middle and working class people.

Despite efforts to break up density (and gentrify *cough*), the popular conception was still that cities were dark, dirty, and unhealthy. People thought sunshine and fresh air were curative. So new city models were conceived to combine the mobility and economic fervor with the perceived health benefits of living in the country.

To be continued…

Apmann, S. (2016). Tenement House Act of 1901. Retrieved 3 September 2020, from https://gvshp.org/blog/2016/04/11/tenement-house-act-of-1901/

Carr, S. (2014). The Topography of Wellness: Mechanisms, metrics, and models of health in the urban landscape (PhD). Berkeley.

Clark, F. (1973). Nineteenth-Century Public Parks from 1830. Garden History1(3), 31. doi: 10.2307/1586332

Halliday, A. (2020). The Lost Neighborhood Buried Under New York City’s Central Park. Retrieved 3 September 2020, from http://www.openculture.com/2020/01/the-lost-neighborhood-buried-under-new-york-citys-central-park.html

Marques, S. (2019). The Early Tenements of New York—Dark, Dank, and Dangerous — NYC Department of Records & Information Services. Retrieved 3 September 2020, from https://www.archives.nyc/blog/2019/5/16/the-early-tenements-of-new-yorkdark-dank-and-dangerous

Nigro, C. (2018). Tenement Homes: The Outsized Legacy of New York’s Notoriously Cramped Apartments. Retrieved 3 September 2020, from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2018/06/07/tenement-homes-new-york-history-cramped-apartments

Warner, S., & Whittemore, A. (2012). American Urban Form: A Representative History (1st ed.). MIT Press.