Gotham Gazette

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Rebuilding NYC

Looking To History

wreck recoveryEighteen days after the attack on the World Trade Center, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appeared on Saturday Night Live. Flanked by his police and fire commissioners, and surrounded by a group of the city's rescue workers, the mayor looked into the camera and said: "On September 11th, more lives were lost than on any other single day in America's history - more than Pearl Harbor, and more than D-Day."

If it was jarring to see for the first time in the television show's 29-year history an opening "sketch" that was anything but satirical, the mayor's reference to history would not surprise anybody who had been watching his regular press conferences. In the very first week of the disaster, while he was in the midst of dealing with all the shock and panic, death and sorrow, the mayor said that he had made time to do a little reading. He read up on the history of the Battle of Britain, and the blitz of London, when a constant barrage of German bombs caused some 20,000 deaths. Londoners responded, the mayor said, by trying as much as possible to go about their normal lives. That is what, he concluded, New Yorkers should be doing now.

It was through history, then, that the mayor had found comfort and instruction. But he need not have looked solely overseas. The history of New York City itself is full of examples of crisis and recovery. It is a historical fact that after every catastrophe that New York City has faced, it has emerged - yes -- stronger and better.

By coincidence, that history is front and center starting this week in a series of events planned long ago.

The last two episodes of Ric Burns' "New York: A Documentary History", broadcast on PBS Sunday, September 30 and Monday, October 1, bring the seven-part series up to the present - or, more precisely, up to present-day New York before the events of September 11. Completed just before the attack, the producers could only add a few words acknowledging what has happened: "For nearly 400 years, the people of New York have faced adversity and prevailed. This film is dedicated to them."

The first-ever Gotham History Festival, sponsored by the year-old Gotham Center for New York History at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, runs from Friday, October 5 through Sunday, October 14. The first weekend will feature more than 100 panel discussions, on a range of topics about New York City - including the history of housing, of labor, of philanthropy and (a recent addition to the program) the history of New York City disasters. These lectures and roundtable discussions, as well as a number of exhibitions, screenings and a book fair, will be offered for free (though tickets are required) at the CUNY Graduate Center, which occupies the old B.Altman's Department Store on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. For the remainder of the festival, more than 100 New York City institutions, from museums to schools to neighborhood groups, will offer exhibitions, film screenings, walking tours, performances, lectures and various other history lessons, in locations throughout all five boroughs.

"At first I thought that the documentary and the history festival were poorly timed," says Kenneth Jackson, the president of the New-York Historical Society and a leading participant in both. "But now I think they are wonderfully timed. History can help us to get our bearings. What we learn from history is that things are bearable, that human beings are resilient and cities are resilient." As bad as the terrorist attack was - and Professor Jackson considers it probably "the worst single event in both New York and American history" - "humanity has experienced a lot worse than this."

Mike Wallace agrees. "People are saying that September 11th marks the end of an era, that everything has changed. I don't buy it," says Professor Wallace, who is the director of the Gotham Center and co-author of Gotham: A History Of New York City, the first volume of which won the Pulitzer Prize. "This is a 400-year-old city of eight million strong, and it is not going to be knocked off course by this one event.

"The city has withstood attacks, both external and internal, and disasters both natural and manmade. I wouldn't say this is the worst. Of course, it's a different world now, and any comparisons are suspect. But barring future events - if this remains a single event and we wind up pulling out of a recession - this is nothing, for example, like the full-scale invasion of the city."


In what was then the largest amphibious assault in the history of warfare, the British successfully invaded New York City in 1776. Four days after the occupation began, a fire started downtown (perhaps set by someone loyal to the American cause) that spread unchecked until it had consumed almost a third of the city, including the tallest structure of the time, Trinity Church. The crashing of the houses, the roaring of the flames and the shrieks of the men and women who died "formed a scene of horror beyond description," according to a newspaper account at the time. Another fire two years later destroyed much of the rest. By the time the British ended their occupation seven years later, New York lay in ruins, physically, economically, even demographically; its population had long since fled. "You don't get more devastated than that," Wallace observes. Yet, after the revolution, New York, though having suffered more than any other American city, not only recovered and rebuilt, it became within decades the most important port city in the hemisphere, and not long afterwards the wealthiest in the world.


The first serious cholera epidemic in New York City killed 3,513 people over a period of six weeks in 1832, which, as a proportion of today's population, would be equivalent to more than 140,000 New Yorkers. Half the entire population fled the city in fear of being infected.

Just three years later, a fire that lasted just two days destroyed 675 buildings including the Merchants' Exchange. This was virtually all of downtown Manhattan, at least a quarter of the entire city at the time. "You could live in New York City now - heck you could live in Manhattan -- and not notice what happened to the World Trade Center," observes Professor Jackson. "You could not have lived in New York City in 1835 and not known there were fires." The insurance claims were so huge that it drove 23 of the city's 26 fire insurance companies into bankruptcy.

Just two weeks after the fire, the city's leading private citizens and public officials met to map out the course of recovery. Though the federal government turned down their appeal for aid, Albany came thorough, allowing the city to sell bonds to finance the reconstruction. Just five months after the fire, a much bigger, better Merchants' Exchange was under construction, made of granite. Within a year the entire area had been completely rebuilt -- the city having entered a period of feverish building that never really ended - the blocks around Wall Street transformed into a financial district that rivaled those in Europe.

While, as public health historian David Rosner has explained previously in Gotham Gazette, it took many decades before the city began responding adequately to epidemics, the two calamities of fire and pestilence together did lead to the development of the Croton Aqueduct, the city's first reliable supply of water, establishing what is frequently called the best water supply system in the nation.


Over a period of some four days in July, 1863, a mob of some 15,000 men, mostly Irish immigrant laborers angered by the first military draft and by years of discrimination, engaged in what is still called the bloodiest urban riot in American history. The crowd at first turned its wrath on the draft offices themselves and on soldiers, then the rich, but their greatest wrath was directed towards African Americans, whom they blamed for the war and thus the draft. The Colored Orphan Asylum, home to some 200 children, was burned down. Black men were dragged from their homes, tortured and lynched. By the time federal troops (themselves mostly local Irish-Americans) occupied the city and restored order, hundreds of buildings had been destroyed, millions of dollars in property had been lost, thousands of African American families had been made homeless, and at least 119 people had been killed.

In some ways, it took decades for the city to recover from this mindless carnage. But it also resulted in a series of reforms aimed at improving the lot of the poor, including laws setting minimum standards for housing and the establishment of a board of health. It also led to the creation of the first modern, professional police department.


The General Slocum, a wooden excursion boat with three passenger decks named after a general of the Civil War, left a pier on the Lower East Side headed up the East River for Long Island on a June day in 1904. On board were 1,331 members of the St. Mark's German Lutheran Church, on their way to their annual picnic. Some 15 minutes after the ship left port, the ship caught fire. The ship's captain did not notice the fire until the ship had entered Hell Gate, and could not maneuver in the narrow and treacherous waters. The fire hoses and life jackets and lifeboats, old and rotted, proved useless, and the heat too intense for other ships to help. Fifteen minutes later, the fire had caused the death of at least 1,021 women and children, the worst single disaster in the history of New York City - until September 11, 2001. The disaster so traumatized the city's German immigrant population that they left their old neighborhood of the Lower East Side in droves, moving en masse uptown to Yorkville.


In a ten-story building a block from Washington Square Park, hundreds of seamstresses were at work for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which occupied the top three floors, when a fire began on the eighth floor shortly after 4:30 p.m. on March 25,1911. It spread rapidly, fed by the fabric littering the floor. The owners of the company had locked the doors so their employees would not be tempted to take breaks. So some of the people who were trapped rushed to the fire escape. But the fire escape was shoddy and soon collapsed. Many of those who remained, their clothing on fire, jumped from the open windows of the ninth floor. In less than15 minutes, 146 women, mostly teenagers, had died. Reaction was swift and furious, resulting in the enactment of fire safety regulations, laws mandating improved working conditions, and a huge boost to the labor movement.

New York City is full of far more than just these six crises. There were race riots, for example, in 1935, 1943, and 1964, and these led to wake-up calls that spurred the city to address some of its racial inequities. There were serious financial troubles, such as the various "panics" of the nineteenth century, the Great Depression of the 1930's and the fiscal crisis of the 1970's. There were events that have some startling parallels to the current catastrophe: A terrorist bombing, on September 16, 1920, of the House of Morgan on Wall Street, killed 38 people and injured 300; though anarchists were suspected, no perpetrators were ever found. On the foggy morning of Staruday, July 28, 1945, a B-25 bomber that lost its bearings crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building, killing 14 people and injuring dozens more. Amazingly, the skyscraper itself suffered no structural damage despite the gaping hole, and it was completely repaired within a year. Many of these tragic events are virtually lost to history. "We've forgotten the General Slocum," Professor Jackson says. "It doesn't even register." The world is unlikely to forget the terrorist attacks of September 11,2001, if for no other reason than that, he says, "this is going to be the most documented tragedy in the history of the human race."

But, says Professor Wallace, this does not mean that it is in any objective way more devastating than the previous tragedies. "It depends on what happens next -- it could scatter the financial district, for example - but this will probably have less long-term impact on the city than some of the other events have had."

And, as with the other events, both historians believe, the city will do better than just survive it.

"The city won't come back better and stronger in a few days, or even a few months, or maybe even a few years," Kenneth Jackson says. "But it will recover. It always has."


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