Pigs, Parks, and Power in the Antebellum City: Interview with Catherine McNeur

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Two hundred years ago, instead of being littered with gleaming glass towers and skyscrapers, Manhattan was home to thousands of wandering pigs and livestock. Antebellum Manhattan bore little resemblance to modern Manhattan’s gleaming skyline. Catherine McNeur, assistant professor at Portland State University, has written a new book, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City,  published by Harvard University Press that explores a Manhattan filled with shanty towns, farmland and domesticated animals running loose in the streets. Her book examines the battle between upper class Manhattanites and poor New Yorkers over the direction and shape of the city. While poor Manhattanites depended on farming, domesticated animals and recycling the city’s garbage for their survival, wealthier residents were deeply concerned about sanitation, the threat of fires and epidemics, and the deepening poverty of the city.  If you want to see more of her work, visit www.catherinemcneur.com.

Here is our interview:

Why did you become interested in antebellum Manhattan? What was the inspiration for the project?

As an undergrad at NYU I wrote an honors thesis about an architect who worked in antebellum Manhattan. I loved taking walks around the city, finding remnants of that era in the brick rowhouses and other buildings that are mixed in with more recent structures. The antebellum period felt both familiar and foreign and I loved that.

A few years later after I had started grad school, I was searching for a topic for a research seminar and remembered reading about the hog riots that had occurred in the 1820s. The mere idea of that was amusing to me—hogs roaming the streets of Manhattan?!—and I wanted to look into it further. As I started doing research, the topic quickly expanded to include food, parks, shantytowns, sanitation and the like. 

How would you summarize your book?

Ultimately, Taming Manhattan is a book about the dramatic physical, social, and economic changes facing the city during a period of vast urbanization. New Yorkers from all social classes found in the urban environment a means for controlling these changes, whether that involved maps, animals, parks, manure, food, or shantytowns. The progress that seems almost inevitable to us now in terms of cleaner streets, more green spaces, fewer epidemics, safer food sources, and fewer livestock blocking traffic hardly felt inevitable to the New Yorkers and other urban Americans witnessing those changes and often times the battles over those issues were highly contentious.  There were a lot of people who lost when those steps toward “progress” were won. In Taming Manhattan, I focus primarily on those environmental justice issues.

Manhattan
Manhattan

The Manhattan that you have described in your book is fundamentally different than today’s NYC. What differences do you think will shock your readers most about antebellum New York?

I think for most people who know New York, they’ll probably be surprised by just how incredibly filthy it was. People today complain about Manhattan’s smells and grime, but it’s practically sterile compared to the nineteenth century. Often times New Yorkers forgot that their streets were paved because of all the manure, garbage, mud, and general filth that had accumulated on top of it. That said, while many antebellum New Yorkers complained heartily about the filth they encountered daily, there were many who truly valued the waste on the streets, from the city government that collected and sold animal manure, to the ragpickers who gleaned reusable and salable raw materials from the piles of trash.

Today, most Americans never see hog farms, but they play a prominent role in your research. Hogs appear to have been a part of everyday life for the antebellum residents of New York City. Why did people have cows and hogs in the city? How pervasive were hogs in Manhattan?

Hogs and other livestock had been a common part of urban life for centuries in New York City and most other cities and for quite some time people of all economic classes relied on them as food sources. By the nineteenth century, they were almost exclusively the property of the poor. Before municipalities outlawed livestock (which happened mainly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States), it wouldn’t be uncommon to find cows, goats, pigs, or fowl roaming the streets, let alone in dedicated stables or hog farms.

Getting a true count for the number of hogs in Manhattan at any given time can be hard because many were kept illegally by the time the city or state began counting. An 1820 estimate put the number at 20,000, or roughly 1 hog for every 5 New Yorkers. From tourist descriptions, government documents, newspaper accounts, and diaries, it is clear that New York was well known to be lousy with hogs—first free-roaming, later confined in piggeries–in the antebellum period.

The subtitle of your book is “Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City,” but these battles were not just environmental. Were they just as much battles between the nativists vs. the immigrants and the prosperous vs. the poor?

Oh definitely, but the larger point that I try to make in the book is that the environment can’t be separated from the battles between classes, races, and ethnicities. In fact, it’s integral for understanding those battles. For example, it would be impossible to separate the increasing privatization and inaccessibility of park space in the 1830s from the growing class disparities in that period.  Along a similar vein, the fervent nativism of the 1850s can be better understood when we look in detail at food regulation during that decade. 

Who were the biggest winners and losers as New York City sought to regulate farmland and undeveloped spaces?

The owners of the livestock and the residents of shantytowns certainly had the most to lose. In each battle, though, the tally wasn’t always clearly in favor of their opponents. The livestock owners fought back, for instance, and kept animals on the streets for decades after the city had begun attempting to enforce anti-livestock laws. Political corruption also got in the way and protected some so-called nuisance industries while eliminating others. That said, through the increased regulation of the urban environment you see increasingly privatized and controlled spaces that didn’t allow for the same kinds of informal land uses that poorer New Yorkers once relied on.

What surprised you the most during your research?

 

I think the part that most surprised me most was how much nineteenth-century Americans embraced recycling (though they didn’t use that term) in a way that we might consider modern today. It’s typical to look back at the nineteenth century and point fingers at the Industrial Revolution as a moment when we became much more environmentally wasteful. But many types of manufacturers in the mid-nineteenth century actively embraced recycling as a way of obtaining raw materials. So much urban waste was reused—toothbrush manufacturers, button makers, fertilizer companies, and sugar refiners all used discarded bones found in the garbage heaps to make their products, for instance. Offal boilers transformed a lot of the food waste from garbage heaps into tallow for candle makers and soap makers. Whatever was leftover was fed to pigs and converted into edible protein. Regional farmers purchased animal waste from the streets. For several decades, Americans even embraced poudrette—processed human waste—as a fertilizer. This all would come to change, of course, and it would be a mistake to completely revise the way we understand the massive production and consumption involved in the Industrial Revolution. Still, modern recyclers are often confident that what they are doing is very revolutionary, that they are breaking with the past in a major way. In reality, there are some ways that nineteenth-century Americans were doing even more to find ways to reuse their waste.

How would you recommend using your book in class? How can your book help understand environmental issues in Antebellum America? 

Ideally, this book will be useful in a range of different courses—whether they focus on the antebellum period, environmental history, urban history, city planning, public health, or the history of capitalism. 

The majority of environmental histories of America focus on the Progressive Era and beyond, so Taming Manhattan will add to our understanding about what was happening before the Civil War. Antebellum Americans were making dramatic changes to their urban environments, attempting to transform nature alongside the social conditions that seemed to be making cities unsustainable. In the process, they defined what kinds of land uses belonged in an “urban” versus a “rural” setting—definitions we often take for granted, or, alternatively, are working to revise today.

Catherine McNeur’s book Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City will be published this fall by Harvard University Press and is available for pre-order at Powell’sAmazon, and Barnes and Noble. To learn more about her teaching and research, visit www.catherinemcneur.com.

You can also check out the DailyHistory.org Bookshelf at Powell’s Bookstore.

Libraryreads.org’s Top Ten Books for November 2014

Libraryreads.org has named their Top Ten books for November.  These books are picked by librarians across the country.

David Nicholls, Us (Harper)

Sarah MacLean, Rule of Scoundrels #4: Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover: The Fourth Rule of Scoundrels (Avon)

Marilyn Johnson, Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble (Harper)

Michael Connelly, The Burning Room (Harry Bosch Novel) (Little, Brown and Company)

Robin LaFevers, His Fair Assassin Trilogy #3: Mortal Heart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books)

Jojo Moyes, The Shop of Brides: A Novel (Penguin)

Bradford Morrow, The Forgers (Mysterious Press)

Ed. Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King, In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon (Pegasus)

Stephanie Barron, Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas: Being a Jane Austen Mystery (Being a Jane Austen Mysteries) (Soho Crime)

Lydia Millet, Mermaids in Paradise (W.W. Norton & Company)

 

 

Reading Jane Austen with Vladimir Nabokov

How did Nabokov read Jane Austin? Janine Barchas has a fascinating post at the JHU Press Blog about how Vladimir Nabokov both read and taught Jane Austin to his students. Barchas closely read Nabokov’s lectures and examined his “battered and marked-up teaching copy” of Austin’s Mansfield Park. Nabokov’s notations demonstrated that Nabokov not only closely read Austin’s book, but demonstrate that sought to completely understand the world that Austin had created. We all should take Barchas’s advice and read more like Nabokov.

Jane Barchas’s is the author of Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity

Johns Hopkins University Press Blog

Guest post by Janine Barchas

Great writers are great readers. And nothing dials up the magnification on a book like the green-eyed gaze of a fellow author.

In 2014, many Jane Austen fans have been rereading what is arguably her darkest and most difficult novel in celebration of Mansfield Park’s bicentenary. One unique copy of that novel, formerly owned by Russian-born American novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), enables the rereading of one great novelist over the shoulder of another.

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During the 1940s and 1950s, Nabokov taught at Wellesley and Cornell. He lectured there on fiction, placing Austen on his syllabus alongside Flaubert, Dickens, Proust, Kafka, and Joyce. The Austen novel he chose to teach was, ambitiously, Mansfield Park. Nabokov’s battered and marked-up teaching copy (an Everyman’s Library reprint from 1948) currently resides in the New York Public Library as part of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection…

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Photo Essay: Ten Northwest Luminaries Photographed by Mary Randlett

The University of Washington Press Blog has posted an article on their new book, Mary Randlett Potraits. The book is a collection of Mary Randlett’s photos and biographical essays written by Frances McCue. The article includes a number of photos of West Coast writers and artists including Henry Miller, Morris Graves, Imogen Cunningham and others. Randlett’s black and white portraits are absolutely stunning.

University of Washington Press Blog

McCUE-MaryRandlettPortraitsMary Randlett Portraitsthe first collection of Mary Randlett’s photographs of people—presents visual artists, writers, and arts advocates from 1949 to 2014. Her portraits are known for their effortless intimacy, illuminating her subjects as few ever saw them—something noted by many of those whom she photographed. The portraits are accompanied by biographical sketches written by Frances McCue. Her short essays blend life stories and reflections on the photographs with Randlett’s own reminiscences. McCue also provides an essay that is the first to frame the scope of Randlett’s life and professional career. Mary Randlett, who will be 91 in May, 2015, is still photographing landscapes. Her last portrait photograph was of the author of this book, Frances McCue. The photographs and vignettes below are extracted from Mary Randlett Portraits.

1. Henry Miller, 1949
Henry-Miller

“Turn up Partington Ridge,” Mary Randlett’s mother told her. They were driving along Big…

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Finalists for the Kirkus Prize

The Kirkus Prize awards $50,000 to winners of the fiction, nonfiction, and young reader’s categories.  The Kirkus Reviews is an 81 year old magazine that reviews over 7,000 books a year.  It has been an integral part of the publishing since its founding.  Kirkusreviews.com is a fabulous source of reviews on brand news books in numerous genres.  Here are this years finalists:

Fiction:

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

Euphoria by Lily King

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

Florence Gordon by Brian Morton

The Remedy for Love by Bill Roorbach

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Non-Fiction:

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir by Roz Chast

Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World by Leo Damrosch

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science by Armand Marie Leroi

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Young Readers’ Literature:

El Deafo written and illustrated by Cece Bell

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Byrant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza (Joey Pigza Books) Joey Pigza by Jack Gantos

The Story of Owen

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E.K. Johnson

The Freedom Summer Murders by Don Mitchell

Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual written and illustrated by  Kate Samworth

 

Rebel on Pointe

Here is an interview with Lee Wilson about her new book Rebel on Pointe. Wilson’s book is a memoir that delves the world of dance luminaries such as George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev and Rosella Hightower. Check out The Florida Bookshelf’s interview with Lee Wilson.

The Florida Bookshelf

Rebel_on_Pointe“Wilson has a gift for telling stories…Rebel on Pointe is one terrific read that fans of all ages will enjoy for its clear storytelling, historic perspectives and histrionic characters from someone who lived to see the status of women greatly elevated, and who was herself a part of that story.”—Critical Dance

“Touching and beautiful; Lee Wilson is an inspiration to us all for finding a passion in life and moving beyond familial pressures and societal norms.”—Zippora Karz, former soloist, New York City Ballet

“The culture of the ballet world is divulged in all its glorious detail. Wilson’s compelling account of her training and career shows the true courage and persistence this profession requires.”—Ali Duffy, founder and choreographer, Flatlands Dance Theatre

“Lee brings to her writing the same keen intelligence she brought to her dancing. It is a joy to relive some of the important moments…

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Wilderburbs and Wildlife in the American West: A Q & A with Lincoln Bramwell

Lincoln Bramwell has a new book coming from University of Washington Press on wilderburbs. Wilderburbs are housing developments nestled up to “the edges of forests, deserts or mountain slopes of the American West.” When folks accustomed to suburban life move to a wilderburb they are often several new threats: wildfire, water scarcity and wild animals. Bramwell talks about Wilderburbs in an interview posted on the University of Washington Press Blog.

University of Washington Press Blog

Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature’s Edge is the environmental history of a housing phenomenon that places human developments in close proximity to wild places: on the edges of forests, deserts, and mountain slopes of the American West. Author Lincoln Bramwell, chief historian for the USDA Forest Service, spoke with us recently about what drove his interest in this topic and some of the major challenges that can accompany life in wilderburbs.

Q: Are wilderburbs and the sort of human/nature encounters they introduce a new phenomenon? 

Lincoln Bramwell: Wilderburbs are in no way a new phenomenon. People with means around the world have maintained country estates outside of the crowded metropolis for millennia. Wealthy Americans began imitating English country estates following the Revolution when cities like Philadelphia and Boston grew in population and density. While these spaces were definitely out of reach for all except the upper class, by the nineteenth…

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Fourth Down in Dunbar

Dunbar High School in Fort Myers has produced an extraordinary number of outstanding football players. David A. Dorsey has written a new book, Fourth Down in Dunbar, that examines that why an area plague with drug abuse and violence has also started the career of numerous NFL players.

The Florida Bookshelf

Deion Sanders, Jevon Kearse, Earnest Graham, Sammy Watkins and other NFL stars from Fort Myers, Florida are featured in Fourth Down in Dunbar, which we are pleased to be publishing today.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King says, “Rarely have we gotten such a vivid look into the reality of how big-time players avoided becoming statistics.” Fourth Down in Dunbar tells how the Dunbar neighborhoods of Fort Myers—plagued by drugs and violence and where many children are fatherless—gave rise to an incredible number of talented NFL players.

Nearly two dozen athletes from Dunbar have achieved massive success. Sammy Watkins being picked fourth in the 2014 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills marks almost sixty years of the Dunbar star athlete phenomenon.

In his twenty years as a reporter for the Fort Myers News-Press, author David Dorsey has witnessed future stars mature from playing at local high schools to…

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An Excerpt from Theodore W. Pietsch’s Trees of Life

The Johns Hopkins Press Blog has included an excerpt from Theodore W. Pietsch’s Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution. Trees of Life is book about the tree diagrams created to illustrate evolution and the relationship between various organism. We have all seen these visual representations. These trees help convey fairly difficult concepts in a remarkably coherent and understandable way. Pietsch’s book crosses disciplinary lines between science, history of science, biology and intellectual history. The excerpt is from Pietsch’s preface.

Johns Hopkins University Press Blog

Our occasional Friday series on the blog, The Press Reads, features short excerpts from recent JHUP books. We hope to whet your appetite and inspire additions to your reading list.  Today’s selection is drawn from the preface ofTrees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution by Theodore W. Pietsch. Trees of Life, embraced by reviewers across many disciplines, is now available in trade paperback.

Ernst Haeckel's family tree of the mammals, from 1866. Ernst Haeckel’s family tree of the mammals, from 1866.

This is a book about  trees—not the transpiring, photosynthesizing kind, but tree-like branching diagrams that attempt to show the interrelationships of organisms, from viruses and bacteria to birds and mammals, both living and fossil. It is not intended as a treatise about the philosophy or science behind tree construction, nor is it a defense or refutation of the various relationships depicted among organisms. It is rather a celebration of the manifest beauty, intrinsic interest, and human…

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Discovering Florida

The University of Florida Press blog has a book announcement for John E. Worth book Discovering Florida: First Contact from Spanish Expeditions along the Lower Gulf Coast. The book is a collection of documents of Spaniards who accompanied early Spanish explorers such as Juan Ponce de León, Pánfilo de Narváez, Hernando de Soto, and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and their descriptions of indigenous peoples. As the UF Press Blog points out that these “indigenous cultures did not survive colonization.”

The Florida Bookshelf

Discovering Florida: First Contact Narratives from Spanish Expeditions along the Lower Gulf Coast

Edited and Translated by John E. Worth

Discovering Florida compiles all the major writings of Spanish explorers who visited Florida’s lower gulf coast during the earliest stages of European conquest, between 1513 and 1566.  Including transcriptions of the original Spanish documents as well as English translations, this volume presents—in their own words—the experiences and reactions of Spaniards who came to Florida with Juan Ponce de León, Pánfilo de Narváez, Hernando de Soto, and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. These accounts, which have never before appeared together in print, provide an astonishing glimpse into a world of indigenous cultures that did not survive colonization.

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