Thursday, July 14, 2016

Jason M. Barr's "Building the Skyline"

Jason M. Barr is an associate professor of economics at Rutgers University - Newark. His areas of interests include urban economics, New York City history, and computational economics. He has published many articles in top peer-reviewed economics journals, and is one of the leading scholars on skyscraper economics.

Barr applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan's Skyscrapers, and reported the following:
On page 99, I discuss the history of the Five Points neighborhood in Lower Manhattan (modern Chinatown). Though not the main focus of the book, my aim is to argue that we need to reevaluate how we think about, and investigate, its history, especially in light of the growing body of social science research that has studied the benefits to society from dense, urban living.

In 1800, Five Points was an industrial district of tanners and slaughter houses adjacent to the Collect Pond, Manhattan’s largest body of fresh water. By 1811, the pond was filled in and the neighborhood emerged as a working class residential district. Starting in 1845, because of the Potato Famine, Irish immigrants began to arrive in great numbers, making it arguably one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world. Sanitation and housing conditions in the neighborhood were woefully inadequate and Five Points gained a reputation as an infamous slum.

Charles Dickens toured its streets in 1842 and, in his American Notes for General Circulation, he offered this, “Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright instead of going on all-fours, and why they talk instead of grunting?” In 1890, reformer Jacob Riis, in How the Other Half Lives, wrote, “Where Mulberry Street crooks like an elbow within hail of the old depravity of the Five Points, is ‘the Bend,’ foul core of New York’s slums.”

The history of Five Points was defined and described by writers like Dickens and Riis. They aimed to motivate, and even shame, elected officials and others to address the district’s serious social and public health problems. In the process, these reformers defined the historiography of New York’s immigrant neighborhoods as predominantly negative. Even today, these historical accounts continue to hinder our ability to view immigrant life in Five Points and other enclaves more objectively.

Life in Five Points was certainly difficult, but the social and economic advantages should not be discounted. Residing there would have meant the chance to live among fellow countrymen, as well as have better access to employment opportunities, and greater chances for social and economic mobility. Research focused on the positive aspects of Five Points is very limited, but work by the historian, Tyler Anbinder, shows, for example, that even some of the most destitute Irish immigrants were able to amass sizable savings accounts after only a few years in the neighborhood. My work on Manhattan demographics shows that by 1900, Irish enclaves in Manhattan had expanded upward along Manhattan Island, suggestive of rising incomes and skills. Using modern social science methods, I’m hopeful we can shed more light on life in New York’s most notorious slum.
Learn more about Building the Skyline at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue