Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City by Catherine McNeur (review)
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Environment, New York, Manhattan, Urban environmental history

Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City. By Catherine McNeur. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. 320. Cloth, $26.69.)

Taming Manhattan is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of antebellum New York, or American cities in general in the early nineteenth century. McNeur recovers the fierce battles and public and backroom debates that surrounded and shaped the changing built environment of America’s largest and fastest growing city. The author weaves together lesser known and more familiar stories in a fluidly written narrative history. Readers will learn about free-roaming dogs and hogs foraging in the urban commons; the recycling of manure, human waste, and offal as part of an urban informal economy; or the introduction of parks and trees to breathe new dynamism into real-estate developments and clear the city’s lungs.

More broadly, the book contributes to a thriving literature on urban environmental history, echoing the critique of other authors about the artificial dichotomy of urban and rural, exposing some intriguing ways in which city and country intersected. ‘‘Not only is the city impossible [End Page 181] to understand without the country, but the country was also very much a part of the city’’ (3). Indeed, walking antebellum New York’s densely built neighborhoods, one would encounter loose hogs, piling manure, and garbage; head north, and the fabric thins out with urban and rural land uses blending together in a landscape of nuisance industries, shanties, and farms; go even further and Gotham’s recycling geography and vast foodshed open up. Taming Manhattan, McNeur argues, meant defining ‘‘what properly belongs in the city versus the country’’ (3). The book is about these environmental battles, ranging from hogs to trees, the social groups involved, their interests and strategies, and the uneven outcomes of their conflicts.

Chapter 1 recovers the lesser known battles around mad dogs and the better-known ones around loose hogs. Interestingly, dog ownership crossed class lines, generating a cacophony of compassionate voices for or against their removal from public space. Hogs instead were kept as livestock by the city’s poor to supplement meager diets and incomes, with the frontline being situated more starkly between bourgeois ideas of the ordered city and the economic necessities of working-class residents. In both cases, the battles to remove free-roaming animals repeatedly failed due to the Common Council’s inability to assert control of the built environment. Chapter 2 shifts the focus to Gotham’s early history of park construction from the 1830s through the 1840s, detailing hidden real-estate negotiations centered on tax policies, special assessments, and the public and private financing of greenspaces, which anchored the development of elite uptown areas. In what may be the book’s most important discussion, it weaves together familiar cases like Gramercy Park and Union Square, lesser known histories such as the failed plan of the Eleventh Ward park, or the planting of trees in public spaces to outline the emergence of an ‘‘unequally green’’ urban environment well before Central Park.

Chapter 3 uncovers Gotham’s filthy landscapes of manure-covered streets and overflowing privies, also recounting the 1832 and 1849 cholera epidemics. The most interesting sections detail the city’s considerable waste-recycling system to export horse manure to hinterland farmers, and the less successful schemes to produce poudrette, a kind of fertilizer, out of human waste. Chapter 4 expands on the subject of recycling by looking at food waste. It tells the fascinating corruption case of City Inspector Alfred W. White, who managed to close down offal-boiling establishments in the wake of the 1849 cholera epidemic not only for public-health reasons but also to clear the ground for lucrative [End Page 182] municipal contracts for a company in which he had financial interests. The chapter then returns to the theme of urban food production, focusing on the scandal around swill milk that erupted in the 1850s to little effect, and the more consequential campaign to remove suburban piggeries by the decade’s end.

Chapter 5 compares Charles Loring Brace’s social reforms, including his Children’s Aid...