- Feeding Gotham: The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1790–1860 by Gergely Baics
New York City, Food, Culinary history, Markets, Food access, Urban history
With Feeding Gotham, Gergely Baics has made it possible to envision more clearly what it was like to live, shop, cook, and eat in the urban early republic. With precise terminology, clear argumentation, and careful prose, Baics conjures a network of slaughterhouses, public markets, [End Page 713] and increasingly expanding neighborhoods in early New York. The book charts two divergent trends in municipal regulation in New York City in the first half of the nineteenth century, toward the privatization of public food markets and the socialization of water. Primarily writing a story of economic change, Baics maps the geographical distribution of resources and considers the effect that their positioning had both on municipal authorities and their treasuries, and on the living standards of city dwellers, especially the poor.
The book takes up perennial questions—Is access to food a public good? How is this different from water?—and walks readers through the ways in which a variety of agencies and individuals answered these questions, all the while pointing to foregoing and subsequent approaches, which provide a helpful contextual background. Most importantly, Baics argues, a series of decisions by municipal reformers in antebellum New York to deregulate the market system led to “a full-scale environmental assault on poor residents’ living standards” (231). The degradation wrought by the privatization of the market system after 1843 may have been nearly inevitable, he notes, as by the 1830s, the public system was far from sufficient in its capacity to provide and serve at the levels required by the growing population. Indeed, following deregulation, food suppliers congregated in the southern portion of the city, providing primarily wholesale goods for hotels, restaurants, and grocers. This shift alienated areas in the city with the fastest growing and highest density populations. Simultaneously, “rising demand from urbanization outpaced the availability of agricultural supplies, leading to declining consumption standards” (226). The “locational behavior of food vendors,” particularly the concentration of suppliers in the south of the city, also shaped how members of households scheduled their provisioning trips (69). This was an explicitly gendered transition, as Baics intriguingly charts: In the early nineteenth century, it was “common practice among middle-class men in cities to take care of food shopping for their families, in part because this involved a trip to the potentially raucous public space of the neighborhood market” (114). But by the 1840s, food shopping had been added to women’s list of household obligations. Previously, local neighborhood public markets would have involved almost daily shopping trips, but the antebellum period saw many in the middle and lower classes shift to less frequent scheduled market trips.
Baics explores the spatial aspects of the city and its food economy using central place theory, which yields an important analytical result. In [End Page 714] the public market era, until the early 1840s, wherever population centers developed, suppliers would follow or new businesses would emerge to serve their growing clientele. This functioned fairly well, though hampered somewhat, Baics notes, by the system of permitting and management by city officials. He even goes so far as to detail the internal spatial organization of markets like Catharine, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, noting how venders were distributed throughout the market, and the characters and activities that could be found within. In a brief but engaging episode, the reader encounters a description of the African American practice of dancing for eels, captured through the archival luck of a single drawing and single manuscript source describing the event. This episode underscores Baics’s argument that the public markets, especially Catharine, drew in people from around the city, as well as Long Island and New Jersey, creating spaces that were not only places of spatial convergence and social and economic exchange but also of cultural engagement.
New Yorkers in...