NYC in the 1870's vs the 1970's: The worse bad old days

Having relocated to NYC from Ohio four years ago, I noticed that I encounter a very different opinion of New York from older people that have lived their whole life here versus people that have moved here from other parts of the country.

From the life long residents over 50, you get all the same tired platitudes about NYC being 'the greatest city in the world', but you also notice a fear of the city. They take pride in having lived through the tumultuous 1970's when buildings were burnt down for insurance money and junkies roamed the streets at night like the zombies in "I Am Legend". They caution you against going out at night and often still refuse to take the subways that were the symbol of the city's decay in the 1970's.

Times were so bad then that it seems hard to imagine a time in New York that was worse. However, in the 1870's as immigrants were pouring into the city's ports to escape the famine of Ireland and the endless wars of continental Europe, the city had the dubious distinction of having the highest death rate in the Western world.

Even though this was the golden age of the streets of gold myths about the United States, unknown numbers of New Yorkers died of exposure in the substandard tenements, fell victims to the ethnic and political gang violence, or lost the struggle with contagious diseases that gripped the poor communities as a result of poor sanitation in the areas around lower Manhattan.

While Chester Arthur held court at the 5th Avenue Hotel near the modern 26th St and Lexington with his gilded elite friends, the poorer citizens to a mile south stood in line in soup kitchens and begged for favors of the local machine politicians that ran and owned the many taverns. The issues with poverty, corruption, violence and sanitation combined to make the New York City of the 1870's make the 1970's look comparatively good. You can bet those people would take some graffiti on subways over the sewage that flowed through the streets and would be happy with the occasional crack house compared with the opium dens that dominated the early Chinatown.


Chester Arthur: Change no one believed in

All presidents since Washington tried to steer the country either into a forward or backward looking direction.

Presidents such as Jefferson, Jackson and Pierce tried to look backward and restore the country to what they viewed as the Republican golden age by keeping government small, weak and as out of people's lives as much as possible. They generally opposed having a central bank that could print money, supported only state militias to protect the country and tended to put as much decision making as possible into local communities.

Other presidents such as Adams, Polk and Garfield sought to look forward and modernize the country as much as possible through maintaining standing armies, supporting a strong central bank of the United States and 'internal improvements' which were usually public works projects such as railroads, canals or dams.

Arthur's legacy would certainly put him in the latter category as a modernizing president. He sought to continue Garfield's legacy of making the civil service more professional by making the non political positions be merit based rather than simple patronage, he pushed for time zones to be created in the United States, and even pushed for an early form of NAFTA by encouraging trade treaties with Nicaragua and Mexico.

In an age of even more suspicion and anger over immigration than our own, Arthur tried to create something even more powerful than NAFTA by pushing for a common currency for all of North and South America or a sort of United States Euro zone to further international trade.

This push for a common continental currency obviously didn't pass in the United States or Latin America and still would not today, but it really speaks to how dedicated to new ideas Arthur was.