New York City during the first half of the 19th century was a very tumultuous time for its citizens. Gang violence in the 1840s and 1850’s were taking their toll and begged the question: “Who really controlled the city?” The gangs, who were made up of tough men who sought to form an identity within these gangs, felt as though they ran the city and those that challenged their authority, (mostly rival gangs) would be met with stiff resistance that usually turned into violence. As violent as the streets of New York were during those times, it is really understandable as to why the living conditions of New York at that time, served to incite organized lawlessness among the lower classes of New York. Immigrants from Europe in the 1840’s were coming to a densely populated area where an already high number of immigrants were fighting for the loudest and hardest jobs for the lowest pay that the city had to offer. This obviously led to tensions from within the immigrants groups as well as from the upper class of New York. The achievements that the immigrants gave to the city: The production of Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge to name a few, were ignored in favor of a general xenophobia coupled with complete disdain for the individual as well as an apathy towards their own personal struggles and impediments that life in America had. But as chief advisor to the mayor of New York, it is my job to try to alleviate these problems by offering these gangs an alternate way of life in which the respect for the law is the result of a productive and busy life.
Herbert Asbury in his book Gangs of New York tells about a New York City totally overrun by gangs. “The Forty Thieves was the first of these mobs, followed by the Kerryonians, the Chichesters, the Roach Guards, the Plug Uglies, the Shirt Tails, and the Dead Rabbits.” (Asbury, 2001) These were the most notorious gangs in New York City; each fighting for control of the city and their own meager existence. Asbury also tells of a New York City where the lowest social classes: the African Americans and Famine Irish fought each other to see who would be at the bottom of the social ladder. “Many of the old tenements began to crumble or sink into the imperfectly drained swamp, and became unsafe for occupancy; and the malarial odors and vapors arising from the marsh lands made the whole area dangerous to health. The respectable families abandoned the clapboarded monstrosities for other parts of Manhattan Island, and their places were taken, for the most part, by freed Negro slaves and low-class Irish, who had swarmed into New York on the first great wave of immigration which followed the Revolution and the establishment of the Republic.” (Asbury, 2001) Asbury also talked about the irony that befell the immigrants who had helped to build America and this city, only to have to fight each other for a piece of what they had worked to get.
Asbury’s Gangs of New York talks about an excess of crime, poor working and living conditions, the exploitation of the immigrant worker and their hatred for other poor social classes. The relative powerless feelings that each immigrant had, along with being on the brink of starvation as well as of their families, have led to this level of lawlessness with Asbury believed occurred on a daily basis and on a wide scale level during this time in New York’s City’s history. The population density of New York City at this time was 300 people per square acre, five times the number that the city planners had recommended for the area.(Burns, 1999) “The Famine Irish, who had numbered 100,000 in 1840, now saw a surge of their population as a result of the Irish Famine 1845-1849 in which over a million Irish immigrants came through New York City, with many staying as they tried to call New York their permanent home.” (Burns, 1999) This led to a large surge of xenophobia as well as fear that was lashed out against the Irish concerning the future of their own jobs against people that would work for less. During this time, it was the Irish and German immigrants that built the city and as a result, were given the dirtiest jobs with the least respect and the most dangerous working conditions, only to be pitted against each other to see who would work for less. These are the people who built the city and consequently, as a result of their living and working conditions, it was they that partook in the greatest degree of mob violence in the city.
It now befalls on myself and my staff to attempt to alleviate these problems and to give the mayor advice on what programs will work as we try desperately for any type of improvement within the city. New York City is being taken over by the ruffians within these gangs and it is our job to take these streets back in order to provide safe streets for the general public as well as encourage tourism. Even though law and order must be stressed, prevention is also a key. We need to get these people working and earning a living wage. A man who able to support his family, carries with him a certain level of respect that he is possessive of and wishes to keep in tact. We need to get these people to work. So far, the only institution that is doing this to any degree of success is Tammany Hall. It seems likely however, that Boss William Tweed is not as straight laced as he may appear to others. Wherever he goes and in whatever business venture he places his greedy hands in, corruption seems to follow.(Burns, 1999) However, only Tammany and to a lesser degree, the aid societies are doing anything to help alleviate the stress that is seen in New York City. Perhaps a committee to oversee the activity of Tammany will be a better way in which the influence of Tammany is kept the same but the money that they generate will be guaranteed to be on the level.
Also, there must be regulations on merchants who play on the desperation between the different ethnic groups. Irish workers are used until they become dissatisfied with their conditions and then African Americans are used as strike breakers since they will work for less money. Then, a portion of the Irish workers will come back. “While consenting to work for even less wages, this forces the merchant to fire an African American worker.” (Asbury, 2001) The merchants have no concerns for these workers and play on the animosity between these two groups that are fighting each other in order to ensure that they are not on the bottom of the social classes. Merchants who partake in this practice need to be fined with each fine increasing with every offense.
Building upon this, there needs to some sort of minimum wage that is enacted. However, it needs to be disguised as something else since the exact word: minimum wage” will never pass and will be seen as a form of socialism and the merchant and upper class will rise up against it. My staff and I are working on some social programs that help to ensure the worker that he has some rights and that those rights need to be protected. Children work away their childhoods as they are forced to become a part of the industrialization that has taken place in New York these past few years. The children are the first victims of this and something needs to be done about this.
Also, there needs to be building codes enacted by the city against landlords that would rent apartments that have no business of still being allowed to stand. Many of the buildings that my staff and I observed were filled with rats and garbage as well as many more people than it seems should be allowed to live. There needs to be building codes which specify the number of people that will be allowed to live in each apartment as well as the responsibilities that the landlord has to his tenants. And, the tenements need to be torn down all together. How can we expect the poorer classes to act like anything other than animals when they are forced to live like animals? These conditions breed dissent and lawlessness which serves as an impediment, not only for themselves but for the city as a whole.
There needs to be an encouragement of help that comes from the public. Charles Brace has just opened up his Children’s Aid Society and it is doing a great deal of good for the children of this city. However, one aid society cannot do enough and more need to be enacted. Also, since Brace, as part of his mission, is to teach Protestant religious teachings, many Catholics resent such things yet have no other choice then to send their children. This leads to further animosity among Catholics and Protestants which is not needed in the city. Catholic charities need to be organized as well. This will serve more children as well as help alleviate the tensions that come from Brace’s Aid Society. When a mother sees his children starving to death and the father not able to support his children, an anger and resentment grows in these people to the point that current barriers which would prevent lawlessness within an individual, are now seen as acceptable. I am not advocating socialism and the creation of a permanent welfare state but recognize that this lawlessness has exact and identifiable precursors which can be erased and the problems alleviated. This only comes when the needs and a few of the wants of the lower social classes are met. This can be accomplished through the creation of multiple employment agencies. These agencies will be funded by the benefactors themselves who will have a modest portion of their wages extracted in order to pay for these agencies.. Businesses will be given incentives to sign contracts with these agencies in order to employ their workers. And through the money that these workers earn, they can feel a sense of accomplishment and independence that a permanent welfare state would force upon its applicants. The government needs to be expanded in order to alleviate these problems.
The problems of the gangs are caused by men and therefore, they can be solved by men. The legacy of this great city will be forever compromised if something is not done now and drastic actions are seen as unnecessary or beyond the influence of our mayor’s powers. Extraordinary problems call for extraordinary solutions. This mayor, with the help of my staff and the trust that he has in me, will finally start to put New York on the road to recovery.
Asbury, H (2001) The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.
Burns, R. (1999) The History of New York. PBS Video: New York.
Burns, R. (1999) A Companion to The History of New York. New York: Alfred Knoff Publishers.