Shanty Town, New York

It’s only a shanty in old shanty town; It’s roof is so slanty, it touches the ground.
Just a tumbled down shack by an old railroad track, but like a millionaire’s mansion it’s calling me back.
I’d give up my palace if I were a king; it’s more than a palace – it’s my everything.
There’s a queen waiting there, in a silvery crown; in a shanty in old shanty town
Lyrics – Joe Young (1932)

Central Park in New York City was the first landscaped public park in the United States. Today it’s 843-acre expanse is the most expensive piece of not-for-sale real estate in the entire world. Yet, it has a dark side. Original advocates of creating the park were primarily wealthy New Yorkers, who wanted an attractive area for their carriage rides on a Sunday afternoon. However, there was just one thing in the way of its construction. The land proposed was dotted with the homes of thousands of underprivileged working-class families.

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 had made New York the financial and commercial capital of the nation, attracting many new businesses and residents. The new rich of the city, who admired the public parks of London and Paris, urged that New York needed a comparable facility to enhance its international reputation. In an effort to put a charitable tone on their argument, they claimed that a public park would provide working-class New Yorkers with a healthy alternative to saloons. However, while faced with the expense of a rapidly growing population, the city was also besieged with a flood of Irish immigrants fleeing the 1845 – 50 failure of the potato crop in Ireland as well as German immigrants fleeing 1848 revolutions in Germany. The population of the city grew faster than housing allowed, leading to the overcrowding of old houses as owners subdivided property and crammed as many tenants as possible into space far too confining for healthy living.

A recently filled-in pond below Canal Street became an area known as The Five Points – the worst overcrowded slum in the United States, if not the world, with inadequate services for sanitation, health and welfare. Those unwilling to commit their families to the misery of the Points or unable to afford the tenement rents, settled on vacant land north of the city. That land, between today’s Fifth and Eighth avenues north of 59th street, was a muddy tract of broken, irregular, rocky acreage, undesirable for private development. It had been a settler’s colony since 1825 with residents erecting cabins or shacks as best they could. The dwellings housed Irish and German immigrants, runaway slaves, freed blacks and others who were not welcome in the heart of the city due to their poverty, health, religion, or race. These communities, nicknamed Dutch Hill, Dublin Corners, the Piggery and Seneca Village, were estimated by one New York newspaper to contain between 12 and 16,000 souls. If municipal services were painfully inadequate in the slums, they were virtually non-existent in those collective communities which came to be known as Shanty Town, named from the Irish sean (old) and tigh (house) to describe the rough, makeshift dwellings of those unable to afford anything more substantial. In addition to the settler’s dwellings, were the ‘nuisance industries’ banned from operating within city limits such as glue, soap and candle factories which emitted bad odors and bone-boiling plants that made oil used to refine sugar. There were also stone quarries, farms, taverns, and even a Sisters of Charity convent in Shanty Town.

The largest ethnic population of Shanty Town were Irish families who had fled the Great Hunger to seek a better life in America. Unable to find accommodations in the city, they wandered onto the unused land above 60th Street and erected small, one-room cabins on small plots of land. The homes they built were, in many cases, no better or worse than those they’d left in Ireland, but at least there were no bill, tithe and tax collectors, and no threat of eviction. This was the freedom they had come to America to find and they settled in to plant a crop and raise a few livestock. However, to the growing nouveau riche of New York, these people were dirty, unkempt and lived with animals further alienating them from polite society.

There was also a community of German Catholic farmers who began to farm and sell their produce from push carts in the city.

There was a community known as Seneca Village which was an African-American settlement of freed blacks, who were not above lending a helping hand to runaway slaves. These largely Irish-German-African shanty towns began to grow larger after 1880. With no plan for the layout of streets and pathways, dwellings were erected wherever the rocky ground would permit. Even though the settlements included schools, churches, cemeteries, shops, and public hospitals, a newspaper of the time described the look of the structures as if it they were constructed by crazy poets and distributed by a whirlwind.

By the end of the Civil War, the city began marching north. Fifth Avenue, up to 59th Street, boasted more than 340 private residences, among which were many of the city’s largest and most extravagant homes. By the late 1800s, Fifth Avenue had become synonymous with wealth, high fashion, and architectural elegance. As the gentry began to build their new mansions north of 59th street, they looked out from their Victorian drawing rooms on shantys settled by immigrants who operated truck farms and kept goats, chickens, and pigs. When millionaire Andrew Carnegie erected his mansion at Fifth Avenue and 91st Street, his nearest neighbors were living in a shack described as an Irish architectural prototype. This was definitely not acceptable.

After years of debate over the site and cost of a park, in 1853 the City suddenly used the power of eminent domain to confiscate more than 700 acres of land in the center of Manhattan. The land chosen was Shanty Town whose inhabitants were suddenly described as disease-ridden tramps, squatters and thieves living in dilapidated shacks surrounded by pigs, sheep, and cows. The settlers had no chance in the face of the press-inspired prejudice generated in a politically charged environment amid rising prices of the residential land all around them. The city notified the squatters, as they were now called, that they would have to go.

By the summer of 1856, about 1,600 working-class families were offered an insultingly low stipend for their land and their homes and told to clear out. These families had no political or economic power with which to argue against those who wanted a park playground. The residents were evicted through 1857, and their homes were torn down. The civil servant in charge of carrying out the sad task of evictions was the great-great grandfather of future New York Yankee great, Joe Pepitone. No provisions were made for the relocation of those who were displaced. To the Irish, they had been evicted again; this time in a land where they believed it would never happen. Little investigation has ever been done regarding this shameful event in New York history. Once done, it was forgotten. But where did the evicted go? What became of their families?

After blasting out rocky ridges with more gunpowder than was used at the Battle of Gettysburg, workers moved 3 million cubic yards of soil and planted more than 270,000 trees and shrubs. In the end, it cost more to build Central Park than it did to purchase Alaska, so why wasn’t there enough money to relocate the displaced families? We shall never know. After the destruction of Shanty Town, the inhabitants vanished without a trace. The next time you read of someone losing their wallet or purse to a pickpocket or purse snatcher in Central Park, think about those families who lost so much more in that same park.

After all, many of today’s New Yorkers could be their descendants.

The Queen’s Visit

By the mid 1800s, Ireland was in the hands of landlords who took more and more of the fertile land, forcing the Irish to survive on smaller and smaller plots, until they became totally dependent on the crop that could produce the most yield per acre – the potato. It was a difficult life, but at least they weren’t starving, for potatoes are a remarkable source of vitamins and minerals. Then late on August 20, 1845, a potato fungus was discovered at the Dublin Botanical Gardens. The following day, August 21, is a date remembered in Irish history as the first day of An Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger – a tragedy that saw millions lost to emigration, disease, and starvation. Within the week, reports came in from all over Ireland that the potato crop had turned black in the ground. It was the only crop affected, since everything else grew in abundance, but the other crops belonged to the landlord.

The landlords protected those crops from the hungry Irish until they were harvested, and exported to England for profit. Parliament did little to help, quoting the economic doctrine of Laissez Faire saying that the country was to be left to the effect of natural forces. Many died in ‘45 awaiting a better harvest in ‘46, but it didn’t come. The potato crop in ‘46 was almost totally destroyed. People were forced to eat what little seed potato they had to survive, many fell victim to the diseases which attend starvation and when the sick and starving Irish couldn’t pay their rent, they were evicted. The blight did not return in 1847, but that year saw the largest death toll in the 5-year period since those who had eaten their seed potatoes had nothing to plant, those who had been evicted had nowhere to plant, and those who had fallen victim to disease were unable to plant. To make matters worse, the blight returned in 1848 and 1849 and neither landlord nor Parliament provided adequate assistance. Millions died of starvation and hunger-related disease on the roads, alongside prosperous farms. A limited amount of aid was provided but it was too little and there were some soup kitchens, but in some, the cost of receiving food, was the surrender of their faith and conversion to the Church of England. It was a price too high for many, and they turned their backs on the food, rather than turn their backs on God.

Parliament was denounced for not intervening in the Irish tragedy, and they reacted by declaring the crisis officially over in 1847. Their evidence was the few acres of potatoes had been produced that year with no sign of the blight. But they made no mention of the fact that it returned in 1849 and 49. After 1849, the potato blight slowly abated, but the blight on the Irish continued. Most historians estimate that the effects of the great hunger were not over for another 30 years as the lack of land or living wage, food shortage, and disease continued. Emigrants sent money back to loved ones they were forced to leave behind and it helped them climb back to a stable life, but it would be a generation before many of the emigrants could establish themselves in the lands to which they fled. In the end, most of those who suffered the Great Hunger, were gone before its effects were. The benchmark event that marked that turn in history was the formation of the Land League in 1879.

A meeting convened in Daly’s Hotel, Castlebar on August 16th 1879 inaugurated a body called the Mayo Land League. Founder Michael Davitt convinced MP Charles Stewart Parnell to join the land agitation and the Mayo Land League became the National Land League with Parnell as President and Davitt, as Secretary. Branches were formed in almost every parish in the country and by the end of 1879 there was a formidable organization in place to plan what became known as the Land War. It was only then that it could be truly said that the Great Hunger was over and the Irish began to take back their land.

One of the most insensitive incidents to come out of the Great Hunger was the British government’s premature declaration of the end of the blight and in order to show that all was well, a massive publicity campaign was mounted, the highlight of which was a visit by Queen Victoria at harvest time in 1849. As the Irish starved and died in the workhouses and on the roads, hundreds of thousands of Pounds were spent to beautify the roads on which she would travel. Crowds of curious and angry onlookers were kept in check by British soldiers as reports were sent to the world that wherever she went, the Queen was cheered by her adoring subjects, and headlines proclaimed that “THE FAMINE IS OVER AS THE QUEEN VISITS IRELAND.” Ironically, that report – although propaganda in its time – would eventually come true.

The truth of that statement lies in a most remarkable incident that occurred on the exact anniversary of the first day of the hunger, exactly 30 years after the blight had begun to fade! The date was August 21, 1879, and the place was the Church of St. John the Baptist in the Irish village of Knock in Co. Mayo. On that evening, a small group witnessed an astonishing vision as three figures, surrounded by a mysterious glowing light, suddenly appeared, beside an altar on which rested a cross and a lamb surrounded by adoring angels. The witnesses knew that they were in the presence of St. Joseph, St. John and Mary, the mother of God. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Word spread, and shortly, others from the area arrived and saw it too. No such heavenly visitation had ever before been reported in Ireland, and the people fell to their knees and prayed, oblivious of a soaking rain. The figures remained, silent for nearly two hours, and then vanished as suddenly as they had appeared. In 1939, after many years of intense investigation, the apparition at Knock was granted canonical sanction by the Church. Of the hundreds of visions reported, it is one of only ten to have received such recognition, and it ranks with Lourdes and Fatima as a holy site of pilgrimage, yet it is the only appearance of the Virgin during which She remained silent.

Many have questioned why Mary said nothing, and only stood praying. Praying for what, for whom? Any student of Irish history should know the answer for there are clues in the date of the apparition. Consider that the Great Hunger wasn’t really over for 30 years after 1849; Mary appeared in 1879 – exactly 30 years later! And She appeared on August 21, the exact anniversary of the first day of the Great Hunger! Is it possible that, since the Irish had suffered so much for their faith, that the Lord, in appreciation, sent His beloved mother; and that She, as any mourner would, stood in silent prayer for the generation which had just passed away. Think of it, the timing is incredible. Not only is August 21 significant, but the year 1879 was truly the end of the great hunger, for the Irish began taking their land back from the landlords. While the dates have an uncanny significance, there is yet another irony. Since August 1879 marked both the historic end of the Great Hunger and the year in which Our Lady visited Knock, a 30-year old headline had at finally come true: THE FAMINE WAS OVER AND THE QUEEN HAD VISITED IRELAND – but it wasn’t Victoria; it was the only Queen that the Irish ever recognized !

Millions have visited Knock since 1879 and numerous miracles have been reported at the shrine. The Catholic people of Ireland, who struggled so hard to keep their faith alive had received a visit from heaven, and the Virgin had received a new title – Our Lady of Knock.