Nineteenth-century New York was a city with many different faces. The population grew from 96,000 in 1810 to 3,437,202 by 1900 (nyc.gov). It was not only the population that grew, but the boundaries also expanded when in 1898 New York City was incorporated and Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island and Queens became part of Greater New York.
The influx of immigrants to New York City in the nineteenth-century led to overcrowding in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Five Points, a neighborhood in lower Manhattan is famously known as a disease and a crime ridden slum. The Lower East Side where new immigrant groups settled became the subject late in the nineteenth-century of Jacob Riis’s photography and later his book, How the Other Half Lives, depicting the living and working conditions of some of the poorest children in the city. Summer for these children and their families usually was confined to the streets where they lived and worked, but for the lucky ones who could afford the transportation, they might venture on a Sunday by the mid-century to one of the new parks.
“Central Park, in the midst of the great Metropolis, affords a refuge from the heated marts most refreshing and delightful, open alike to the inmates of crowded tenement houses as from the more luxurious houses.” ( L.H.P, “Summer Days In and About New York City.” Friends’ Intelligencer, Vol. 46, no. 29 (July 20, 1889): 457 )
By the end of the century Coney Island became a huge attraction, and different classes of New Yorkers took advantage of the beach and amusement areas.
Upper-class New Yorkers lived further uptown, away from the overcrowding and unhealthy living conditions of the poor. As the century progressed they kept moving further uptown where brownstones gave way to mansions. One of the pastimes during the summer months was a visit to one of the new pastoral cemeteries. The two most well-known are Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn and Woodlawn in the Bronx. Spending Sundays wandering the grounds of these beautiful cemeteries was a popular nineteenth-century pastime. Also popular for all New Yorkers was a visit to one of the new parks, where the rich and poor might be found. Prospect Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux in Brooklyn and Central Park, in Manhattan, also designed by these architects attracted a variety of visitors.
Looking back might be nostalgic, but it is certain that life in nineteenth-century New York was difficult for a good percentage of the city’s inhabitants and finding a few hours of rest and relaxation in the summer months was welcomed by all.
Asbury, Herbert, The Gangs of New York: An Informal history of the Underworld. Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Publishers, 1928.
Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace, A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Riis, Jacob, How the Other Half Lives, Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970. Edited by Sam Warner.