Walking East 7th Street is a collaboration between GVSHP and the students in NYU’s Fall 2011 Intro to Public History course. Each pair of students was tasked with researching the cultural history of one particular block of East 7th Street and sharing with us something fascinating they discovered along the way. All posts in the series are written by students.
The fourth of five posts in the series, by Kristen Engfors and Yosra Sultan, focuses on East 7th Street between Avenues B & C.
Our research on E. 7th street between Avenues B and C revealed the street as an important site of social history, one which can tell us many things about the relationships between immigration, ethnic stereotypes, poverty, disease and the development of the ideals and practices of public health in the 19th century.
In 1850, this block of East 7th street was made up primarily of newly-constructed tenements. By the turn of the century 70 percent of New Yorkers lived in tenements. The block’s first inhabitants came from Ireland and Germany, fleeing the Great Famine and the 1848 revolutions in Europe, respectively. At the same time, Europe had been suffering from a plague of cholera. It was only a matter of time before the disease crossed the ocean on one of the immigrant ships.
Sure enough, the great influx of Irish and the arrival of cholera as a fact of life in New York eventually led to the stereotyping of Irish immigrants as carriers of cholera. A phenomenon of ethnic stigma developed, where different groups of immigrants would be mistakenly associated with particular diseases, continuing into the 20th century. Children were most affected by cholera, and the children of immigrant parents were much more likely to get sick. This included Lewis Arnold, a child who had lived at 217 East 7th street and died of cholera on August of 1866, and whose death certificate we were able to locate.
During this time period, developments were happening in modern medicine, as a science as well as a set of cultural norms. The dire conditions of East 7th street, a slum district of immigrants at mid century, attracted the attention of one Elizabeth Blackwell. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in modern history to receive a university degree in medicine, on January 23, 1849 from Geneva College in Upstate New York. In many respects, she paved the way for the entry of women into medicine as well as focusing on a social view of medicine which directed its public health efforts to poor working classes who lived in overcrowded and often unsanitary conditions. Blackwell had been refused work because of her sex and decided to open her own dispensary. She found it very difficult to find a space for this practice. When someone finally allowed her to rent a room, all the other boarders left, scandalized at having a “lady doctor” as their neighbor. Forced to rent her own house, Blackwell lived in the attic and used the main room for treating patients. In 1853 the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children opened its doors at 207 East 7th street, in a building since demolished.
The Dispensary eventually grew, becoming The New York Infirmary for Women and Children, and it developed a teaching branch, the Women’s Medical College. It was the model adopted by many medical institutions in which women’s roles were significant, thus changing the opportunities and prospects of both female providers and receivers of healthcare. Its first annual report announced that its purpose was to “give to poor women an opportunity of consulting physicians of their own sex.” There early woman doctors were highly aware of the relationship between health, socio-economic conditions and gender. Today’s New York Downtown hospital is the extension of Blackwell’s infirmary which began its life in a ward at 207 East 7th street.
Even though Blackwell’s infirmary relocated, organizations like St. Brigid’s Church, founded in 1848 by Irish immigrants and the Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853, provided aid to the neighborhood and its inhabitants. However, until germ theory was legitimized in the late 19th century, public sanitation initiatives were split between two camps – those who believed that environmental factors were to blame and moral reformist ideas that suggested health was a product of individual piety. While New York suffered cholera epidemics in 1832, 1849,1854 and 1866, by 1866 the number of deaths was greatly reduced. At least partially, this had to do with the newly created Department of Health which mandated sanitation regulations in public spaces and well as within the tenements themselves.
Despite all this, the pattern of ethnic stigma of disease continued. In the 1860s, as Eastern European Jews arrived in the neighborhood, they became associated with tuberculosis and consumption. This was despite the fact that as a group, they suffered from less than average rates of tuberculosis. The desire to blame disease on specific ethnic groups continued, with the media often encouraging these sentiments as was evidenced by some of the political cartoons of the time of the era. After tuberculosis came a nation-wide epidemic of polio. This time Italian immigrants in Pigtown, Brooklyn were blamed. While the city used traditional sanitation methods, the epidemic continued to claim lives. This irony was that now, New Yorkers who had been subject to the sanitizing efforts of the state’s public health initiatives as well as private initiatives like those of Blackwell for years were more vulnerable to polio, as they hadn’t built up the immunity their grandparents would have had by being in contact with different environmental elements. Polio affected rich and poor alike. East 7th Street between B and C provides a rich slice of life at the intersection of all of these difference histories and suggests that the surrounding neighborhood is a fascinating site of social history.