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Three Takeaways from Escape from New York: The 1822 Yellow Fever Outbreak and the Creation of Greenwich Village

Village Preservation was excited to present historian and author James Nevius’ talk on the 1822 Yellow Fever Outbreak marking 200 years since that epidemic so transformed our neighborhoods, turning Greenwich Village from farmland to urban community, crossroads of the world, and home of Village Preservation!

In this program, James Nevius took us through a tour of Greenwich Village, the East Village, NoHo and beyond to give us insight into what New York City and “the villages” were like just before the 1822 Yellow Fever epidemic, and how it transformed these areas as it expanded “the city” northward. We learned about the legacy of different street names and the importance of the Bowery and Hudson River as major thoroughfares. The program gave participants insight into how this 200 century old public health crisis helped shape the way the city was developed, both through planning and through cultural and demographic shifts. 

James Nevius and his wife and co-author, Michellle, will have this and many other fascinating programs available for streaming on their website www.walknyc.com. We at Village Preservation plan to continue to discuss and share the history of this 200 year old event as we think about the current public health struggles in our neighborhoods. 

July 4th as a starting and ending point

The program was framed by looking back on two July 4th celebrations. The first was July 4, 1822, before the outbreak began. Below you can see an excerpt from an Evening Post article discussing how the American Flag, which had 24 stars at the time, was flown with ceremony. It recounts a parade, that began “at half past eleven” and “marched down Broadway to the Battery…” To give us even more context around the cultural experience of living in New York City at the time, James also shared this article about “exhilarating gas,” which was nitrous oxide, being offered for recreational use. 

At the time, “the villages” were considered the country outside of “the city” which was just the very lower part of Manhattan. Around this time, there was development and construction already underway, such as the creation of “St. Luke’s in the Field” Church, which is also celebrating a bicentennial anniversary this year, and which was the very first church in Greenwich Village (its name, “in the field,” referred to its location in what was then a rural outpost of the city).

The end point of the discussion is July 4, 1826, the United States’ 50th birthday and a significant milestone proving that the American project was likely to be more long lasting than early skeptics thought. In celebration, the Washington Parade Ground (now Washington Square Park) was created. This former potter’s field and cemetery becoming a center of civic and cultural life demonstrated the change in anxieties about and knowledge of yellow fever. One of the reasons these grounds had been used for burial was because it was, when established, far from the centers of population, and there was fear of diseases entering the air from the cemetery and infecting residents. Just a few years later, at the parade grounds opening, a third  of New York city’s population visited to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary if the founding of the country.

The Washington Square Park Conservancy’s Website describes this grand day: “On July 4, 1826 – the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence – the former potter’s field was officially declared the Washington Parade Ground. Leveled and landscaped, the new parade ground conferred a privileged status to the area and helped elevate the value of the surrounding real estate…”

Real Estate Shaping the Neighborhood

The value of land in Greenwich Village has been a long standing driver of development, both real estate and cultural, as well as the displacement of people in an effort to create more exclusive space for those with means.  

One sign of the changing times in Greenwich Village was the building of St. Luke’s in the Field. The name St. Luke’s was actually chosen due to the Saint’s connection to medicine, as the patron saint of physicians. Naming the church in this way acknowledged the importance of health and health care which drove many people to rural Greenwich Village in the wake of the 1822 Yellow Fever Epidemic.

The conversation about gentrification is also a tale as old as Greenwich Village itself. There was a thriving community, sometimes called “Little Africa” that represented a residential and cultural haven for African and African American New Yorkers. The neighborhood also saw racial integration in ways that were not found elsewhere during that time. This area was eventually developed for wealthier, white New Yorkers to “escape New York” into the “better air” that was seen as a benefit of moving uptown to the villages. James shared that many historians wonder why the successful African Grove Theater closed in just a few years after its founding in 1821. However, if one sees how the neighborhood was influenced by residential development and higher costs of land and housing, it becomes clearer that the fate of that theater is one many arts organizations face as demographics shift due to development. 

We can still see into the past: historic buildings from the era 

In the program, we took a virtual tour of some of the buildings from the time of the 1822 Yellow Fever Epidemic that still exist in Greenwich Village in some form or another, that can offer us a window into this period and event.

One of the buildings is 17 Grove Street, which was built in 1822, with the 3rd floor added in 1870. This is one of the few remaining wood-framed houses in Greenwich Village (for a tour of woodframe houses in the Greenwich Village Historic District, go to our map here; the Wood Frame Houses tour is the last one). It’s exciting to look around the interior (which we can do thanks to real estate listing images from its recent sale; those who attended our house tour several years ago when it was on the tour got to see it in person) as the residence is one of the most complete examples of a wood-framed house in Greenwich Village. William Hyde, a window sash maker, built the residence and had a shop located in an attached structure at 100 Bedford Street. 

17 Grove Street exterior and interior

By looking at these few buildings and homes that remain from 1822, we are able to get a feel for what Greenwich Village looked like before the changes that came as a result of the Yellow Fever epidemic two hundred years ago. Village Preservation is planning a special tour of these houses and buildings to continue the discussion of the impact of this epidemic on its bicentennial anniversary. Visit our events page to stay up to date on these and all of our free program offerings. 

We are grateful to partner with historians and authors such as James and Michelle, to take us through our history with insights that help us understand our own times as much as we begin to understand the past. We hope you check out James and Michelle’s work and continue to come along such journeys through Village Preservation’s programming.

One response to “Three Takeaways from Escape from New York: The 1822 Yellow Fever Outbreak and the Creation of Greenwich Village

  1. It appears that our mapmaker from the 1820’s made a few mistakes in his labeling of streets. The street that he labeled “Houston Street” is actually present-day Bleecker Street. The street he labeled “Bleecker St,” and which terminates at Sixth Avenue, is obviously present-day West 3rd St. Could this have been just a simple oversight?

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