One of the first gentrification movements — the Great Piggery War

Written By kom nampuldu on Minggu, 01 Februari 2015 | 18.18

As more luxury condos conquer Manhattan, and Stokke strollers invade Brooklyn, we ask: Is the city losing its character? Are the rich taking over? Is New York being ruined by gentrification?
Some things never change. In the 1850s, residents asked the same questions — about pigs.

In the mid-19th century, a large section of Midtown in the 50s between Sixth and Seventh avenues was known as "Hogtown," "Pigtown," or even "Stinktown," as it was home to numerous pig farms.

The proprietors boiled down food waste they found through the city, sold some of the materials they rendered to candle makers, toothbrush manufacturers, sugar refiners and the like, and fed whatever was left to their penned swine, which they fattened up and sold to local butchers.

When politicians debated the future of Hogtown, real-estate values came up repeatedly. The councilmen who represented the blocks with piggeries found themselves on opposite sides of the issue.
One councilman criticized those who wanted pig farms removed for being aristocrats with "refined noses" who had once been happy to live near a pigsty but now "couldn't stand the smell."
Another councilman saw the pigsties as nuisances. He argued that the neighborhood "was improving rapidly, and the people there wished to make it a pleasant residence for those doing business down town."

In other words, Hogtown was getting too nice for the hogs.

As the uptown neighborhoods around the newly designed Central Park rose in value, the piggeries were becoming a liability. As New Yorkers who lived downtown took carriages and streetcars to visit the new park, they had to cover their noses with handkerchiefs as they passed through Hogtown. Some feared that the odors wafting from the pigsties and cauldrons were making New Yorkers sick.

The disdain many wealthy neighbors had for the piggery smells clearly extended to their owners. A writer for The New York Times described the neighborhood as a group of "shanties in which the pigs and the Patricks lie down together while little ones of Celtic and swinish origin lie miscellaneously, with billy-goats here and there interspersed." The Irish and German owners of the piggeries were ridiculed.

As the uptown neighborhoods around the newly designed Central Park rose in value, the piggeries started to become a liability.

Fears about bad smells and their impact on public health and real estate led directly to New York City's "Piggery War" of 1859. After a new city inspector was appointed, he almost immediately set his sight on Hogtown. He assembled troops of inspectors and police officers who visited each piggery, confronting the owners and their guard dogs.

Those who did not remove or sell their hogs had them taken away. Some residents tried to hide pigs under their beds and in dressers, though the police often found them.

Several piggery owners threatened the police, but their wives were the most violent. In one case, after a policeman seized a hog by its ears, he was confronted by a "large squarely built German woman" with an enormous pot. She struck the officer over the head "in a way that made him see stars." A journalist at the scene described the chaos that came from the yelling of the piggery owner, the shouting of his wife, the banging of the tin kettle, the screaming of the injured officer and the high-pitched squealing by the pig.

The hogs themselves posed a challenge as they scattered, running through officers' legs, knocking men over. Journalists often described the pitiful attempts of officers to hold onto pigs as tails slipped through their fingers.

Despite attempts by the piggery owners to maintain their property and their livelihoods, the city effectively shut the hog farms down that summer, and higher-end neighborhoods emerged around Central Park.

Reflecting back on the Piggery War, a writer for The New York Herald noted that it was "hardly possible to conceive that so much abomination could have existed in a city like this as that . . . found in the neighborhood of the beautiful Central Park. It is hardly credible and . . . positively sickening."

It was pigstys then, it's Bed-Stuy now. Today, gentrification doesn't typically involve health inspectors and police wrestling with hogs, but it still means the transformation of neighborhoods, the dispersal of communities, and the loss of former livelihoods.

Many saw the Piggery War as a success — the Irish and German immigrants and their hogs had been pushed further from the center of town, making space for the rowhouses and eventually apartment buildings and skyscrapers that would look onto Central Park. Who remembers the pig farmers now?

Catherine McNeur is the author of "Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City" (Harvard University Press), out now.


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