As CoVid 19 continues its indiscriminate threat to the way we live, worship and interact, and we see Village businesses new and old succumbing to its reach, it is somewhat sadly paradoxical that it was an epidemic that built the Village of Greenwich back in the early years of the 19th Century.
Throughout its history, New York was and is no stranger to the very human ravages of infectious illness on a large and crippling scale.
Several devastating outbreaks of Yellow Fever believed to have originated in the late 1700’s in Philadelphia ravaged the ports, forcing quarantining of ships and cargo. Merchants however, remained circumspect as to the extent and severity of the Fever, except in correspondence between each other, for fear of compromising business and the economy at large.
Spurred by successive waves of disease that tormented the greater city, the fields and fresh air – and nascent sanitation system – of Greenwich Village had long been a summertime respite for New York’s wealthy, the farms and estates of Aaron Burr, William Bayard, General Morton and Sir Peter Warren among the impressive local manses but it was the particularly virulent outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1822, that forced literally thousands to decamp to the Village to make it their permanent home.
In her 1917 book Greenwich Village, Anna Alice Chapin reveals a very enthusiastic often wry narration of Village life and its history and her patent admiration for her neighborhood and its people is manifest.
“Greenwich seemed to be the only place where one didn’t get Yellow Fever or anything else,” she writes. “And terrorized citizens began to rush there in droves, not only with bags and their baggage, and their wives and children, but with their business too!”
She quotes one chronicler who marked the growth of Greenwich during the biggest of the Yellow Fever ‘Booms’ declaring that he “saw the corn growing on the corner of Hammond Street (West Eleventh) on a Saturday Morning and by the next Monday Niblo & Sykes had built a house there for three hundred boarders!”
Bank Street took its name from the city banks who transferred their business to the new locus of trade literally overnight. “The town fairly exploded and went flying beyond its bonds as though the pestilence had been a burning mine.” [Macatamney in Chapin p. 48]
Writes Hardie of the burgeoning Village in 1822: “Saturday the 24th of August our city presented the appearance of a town besieged. From Daybreak till night one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandises and effects was seen moving towards Greenwich Village… Even on the ensuing day (Sunday) carts were in motion, and the saw and hammer busily at work…
“And these places almost instantaneously became the seat of the immense business usually carried on in the great metropolis.”
In this year, the Church of St Luke in the Fields, named for the patron saint of healing was consecrated by Bishop Hobart. Where initial plans for construction had taken into account a modest capacity of parishioners, in line with an existing community, the new wardens were forced to rethink their directives to John Heath, the contractor.