Yellow Fever and the Birth of Greenwich Village

In 1822, an epidemic that swept the streets of lower Manhattan proved to be a crucial and surprisingly positive turning point in Greenwich Village history. During the spring and summer of that year, downtown New York City saw a sizeable outbreak of yellow fever. Over the course of the next several years, a mass migration into the Greenwich area took place. New York City’s Common Council issued a quarantine for vessels coming into port in the spring of 1822 and thousands vacated lower Manhattan for the rural, sparsely populated Greenwich located north of the city.1 This population explosion resulted in the formerly independent village of Greenwich becoming a part of Manhattan. Yellow fever outbreaks during the previous 30 or so years had also contributed to uptown migration. Many New Yorkers who had not evacuated during the previous epidemics did so during this final rampant pandemic. As residents moved to Greenwich Village, they built homes and businesses in attempt to replicate their downtown lifestyles. In essence, they created a makeshift city center that has since evolved into the Greenwich Village of today.


In the 18th century, the village of Greenwich, with its country homes, fields, and farms, provided a quiet refuge from city life. The village originally only occupied the part of town known today as the West Village. Wealthy landowners whose names remain a part of New York City's real estate lexicon, such as Bayard, Dyckman and Bleecker, controlled the vast tracts of land that comprised Greenwich.2 Over time, new institutions began to emerge in the area. For example, St. Luke in the Fields Church opened on Hudson Street close to the river on May 16, 1822. The name of the church reflected the neighborhood at the time, for the church was literally situated in the fields.3 In the early days, “Greenwich was at all times a resort for those who could afford it, an exclusive and beautiful country region where anyone with a full purse could go to court health and rest among the trees and fields and river breezes,”.4 However, as migration to the area increased, this exclusive and quiet getaway began to change.

Contemporary accounts revealed how quickly the landscape changed once new residents began flocking to the Village. “Our city presented the appearance of a town besieged,” wrote former secretary of the city’s Board of Health, James Hardie, in 1822. “From daybreak till night one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandise, and effects were seen moving towards ‘Greenwich Village’ and the upper parts of the city.”5 Greenwich quickly blossomed into a center for commercial activity. Glasgow businessman Peter Nielson, who arrived in Greenwich in 1822, wrote an account of his six-year stay in America. One scene he describes is docking in the modern-day West Village. “On going ashore, the bustle that prevailed was beyond description, nearly the whole of the business-part of the city being removed out to the fields which skirt the suburbs.”6 He continued to describe how temporary wooden buildings were erected for any and every purpose. “In this irregular and temporary city in the field,” he wrote, "one can find everything from banks to coffee houses, grocery stores, barber shops and pubs."7 Lawyers, businessmen and merchants who could not afford to have their livelihoods immobilized by illness took advantage of Greenwich’s relative proximity to the city. Years before, banks also moved their operations uptown creating a clustered financial center, which became known as Bank Street. It retained the name even after many of those businesses returned to Wall Street.

An 1823 report of the epidemic compiled by Dr. Peter S. Townsend detailed the progress of the illness and also explains how many left the city somewhat preemptively, because they feared what was to come. Townsend wrote, "The timely and almost total abandonment of all that part of the city south of Fulton-street, served still more effectually to check [yellow fever’s] progress…its growth by this measure was materially retarded…We see also that this older part of the city, being vacated before the disease had fairly reached there, but very few cases occurred in the streets we have enumerated."8


Though health officials did not know exactly what caused the illness, they recognized it was exacerbated by the crowded streets of lower Manhattan9 and for that reason urged residents to move uptown. Attempts to eradicate the virus included cordoning off infected streets, spreading the chemical compound quicklime and coal dust in city gutters and setting fires.10 Many left their homes or places of business with the intention of returning when the outbreak subsided— in fact, the residents of Rector Street petitioned the city’s Common Council in early August for some protection for their homes after they had abandoned them during the epidemic.11 Indeed, many did return in November after winter’s frost provided the antidote to the disease.

Many temporary edifices installed in Greenwich were vacated when yellow fever dissipated, but the village did not stop growing.12 Nielson described the subsequent exodus as “the breaking up of the camp of some great army.”13 However, as New York’s population continued to increase and immigration began to transform the city, laborers moved in to the village taking over the commercial and residential framework created by the downtown migrants. The physical and social infrastructure left by those displaced northwards under the threat of disease enabled Greenwich Village to become an enduring and important part of New York City.

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