Armed with a camera, social reformer Jacob Riis set out to change the condition of New York’s poorest citizens. An area of his greatest focus was the notorious Mulberry Bend—a neighborhood so filthy and ridden with disease and crime that it shocked even Charles Dickens.
In 1842 Dickens wrote in his American Notes for General Circulation, “This is the place; these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the world over.”
Riis photographed the wretched living conditions of the immigrants and nearly single handedly pressed the city to improve their plights. One of his ambitions was the demolition of the ramshackle wooden “rookeries” along the bend in Mulberry Street and erecting a park where children could breathe fresh air and play.
|Riis photographed this down-and-out man on Mulberry Street around 1890 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWWUX51W&SMLS=1&RW=1366&RH=631|
In 1893 the city agreed to look into the project. The Board of Street Opening and Improvement agreed that the city would pay 70 percent of the cost, passing the remainder to the property holders. Understandably, the owners of worthless slum property had no intention of paying for a park. And so on May 19, 1893 the Legislature begrudgingly agreed that the city would shoulder the entire cost. City officials protested to the Governor, no doubt influenced by the amount of funds that would be spent for a park in the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhood.
Worse, the politics of the Mulberry Bend Park project became tarnished when graft was uncovered. On July 17, 1894 the New-York Tribune complained “The whole history of this Mulberry Bend Park has been full of Tammany scandals…In many ways Mulberry Bend Park has been made to yield handsome revenues for Tammany pets.” And yet, so far, nothing more than talk had been done to start the project.
Residents were skeptical that they would get a park at all. On September 29, 1895 The Sun wrote “’It looks as if the park will never be completed,’ said one of the old-time residents yesterday. ‘It is as it was months ago. I expected to see it by this time laid out with fine walks and green lawns, but the only thing green about it to-day is one poor lone tree, that grew there when the Reform baby was in its cradle.’”
The newspaper described the site. “The property acquired for the proposed park extends from Park to Bayard streets, and from Baxter to Mulberry streets, and takes in about three square blocks. Words can scarcely describe its present condition.
“Shortly after the city took title the authorities found they had 130 buildings on their hands. The buildings were of all shapes and conditions. There were six-story double-deckers of brick and one-story frame shanties. There were dwelling houses, dance halls, and horse sheds.”
Finally the buildings were demolished. The residents—men, women, and children alike—turned out with anything they could find to dig in the dirt, becoming “brick miners.” Throughout the three-block site the financially-desperate neighbors scraped and dug, finding loose bricks which they cleaned and sold for extra money.
After years of planning, Mulberry Bend Park was finally opened on June 15, 1897. It had been designed by New York’s preeminent park architect—Calvert Vaux. He laid out wide, sinuous paths that encompassed swards of green sod—something none of the immigrant children had seen before. The intersections of the paths created broad areas where children could play away from the dangers of the streets. (These sections were necessary since the grass was strictly off limits.)
Vaux created a focal point in the Pavilion, an airy stucco-covered multi-use structure that smacked of the Italians' homeland. Newspapers would also refer to the building as the band-stand, the shelter house, and the summer-house. It was the last structure Calvert Vaux would design. He died on November 19, 1895 before Mulberry Bend Park was completed.
Reportedly, Jacob Riis waited for an invitation to the opening of the park he had so long lobbied for. It never came. He did, however, attend as a spectator and received a whack across the back from a policeman’s billy club for walking on the new sod.
|The Sun published a sketch of the Pavilion in its June 16, 1897 report of the park's opening (copyright expired)|
The New York Times reported on the fanfare of the park’s opening, including F. W. Bent’s brass band. “This band soon began a series of polyglot tunes, which were appropriate to the babel of tongues and races in the park below.” Mayor William Lafayette Strong, Park Commission President Samuel McMillan and other officials presided from the Pavilion.
The newspaper commented on the neighborhood residents. “It was as motley an assemblage as could be got together in any place in the world. Costumes have almost disappeared, but there were still to be seen, the robes of China, the loose blouselike shirts of Italy and Sicily, and the gaudy colors of the women of the South of Europe; and everywhere, at every pause in the music could be heard a medley of tongues that ran the lingual gamut from English to Yiddish.”
The Sun spoke of the many children in the crowd. “From the crowded tenements about what used to be Mulberry Bend there trooped last night children by scores, and by hundreds, and by thousands to attend the opening exercises of Mulberry Bend Park. So many of them were there that little room was left for their elders; but this was as it should be, for the park was made for the children.”
|The bend of Mulberry Street is evident in this photo, with the Pavilion prominent in the background. To the right, one of the last of the old Mulberry Bend buildings still stands -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The Times reminded readers of what had been here. “It formed a striking antithesis to the picture of the old Mulberry Bend, reeking in filth, where men too often met for dark deeds instead of mirth. The wide space and the grass and the open air had banished crime, and let in sunlight and open, cheerful life.”
Although Jacob Riis was not invited to speak, Commissioner Waring called for three cheers for the reformer “to whom, he declared, the chief credit for getting the park was due,” reported The Sun. The newspaper estimated that 5,000 persons were present for the ceremonies.
The new park had cost the city about $1.5 million—nearly $41 million today. The New-York Tribune praised the project. “With the sunlight shining brightly upon its sweep of green, its well-washed asphalt, and its glistening white pavilion, Mulberry Bend Park, a breathing place these days for thousands of Italians, is a remarkable change from the old ‘Bend’ that was the abode of vileness. Not an iota of picturesqueness has been sacrificed, for the scene now reminds one irresistibly of a bit of an Italian city.”
|Two immigrant women tend for a child in a rather romanticized Victorian depiction. The Pavilion can be seen in the background -- Harper's Weekly July 1897 (copyright expired)|
Calvert Vaux’s Pavilion would serve as a neighborhood gathering place. Once a week, on Tuesday evenings at 8:00, free band concerts were held. The overworked women brought their children and enjoyed a rare respite in the park. “Before 9 o’clock all the walks were crowded with tired mothers and babies, who were willing to stand in order to hear the band play,” described The New York Times on July 7, 1897 “The park policemen and officers from the Elizabeth Street Station specially detailed had no trouble in keeping order, as the crowd seemed too tired to be demonstrative even when the band played popular airs.”
Reformers and politicians alike closely watched the experiment of Mulberry Bend Park. Five years later, on September 11, 1903, The Evening World felt that the results were in. “Since the day Mulberry Bend Park was opened the death rate in that section has gone down steadily. The people no longer live on the fire-escapes in summer. There is a bit of green in front of the doors of the tenements, and a place for the children to romp and play without fear of the heavy trucks.”
|As it did at the turn of the century, the Pavilion serves the neighborhood -- photo by Alice Lum|
The mere presence of a handsome park in the midst of the slum did not eradicate poverty and crime, of course. During the severe winter of 1903 residents sought out the warmth of the park’s Pavilion. “Men and boys sun themselves all morning against the wall of the shelter pavilion in Mulberry Bend Park, and have to be driven from the heated basement of the pavilion,” said The Sun on December 20.
The homeless used the Pavilion as shelter. Later, in 1913, The Missionary Review related the story of a reformed alcoholic who said in part “But there came a time when I flung the whole thing up. Hope died right out in my life and I loafed about the city, and slept in the Mulberry Bend Park pavilion—down on the stone floor. I was beaten at last.”
In 1914 the New-York Tribune wrote a human interest story about a neighborhood character named Giuseppe. “In the meantime he lived on bread and onions begged from the kitchen doors of the tiny restaurants and slept beneath the bandstand in Mulberry Bend Park.”
The Pavilion narrowly missed being renovated as a school building annex in 1904. Although Public School 23, which stood across from the park, held 1,800 pupils, it was overcrowded. On March 12 that year The New York Times reported “The large Summer house in Mulberry Bend Park may soon be converted into a temporary school structure.” But many of the Board of Education commissioners were opposed to Mayor McClellan’s plan, telling reporters “the preservation of this park was particularly desired because of the squalid conditions of the surrounding buildings.”
For the impoverished residents of Mulberry Bend it took little to bring a glimmer of joy. This was illustrated on May 25, 1907 when the Moderation Society distributed flowers from the Pavilion. A sign was posted earlier announcing that the flowers would be given out at 2:00.
“Long before that time a line of pretty young Italian girls and noisy boys had formed,” said The Times the following day. “A howl from several hundred throats announced the approach of the truck of flowers. One crate, two barrels, and three boxes, filled with flowers, were quickly emptied of their contents [by the Society workers].”
The girls took home dogwoods and violets and other flowers—simple niceties that were so rare in their tenement homes. The Times headline read “Mulberry Bend Made Happy.”
|photo by Alice Lum|
In 1911 Mulberry Bend Park was renamed. Once again Jacob Riis was snubbed. Instead of naming the park in his honor; commissioners dubbed it Columbus Park in deference to the Italian community which by now made up the majority of the residents.
Nine years later the neighborhood was still predominately Italian; although nearby Chinatown was growing steadily closer. On September 13, 1920 a group of Mulberry Bend boys went on a mischievous escapade to snatch and stomp the highly-popular boaters men were wearing.
The Evening World reported the following day “A gang of boys from ten to twenty years old went from the Mulberry Bend Park Italian section through Chinatown last night to put all the straw hats they encountered out of business. Chinese, lobbygows and loafers disappeared after the first onslaught had left many straw wrecks on the streets and sidewalks.”
When a sightseeing bus deposited its passengers the boys descended. “The minute they piled into the streets of Chinatown the horde was upon them. They didn’t know whether it was murder or mere robbery, but the men fought valiantly and the women used their umbrellas to good purpose.”
By the second half of the 20th century Chinatown had engulfed the Mulberry Bend section. In 2006 Calvert Vaux’s expanses of grass and his serpentine pathway were paved over. A $900,000 playing field for both basketball and volleyball was installed which incorporated synthetic turf with asphalt. Happily the Pavilion not only survived, but was given a restoration as part of the $3.5 million park renovation.
|photo by Alice Lum|
The last public work of Calvert Vaux—best known for designing Central Park with Frederick Olmsted—survives charmingly intact in a much changed Mulberry Bend neighborhood.