Monday, July 4, 2022

The Lost Essex Market-Eastern Dispensary Building - Essex and Broome Streets


Valentine's Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, 1870 (copyright expired)

A petition was presented to the Board of Aldermen on June 29, 1818, requesting a market-place in the neighborhood of Ludlow and Essex Streets.  It said in part, "A large proportion of the inhabitants of this section are mechanics and laboring men, who reside from half a mile to one mile and a half from any of the markets now established."  The Board approved a new market, completed in September 1818.

The quickly erected structure, on the southwest corner of Essex and Broome Street, lasted only until 1824, when it was replaced by another.  The environment of the Lower East Side neighborhood at the time was reflected an article in The Press in November 1825 about the "hog catchers" enlisted to round up the animals running freely in the streets.

We are glad to learn--and the reader will be both surprised and gratified at the information--that the hog-cart, so long a desideratum here, is making a tour of sequestration through the city, and collecting the unsightly and ferocious quadrupeds which have hitherto enjoyed free commons on our streets.

By 1849 the police department had taken over the second floor of the building.  Here the Essex Market prisons and the Essex Market Court were established.  

On December 30, 1851 The New York Times reported that the Board of Aldermen had approved $53,229 for the rebuilding of the Essex Market.  Architect Benjamin G. Wells produced what Thomas F. De Voe, in his 1862 The Market Book, called "a large, handsome brick building."  The exterior was completed in December 1852, and the structure opened on March 23, 1853.

The rather severe three-story edifice smacked of Norman fortress architecture, with a crenellated corner tower.  A tall fire watch tower rose above it.  Again, while the ground floor housed fish, produce and butcher stalls, the upper floors were occupied by the police station, prison and Essex Courthouse.

Despite its recent renovation, within two years the market operations had moved to more modern quarters and
the condition of the building was woeful.  On August 17, 1855, The New York Times wrote, "Of all the rascally old rookeries that disgrace the town--considering the uses to which it it put--perhaps the Essex Market Police Court-room is the most wretched."  The article said, "Old and dilapidated, filthy, buggy, it has become a receptacle not only unsafe for the health of the officials necessarily attached to it, but absolutely perilous to the lives of its prisoners."  Happily, it noted, a proposition for a new Police Court and County Jail had just pass the Board of Councilmen.

At the time, the Eastern Dispensary was operating from a small building at 79 Ludlow Street, where it had been since 1836.  Incorporated four years earlier, it provided the only medical care available to the impoverished inhabitants of the neighborhood.  Medications were dispensed, vaccinations administered, and physicians treated patients either here, or in the squalid rooms in which they lived.  A letter to the editor of The New York Times in 1854 said the doctors, "are daily and continually administering to the wants of the afflicted poor, who, were it not for the timely assistance thus rendered, would be left to languish in secret helplessness and unattended through the time of sickness, and many of them to sink, through neglect, into a premature grave."

The old Essex Market building was again renovated, and in August 1860 the Eastern Dispensary moved in.  The World noted its occupation of the building was "at the pleasure of the municipal authorities."

The renovated first floor.  The dispensary proper took up most of the second.   Annual Report of the Eastern Dispensary of the City of New York, 1861 (copyright expired)

The considerable challenge faced by the doctors was evidenced in the 1861, which it required three pages to list the various conditions treated the previous year.  Among the most frightening were typhoid fever, gun shot wounds, cholera, botched abortions, and small pox.  More curious conditions on the list, by today's perspective at least, were idiocy, old age and masturbation.

The 1861 Report stressed that the wretched living conditions of the immigrant population, and heavy drinking among some, contributed greatly to their illnesses.  "Obviously the presence of intemperance greatly obscures the prospects of the poor, destroys their self-respect, absorbs their means and makes the descent to pauperism the more sure and rapid."  In 1860, 17 cases of Delirium Tremens (alcohol withdrawal) had been treated, with one death.

On July 14, 1861 The New York Times began an article about the rise in small pox saying, "Now that this dreaded disease is skulking on our byways and secretly holding sway in higher places, vaccination becomes a serious duty, to be overlooked only by those who would nurse a pestilence."  New Yorkers lined up outside police station houses and dispensaries to receive their shots.  The writer wrote with an elitist bent, "The class who form the majority of applicants at the Eastern Dispensary are descendants of generation upon generation of low intelligence."

The following year, on May 28, the newspaper reported on the annual spring "rush for vaccination at the Eastern Dispensary."  The article said it was the "busy season" for the dispensary, "as the annual period for mothers to convey their young infants, and make a general turn-out of the family to share in the privileges of vaccination, or such other blessings of prevention and cure as are to be had for the asking."  Once again, the newspaper descended into elitism at best and racism at worst.  It said the district was fortunate in that those seeking vaccines were "mainly among a robust and cleanly class of Germans and Swedes, whose infants are brought early to be operated upon while they possess a pure and wholesome vitality.  A perfectly healthy Irish baby, though more rarely produced, is thought very highly of by the physicians."

The challenges to the doctors were expressed to a visiting reporter from The Daily Observer in March 1875.  He described, "A very thin old man and a very plump little girl sat side by side.  Germans and Italians, Irish and native Americans, discussed their respective ailments and bragged of their great sufferings."  But when he spoke to a physician, the frustration became apparent.

We find that very many of the diseases are the result of the patient's own imprudence or wickedness.  Drunkenness is at the root of most of them.  And it is also very discouraging to have so much harm done by the people's not complying with the physician's orders.  They can't half the time.  They can't get nourishing food, but they might keep a little cleaner.  Fresh air is free, but often I have visited a small-pox patient or a case of scarlet fever, and found the windows all nailed down.  It's a wonder how a person strong and well could live in such an atmosphere.  Yes, it is rather unsatisfactory work.

In 1883 the Eastern Dispensary treated 21,948 cases.  The New York Times, on April 2, 1884, commented, "This total comprises all ages, colors, and conditions of persons who received relief."  The article noted that financial help from donors was needed.  "State aid to the dispensary has been discontinued, and its aid from the city is small."

The "pleasure of the city authorities" mentioned by The World in 1860 ran out in 1889.  The New England Journal of Medicine explained “The Trustees are compelled, now, however, to appeal to the public, because the city authorities have offered the Essex Market building for sale, and the dispensary officers are hence forced to provide a permanent home for the dispensary.  They have purchased a plot of ground on the corner of Broome and Essex Streets.”

The cornerstone of the new building at 57 Essex Street was laid on January 29, 1890 and the Eastern Dispensary was relocated in May 1891.  

The entire block where the Essex Market building stood was vacant in 1928.  To the left can be seen the 1891 Eastern Dispensary.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The block where the former Essex Market-Eastern Dispensary building stood was demolished in 1928 as the site of the Seward Park High School.  

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