Daniel S. Levy is a journalist and author of several books, including the recently released Manhattan Phoenix: The Great Fire of 1835 and the Emergence of Modern New York (Oxford University Press). He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly.
How did you come to write this book?
As a freshman at New York University I learned that the Minetta Brook once wended through Washington Square Park and still flows underground toward the Hudson. I majored in American history, took a class on New York architecture, and became fascinated with how my hometown grew, decayed, and grew again. This was the late 1970s, and New York appeared on an irreversible downward slant. It was also the time when Son of Sam shot three people just blocks from my home in Forest Hills and a citywide blackout led to chaos in some neighborhoods.
I planned on becoming an architect and started a masters in preservation at Columbia’s school of architecture. There I wrote my thesis on a Trinity Churchyard monument erected in memory of members of a pre-Civil War fire company, and I read about the Great Fire of 1835. I also started work in Time magazine’s art department and wrote a New York Times op-ed on what New York looked like when the Dutch surrendered to the British in 1664. When I graduated, I became Time’s architecture and design reporter. This gave me a chance to write and report about many of the urban themes that interested me. I wrote freelance articles on New York history and became determined to chronicle how Manhattan transformed from a place where the trout-filled Minetta once flowed through Greenwich Village to one overlaid with a grid of tarmacked streets and towering buildings.
Between pandemics, riots, and terror attacks, New York has had more than its share of calamities. What made the Great Fire of 1835 so pivotal to shaping Gotham’s future?
The city has seen many major fires, plagues and riots, but never anything like the blaze that started on the evening of December 16, 1835. It incinerated 674 buildings in the financial and commercial heart of the city. For many, it seemed like the wrath of God and the end of the world. On the morning of December 17, James Gordon Bennett, who had founded the New York Herald seven months earlier, walked around the scorched downtown and wrote about how all he could see was “smoke, and fire, and dust.” At the time, most buildings in New York were located below 14th Street. The Erie Canal, which had opened the previous decade, had already attracted new businesses and workers to the city, and New Yorkers were determined to rebuild. Many turned their eyes to the north. Soon development raced up the newly laid-out streets so that by the time of the Civil War, homes reached 59th Street and the southern edge of the new Central Park.
Philip Hone takes up a major role in your story. Could you tell us about him and why he plays such an important role?
Philip Hone was born in 1780 when the British occupied the city during the American Revolution. His brother John started an auction house, which Hone joined as a teenager. There he auctioned off everything from beaver pelts, British textiles, and Chinese tea to upstate land and even merchant ships. Hone retired in 1821 a wealthy man, and in the mid-1820s served a year as mayor of New York. But what he is remembered for is that he started a diary in 1828, writing in it religiously until his death in 1851 at 70. At some 2 million words, the diary paints a vivid portrait of his hometown in this era. As a major force in the Whig Party, Hone jotted down entries about local and national politics. But he also wrote about the highs and the lows of New York—the plays he attended at the Park Theatre, the rallies he led in City Hall Park, the riots he witnessed in the streets, and the fires that broke out down the block from his Broadway home. He told about the 1842 arrival of Charles Dickens—for whom he helped organize a grand fete—and described street paving, race relations, dinners with such friends as Daniel Webster and John Jacob Astor, the scourge of cholera, the growth of gangs, the death of neighbors, and how his birthplace had become a major economic and cultural center.
Does Manhattan Phoenix have any lessons for New York today—especially considering the dislocations, Covid-related or otherwise, that the city has endured over the last two years?
New York is resilient. The city has withstood major disasters before. A decade after the Great Fire of 1835, another fire took out some 300 buildings. The Confederates sent saboteurs to torch the city in 1864—they failed. On September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden dispatched his own minions to cripple the city, and I watched with thousands of others as the first tower of the World Trade Center crumbled. Five years later, I stood at the site of the original towers as the first steel beam of the new Freedom Tower went up. It was a bright and clear day, just as it had been on September 11, but this time hope filled the air. We will survive the Covd-19 pandemic as we survived Yellow Fever and cholera, as well as our share of fires, election and race riots, panics and depressions, and terrorist attacks. Of course we will come back stronger—this is New York.