American cities are littered with street camps, drugs, and a motley crew of addicts, alcoholics, dropouts, vagrants, criminals, and the mentally ill. From Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood to San Francisco’s Tenderloin, from Portland to New York, from downtown Los Angeles to Seattle’s Highland Park, thousands of American urban districts are sites of danger and disorder.

The tragedy unfolding on our streets may seem unprecedented. But drug-fueled urban squalor is nothing new in the United States, and we could learn something from how our forebears handled it.

In Jacksonian America, the demons were not fentanyl, meth, marijuana, and crack, but rotgut liquor. Alcohol consumption per capita in those times was four times current levels. An 1833 survey of Auburn Prison inmates found that three-quarters were habitual heavy drinkers; six out of ten had been drunk when they committed their crime. When Jacob Riis counted saloons in Manhattan, he found 4,065 booze shops just in the area south of 14th Street.

Even as nineteenth-century New York grew into America’s richest city, prominent figures noted its urban districts’ depravity. Davy Crockett, who had seen a lot on the American frontier, toured the Five Points neighborhood during his rise as a politician: “I encountered more drunk folks jammed together there, men and women, than I ever saw before. I did not dream that human beings living in the midst of a civilized community could behave with such abandon,” he wrote. Similarly, European writer Fredrika Bremer concluded that “it is not possible for human nature to sink lower than to the Five Points.”

Their assessments were well-founded. An estimated 10,000 New York women were ensnared in prostitution, for instance, when the city’s entire population was barely over 200,000 in the early 1830s. Thousands of inebriates lived in moldy Manhattan basements, spending most of their time intoxicated. They would send their children out for buckets of beer and scraps of food, and sleep off their binges on filthy piles of straw crawling with bugs, the stench unbearable. The shuttered structure that had been Coulter’s Brewery, near today’s City Hall, became a squatter’s camp sheltering more than a thousand people, many of them barely stirring except to drink. Murders and other crimes were common in that building and the surrounding district.

Fast forward 15 or 20 years, however, and the city had changed. The Old Brewery was knocked down and replaced by a “House of Industry” created by a coalition of Methodist church ladies and Wall Street donors. The city dried out drunks, offered job skills to former prostitutes, and gave baths, job training, and work clothes to the unemployed.

Similar reforms transformed the country at large. An energetic temperance movement cut U.S. alcohol consumption by 70 percent. A Sunday school campaign brought literacy and character education to the half of all American children who had lacked the ability to read. A Great Awakening and charitable church-planting drive drew millions of citizens into pews and made daily outreach to the lost, the straitened, and the enslaved.

At both the New York and national levels, these nineteenth-century reforms—the Benevolent Empire, as they came to be known—were predicated on facilitating an inner change in addicts and street dwellers. Activists realized that while it is relatively easy to equip a man with hot meals and warm garments, he will likely become a permanent dependent if his inner compass drives him to relapse. The Benevolent Empire reforms thus succeeded by putting expectations upon those whom reformers helped. Relief workers didn’t run “harm-reduction” zones or administer the nineteenth-century equivalents of Narcan and clean crackpipes; instead, they asked addicts to abandon their destructive habits and guided them toward personal transformation. Such reformers often returned to the same struggling individuals, over and over if necessary, looking for signs that the person was finally sick of his condition and willing to exert himself to mend it—the opportune moment to shower a man with resources, tools, and encouragement.

The reformers personally involved themselves in their charitable endeavors. They were members of the middle class, newly energized by a spiritual awakening, who rolled up their sleeves and met with the needy, often in the grittiest of conditions, one-to-one, week after week. Those experiences led them to appreciate the emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions associated with a fall from grace, and to understand that many hardcore substance abusers sought to escape painful relationships, loneliness, or a loss of faith. Consequently, reformers invited sufferers into fraternal organizations, church programs, neighborhood associations, and other groups offering weekly conversations, singing, or craftwork—places where those served could feel known and included.

The personal touch and sturdy moralism of these nineteenth-century reformers enabled them to clean up America’s drug-addled streets. Their success offers a practical lesson from an era in American history that was far more chaotic, fractured, and corrupt than ours today. Their example shows that dysfunctional societies can regain their bearings and redeem lost souls. It has been done before and can be done again.

Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images


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