Policing Unpolicable Space: The Mulberry Bend

By Matthew Guariglia 

During the Progressive Era, there were parts of New York City that police understood as being immune to the exertions of state power. These areas could be rendered illegible and uncontrollable for a number of reasons. In some instances, as I have discussed on The Metropole before, the foreignness of immigrant populations, especially people of Chinese descent, often made it hard for the majority of Anglo-Irish police officers to communicate with witnesses or understand the motives behind alleged crimes. In other situations, the city’s unknowable alleyways, shadowy dead ends, dangerously unstable infrastructure, and rebellious residents prohibited police interventions.

3c22655r
View of “Mulberry Bend” – Arrival of contract laborers for the coal mines, 1888, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Mulberry Bend served as one of the most notorious examples of a location seemingly immune to state intervention or local attempts to instil law and order. A crowded collection of tenements and alleyways, the Bend formed in the elbow-like turn of Mulberry and Baxter streets in the Five Points neighborhood. Before the administration of Mayor Strong took on the Bend in 1895, reformers concerned with overcrowding, squalid conditions, and the breeding of crime and disease, had for years advocated the destruction of the crooked cluster of buildings and its crisscross of alleyways. Jacob Riis, the journalist, reformer, and close personal friend of President of the Police Board of Commissioners Theodore Roosevelt, was partially responsible for the eventual push that resulted in the destruction of the Bend. His 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, shocked upper class New Yorkers with its sensationalized and often demeaning depictions of working class life in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. One of the more disturbing photographs to aristocratic sensibilities was that of the “Bandit’s Roost,” at 59 ½ Mulberry Street. The image shows a narrow alleyway in the Bend, darkened by the closeness of the buildings and the prevalence of laundry draped from clotheslines above. On either side of the alley men, presumably immigrants, stare down the photographer—some hanging from windows, one holding a plank menacingly.

3b19822r
Stale bread vendor– Mulberry Bend, photograph by Jacob Riis, 1890, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“There is but one ‘Bend’ in the world, and it is enough,” wrote Riis. “In the scores of back alleys, of stable lanes and hidden byways, of which the rent collector alone can keep track, they share such shelter as the ramshackle structures afford with every kind of abomination….”[1] The Bend depicted by Riis was one in which police feared to enter—where fleeing criminals could run down an alleyway, or into a tenement, and be lost to authorities. “Post Thirteen,” as police referred to it, was everyone’s last choice to patrol and often where officers would send recent appointments to scare them, or perhaps as a hazing ritual.[2]

unnamed.jpg

If and when police did enter the Bend, it was often as part of a raid on the area’s “stale beer” dives and required a number of policemen to execute. These raids often required either local guides or undercover police to scout ahead of time to find the dives which were often hidden “in back rooms at the end of long, dark hallways, up creaking and greasy stairways or in attics with low, blackened ceilings.” In one instance, an undercover officer doing reconnaissance before a planned raid actually consumed the “stale beer,” and was reportedly bedridden for six months as a result.[3]

The Bend was not just dangerous for police attempting to navigate it alone; it was also a place that was profoundly filthy. One report from the 1870s, suggested that only 24 of the 609 tenement buildings in the Bend were in decent condition. In the mind of Riis, these dark, damp, and crumbling living quarters bred disease as well as crime. In the year 1882 alone, he recorded that 155 children died in the Bend from disease. It was a place where even the “sanitary reformer, gives up the task in despair.”[4]

3a14933r.jpg
Baxter Street Alley in Mulberry Bend, photograph by Jacob Riis, 1888-1889, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Riis, and many like him, saw one solution to both the problem of health and crime in the Bend; remake the space so it would not longer be a literal and metaphorical dark spot on the maps of police and sanitary inspectors. Under the new reformist Strong administration, and with the help of Roosevelt, the 600 families that inhabited the Bend were required to vacate by June 1, 1895. The city auctioned off each building, and their new owners were required to move them off the bend as soon as possible. Despite Riis’s claim that only residents and rent collectors could navigate the alleyways of the bend, as of the day of auction, it was estimated that no one had been able to secure rent money from tenants in over six months.[5]

After the destruction on the Bend, the elbow-shaped plot of land became the open and green Mulberry Bend Park, renamed Columbus Park in 1911. Where once there stood an illegible area, a place seemingly immune to the exertion of state power, there now stood an open park, which purposely left barely a tree to hide behind.[6]

Matthew Guariglia is the editor of The Metropole’s Disciplining the City series and a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut. His most recent work exploring Donald Trump’s use of MS-13 in rhetorical fear mongering appeared in the Washington Post in April. 

Featured photo (at top): A vegetable stand in the Mulberry St. bend, photograph by Jacob Riis, 1889-1890, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. 

[1] Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1890, 56.

[2] “A Night on Post Thirteen,” The World, March 7, 1891, 6.

[3] A Night on Post Thirteen,” The World, March 7, 1891, 6.

[4] Ibid, 56, 62, 67.

[5] “Mulberry Bend’s Auction,” The Evening World, June 6, 1895, 2

[6] Letter from Henry Percy to Jacob Riis, June 14, 1897, Reel 3. Jacob Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s