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How New York Became a Modern City

Assistant Professor of Environmental and Public History
January 23, 2015

Catherine McNeur (PhD 2012, History), assistant professor of environmental and public history at Portland State University, recently published her first book: Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City (Harvard University Press, 2014). Taming Manhattan tells us how New Yorkers battled over their environment during a period of dramatic change.

In the early years of the 19th century, pigs and dogs roamed the streets of the city, where manure and garbage piled up, uncollected. Between 1815 and 1865, as city blocks encroached on farmland and undeveloped space to accommodate a burgeoning population, prosperous New Yorkers and their poorer neighbors developed very different ideas about what the city environment should contain. With Manhattan’s image, health, and property values on their minds, the upper classes fought to eliminate urban agriculture and livestock, upgrade sanitation, build new neighborhoods, demolish shantytowns, create parks, and generally improve the sights and smells of city living. Poor New Yorkers, especially immigrants, resisted many of these changes, which threatened their way of life.   

By the time the Civil War erupted, bourgeois reform had the upper hand. City government took steps to regulate epidemics and fires, filth, and deepening poverty. Yet in privileging the priorities of well-heeled New Yorkers, Manhattan was tamed at the cost of amplifying environmental and economic disparities, as the Draft Riots of 1863 demonstrated.

Taming Manhattan is based on McNeur’s dissertation, “The ‘Swinish Multitude’ and Fashionable Promenades: Battles over Public Space in New York City, 1815-1865”, which won the John Addison Porter Prize. Her dissertation adviser was John Mack Faragher, whom she describes as “a wonderful mentor who provided the perfect balance of guidance, breadth of knowledge, and the freedom to explore.” Also on her committee were David Blight and Joanne B. Freeman.

While at Yale, she was active in the Yale Early American Historians group (YEAH), the Agrarian Studies Colloquium, the Lamar Center for Frontiers and Borderlands, and the History Department’s Andrews Society.

Some of her fondest memories at Yale involve the potluck dinners she and her writing group put together. She also misses the McDougal Center’s dissertation boot camps and her days spent at the Beinecke Library as a dissertation fellow.

McNeur’s writing has won numerous awards, including the American Society of Environmental Historians' Rachel Carson Prize and the Urban History Association Best Dissertation Award. She is currently working on articles about the unequal distribution of 19th-century urban parks and ways to incorporate environmental history into community-based learning.

Raised in Glen Head, NY, McNeur earned her undergraduate degree from New York University, where she majored in Urban Design and Architecture Studies. Following her graduation from Yale, she taught at NYU and was a Schwartz Postdoctoral Fellow at the New-York Historical Society and the New School, before she joined the faculty of Portland State. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, Dan Pellegrini, and their two daughters, Nora and Julia.