Catherine McNeur is Assistant Professor of Environmental History and Public History at Portland State University. This interview is based on her new book, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City (Harvard University Press, November 2014).
JF: What led you to write Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City?
CM: Before I got started on Taming Manhattan, I had read a passing reference to New York’s hog riots in the early nineteenth century. I was amused by the fact that pigs freely sauntered through the streets, let alone that they were the cause of riots. My reaction, I’ve come to realize, reflects that like many others I make assumptions about what belongs in a city and what doesn’t. As I began to look into these riots and several other environmental battles, I found that the nineteenth century was a moment where these lines between urban and rural were being drawn. The act of drawing those lines legally and culturally was highly contentious because many stood to lose quite a lot as the municipal government pushed livestock and agriculture out of the city and made it harder to earn a living from urban land.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City?
CM: As cities such as New York transformed beyond recognition from the influx of immigrants and the construction of new buildings, residents found in the urban environment a way to seize control of the seemingly uncontrollable city. While the battles that erupted over the use of the urban environment often led to a tamer, cleaner, and more regulated city, they also amplified environmental injustices and economic disparities.
JF: Why do we need to read Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City?
CM: Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about how to make cities sustainable. Taming Manhattan shows us that “sustainability” meant something completely different in the nineteenth century and will likely mean something completely different in years to come. Today keeping backyard chickens or rooftop beehives is trendy and acceptable by a range of different people and municipalities. You can even buy a $100,000 chicken coop from Nieman Marcus if you were so inclined. However, 150 years ago it was far from fashionable to keep livestock or tend a garden and wealthier New Yorkers actively tried to bring about the death or urban agriculture. In their eyes, getting rid of local food sources would make the city healthier and more sustainable. What we need to remember is that attempts to improve cities usually come with significant social costs that we often overlook.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CM: I actually majored in urban design rather than history when I was an undergrad. One of the courses I took for that major, though, focused on the architectural history of New York City. Each week the professor led us on walking tours through a different neighborhood, discussing the specific histories of buildings and communities. Having grown up around New York, I was used to the city and its built environment. In fact, it seemed like more of a backdrop than anything else. This class, however, opened my eyes up to the wealth of stories about people, politics, economics, and environments that led to something as simple as the design of a city block. As I got further into that major, I researched the work of an architect in the early republic. I fell in love with the detective work necessary in the archives and there’s been no turning back since.
JF: What is your next project?
CM: Taming Manhattan involves New Yorkers fighting over sizable animals, like sows among other things. For my next project, I’m interested in looking at how early Americans reacted to much smaller creatures from amoeba to insects and what that meant for the way they understood their own bodies and environments. While today we see a budding respect for bacteria as people increasingly embrace probiotics and newspapers report on the importance “good bacteria,” the fear of tiny things has yet to go away. I’m interested in seeing how nineteenth-century Americans confronted these fears.