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Canal Street’s Origins in a Public Health Crisis

SoHo Broadway History: How a Yellow Fever outbreak changed Manhattan’s landscape

The recent outbreak of COVID-19 in NYC has upended life for everyone in the city, leaving many of us wondering when things will return to a state of normalcy. Yet, as a recent article on Curbed has pointed out, NYC not only experienced other pandemics in the past, but through each one the physical shape of the city changed. Here in SoHo, the southernmost boundary of our district, Canal Street, is the result of one of these outbreaks.

In NYC’s early history, the first disease outbreak since colonization by the Dutch was Yellow Fever. A mosquito-borne illness, Yellow Fever was devastating to European colonists who had no natural resistance to the sickness. During this time, there were many prevalent theories to explain illnesses, a popular one being they formed from “miasmas” (bad vapors). In order to combat these miasmas, the city began to regulate livestock in the city limits and moved slaughterhouses and tanneries near the Collect Pond, the area now near Foley Square. What happened next with the Collect Pond resulted in the birth of Canal Street.

Collect Pond. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Collect Pond. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The move of these waste-producing industries north towards Collect Pond did not stave the disease rate in the city but instead led to the pollution of what was once a fresh water source for the city. As a result, in 1803 it was decided that the pond needed to be drained, and in order to do so a drainage ditch was dug from the pond leading into the Hudson River. The pond was fully drained around 1813-15. Though the city attempted to retain this drainage ditch and turn it into a canal, it functioned more or less as an open sewer, and by 1820 was paved over into what is now Canal Street.

Bridge at Broadway and Canal Street, 1811. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Bridge at Broadway and Canal Street, 1811. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Although presently each day in NYC brings what seems like more bad news, we here at the Initiative are taking a look at how New York has always dealt with and bounced back from challenges such as the one we are currently experiencing. In the case of Yellow Fever, SoHo’s southern boundary came to be. Following the present COVID-19 crisis, we are optimistic that citizens will come together to transform our great city into something even better.

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