Dressed to Kill – Part 1

A giant bronze sculpture of a bull elephant having a happy dream stands in the Peace Garden at the northwestern end of the New York City headquarters of the United Nations. Shrubbery at the base hides the beast’s massive equipment, a gesture dictated by local sensibilities, not the artist. Two gargantuan rocky mountain oysters and their pendant friend hang there, almost invisible. The beast makes silent testament to the former use of the entire site, one now vanished in the wind. Where slaughter is now only debated, blood ran on a daily basis for an entire century.

From the mid-19th until the mid-20th centuries, the East River edge of Manhattan’s Turtle Bay was largely devoted to the trade in animal flesh. Abbatoirs and bone-boiling establishments, tallow factories and tanneries filled the blocks, infusing the air with the reek of blood and animal waste. Colonial folk were hardly vegetarians, so slaughtering in Manhattan has an even longer history. In 18th century Manhattan, commercial slaughtering was conducted even further downtown at Chatham Square near Henry Astor’s Bull’s Head Tavern.

The evolution of purely residential districts in the early 19th century with widespread deed restrictions against bone boiling and similar noxious uses, combined with the irreversible move uptown of many industries to secure larger quarters, brought slaughtering 35 blocks north to the intersection of the Bowery (now Third Avenue as it heads north of present –day 6th Street) and 24th Street by the mid-1820s. As late as 1825, upstate drovers like Daniel Drew herded tens of thousands of animals from the Bronx (then still part of Westchester County) over the King’s Bridge at the Harlem River in northern Manhattan and south to Bull’s Head. Chatham Square residents had tired of the noxious odors and herds of squealing animals parading through the streets on market days, and a group of them bought out Henry Astor’s establishment and closed it down.

Early and mid-19th century squatters inhabited many undeveloped parts of what is now midtown Manhattan, generally the rockiest and least accessible areas (as well as much of the wilderness converted after 1857 to the new Central Park). Many of these men and women raised pigs and goats, allowing their herds to forage in the ubiquitous heaps of garbage. Slaughtering, bone boiling and fat rendering were a profitable concomitant of the squatters’ efforts, and these activities were carried on outside of the established abbatoir districts. The City and State governments’ 1853 decision to locate Manhattan’s new Central Park in the middle of the island went hand in hand with an East Side property owners’ association to militate for the removal of noxious uses to the waterfront edges of New York.

Block and Lot Map of Abbatoir District c. 1857-62

By the mid-19th century, the wholesale trade in edible flesh in New York had taken advantage of the improvements in rail transportation in the metropolitan area. An 1853 ordinance banned daytime cattle drives south of 42nd St. Lack of refrigeration dictated that meat be slaughtered near the point of retail sale. The southern terminus of the New York, Harlem and Albany Railroad in the 1840s was at East 26th Street and Fourth Avenue. Massive open freight yards filled the areas east and west of the tracks as they stretched uptown along Fourth Avenue. Flesh on the hoof of many descriptions was brought by cattle-car into the area. With the exception of the New York Central’s lines up to Albany that lead to Buffalo and Chicago, the tracks of the railroads coming from the Midwest towards New York City terminated at the Hudson River’s Jersey City shore. Cattle shipped from points west to the lucrative City market were loaded onto barges at the New Jersey rail-yard docks and transshipped to East River docks. Slaughterhouses grew up along the East River north of 42nd Street with direct access to the adjacent wharves. A World War I-era map shows cattle chutes leading from the piers directly into the adjacent packinghouses.

1916 land map of Abbatoir District


So here’s another slice of Manhattan that one might not imagine having been devoted to a far different use in days gone by than today’s. Pick up a rock or two along the path, though and crumble the dirt from a paving stone, like Heinrich Schliemann digging in Troy’s seven layers. We’ll do so in our next visit along these same blocks of First Avenue in the low forties. Our eyes will fix on a layer of sediment from what men and women of my generation (and our parents) refer to as before the War. Today Jews and goyim fight for their lives, their violent debates over Palestine filling the Turtle Bay air with blood curdling cries for vengeance and annihilation. Not so very long ago, though the only throats slit here were kine, Jews and gentiles working side by side in giant packing houses. In part 2 of Dressed to Kill we’ll take a walk along these blocks and make a trip uptown to St. Paul’s Place in the Bronx with one of my oldest and most precious friends, a man who’s linked me to all this with immeasurable generosity and grace.

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