Cityscape: Teddy Roosevelt’s Battle With the Deeply Depraved New York of Yore
In 1895, then-reformer Theodore Roosevelt — fearless and righteous and full of zeal — was appointed New York City police commissioner, assigned to clean up the Big Apple at what many said was its dirtiest, most rotten moment in history.
Author Richard Zacks’ new book, “Island of Vice,” details Roosevelt’s quest, which, depending on your perspective, was either glorious and quixotic or the premise for a dark comedy. In the following essay for MetroFocus, Zacks paints a vivid portrait of the seedy urban underbelly that Roosevelt encountered at the end of the 19th century.
In the 1890s, New York City was a bustling chaotic city with no traffic lights and few traffic rules; horse carriages zigzagged any way up and down any street and a small cadre of two dozen tall “Broadway Squad” officers helped pedestrians to cross the major intersections. Four elevated train lines striped the island, spewing coal dust and granting passengers voyeuristic glimpses into second floor windows. Top-hatted swells strutted along Fifth Avenue while immigrants slept in shifts in overcrowded tenements. At night, armies of beggars and streetwalkers accosted anyone and everyone.