New York City changed rapidly during the years that Seneca Village existed. Before the 1840s, most New Yorkers lived "downtown."


In the 1600s and 1700s, this was the area below Canal Street.

The population was diverse. There were distinctions of class, race, and ethnicity within the growing metropolis. The city had been divided into wards for administrative purposes, and people of European ancestry, such as the Dutch, English, and Irish from the north of Ireland, were clustered in the elegant 15th Ward (now the Washington Square area).

Africans and African Americans had for some time predominated in Five Points and Little Africa, both in the 6th Ward, which was near the African Burial Ground, as well as in parts of the 5th and 8th wards. But by the 1840s, these had become integrated communities of working people, including many recent Irish immigrants.

Areas like Five Points were hustling and bustling with business, commercial, and industrial activity.

People were arriving in large numbers from Europe and from other parts of the United States. Philadelphia and Baltimore were the only cities in the expanding republic that rivaled New York as fast-growing metropolises. Each had populations of about 80,000 when New York had approximately 197,000 inhabitants!

The city was changing so fast that the government had difficulty keeping up with the demand for services. Although all the activity was great for business, it created many problems, including housing shortages, terrible working conditions, too few schools, and racism and prejudice.

Poor sanitation and crowded housing provided a breeding ground for diseases, and epidemics of cholera and yellow fever swept through in the city.

Poor people were often blamed for these outbreaks, even though they had few choices about where to live or how to earn a living.

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