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The Chinese Farmers of Astoria

By the 1890s, there were 5-10,000 Chinese men living in New York (and about 100 Chinese women.) Among the things they missed most—no doubt well down the list from their women—were traditional Chinese vegetables. 

It wasn’t long before some of these immigrants realized the opportunity and set up farms in the outlying areas of New York. One Astoria farm is described in an illustrated article, “A Celestial Farm On Long Island”, found in an 1893 issue of Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly. This one was to the east of the Astoria Silk Works, located at 23rd Avenue and Steinway Street. It is also mentioned in the 1902 book, New York Sketches, by Jesse Lynch Williams, from which the illustration at right was taken.

An article from 1906 mentions another farm located near Steinway. I’ve found other mentions of this farm and believe it was located along Bowery Bay, between Steinway and what was then called North Beach but is now LaGuardia Airport. I found the census page (image below) that lists these farmers. Their place was located on Bowery Bay Road, and their closest neighbor was a German piano maker, who obviously worked in Steinway.

You can see that several of these Chinese were married and had been in the U.S. for ten to twenty years. Their wives were waiting for them back in China—patiently, one hopes.

Bowery Bay Road was an old thoroughfare the remnants of which are 20th Road in Steinway and Bowery Bay Boulevard, located just east of the LaGuardia runways. North Beach was an entertainment center. A sort of low-end Coney Island, I believe, where gambling went on very openly.

Crossing New York by Ferry in 1900

By 1910, there were more than a dozen bridges and tunnels crossing the East River of New York. But in 1900, there was just the Brooklyn Bridge. It carried a staggering amount of traffic, but clearly it wasn’t enough.

The first steam ferry service across the East River was initiated by Robert Fulton in 1814. By 1900, numerous ferries crossed from half a dozen ferry terminals on Manhattan to terminals in Brooklyn and Queens. In the Google map I created for my book Crossings, I added most of their routes. 

The ferries carried both people and horse-drawn carriages and wagons. There were three cabins on the modern ferries of 1900. On the main deck, a cabin was provided for each sex. Most likely it wasn’t modesty that necessitated providing a women’s cabin, but rather the appetite for cigar smoking among men. It was taken as a given that women didn’t smoke. But if by chance a woman did, she could go to the unisex upper-deck cabin. 
Between the two main-deck cabins, an open area ran the length of the ferry. This is where horse-drawn vehicles made the voyage. You can see horses in the first image.

Most of the freight that moved in and out of New York went by water. There was just one railroad freight line into Manhattan, and no line at all between Brooklyn and Queens on Long Island and the mainland. But there were small freight rail lines that served their factories. To move their freight cars to and from rail heads on the mainland—most often in New Jersey—they used barges laid with track known as car floats. These were loaded and unloaded at specialized docks. Then a tugboat would haul the barges to a similar dock at their destination.

Vice Dens of the Eastern District

The article at left appeared on the front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of November th, 1900. Of course, there was no recent upsurge of vice in the Eastern District, just an upsurge in pious morality. The scolds were on the march and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was hopping on the bandwagon. These periodic eruptions of civic censure had become a prominent feature of life in New York after the Civil War. The apparatus du jour was the Committee of Fifteen, a group of self-appointed guardians public morality.

The Eastern District comprised Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick. Much of the article is taken up by the reporter’s first-person account of visits to various vice dens. What it amounts to is a lot of suspicions about gambling and prostitution. But what he finds just as troubling is the mixing of the races. This is a perfect example of how Southern racists had managed to export their fear and loathing of African-Americans northward.  The Eagle regularly referred to African-American neighborhoods  as “negro colonies.” In fact, African-Americans made up barely 1% of Brooklyn’s population in 1900, and the percentage had actually fallen over the previous decade.

While there was plenty of gambling and prostitution going on, the author seems peculiarly inept at finding any proof of it. The various vigilante committees and their investigators generally did a better job. But for them, too, racism, xenophobia, and classism featured large. This is well documented by Jennifer Fronc in her book New York Undercover.

The politicians and police were generally forced to take up the mantle for a time. But they had learned how to set the public against the scolds. They used what’s now called triangulation to appear as the reasonable center between the extremes of wantonness and puritanism.  In the spring of 1901, the police began strictly enforcing the widely unpopular state law against the selling of liquor on the Sabbath. This law had a number of loopholes and enforcement had typically been lax. But instead of targeting the seedy Raines Law hotels, the police took on the German dance halls of Williamsburg. These places catered to middle-class families at a time when the weekend lasted from Saturday evening until Monday morning. Saturday night was the one night the average person could have some fun and not be facing a 10- to 12-hour workday the next morning. Though  the halls were closed Sunday, where they erred was in staying open past midnight on Saturday. So the police clamped down and turned another group of upright citizens against the crusaders.

The hypocrisy is best summed up by an episode involving Michael Minden. Minden owned a variety of hotels and saloons, and there is little doubt gambling was an important part of his business. His hotel at the top end of Broadway in Williamsburg was raided. No one was found to be actively gambling, almost certainly because he’d been tipped off by a friendly precinct captain. However, a roulette wheel and some other bits of gambling gear were seized. Without any actual evidence of gambling, the case against him was dismissed. Then, a while later, Minden’s lawyer went to court and successfully sued for the return of his roulette wheel.