My dissertation, “Escaping Gotham: An Environmental History of Working-Class Leisure in Nineteenth-Century New York,” explores green spaces where New Yorkers who worked long summer days in stifling factories and on dusty streets spent some of their scarce free time. The project follows the city’s workers to landscapes where they could appreciate flora and fauna, breathe fresh air, watch amusing performances, listen to music and dance, drink beer, and play games. At these eclectic environments—downtown parks and pleasure gardens, beer gardens near streetcar stops, and waterfront groves reached by steamboat—working-class New Yorkers practiced a distinct outdoor culture that accepted commerce and fun as part of the experience of connecting with nature. Recovering these lost landscapes of pleasure and nature, my dissertation aims to bring marginalized urbanites into the story of how humans have lived with and valued the natural environment.
Because the histories of these working-class recreational sites remain untold, our understanding of how city dwellers sought connections with nature tilt towards elite perspectives. The nature-loving New Yorkers historians remember best—sportsmen exploring rugged landscapes, vacationers summering outside the city, and urban planners creating parks—preferred to spend their leisure time amidst wild nature. Their preferences influenced the evolution of a society that would protect some seemingly primeval landscapes for recreation while polluting places where people lived and worked. Yet my subjects, who struggled economically and often faced racism or nativism, differed from their more privileged neighbors by venturing to green spaces that were close to the city and far from pristine. With leisure practices that blended nature and culture, working-class New Yorkers experienced the natural world and human society as intertwined, rather than fundamentally separate. Investigating their leisure landscapes helps reveal forgotten attitudes toward the natural world.
The co-chairs of my dissertation are Ann Fabian and Neil Maher and my other committee members are Jamie Pietruska, Mia Bay, and Michael Rawson. I hope to defend my dissertation by May of 2020.