Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Life for Republicans Was Once One Big Oyster

Mark Kurlansky. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007.
There were once so many oysters around New York City that they could have processed all of the city’s drinking water.  Yet they have virtually disappeared, killed off by too much pollution before a time they could have used their natural process that could have provided New Yorkers with clean drinking water.  The loss of New York’s oysters also seriously disrupted estuaries through New Jersey and Connecticut.
The author criticizes New York for not planning and for only reacting to problems as they arise.  Paris successfully acted to preserve its oyster beds while New York and London did nothing. New York and London lost most of their oysters.  This lack of planning is noted as typical in other areas of New York’s policy matters, including economic and housing problems.
Until the 20th century, New York was known for its oysters.  Millions of oysters from New York used to be sent around the world. New York could boast of having the best oysters.
Before Europeans arrived, it is estimated that 15,000 Lenape livied in what is now New York City and that perhaps 50,000 Lenape lived in the surrounding area form Delaware to Connecticut.  Archeologists have found they ate many oysters, as hills up to 30 feet high of oyster shells were left behind.  Oysters shall can last a thousand years.
The Lenape buried their dead, including dogs, covered with oyster shells.  It is not known why they did this.
European arrivals used oyster shells to neutralize the acid in soil which improved the land’s agricultural uses.  They also derived lime paste for construction use from oyster shells.
The Dutch traded the Lenape currency of conch shells for pelts.  The Dutch sold the shells in Europe.
The Dutch purchase of Manhattan from the Lenape was viewed differently by the two cultures.  The Lenape had no concept of land ownership and saw this as an alliance and allowance for the use of land.  Indeed, the Lenape remained in Manhattan after the sale.
In 1626, some Dutch robbed and some Lenape. A Lenape boy survived the attack. Under Lenape tradition, the boy exacted revenge upon reaching manhood.  In 1641, this survivor beheaded a Dutchman.  In the midst of tensions, the West India Company, a Dutch company, obtained a peace settlement with the Wieckquaesgecks, a section of the Lenape.  Troops of the Dutch colony’s Director ignored this treaty and later killed approximately 80 Wieckquaesgeck men, women, and children.  Warfare broke out between the two groups.
In 1653, a protective wall for the Dutch was built by African slaves. This wall was to guard against a British naval invasion. The wall was of little use as the British attacked by land.
The wall did become a site over which people threw their garbage and sewage.  This harmed the rivers, including killing many of the oysters.
The British conquered the Dutch in what is now New York. The British sarcastically called the Dutch “Jankees”, a combination of John and cheese.  
Jan Rodriquez arrived on a Dutch ship in 1613, becoming the first Black in Manhattan. A free Black community was establishes.  Blacks were 18% of Manhattan’s population in 1750.  Black slaves were brought to New York between 1701 and 1774.  Only Charleston, at that time, had more slaves in America.
Blacks sold oysters on street carts.  New York was known for alcohol, oysters, and prostitution.  Captain William Kidd, a pirate, was a 17th century New York celebrity, living at 119-121 Pearl Street.  New York was then British but with strong Dutch influences.
In 1770, the largest American ports were Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, and New York. Boston was known for trading salt cod, agriculture, and manufactured goods.  New York was known for piracy. Both sold lumber, salted fish, pickled oysters, and flour to the West Indies and southern Europe.  The profits from these sales were often used to buy British goods. New Yorkers bought slaves in the illegal market in exchange for pickled oysters and food.
New York oysters were up to a foot long.  They were cunt into pieces to be more saleable when pickled and shipped.  They were plentiful and cheap in price.  Some poor people lived by eating mostly bread and oysters.
In 1671, there was concern that oysters were being overharvested.  Laws passed limiting Staten Island oyster beds to Staten Islanders.  New Jersey oyster beds could only be harvested from May 10 to September 1.  These laws were hard to enforce as anyone caught could claim they were only looking for clams.
In 1769, New Jersey banned using oysters for producing just for lime.  They were considered as an important food source for the poor.
Rockaway imposed a fee of one shipping per 1,000 oysters with a 40 shilling penalty for not paying the fee.
In 1770, it is estimated the population of New York City was 21,000 with about 500 prostitutes.
The Revolutionary War produced conflicts in oyster fishing.  There was a boundary drawn separating Revolutionary oystermen and Loyalist oystermen.  Gun battles over these allegiances while searching for oysters.
Delmonicos was the first fancy New York restaurant. It served New York’s first business lunch.  Oyster houses served “all you can eat” oysters.
Oyster fisheries were created in New York waters before most other types of fisheries.  New Yorkers learned to seed oyster beds with flat objects to which young oysters would attach, then remove smaller oysters in the second and third years to provide the larger oysters ore room, to harvest four year old oysters, and then to dredge to remove objected detrimental to oysters.
There were numerous oysters bars created in response to advertisements suggesting oysters are aphrodisiacs.  These oyster establishments used red outdoor lighting that was similar to what house of prostitution used for their lighting.
Oyster prices did not fluctuate much from 1830 to 1880.  An oyster bed yielded $500 per acre for harvesters. Oysters were then sold at around $1 to $1.50 per basket.
The Fulton Market was overrun by some many red meat butches that few could make an income. The fish sellers become dominant there.  Ice was an important $4 million annual industry in New York.
The Civil War helped the New York oyster business.  Competing oyster sloops were prohibited from being on the Chesapeake Bay to guard against their possibly aiding Confederate commerce.
A chlorea epidemic hit New York City.  People did not understand what caused chlorea, a water borne illness. Eating raw oysters infected by sewage was one of the causes of chlorea.  New Yorkers concluded the slums of Five Points caused the outbreak. Five Points was torn down.
New York saw oyster sales increase as European oyster supplies decreased.  Europe was a large oyster market. In 1851, 500 million oysters, or 185 oysters per capita, were sold in London.
New York captured one third of domestic oyster sales circa 1872.  In 1872, Americans bought $25 million of oysters.
In 1909, 13 U.S. states had 88% of the global oyster market.  In 1915, sewage contamination led of closing Jamaica Bay oysters.  They were closed again in 1921.  By 1927, pollution brought an end to New York’s commercial oyster industry.  Those oysters that survived the pollution were rendered contaminated and inedible.  Ironically, if oysters were as plentiful today as they once were, they could serve as a natural means of cleaning the water.  


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