Historical New York City Tenement House Life


The peculiar formation of the island of Manhattan renders it impossible for the city to expand save in one direction. On the south, east, and west its growth is checked by the waters of the rivers and bay, so that it can increase only to the northward. The lower part of the island is being occupied for business purposes more and more exclusively every year, and the people are being forced higher up town. Those who remain in the extreme lower portion for purposes of residence are simply the very poor. Those who can afford to do so, seek locations removed as far as is convenient to them from the business section. The laboring class, by which I mean all who are forced to pursue some regular occupation for their support, are not able to go far from their work, and are obliged to remain in locations which will enable them to reach their places of business with as little delay as possible.

p684A New York Tenement House

By the same census, the total population of the city in 1870 was 942,292. The district included in the above wards is about two miles square, which would give for this portion of New York an average population of 238,902 to the mile square. The Seventeenth ward covers less than one-fortieth of the whole area of the island, and contains more than one-tenth of the whole population.

The total area of the city is twenty-two square miles, and we find that one-half of its population is cramped within an area of about four square miles. It is evident, therefore, that they must be housed in a very small number of buildings, and such indeed is the case.

The section of the city embraced in the wards we have named is filled with a class of buildings called tenement houses. The law classes all dwellings containing three or more families as tenement houses, but the true tenement house is an institution peculiar to New York. There are about 70,000 buildings in the city used for purposes of business and as dwellings, and of these, 20,000 are tenement houses, containing about 160,000 families, or about 500,000 people. This would give an average population of eight families or twenty persons to each tenement house in the city. In 1867 the number of tenement houses was 18,582.

The reader will no doubt suppose that the inmates of these houses are compelled to remain in them because of extreme poverty. This is not the case. The tenement houses are occupied mainly by the honest laboring population of New York, who receive fair wages for their work. They herd here because the rents of single houses are either out of proportion to, or beyond their means, and because they are convenient to their work. They are not paupers, but they cannot afford the fearful cost of a separate home, and they are forced to resort to this mode of life in order to live with any degree of comfort. Many of the most skilled mechanics, many of the best paid operatives of both sexes, who are earning comfortable wages, are forced to live in these vast barracks, simply because the bare rent of an empty house in a moderately decent neighborhood, is from $1000 upward. Did the city possess some means of rapid transit between its upper and lower extremities, which would prevent the loss of the time now wasted in traversing the length of the island, there can be no doubt that the tenement sections would soon be thinned out.

There are two classes of tenement houses in the city. Those occupied by the well-to-do working people, and those which are simply the homes of the poor. The first are immense, but spruce looking structures, and are kept cleaner than the latter, but all suffer from the evils incident to and inseparable from such close packing. Those of the second class are simply dens of vice and misery. In the older quarters of the city, many of the old time residences are now occupied as tenement houses. The old Walton mansion in Pearl street, opposite the vast establishment of Harper & Brothers, was once the most elegant and hospitable mansion in New York. It is now one of the most wretched tenement houses in the city. The tenement houses of the upper wards, however, were constructed for the uses to which they are put. As pecuniary investments they pay well, the rents sometimes yielding as much as thirty per cent. on the investment. One of them shall serve as a description of the average tenement house. The building stands on a lot with a front of 50 feet, and a depth of 250 feet. It has an alley running the whole depth on each side of it. These alley-ways are excavated to the depth of the cellars, arched over, and covered with flag stones, in which, at intervals, are open gratings to give light below; the whole length of which space is occupied by water closets, without doors, and under which are open drains communicating with the street sewers. The building is five stories high, and has a flat roof. The only ventilation is by a window, which opens against a dead wall eight feet distant, and to which rises the vapor from the vault below. There is water on each floor, and gas pipes are laid through the building, so that those who desire it can use gas. The building contains 126 families, or about 700 inhabitants. Each family has a narrow sitting-room, which is used also for working and eating, and a closet called a bed room. But few of the rooms are properly ventilated. The sun never shines in at the windows, and if the sky is overcast the rooms are so dark as to need artificial light. The whole house is dirty, and is filled with the mingled odors from the cooking-stoves and the sinks. In the winter the rooms are kept too close by the stoves, and in the summer the natural heat is made tenfold greater by the fires for cooking and washing. Pass these houses on a hot night, and you will see the streets in front of them filled with the occupants, and every window choked up with human heads, all panting and praying for relief and fresh air. Sometimes the families living in the close rooms we have described, take “boarders,” who pay a part of the expenses of the “establishment.” Formerly the occupants of these buildings emptied their filth and refuse matter into the public streets, which in these quarters were simply horrible to behold; but of late years, the police, by compelling a rigid observance of the sanitary laws, have greatly improved the condition of the houses and streets, and consequently the health of the people. During the past winter, however, many of the East side streets have become horribly filthy.

p688Inside View of A Tenement House

The reader must not suppose that the house just described is an exceptional establishment. In the Eleventh and Seventeenth wards whole streets, for many blocks, are lined with similar houses. There are many single blocks of dwellings containing twice the number of families residing on Fifth avenue, on both sides of that street, from Washington Square to the Park, or than a continuous row of dwellings similar to those on Fifth avenue, three or four miles in length. The Fourth ward, covering an area of 83 acres, contains 23,748 inhabitants. The city of Springfield (Massachusetts), contains 26,703 inhabitants. The Eleventh ward, comprising 196 acres, contains more people than the cities of Mobile (Alabama), and Salem (Massachusetts), combined. The Seventh ward, covering 110 acres, contains more inhabitants than the city of Syracuse (New York). The Seventeenth ward, covering 331 acres, contains more inhabitants than the city of Cleveland (Ohio), which is the fifteenth city in the Union in respect of population.

The best of the tenement houses are uncomfortable. Where so large a number of people are gathered under the same roof to live as they please, it is impossible to keep the premises clean. A very large portion of them are in bad repair and in equally bad sanitary condition. In 1867 these houses made up fifty-two per cent. of the whole number, and there is no reason to believe that there has been any improvement since then. Many of them are simply appalling. They become more wretched and squalid as the East River and Five Points sections are reached. Cherry, Water, and the neighboring streets, are little better than charnel houses.

About three months ago one of the most wretched rookeries in the city was cleared out and cleansed by order of the Board of Health. This was known as “Sweeney’s,” and stood in Gotham Court. The immediate cause of its overhauling was the discovery of its actual condition made by Detective Finn and Mr. Edward Crapsey of the New York Times, during a visit to it. Mr. Crapsey gives the following interesting account of his visit:

“As we stopped in Cherry street at the entrance to Gotham Court, and Detective Finn dug a tunnel of light with his bullseye lantern into the foulness and blackness of that smirch on civilization, a score or more of boys who had been congregated at the edge of the court suddenly plunged back into the obscurity, and we heard the splash of their feet in the foul collections of the pavements.

“‘This bullseye is an old acquaintance here,’ said the detective, ‘and as its coming most always means “somebody wanted,” you see how they hide. Though why they should object to go to jail is more than I know; I’d rather stay in the worst dungeon in town than here. Come this way and I’ll show you why.’

“Carefully keeping in the little track of light cut into the darkness by the lantern, I followed the speaker, who turned into the first door on the right, and I found myself in an entry about four feet by six, with steep, rough, rickety stairs leading upward in the foreground, and their counterparts at the rear giving access to as successful a manufactory of disease and death as any city on earth can show. Coming to the first of these stairs, I was peremptorily halted by the foul stenches rising from below; but Finn, who had reached the bottom, threw back the relentless light upon the descending way and urged me on. Every step oozed with moisture and was covered sole deep with unmentionable filth; but I ventured on, and reaching my conductor, stood in a vault some twelve feet wide and two hundred long, which extended under the whole of West Gotham Court. The walls of rough stone dripped with slimy exudations, while the pavements yielded to the slightest pressure of the feet a suffocating odor compounded of bilge-water and sulphuretted hydrogen. Upon one side of this elongated cave of horrors were ranged a hundred closets, every one of which reeked with this filth, mixed with that slimy moisture which was everywhere as a proof that the waters of the neighboring East River penetrated, and lingered here to foul instead of purify.

“‘What do you think of this?’ said Finn, throwing the light of his lantern hither and thither so that every horror might be dragged from the darkness that all seemed to covet. ‘All the thousands living in the barracks must come here, and just think of all the young ones above that never did any harm having to take in this stuff;’ and the detective struck out spitefully at the noxious air. As he did so, the gurgling of water at the Cherry street end of the vault caught his ear, and penetrating thither, he peered curiously about.

“‘I say, Tom,’ he called back to his companion, who had remained with me in the darkness, ‘here’s a big break in the Croton main.’ But a moment later, in an affrighted voice: ‘No, it ain’t. Its the sewer! I never knew of this opening into it before. Paugh! how it smells. That’s nothing up where you are. I’ll bet on the undertaker having more jobs in the house than ever.’

“By this time I began to feel sick and faint in that tainted air, and would have rushed up the stairs if I could have seen them. But Finn was exploring that sewer horror with his lantern. As I came down I had seen a pool of stagnant, green-coated water somewhere near the foot of the stairs, and, being afraid to stir in the thick darkness, was forced to call my guide, and, frankly state the urgent necessity for an immediate return above. The matter-of-fact policeman came up, and cast the liberating light upon the stairs, but rebuked me as I eagerly took in the comparatively purer atmosphere from above. ‘You can’t stand it five minutes; how do you suppose they do, year in and year out?’ ‘Even they don’t stand it many years, I should think,’ was my involuntary reply.

“As we stepped out into the court again, the glare of the bullseye dragged a strange face out of the darkness. It was that of a youth of eighteen or twenty years, ruddy, puffed, with the corners of the mouth grotesquely twisted. The detective greeted the person owning this face with the fervor of old acquaintanceship: ‘Eh, Buster! What’s up?’ ‘Hello, Jimmy Finn! What yez doin’ here?’ ‘Never mind, Buster. What’s up?’ ‘Why, Jimmy, didn’t yez know I lodges here now?’ ‘No, I didn’t. Where? Who with?’ ‘Beyant, wid the Pensioner.’ ‘Go on. Show me where you lodge.’ ‘Sure, Jimmy, it isn’t me as would lie to yez.’

“But I had expressed a desire to penetrate into some of these kennels for crushed humanity; and Finn, with the happy acumen of his tribe, seizing the first plausible pretext, was relentless, and insisted on doubting the word of the Buster. That unfortunate with the puffy face, who seemed to know his man too well to protract resistance, puffed ahead of us up the black, oozy court, with myriads of windows made ghastly by the pale flicker of kerosene lamps in tiers above us, until he came to the last door but one upon the left side of the court, over which the letter S was sprawled upon the coping stone. The bullseye had been darkened, and when the Buster plunged through the doorway he was lost to sight in the impenetrable darkness beyond. We heard him though, stumbling against stairs that creaked dismally, and the slide being drawn back, the friendly light made clear the way for him and us. There was an entry precisely like the one we had entered before, with a flight of narrow, almost perpendicular stairs, with so sharp a twist in them that we could see only half up. The banisters in sight had precisely three uprights, and looked as if the whole thing would crumble at a touch; while the stairs were so smooth and thin with the treading of innumerable feet that they almost refused a foothold. Following the Buster, who grappled with the steep and dangerous ascent with the daring born of habit, I somehow got up stairs, wondering how any one ever got down in the dark without breaking his neck. Thinking it possible there might be a light sometimes to guide the pauper hosts from their hazardous heights to the stability of the street, I inquired as to the fact, only to meet the contempt of the Buster for the gross ignorance that could dictate such a question. ‘A light for the stairs! Who’d give it? Sweeney? Not much! Or the tenants? Skasely! Them’s too poor!’ While he muttered, the Buster had pawed his way up stairs with surprising agility, until he reached a door on the third landing. Turning triumphantly to the detective, he announced: ‘Here’s where I lodges, Jimmy! You knows I wouldn’t lie to yez.’

“‘We’ll see whether you would or no,’ said Finn, tapping on the door. Being told to come in, he opened it; and on this trivial but dexterous pretext we invaded the sanctity of a home.

“No tale is so good as one plainly told, and I tell precisely what I saw. This home was composed, in the parlance of the place, of a ‘room and bedroom.’ The room was about twelve feet square, and eight feet from floor to ceiling. It had two windows opening upon the court, and a large fireplace filled with a cooking stove. In the way of additional furniture, it had a common deal table, three broken wooden chairs, a few dishes and cooking utensils, and two ‘shakedowns,’ as the piles of straw stuffed into bed-ticks are called; but it had nothing whatever beyond these articles. There was not even the remnant of a bedstead; not a cheap print, so common in the hovels of the poor, to relieve the blankness of the rough, whitewashed walls. The bedroom, which was little more than half the size of the other, was that outrage of capital upon poverty known as a ‘dark room,’ by which is meant that it had no window opening to the outer air; and this closet had no furniture whatever except two ‘shakedowns.’

“In the contracted space of these two rooms, and supplied with these scanty appliances for comfort, nine human beings were stowed. First there was the ‘Pensioner,’ a man of about thirty-five years, next his wife, then their three children, a woman lodger with two children, and the ‘Buster,’ the latter paying fifteen cents per night for his shelter; but I did not learn the amount paid by the woman for the accommodation of herself and children. The Buster, having been indignant at my inquiry as to the light upon the stairs, was now made merry by Finn supposing he had a regular bed and bedstead for the money. ‘Indade, he has not, but a “shakedown” like the rest of us,’ said the woman; but the Buster rebuked this assumption of an impossible prosperity by promptly exclaiming, ‘Whist! ye knows I stretch on the boords without any shakedown whatsumdever.’

“Finn was of opinion the bed was hard but healthy, and fixing his eyes on the Buster’s flabby face thought it possible he had any desirable number of ‘square meals’ per day; but that individual limited his acquirements in that way for the day then closed to four. Finn then touching on the number of drinks, the Buster, being driven into conjecture and a corner by the problem, was thrust out of the foreground of our investigations.

“By various wily tricks of his trade, Detective Finn managed to get a deal of information out of the Pensioner without seeming to be either inquisitive or intrusive, or even without rubbing the coat of his poverty the wrong way. From this source I learned that five dollars per month was paid as rent for these two third-floor rooms, and that everybody concerned deemed them dirt cheap at the price. Light was obtained from kerosene lamps at the expense of the tenant, and water had to be carried from the court below, while all refuse matter not emptied into the court itself, had to be taken to the foul vaults beneath it. The rooms, having all these drawbacks, and being destitute of the commonest appliances for comfort or decency, did not appear to be in the highest degree eligible; yet the Pensioner considered himself fortunate in having secured them. His experience in living must have been very doleful, for he declared that he had seen worse places. In itself, and so far as the landlord was concerned, I doubted him; but I had myself seen fouler places than these two rooms, which had been made so by the tenants. All that cleanliness could do to make the kennel of the Pensioner habitable had been done, and I looked with more respect upon the uncouth woman who had scoured the rough floor white, than I ever had upon a gaudily attired dame sweeping Broadway with her silken trail. The thrift that had so little for its nourishment had not been expended wholly upon the floor, for I noticed that the two children asleep on the shakedown were clean, while the little fellow four years of age, who was apparently prepared for bed as he was entirely naked, but sat as yet upon one of the three chairs, had no speck of dirt upon his fair white skin. A painter should have seen him as he gazed wonderingly upon us, and my respect deepened for the woman who could, spite the hard lines of her rugged life, bring forth and preserve so much of childish symmetry and beauty.

“Having absorbed these general facts, I turned to the master of this household. He was a man of small stature but rugged frame, and his left shirt sleeve dangled empty at his side. That adroit Finn, noticing my inquiring look, blurted out: ‘That arm went in a street accident, I suppose?’

“‘No, sir; it wint at the battle of Spottsylvania.’

“Here was a hero! The narrow limits of his humble home expanded to embrace the brown and kneaded Virginian glades as I saw them just seven years ago, pictured with the lurid pageantry of that stubborn fight when Sedgwick fell. This man, crammed with his family into twelve feet square at the top of Sweeney’s Shambles, was once part of that glorious scene. In answer to my test questions he said he belonged to the Thirty-ninth New York, which was attached to the Second Corps, and that he received a pension of $15 per month from the grateful country he had served as payment in full for an arm. It was enough to keep body and soul together, and he could not complain. Nor could I; but I could and did signify to my guide by a nod that I had seen and heard enough, and we went down again into the slimy, reeking court.”

There is a square on the East side bounded by Houston, Stanton, Pitt, and Willett streets. It contains a group of three front and seven rear houses, and is known as “Rag-pickers’ Row.” These ten houses contain a total of 106 families, or 452 persons. All these persons are rag-pickers, or more properly chiffonniers, for their business is to pick up every thing saleable they can find in the streets. Formerly they brought their gatherings to this place and assorted them here before taking them to the junk stores to sell them. Now, however, they assort them elsewhere, and their wretched dwellings are as clean as it is possible to keep them. They are generally peaceable and quiet, and their quarrels are commonly referred to the agent in charge of the row, who decides them to their satisfaction. They are very industrious in their callings, and some of them have money in the Savings banks. Nearly all who have children send them to the Mission Schools.

The Board of Health, in one of their recent publications, express themselves as follows:

“The worst class of tenement houses was those where a landlord had accommodations for ten families, and these buildings comprise more than half of the tenement houses of the city, and accommodate fully two-thirds of the entire tenement-house population. When the number of families living under one owner exceeded ten, it was found that such owner was engaged in the keeping of a tenement-house as a business, and generally as a speculator. It is among this class of owners that nearly all the evils of the tenement-house system are found. The little colony exhibit in their rooms, and in the little areas around their dwellings, extreme want of care. The street in front of the place was reeking with slops and garbage; the alleys and passage ways were foul with excrements; the court was imperfectly paved, wet, and covered with domestic refuse; the privies, located in a close court between the rear and front houses, were dilapidated, and gave out volumes of noisome odors, which filled the whole area, and were diffused through all the rooms opening upon it; and the halls and apartments of the wretched occupants were close, unventilated, and unclean. The complaint was universal among the tenants that they are entirely uncared for, and that the only answer to their request to have the place put in order, by repairs and necessary improvements, was, that they must pay their rent or leave. Inquiry often disclosed the fact that the owner of the property was a wealthy gentleman or lady, either living in an aristocratic part of the city or in a neighboring city, or, as was occasionally found to be the case, in Europe. The property is usually managed entirely by an agent, whose instructions are simple, but emphatic, viz., ‘collect the rent in advance, or, failing, eject the occupants.’ The profits on this sort of property, so administered, are rarely less than fifteen per cent., and more generally thirty per cent. upon the investment.”

The evils of the tenement house system are almost incalculable. It is the experience of all nations that barrack life is demoralizing, and the tenement house is but a barrack without the rigid discipline of a military establishment. Its inmates know no such thing as privacy. Home is but a word with them. They have habitations, but not homes. Within the same walls are gathered the virtuous and the depraved, the honest laborer and the thief. There can be no such thing as shielding the young from improper outside influences. They have every opportunity to become thoroughly corrupted without leaving the house. Decency is impossible. Families exist in the greatest amount of personal discomfort, and the children take every opportunity to escape from the house into the streets. The tenement houses every year send many girls into the ranks of the street walkers, and a greater number of young men into the ranks of the roughs and thieves.

Drunkenness is very common among the inhabitants of these houses. Men and women are literally driven into intemperance by the discomfort in which they live. Nearly all the domestic murders occurring in the city are perpetrated in the tenement houses. Immorality is very common. Indeed, the latter crime is the logical result of such dense packing of the sexes. It is a terrible thing to contemplate, but it is a fact that one half of the population of this great city is subjected to the demoralizing influences of these vast barracks. The laboring class, who should constitute the backbone and sinew of the community, are thus degraded to a level with paupers, forced to herd among them, and to adopt a mode of life which is utterly destructive of the characteristics which should distinguish them. It is no wonder that crime is so common in the Metropolis. The real wonder is that it does not defy all restraint.

The tenement houses are afflicted with a terrible mortality. Says Dr. Harris, “Consumption and all the inflammatory diseases of the lungs vie with the infectious and other zymotic disorders, in wasting the health and destroying the life of the tenement population.” Of late years a new disease, the relapsing fever, which, though rarely fatal, destroys the health and vigor of its victims, has made havoc among the tenement population. The mortality among children is very great, and perhaps this is fortunate for them, for it would seem that death in their first flush of innocence is far better than a life of wretchedness and perhaps of infamy. Small pox and all the contagious and infectious diseases would make short work with the tenement-house population, were any of them to become epidemic in the city. There would be nothing to check them, and the unfortunate people living in these sections would find no means of escaping from them.

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