Living Conditions in New York Tenements

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XI (6) start of chapter

The poor Irishman in New York is not without experiencing the tender mercies of 'middlemen,' to whom in many instances the tenement houses are leased. These middlemen are generally irresponsible parties, with no interest in the property except its immediate profits, and who destroyed the original ventilation, such as it was, by the simple process of dividing the rooms into smaller ones, and by crowding three or four families into a space originally intended for a single family.

In 1864, the Citizens' Association of New York was organised, its main object being the promotion of Sanitary Reform. It has already effected much service through the information it has afforded in its valuable publications, which exhibit in a striking manner the enormous evil of overcrowding, and its consequences to the morals and health of the community. Associated with this organisation are many eminent physicians, who constitute the Council of Hygiene, whose report forms one of the most important features of the volume. Having divided the city into districts for the purpose of inspection, the Council appointed competent medical officers for that task; and from the detailed reports of these inspectors an accurate notion may be obtained of the sanitary condition of each district.

That the overcrowding of New York is far in excess of all other cities may be shown by a comparison of that city with London. In the English metropolis, the highest rate of population to the square mile is in East London, where, according to the report of a recent Royal Commission, it reached as high as 175,816. Whereas in certain portions of the Fourth Ward of New York, the tenant-house population were in 1864 'packed at the rate of about 290,000 inhabitants to the square mile.' Nor is it at all probable that things have come to the worst in this respect. The Council of Hygiene, in their Report, take rather a desponding view of the future. Not only has New York already become one of the most populous and densely crowded cities in the world, 'but it is plainly its destiny to become at once the most populous and the most overcrowded of the great maritime cities.' The evils, therefore, which now imperil health and morals in consequence of overcrowding, will increase with the increase of the population.

That there are several tenement houses constructed with a due regard for their intended object—the comfort and accommodation of their inmates—is true; but such houses are rather the exception than the rule, and the rent demanded for cleanly and commodious apartments in a tenement provided with the requisite appliances, places them beyond the means of the mass of the working population. It is not with houses of this class, but of the kind which are occupied by the poorer portion of the community, including of necessity those who have made the fatal mistake of stopping in New York, instead of pushing on to the country and occupying the land, that I propose to deal. A few extracts, taken at random from some of the Reports, will place the reader sufficiently in possession of the evils of overcrowding, and the perils, alike to soul and body, of the tenement system, which is now, though late, arousing the alarmed attention of statesmen and philanthropists.

Dr. Monnell, to whom the inspection of the 'First Sanitary District' was entrusted, states that the inhabitants of this district, which comprises part of the First and the whole of the Third Ward, are largely of foreign birth—about one-half Irish, one-quarter Germans, and the remainder Americans, Swedes, Danes, &c. Two-thirds of the resident population consist of labourers and mechanics with their families. The general characteristics are, 'a medium grade of intelligence and a commendable amount of industry, intermixed largely with ignorance, depravity, pauperism, and dissipation of the most abandoned character.' As an illustration of the evil of overcrowding, and the perilous characteristics of a large class of the floating population—consisting in this district of 'travellers, emigrants, sailors, and vagabonds without a habitation and almost without a name'—that mingle with the more permanent residents of this lower district of the city, Dr. Monnell thus makes the reader acquainted with a certain squalid old tenant house in Washington Street:—

Passing from apartment to apartment, until we reached the upper garret, we found every place crowded with occupants, one room, only 5 ½ by 9 feet, and a low ceiling, containing two adults and a daughter of twelve years, and the father working as a shoemaker in the room, while in the upper garret were found a couple of dark rooms kept by haggard crones, who nightly supplied lodgings to twenty or thirty vagabonds and homeless persons. This wretched hiding-place of men, women, and girls, who in such places become daily more vicious and more wretched, had long been a hot-bed of typhus, seven of the lodgers having been sent to the fever hospital, while permanent residents on the lower floors had become infected with the same malady and died.

In the construction of many modern tenant houses, it would appear, the Inspector states, 'that hygienic laws and sanitary requirements have been estimated as of only secondary importance, the great problem being how to domicile the greatest number of families on a given area. And in the practical solution of that problem, in this district, lies the great overshadowing cause of insalubrity, before which all others combined sink into insignificance. The most marked feature of the tenant houses is the small size of their apartments, whereby ensues overcrowding in each family.' Having described a group of tenement houses, which are represented by the aid of photography, and designated as 'a perpetual fever nest,' the Report thus proceeds:—

And in addition, the street throughout this whole neighbourhood presents habitually the vilest condition of filth, and reeks with most offensive odours. Typhus fever and measles were very prevalent here in the early part of the summer. In my weekly reports of 'pestilential diseases and insalubrious quarters,' I have had frequent occasion to describe the condition of families and disease in the premises that are here photographed. The beautiful work of the artist renders unnecessary any further description of these squalid and pestiferous tenements, and their noisome fronting of dilapidated and overflowing privies, and a dismal, narrow, flooded court. That eruptive fevers, typhus, and physical decay may always be seen here is certainly not surprising.

The worst effects upon the inmates of the poorest class of tenant houses are exhibited not so much in the more acute form of disease, as 'in the pale and sickly countenance of their occupants, with lax fibre and general absence of robust health; we see it also in the pining and wasting of infants, and in the general prevalence of strumous, ophthalmic, and eruptive disorders. All these appearances indicate unmistakably the want of those great indispensible necessities of health—pure air and light.'

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

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