THE dread of advancing cholera, with the guilty knowledge of the harvest field that awaited the plague in New York's slums, pricked the conscience of the community into action soon after the close of the war. A citizens' movement resulted in the organization of a Board of Health and the adoption of the "Tenement-House Act" of 1867, the first step toward remedial legislation. A thorough canvass of the tenements had been begun already in the previous year; but the cholera first, and next a scourge of small-pox, delayed the work, while emphasizing the need of it, so that it was 1869 before it got fairly under way and began to tell. The dark bedroom fell under the ban first.
|In that year the Board ordered the cutting of more than forty-six thousand windows in interior rooms, chiefly for ventilation--for little or no light was to be had from the dark hallways. Air-shafts were unknown. The saw had a job all that summer; by early fall nearly all the orders had been carried out. Not without opposition; obstacles were thrown in the way of the officials on
the one side by the owners of the tenements, who saw
in every order to repair or clean up only an item of
added expense to diminish their income from the rent;
on the other side by the tenants themselves, who had
sunk, after a generation of unavailing protest, to the
level of their surroundings, and were at last content
to remain there. The tenements had bred their Nemesis,
a proletariat ready and able to avenge the wrongs of
their crowds. Already it taxed the city heavily for
the support of its jails and charities. The basis of
opposition, curiously enough was the same at both extremes;
owner and tenant alike considered official interference
an infringement of personal rights, and a hardship.
It took long years of weary labor to make good the claim
of the sunlight to such corners of the dens as it could
reach at all. Not until five years after did the department
succeed at last in ousting the "cave-dwellers"
and closing some five hundred and fifty cellars south
of Houston Street, many of them below tide-water, that
had been used as living apartments. In many instances
the police had to drag the tenants out by force.
||The work went on;
but the need of it only grew with the effort.
The Sanitarians were following up an evil that
grew faster than they went; like a fire, it could
only be headed off, not chased, with success.
Official reports, read in the churches in 1879,
characterized the younger criminals as Victims
of low social conditions of life and unhealthy,
overcrowded lodgings, brought up in "an atmosphere
of actual darkness, moral and physical" This
after the saw had been busy in the dark corners
ten years! "If we could see the air breathed
by these poor creatures in their tenements,"
said a well-known physician, "it would show
itself to be fouler than the mud of the gutters."
Little improvement was apparent despite all that
had been done. "The new tenements, that have
been recently built, have been usually as badly
planned as the old, with dark and unhealthy rooms,
often over wet cellars, where extreme overcrowding
is permitted," was the verdict of one authority.
These are the houses that to-day perpetuate the
worst traditions of the past, and they are counted
by thousands. The Five Points had been cleansed,
as far as the immediate neighborhood was concerned,
but the Mulberry Street Bend was fast outdoing
it in foulness not a stone's
|threw away, and new
centres of corruption were continually springing
up and getting the upper hand whenever vigilance
was relaxed for ever so short a time. It is one
of the curses of the tenement-house system that
the worst houses exercise a levelling influence
upon all the rest, just as one bad boy in a schoolroom
will spoil the whole class. It is one of the ways
the evil that was "the result of forgetfulness
of the poor," as the Council of Hygiene mildly
put it, has of avenging itself.
The determined effort to head it off by laying
a strong hand upon the tenement builders that
has been the chief business of the Health Board
of recent years, dates from this period. The era
of the air-shaft has not solved the problem of
housing the poor, but it has made good use of
limited opportunities. Over the new houses sanitary
law exercises full control. But the old remain.
They cannot be summarily torn down, though in
extreme cases the authorities can order them cleared.
The outrageous overcrowding, too, remains. It
is characteristic of the tenements. Poverty, their
badge and typical condition, invites--compels
it. All efforts to abate it result only in temporary
relief. As long as they exist
it will exist with them. And the tenements will
exist in New York forever.
||Today, what is a tenement? The law defines it
as a house "occupied by three or more families,
living independently and doing their cooking on
the premises; or by more than two families on
a door, so living and cooking and having a common
right in the halls, stairways, yards, etc."
That is the legal meaning, and includes flats
and apartment-houses, with which we have nothing
to do. In its narrower sense the typical tenement
was thus described when last arraigned before
the bar of public justice: "It is generally
a brick building from four to six stories high
on the street, frequently with a store on the
first floor which, when used for the sale of liquor,
has a side opening for the benefit of the inmates
and to evade the Sunday law; four families occupy
each floor, and a set of rooms consists of one
or two dark closets, used as bedrooms, with a
living room twelve feet by ten. The staircase
is too often a dark well in the centre of the
house, and no direct through ventilation is possible,
each family being separated from the other by
partitions. Frequently the rear of the lot is
occupied by another building of three
high with two families on a floor."
The picture is nearly as true to-day as ten years
ago, and will be for a long time to come. The dim light admitted by
the air-shaft shines upon greater crowds than ever.
Tenements are still "good property," and the
poverty of the poor man his destruction. A barrack down
town where he has to live because
he is poor brings in a third more rent than a decent
flat house in Harlem. The statement once made a sensation
that between seventy and eighty children had been found
in one tenement. It no longer excites even passing attention,
when the sanitary police report counting 101 adults
and 91 children in a Crosby Street house, one of twins,
built together. The children in the other, if I am not
mistaken, numbered 89, a total of 180 for two tenements!
Or when a midnight inspection in Mulberry Street unearths
a hundred and fifty "lodgers" sleeping on filthy
floors in two buildings. Spite of brown-stone
trimmings, plate-glass and mosaic vestibule floors,
the water does not rise in summer to the second
story, while the beer flows unchecked to the all-night
picnics on the roof. The saloon with the side-door
and the landlord divide the prosperity of the
place between them, and the tenant, in sullen
submission, foots the bills.
||Where are the tenements of to-day? Say rather:
where are they not? In fifty years they have crept
up from the Fourth Ward slums and the Five Points
the whole length of the island, and have polluted
the Annexed District to the Westchester line.
Crowding all the lower wards, wherever business
leaves a foot of ground unclaimed; strung along
both rivers, like ball and chain tied to the foot
of every street, and filling up Harlem with their
restless, pent-up multitudes, they hold within
their clutch the wealth and business of New York,
hold them at their mercy in the day of mob-rule
and wrath. The bullet-proof shutters, the stacks
of hand-grenades, and the Gatling guns of the
Sub-Treasury are tacit admissions of the fact
and of the quality of the mercy expected. The
tenements to-day are New York, harboring three-fourths
of its population. When another generation shall
have doubled the census of our city, and to that
vast army of workers, held captive by poverty,
the very name of home shall be as a bitter mockery,
what will the harvest be?
|Go to Chapter