Foreign Immigration and the Tenement House in NYC Part IV

by Kate Holladay Claghorn

The tenement house bred, not only filth, but disease. We cannot ascribe altogether to constitutions enfeebled in their native land, to poverty, to natural uncleanliness, the high death-rate of the foreign-born in New York before 1864. Dr. Griscom gave it as his opinion in 1842 that the first cause of bad health in New York was " the crowded condition with insufficient ventilation of a great number of dwellings in this city."

And as to morals, it is plain that the uncomfortable, crowded barracks, with their unwholesome conditions, increased the inducements to intemperance, and the opportunities for violence and immorality.

It was felt during this early period, by those especially interested in the question, that the bad housing provided for the immigrants was the main cause of the greatest evils arising from their coming; and that improved housing would work a most satisfactory change in the immigrant's character. An instance given of improved housing "in Boston at this early time shows the soundness of this expectation.

The tenants were chiefly Irish, taken as they offered themselves, rejecting only those of known bad habits. Many of them at the time were out of employment, and with very slender resources. But the rents were paid with great punctuality, and no repairs were found necessary, excepting a few lights in the cellar windows. And Dr. Griscom says, confidently: "Examples almost without number might be adduced of the happy influence upon the appearance, actual comforts, and health of poor tenants, of kindness and judicious indulgence on the part of the landlord."

But what had been done was, in general, exactly the reverse. Instead of providing properly for the accommodation of the hosts of foreigners who were seen to be coming in ever increasing numbers, year after year, we had, as the Assembly Committee of 1857 reproves us with doing, placed at their disposal "districts, localities, neighborhoods, and dwellings, specially, as it were, adapted to the habits and associations of the most degraded of foreign paupers, enabling them at once to renew their familiarity with squalor, misery, and vicious practices." "Is it thus," the committee pertinently asks, "and with such incentives to the continuance and perpetuation of their customary filthiness and improvidence that we are to render these immigrants good and useful citizens?"

After the war, the tide of immigration rose rapidly until 1873,when there were 459,803 arrivals, after which, owing to disturbed industrial conditions, it suddenly fell, and continued to fall until 1878, there being less than 150,000 arrivals, when it begun to rise
again, with unexampled rapidity, reaching in 1882 a height never attained before or since, with a total of 788,992 arrivals. Again the tide fell, owing to industrial depression. It rose again to a high point in 1888, with 546,889 arrivals, and in 1892, with 679,663 arrivals, and the year ending June 30, 1900, has given us the highest number since 1892, 448,572 arrivals, an increase of over a hundred  thousand from the preceding year.

And again, as in the earlier period, protests against housing conditions are seen to follow closely upon times of heavy immigration. In 1867 the first special law in reference to tenement houses in New York was passed. There were at that time about 15,000 tenement houses in the city. In 1877 there were said to be about 25,000 tenement houses, probably an overestimate. The tenement house law of 1879 is an exception to the generally observed order of things, as it was agitated and passed in a period of light immigration. By 1881 there were said (by a more accurate calculation, probably, than that of 1877) to be 22,000 tenement houses in the city, containing a population of about half a million. The State Tenement House Commission of 1884 followed the enormous influx of immigrants in 1882. In 1887 there were 30,055 tenement houses, and 39,128 in 1893.

In 1894 another Tenement House Commission followed at a short interval another period of heavy immigration; and the past two years, during which the tide has been rising again, have seen still another agitation, taking shape in a commission against tenement house evils.

The features of especial interest to be noted in the period since the war, especially the period since 1880, with regard to the relation between the foreign element and the tenement house are, the results of their life in the tenement houses as seen in the second generation, the change in relative numerical proportion of different race elements coming in, the change in the social character of immigration thus indicated, and the effects of the mingling of these different elements one with another, and with immigrants of a former generation.

As to the first point, the actual deterioration of immigrants in the second generation, through the influence of the tenement house, it is difficult to adduce direct statistical evidence, such as increase in crime-rate, death-rate, or rate of pauperism, since so many other elements besides that of race have to be taken into account.

But common observation gives a moral certainty of the broad fact that in tenement house life the immigrant has degenerated to a greater or less degree.

A sort of selective process, always going on, forces out or kills off those of the immigrant population who are not satisfied with or not able to endure tenement conditions, leaving behind a peculiar "type," that is the despair of those who are working for social betterment to-day.

This is especially noticeable among the Irish of the second or third generation, this people having lingered the most persistently in the tenement house.

Take the children, for instance. One who visits the public schools in poor neighborhoods will notice in almost every class room certain pupils too old and too large for the grade they are in, anemic looking, lethargic in manner. On inquiry about one case after another, one is apt to hear each time that the child is American-born of Irish parentage.

At a little later age this type is found as a corner loafer, a member of a "gang," a recruit for the criminal population in which the " native-born of foreign parentage" hold so high a proportion.

Example after example might be given of tenement house families in which the parents—industrious peasant laborers—have found themselves disgraced by idle and vicious grown sons and daughters. Cases taken from the records of charitable societies almost at random show these facts again and again. This case, for instance, chosen quite at haphazard, is highly typical:

A decent, industrious Irishwoman, now a widow, who came over in the sixties or early seventies, has three sons. One of these is today an absolutely worthless drunkard; one works intermittently; one is consumptive. She is now obliged to depend on charitable aid. Here in this one case are shown the various ways in which degradation can work — toward actual vice, toward relaxation of moral fibre, and toward physical disease.

An old-age " type " of the Irish tenement neighborhood to-day is the ancient harpy—half beggar, half rowdy — who infests the free-and-easy " furnished room houses " — the last stage of degeneracy to which the old family residence has come. Half of her time is spent on "the Island"; the other half in the streets and lodging houses, begging, drinking, cursing, reviling passers-by, until she is again borne away in the patrol wagon.

Such types are seen especially in the upper West Side, in the sixteenth, twentieth, and twenty-second wards, where the Irish element was pushed in the second generation by the incoming of other races at the lower end of the city. Of especially evil association are the names of " Battle Row," " The Devil's Kitchen," and " Bull-Dog Alley." "

Battle Row " was a notable locality. The houses were out of repair and very dirty; the walls trickled with moisture; the stairs and halls were dark. A woman living there was asked why she could not keep her rooms and her children a little cleaner; "Oh I "said
she, " what's the use; my old man is drunk now, and my boy and girl that should be supporting me are gone away to the bad; 'tis the dirty thieving loafers around here did it all. What's the use?

In the older parts of the city similar effects were seen. In the fourth ward conditions were notorious. The following are scenes in a typical rookery in Catherine Street described in 1879: — "Here, in one room is a lodger, evidently a saloon girl, asleep on
a lounge, her features bloated and her temples gashed; the three children in the room evidently do not regard the sight as a novelty.

Across the yard, another woman, elderly and comfortably dressed, apparently a lodger also, has a frightful black eye, which she tries to hide; there are young children here also. . . . Behind a cart in the yard four sturdy young fellows were stretched playing cards at 2 P.M." Basements, cellars, and hallways of tenement houses were infested by the criminal and vicious of both sexes, — products of the tenements, — who made these their common carousing ground and means of escape from the police; and, incidentally, carried on the influences of corruption by their enforced contact with decent families living upstairs in the same dwellings.

While this second generation of an earlier population has been growing up, the racial composition of the foreign element in the city has been undergoing important changes which are of interest in connection with the housing problem.

Immigration before the war was almost exclusively Irish, British, and German. Scandinavians began to come after the war in noticeable numbers, reaching their largest proportion in the decade 1881-1890, when they made up 10 per cent of the total immigration.

Since the war the proportion of Irish to the total immigration has steadily decreased in each decade, while the proportion of Germans,87 per cent in the decade 1851-1860, has remained large until the past decade, when it dropped from 28 per cent in 1881-1890 (containing the record year, 1882, of German arrivals) to 14 per cent in 1891.


Website: The History
Article Name: Foreign Immigration and the Tenement House in NYC Part IV
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Tenement House Problem: Including the Report of The New York state Tenement House Commission of 1900 by Various Writers Volume II; The Macmillan Company-New York 1903
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