Foreign Immigration and the Tenement House in NYC Part I

by Kate Holladay Claghorn

That foreign immigration should have had a distinct and decided effect on housing conditions in New York City is obvious, when it is remembered that two-thirds in earlier years and four-fifths in later years, of the great flood of immigration pouring into the United States since 1820, has come by way of the port of New York, leaving behind it, in its passage, no inconsiderable proportion of its volume in the city itself.

Just what this proportion is from year to year cannot be told with certainty. For the period before 1850 there are no definite statistics showing even the numbers of the foreign-born in the city, at different times. And for the period before 1834 it is difficult to adduce any direct evidence as to the effect of immigration upon housing, for the question of housing itself had not then begun to attract general attention. In that period immigration was absolutely light, but in comparison with the city's population from year to year, relatively heavy.

In 1794, at the close of a ten-year period, in which it was estimated there had been an average of 4000 arrivals from foreign countries each year, there seems to have been a suddenly heavy influx of foreigners, as many as 10,000 arrivals, it is supposed. The city by this time was growing rapidly toward the north; streets were being raised and paved; and the dock frontage extended farther out into the water.

These docks, in process of construction, became gathering places of all sorts of filth, making a belt of offensiveness along the river front from which, it may be supposed, prosperous residents of the quarter were glad to draw back. In describing the circumstances
connected with the outbreak of yellow fever in New York in 1796, Dr. John H. Griscom (" History ... of the Visitations of Yellow Fever at New York," pp. 7 and 8) speaks of the new dock at Whitehall, of which the piles only had been put down, making a crib with an area nine feet deep, which had been filling in for a year " with the accidental accumulations of all manner of filth, street dirt, dead animals, etc.," and speaks of a similar condition at Exchange Slip, which was "the receptacle of an extensive common sewer." In the neighborhood of the docks were a large number of old wooden houses, many of which, built before the raising and paving of the streets, had their lower floors two or three feet below the surface of the pavements. This was especially the case at the extreme southern end of the island — in the first, second, and fourth wards, but well around on the East Side, near the water front, other offensive neighborhoods had grown up.

In such undesirable quarters, it would be natural to suppose, the immigrant population, owing to their poverty, if for no other reason, had to find their first homes. And there is direct testimony to show that they did so. Dr. Griscom, in describing the outbreak of yellow fever in 1795, says that "it prevailed on the borders of the East River, in the low streets, and what was formerly the swamp, and in the narrow alleys. A small part only of the citizens fled; most of them remained and pursued their occupations in the greater part of the city, with perfect safety." He then notes that of the 730 persons carried off by the epidemic, " at least 500 were foreigners (452 belonged to one Catholic congregation), most of whom had been so short a time in the country that the pastor, Rev. Mr. O'Brien, did not know them."

Immigration from 1806 to 1816 was unusually light, owing to disturbances caused by the wars of that period. In 1817, however, arrivals from foreign countries reached an unprecedented number,22,240 immigrants being recorded at the various ports of entry. In this year also the Erie Canal was begun, and that era of internal improvements inaugurated which called so many able-bodied laborers from abroad and spread them all over the country by the middle of
the forties.

Besides the able-bodied laborers, however, many of whom indeed remained to find work in the city instead of going to the country, came a considerable proportion of out-and-out paupers, who, almost to a man  and woman  stayed in the city to become a burden upon charity.

Mayor Colden, of New York, taking office in 1818, found it one of his earliest duties to aid in the establishment of a " Society for the Prevention of Pauperism," and stated in November, 1819, that, during the preceding twenty months, 18,930 foreign " emigrants " (as they were then called) had arrived in the city and been reported at his office.

Immigration at this time was mainly from Great Britain and Ireland. In 1820 immigrants from those countries made up 72 per cent of the total immigration, and of these by far the greater pro portion was Irish.

It is difficult to get definite information as to tenement conditions at this period. It is known, however, that a " cellar population " was in existence by 1822, as is shown by accounts of the "Bancker Street fever "; but in this quarter the cellar inhabitants were mainly colored people.

By 1827 immigration was increasing rapidly, and continued to increase, with some slight fluctuations, until 1834, when the total of arrivals at all ports was 67,948—about three times the number recorded for 1817. By this time a considerable German immigration
had begun. It is a significant coincidence that in this year of especially high immigration perhaps the first distinct complaint as to housing conditions in the city was made.

Gerritt Forbes, City Inspector of the Board of Health, in his report for the year, assigns as especial causes of the high death-rate, "intemperance, and the crowded and filthy state in which a great proportion of our population live," and speaks of " so many mercenary landlords who only contrive in what manner they can stow the greatest number of human beings in the smallest space."

By 1835 the sixth ward had evidently become the centre of the Irish immigrant population, and had entered upon its notorious history of violence, as is shown by the " Five Points Riot" of June 21, — "an Irish brawl," one historian calls it, arising out of an attempt to form a separate Irish regiment.

In an account of an epidemic of continued fever that broke out in 1837 in parts of the sixth, tenth, and fourteenth wards, it is noted that the cases occurred in the midst of a poor population, "principally Irish and German, whose habits . . . are more or less
filthy, and who live crowded together, with a family in every room in the house, and sometimes more." All cases occurred west of the Bowery, and it is noted that there was far greater crowding here than to the east of that street. All cases reported were in basements, or in first floors beneath which were neither basements nor cellars.


Website: The History
Article Name: Foreign Immigration and the Tenement House in NYC Part I
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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