Foreign Immigration and the Tenement House in NYC Part VI

by Kate Holladay Claghorn
In the Italian immigration, following the advance guard of rag pickers and organ-grinders, came a vast army of unskilled day laborers practically the same class that the early Irish immigration afforded.

It is, probably, due somewhat to remembrances of the organ-grinding period, that our impression of the Italian is of an idle, roving vagabond. But to-day the laboring class makes up the great majority of the Italian immigrant population, and on the streets and railroads, and in construction work of all kinds, is taking the place occupied by the Irish forty years ago. The Italian laborer and his family may be said, indeed, to be more steady and sober, more provident, more generally reliable than their Irish predecessors. Untidy in their habits they undoubtedly are, although not so much so as the rag-pickers who preceded them. But landlords bear testimony to their promptness in paying rent, and to their general good care of the premises they occupy that is, to the absence of the special gift of destructiveness that seemed to incite the Irish tenant to break everything breakable about a place.

There are not wanting indications to show that the Italian immigrant population will not be the dead weight in our tenement districts that they have been thought likely to be. While the newly arrived immigrant is a day laborer, or a peddler, his son is likely to want to be something else. Italians are found keeping small shops in every quarter of the city, for fruit, wine, groceries, candy, ice cream, etc. They keep cafes and restaurants and dry-goods stores; are shoemakers, watchmakers, and barbers. The Italian boot-black has distinctly elevated his occupation, bringing to it better appointments, a higher standard of work, and a certain pride in keeping up to standards that makes this almost an artistic profession. Even the fruit peddlers "compose" their wares in harmonies of color and arrangement that show an instinct of order and beauty which must certainly come to something under favoring circumstances.

The young Italians, boys and girls, are going into factories like the boys and girls of any other race; the boys are found in business offices in increasing numbers; the girls are going into department stores, dressmaking and tailoring establishments, and so on. Many Italian families have moved out of the city altogether, to suburban places, where they buy property and become prosperous in much the fashion of the Germans before them. Many such families are to be found in many Long Island and Westchester villages.

The Hebrew immigrant, like the Italian, is poor, is unclean in his personal habits, will submit to excessive overcrowding when he first comes over; but, like the Italian, he is industrious, saving, careful of property. He may in general be counted on to pay rent, but not so certainly, perhaps, as the Italian.

The Italian immigrants are, when they come here, little given to drink or violence ; the Hebrews even less so. And the Hebrew, like the Italian, is distinctly on the upward road. It is a common saying among those who are familiar with them that in ten years the Hester' Street family has moved up on Lexington Avenue.

Owing partly to accident, partly to differences in racial character, the Italian and Hebrew demands for housing have been met in a somewhat different way. Italians have found their way largely into the parts of the city previously occupied by the Irish the fourth, sixth, eighth, and fourteenth wards, and have established themselves in the old " front and rear " tenement already abandoned by their Irish occupants, or about to be abandoned in consequence of the incoming of this new people. The Hebrews, on the other hand, are especially associated with the big "double-decker" or "dumb-bell" tenement These houses were erected in great numbers on the East Side, which was not so fully taken up with the old type of tenement as the wards entered by the Italians; and here the Hebrews made their way, pushing out the Germans as the Italians were pushing out the Irish. In 1892 Vast numbers of Hebrews landed here, in consequence of the persecutions in Russia; and the stream has continued in great volume ever since. And since 1892 great numbers of the big "dumb-bells" have been erected, replacing the smaller dwellings, which simply could not, by any degree of crowding, be made to hold the incoming thousands. Colonies both of Italians and Hebrews have been started in Harlem, and there the " dumb-bells " have been erected for both races.

There is a noticeable demand on the part of both Hebrews and Italians, however, for a better class of housing, as is shown by the erection of more expensive tenements almost "apartment houses " in appearance in the fourth ward and elsewhere. The standard of life of both races seems to rise duly, when opportunity permits. An investigator into economic conditions in tenement families testified before the Tenement House Commission of 1894 that among the results of a statistical canvass of 600 families on the East Side, appeared the fact that an increase in wage marked a decrease in density of overcrowding in every case.

One drawback to improving conditions in tenement house life for the Hebrews has been their peculiar devotion to the occupation of tailoring to the "sweat-shop system." This is also growing among the Italians more among deserted or widowed women, as a stopgap occupation, however, than among the men as a regular trade, as it is seen among the Hebrews. But it is noticeable how few of the younger generation are going into this occupation. In time, then, it may be supposed that this particular form of occupation, with the evil conditions depending on it, will be outgrown a process which may be materially hastened by proper sanitary laws and the proper enforcement of them.

Both Hebrews and Italians show their growing share in the general prosperity by the rise of many of them to the rank of sub-landlords and landlords. Many if not most of the large tenement houses now going up for the accommodation of Jewish immigrants
are erected by Jewish speculators who, in many cases, themselves began life in this country in the tenements. And Italian tenement house property is largely owned by Italians of a similar class.

There can be no possible doubt that the tenement house exerts a positively harmful effect upon these newly arriving peoples, who are, in the main, honest, industrious, and temperate.

In the first place, it works to break down the fairly vigorous health that they bring with them. Dr. Griscom, in his " Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Laboring People " in 1845, set forth very strongly the loss to a state involved in the debilitation of vigor in its laboring classes. As he found it, so now, it is impossible to show, in a brief report, anything conclusive as to this loss based upon death-rates. It seems fairly well agreed upon, however, that the Hebrews who come here have a remarkable tenacity of life, but are rapidly becoming tubercular from their occupations, and life in the tenement " house combined; that of the Italians, the few coming here from city slums appear to stand the conditions well enough, but the vast majority, who are from the country, feel the effects of the change very greatly. The adult laborer, with his outdoor occupation, gets along fairly well; but the children show a decided tendency to anemia and rickets.

The most serious evil is wrought by bringing sober, decent, orderly people, as most of the new immigrants are, in contact, in the tenement house, with the corrupted remnant of an earlier generation. Not until very lately have the Jews and Italians been street-walkers and rowdies. With everything arranged to favor their becoming so, it is no wonder that some fall into the traps laid for them. In the "Big Flat" of notoriously evil memory was to be seen this mixture of races, this mingling of good and bad.

In this house, six stories high, on the first floor, as described in 1886, were " rooms for fourteen families, and they are mostly occupied by low women and street-walkers. . . . The hallways are hang-outs for all the hoodlums of the neighborhood. . . . You will never see any of the tenants living above the second floor standing around the lower floor or doors." The quiet, respectable people referred to as living on the upper floors were largely Polish Jews. The anything but respectable inhabitants of the lower floors were of native birth, if a record of arrests made in that building is any indication.


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