Foreign Immigration and the Tenement House in NYC Part V

by Kate Holladay Claghorn

Between 1871 and 1880, for the first time, immigrants from Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Poland appeared as a noticeable element in immigration, all three groups together, however, making up only 6 1/2 per cent of the whole. From 1881 to 1890 they were 18 per cent of all arrivals — nearly one-fifth; and between 1890 and 1900 were almost one-half — 48 per cent to be exact — while Irish, British, Germans, and Scandinavians together made up 42 per cent.

In 1898-1899 immigrants from Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Russia (including Finland), were 65 per cent of all immigrants; in 1899-1900 68 1/2 per cent; while British, Irish, Germans, and Scandinavians together were only 27 per cent in the former year and 22 per cent in the latter year.

The three newer elements just named, Italians, Austro-Hungarians, and Russians, not only made their first noticeable appearance together in approximately equal numbers, but have maintained a tolerably equal proportion ever since, with a tendency on the part of the Italians to outstrip the others.

The real race composition of the newer immigrants, however, is more or less concealed under the nomenclature formerly used in the statistics of immigration, and still used in the United States Census, which shows country of birth only. The terms " Russian" and "Pole," for example, cover Hebrews and Slavs indiscriminately. "Austrian" and " Hungarian" may indicate any one of many races of the most diverse social affinities — Slavs, Magyars, Hebrews, and Germans. The classification now used in statistics of immigration shows distinctions of race as well as country of birth, and thus gives a clearer idea of the actual changes that have taken place in the character of immigration in these later years, and the social effects to be looked for.

According to these figures, in the year ending June 80, 1900, the Irish made up only 8 per cent of all arrivals, Germans (including a considerable proportion from Austria and Russia) and Scandinavians together, 14 per cent, while 13 1/2 per cent of the arrivals were Hebrews, 22 1/2 per cent Italians, and 25 per cent of the various Slavic rates.

These newer races have been affecting housing conditions each in its own manner. As has already been pointed out, a large proportion of all of our immigrants enter the country through the port of New York. The table on page 82 shows how high a proportion now come in that way as compared with earlier years, when immigration was more largely Irish, British, and German.

Italians are regarded as more or less a floating population in the city, both because of their supposed habit of going home to Italy when employment is hard to find here, and because they migrate into and out of the city in bands, as there is call for their work there or elsewhere. But large numbers of them are in New York at all times, in transit or permanently. Census statistics for the past three decades show just how far this changing volume of immigration has been affecting the racial composition of the city's population.

It will be seen, then, that the main factors in immigration of to-day, as affecting the housing problem in New York City, are the Italians and the Hebrews. Italians were noticeable elements of population in the sixth ward, the quarter of the Five Points, as far back as 1864. The early comers were largely rag-pickers and organ-grinders, and many children were brought here under padroni to beg, to shine boots and shoes, and sell newspapers, or to go about with the hand-organ in the streets.

Between 1879 and 1885 frequent mention is made of Italian neighborhoods in the northern part of the fourteenth ward, just below Houston Street. A colony in Jersey Street, running from Crosby Street to Mulberry, just south of Houston, and now completely
occupied by business blocks, was especially noticed. It is thus described in 1884: — "

In Jersey Street exist two courtyards, one of which we illustrate. Six three-story houses are in each. These houses are old, and long ago worn out. They are packed with tenants, rotten with age and decay, and so constructed as to have made them very
undesirable for dwelling purposes in their earliest infancy. The Italians who chiefly inhabit them are the scum of New York chiffonniers, and as such, saturated with the filth inseparable from their business. . . . The courtyard swarms with, in daytime, females in the picturesque attires of Genoa and Piedmont, moving between the dirty children. The abundant rags, paper, sacks, burrows, barrels, wash-tubs, dogs, and cats, are all festooned overhead by clothes-lines weighted with such garments as are only known in Italy. Sorting is chiefly done indoors, but at times a rag-picker may be seen at his work in any convenient spot to be had. ... In each yard live twenty-four families (nominally only, because lodgers here as elsewhere are always welcome), paying rents of from $6 to $9 monthly for two rooms, the inner one being subdivided by a partition consisting perhaps of a simple curtain, and measuring, when so arranged, about 5x6 feet each."

An earlier report of the same society, made in 1879, gives the following additional touches of description : — "

Here in the yard of No. 5 Jersey Street, on lines strung across, were thousands of rags hung up to dry; on the ground, piled against the board fences, rags mixed with bones, bottles, and papers; the middle of the yard covered with every imaginable variety of dirt . . .We then turned to go into the cellars, in which was a large and a small room (containing a cook-stove and sleeping-bunks). There was scarcely standing room for the heaps of bags and rags, and right opposite to them stood a large pile of bones, mostly having meat on them in various stages of decomposition. . . . Notwithstanding the dense tobacco smoke, the smell could be likened only to that of an exhumed body."

As to the character of the people living there, this earlier report says: — "

Jersey Street at first sight looks like a pestilence-breeding, law-breaking colony. A more intimate acquaintance with it, and a few words with one or two white and colored inhabitants, confirmed the first but not the second impression; no more peaceable, thrifty, orderly neighbors could be found than these Italians. They do not beg, are seldom or never arrested for theft, are quiet; though quick to quarrel among themselves, are equally ready to forgive. The officer on duty mentioned that this colony, numbering, perhaps, two hundred Italian families, cannot be matched by any similar number, of corresponding social condition, in New York City, for their law-abiding qualities. He seemed quite proud of them."

The description of a house in Crosby Street in 1879 shows again, as was already shown in 1842, how the economically inferior race — in this case the newer immigrant — is pushed into the rear tenement; and shows also, incidentally, how the Irish family of the second generation rivaled — we should judge by the description, surpassed —the Italian family of new arrival in filth, certainly in disorder: — "

No. — Crosby Street, a very low class of tenement house, bearing a bad reputation. The visitor for the section stated that it was the worst house and inhabited by the worst people he had ever met with, and that having refused relief to some of the tenants, he was afraid to enter it. ... Four buildings, two front and two rear, each six stories high, stood separated by a yard about twenty feet in width.

The rear buildings are occupied exclusively by Italians, all rag pickers, the front by Irish and a few Germans. An investigation of the front house revealed a shocking amount of dirt; in some instances the floors were invisible under the refuse and garbage.
One family represented the mother as out at work, though I afterwards learned she was in her bedroom drunk, while the youngest daughter, half nude, was sitting on the floor fairly surrounded by dirt, and the eldest, as she answered my questions, held her hand
over her nose, which I could see was bruised and bleeding."

It hardly needs to be pointed out how closely these descriptions of the early type of Italian immigrants parallel what was told us of the German "chiffonnier" population of the forties and fifties; and yet to-day the German is looked upon as so many degrees higher in the scale than the Italian that any likeness in original condition between " the two is usually overlooked.


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