The Poor Of New York 1868

 
 
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As we have said before, land for building purposes is very high and scarce in New York. In consequence of this, dwellings rent here for more than in other American cities. The laying off of the Central Park was a decided benefit to the city and its inhabitants, but the blessing had also its accompanying evil.

It reduced the "house room" of the island by eight hundred acres, which would have afforded comfortable accommodations for seventy-two thousand persons, and naturally crowded the lower quarters of the city to a still greater extent. A careful estimate has been made by the Sanitary Association of New York, and they report that with three fourths of the population there is an average of six families to every house.

The poorer classes are to be met with in all parts of the city, but they are most numerous along the East and North rivers, and between Fourteenth and Canal streets. The majority of them are, beyond a doubt, honest, and willing to work, and in times of great commercial activity nearly all can find some means of employment; but in dull seasons, when merchants and manufacturers are forced to discharge their employees, thousands are thrown out of work, and the greatest suffering and distress prevail in the poor districts. Besides these there are thousands of vagrants, drunkards, and disreputable persons, who would rather steal, or beg, than work, and whose misery is frightful.

We must not be understood as intimating that all who desire employment can procure it in New York. Indeed the contrary is the case. Labor and skill of almost every kind are in excess here. For every position of regular labor there are at least five applicants, so that four fifths of the poor have to resort to any and all means to maintain an honest existence. Some of these means it is our purpose to notice separately.

The Lowest Depths

You will see the extremes of poverty and want in and about the Five Points district. In the day time half-clad, filthy, emaciated creatures pass you on the gloomy streets, and startle you with the air of misery which they carry about them. At night these poor creatures huddle into cellars, so damp, foul, and pestilential that it seems impossible for a human being to exist in them. The walls are lined with "bunks," or "berths," and the woodwork and bedding is alive with vermin; the floors are covered with wretched beds in a similar condition. The place is either as dark as midnight, or dimly lighted with a tallow dip. Sometimes a stove, which only helps to poison the atmosphere, is found in the place, sometimes a pan of coals, and often there is no means of warmth at hand. Men, women, and children crowd into these holes, as many as thirty being found in some of them. They pay a small sum to the wretch who acts as landlord, for the privilege of receiving this shelter from the cold night. The sexes are mingled carelessly, and the grossest indecency prevails. The air is loaded with blasphemy and curses, and is heavy with such foul odors that one unaccustomed to it cannot remain five minutes in the place.

The attics of the lowest class of tenement houses are no better than these cellars. They are colder, and more exposed to the elements, but the suffering in them is no greater.

Tenement Houses

The scarcity of land in the city has led to the construction of numbers of buildings known as "Tenement Houses." These are large edifices, containing many rooms and, often, as many families. They abound chiefly in the Tenth, Eleventh, and Seventeenth Wards. The majority of persons living in these houses are foreigners. "It is not to be inferred, however, that it is poverty only that causes such dense settlement, since a spirit of economy and frugality manifests itself among these people, which forbids too much expenditure for the high rents charged, or for much riding on the railroads." Still, whatever may be the causes which lead persons to herd together in such buildings, the effect is the same in all cases. The neighborhood becomes dirty and unhealthy, and the buildings themselves perfect pest-houses. Some of them are neat and tasteful in their exteriors, others are vile and filthy all over.

They are now generally built for this purpose. As pecuniary investments they pay well, the rents sometimes yielding thirty-five per cent. on the investment. The following description will convey a fair idea of them to the reader. One of the houses stands on a lot with a front of fifty feet, and a depth of two hundred and fifty feet. It has an alley running the whole depth on each side of it. These alley-ways are excavated to the depth of the cellars, arched over, and covered with flag stones, in which, at intervals, are open gratings to give light below; the whole length of which space is occupied by water closets, without doors, and under which are open drains communicating with the street sewers. The building is five stories high, and has a flat roof. The only ventilation is by a window, which opens against a dead wall eight feet distant, and to which rises the vapor from the vault below. There is water on each floor, and gas pipes are laid through the building, so that those who desire it can use gas. The building contains one hundred and twenty-six families, or about seven hundred inhabitants. Each family has a narrow sitting-room, which is used also for working and eating, and a closet called a bed room. But few of the rooms are properly ventilated.

The sun never shines in at the windows, and if the sky is overcast the rooms are so dark as to need artificial light. The whole house is dirty, and is filled with the mingled odors from the cooking-stoves and the sinks. In the winter the rooms are kept too close by the stoves, and in the summer the natural heat is made tenfold greater by the fires for cooking and washing. Pass these houses on a hot night, and you will see the streets in front of them filled with the occupants, and every window choked up with human heads, all panting and praying for relief and fresh air. Sometimes the families living in the close rooms we have described, take "boarders," who pay a part of the expenses of the "establishment." Formerly the occupants of these buildings emptied their filth and refuse matter into the public streets, which in these quarters were simply horrible to behold; but of late years, the police, by compelling a rigid observance of the sanitary laws, have greatly improved the condition of the houses and streets, and consequently the health of the people. The reader must not suppose the house we have described is a solitary instance. There are many single blocks of dwellings containing twice the number of families residing on Fifth Avenue, on both sides of that street, from Washington Square to the Park, or than a continuous row of dwellings similar to those on Fifth Avenue, three or four miles in length. There is a multitude of these squares, any of which contains a larger population than the whole city of Hartford, Connecticut which covers an area of seven miles.  There is one single house in the city which contains twelve hundred inhabitants.

Fallen Fortunes

You will see all classes of people in these tenement houses, and, amongst others, persons who have known wealth and comfort. Alas! that it should be so. You will see them stealing along quickly and noiselessly, avoiding the other inmates with an aversion they cannot conceal, and as if they fear to be recognized by some one who knew them in their better days. If they can get work, they take it gladly and labor faithfully. If unable to procure it, they suffer, and often starve in silence. Only when driven by the direst necessity do they seek aid from charitable persons or associations. There are many of these men and women, persons of worth and refinement, in the great city, whose poverty and sufferings are known only to the eye that sees all things.


A Romance Of A Chignon

Many a fine lady, as she pauses in her toilette to admire the effect of the beautiful locks, for which she is indebted to her wealth rather than to nature, would shrink in horror from the glittering coils, could she know their whole story. We will tell it.

A poor sewing girl, whose only riches consisted of a "wealth of hair," died in a tenement house in one of the most wretched quarters of the city. Her life had been a fearful struggle against want and temptation, and death was a relief to her. She died alone, in her miserable home, with no one to minister to her last wants. Her death became known to the inmates of the house, who notified the city authorities. Preparations were made to lay the body in the "Potter's field," and until these were completed it was left in the silence and loneliness of the chamber which had witnessed its mortal sufferings. While it lay there, the door was noiselessly opened, and a man, roughly dressed, with his face partly concealed, entered, glancing around carefully to see if he was noticed. Then closing the door quickly, he approached the body, and produced a pair of large shears; lifting the lifeless form roughly with one hand, with the other he severed the long tresses quickly from the cold head, and gathering them up, departed as noiselessly as he had come, taking with him the only source of happiness the dead woman had ever possessed. The braid was sold for a mere trifle to a fashionable hair-dresser, who asked no questions concerning it, and when it was seen next, it was worn by some fine lady, who, in, her thoughtless vanity, never paused to consider its history.

 

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: The Poor Of New York 1868
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina

Source:

 BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Secrets of the Great City: A Work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, the Mysteries, Miseries and Crimes of New York City, by James Dabney McCabe (aka Edward Winslow Martin) Published: Philadelphia, Chicago, Jones Brothers & Co., 1868
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