Problem of City Living 1886


The problem of how to live decently and economically is equally as worthy of consideration as any question which at present engages the attention of our social economists. No better ground for its solution could be found than in the midst of the enormous population which covers Manhattan island, overflows the western limits of Long island and the neighboring coast of new jersey. Within this territory reside over 2,500,000 people. Land in New York City appreciates in value at an astonishing rate and expensive residences, large stores and tenements are rapidly crowding out small houses suitable to the needs of the laboring classes. There are in all 104,250 buildings in New York City, and of these 81,255 are dwellings, of which 48,679 are each occupied by from two to ten families or more, or an average of thirty persons to each dwelling. Only 15,000 individual families out of a population of 1,500,000 own and live in first class houses, and so great is the crowding that in certain portions of the city as many as 1,600 people dwell in a square acre.

The natural remedy for this overcrowding in New York is found in the adjacent territory of Brooklyn, Staten island and the neighboring cities of new Jersey. Brooklyn, on account of its closeness to New York and the improved facilities of transit, affords the most acceptable outlet for the surplus population of the Metropolis. But notwithstanding the fact that rents are more reasonable, and that there are more dwellings in Brooklyn than in New York, yet a careful study of the figures representing Brooklyn's yearly increase in population and houses will show that the supply of new homes is insufficient to meet the demands of the annual quota of arrivals in our midst. As it is, 780,000 people are housed in 87,576 buildings, showing an average of nine persons to each dwelling. Upon examining the figures of Brooklyn's building department for last year it will be found that there were 3,298 permits granted. Of these 1,198 were for buildings three story and over in height, accommodating 5,000 people and commanding an average rental of $75 per month; 850 were two story and basement, accommodating 4,250 persons and commanding an average rental of $40 a month; 467 were two story, accommodating 1,868 persons and commanding a rental of $30 and upward per month: 457 were stores and dwellings combined, accommodating 1,828 persons, commanding a rental of $80 and upward per month, leaving 326 one story houses and tenements at a rental of less than $80 per month to accommodate the balance of their annual increase in population.

It has been calculated that Brooklyn grows at the rate of 35,000 souls annually, of which number 10,000 represents the annual plurality of births over deaths, and the balance arrivals from other cities and countries. The 10,000 births find accommodations in existing households, and the balance, 25,000, must be provided with homes. Of this number, as shown above, 13,846 can accommodate themselves in 2,972 new houses and pay a monthly rental of from $30 to $150. The remaining 11,154, who do not desire to pay over $30 per month for houses, must crowd into the 326 new one story and tenement houses constructed annually, thus allowing 34 persons to each house, or find homes in the already overcrowded older tenements.

Another feature of our growth as a city is the direction of the building. Of the 3,298 dwellings constructed last year, nearly 3,000 were in the outlying wards, from two to six miles from the ferries, and the balance, erected in the wards bordering on the water front, was composed of a large majority of dwellings over two stories in height, commanding high rents.

The conclusion to be drawn from these figures is that Brooklyn, like New York, is sadly in need of cheap and wholesome dwellings. Not that there are not enough houses to supply tenants who desire to pay a monthly rental of $30 or over, but that there is a lack of convenient houses to be had at a rental of less than $30. At the present high price of ground in New York and Brooklyn it is doubtful if any number of small, cheap houses for the accommodation of persons of small means will ever be constructed. Suburban homes divorce their occupants from the advantages of good schools, churches, etc., which abound in large cities, entail an additional expense in going to and from their places of business and b y no means afford relief or give satisfaction to people who desire to live within a moderate distance of their occupations.

The result of investigation leads a large majority of the working people to secure homes in the city and, as their circumstances are necessarily limited, let us see how and where they may domesticate themselves. How will the widow, who has lived in the midst of plenty, but is now reduced in means, with a large family left to her care, manage her trust? To her prudent management the youngest must look for clothing, food and a few of the benefits of free education. The older boy and girl, who rise early top go to their work, depend upon her for a cheerful home. And how is she, with all these burdens and without other visible aid, able to supply a home near her children's work which shall furnish a fraction of the comforts which the word home implies? If she is willing to pay over $30 a month a home in one of the outlying wards or an older house nearer the center of business can be had. But this means a large supply of furniture and a multitude of expenses which go hand in hand with the management of even a moderate sized house. If she seeks something less than $30 in a neighborhood accessible to schools and her children's work, she must be content with a dingy house tenement or floor, often infested with vermin, illy- lighted, poorly ventilated, with defective plumbing and drainage, cheerless surroundings, or marred by one or more of the defects which render life in cheap houses and squalid tenements a blot in our American civilization. And what is true of the widow with a dependent family equally applies to the tradesman who seeks to save his money with a view of increasing his capital, or the clerk who is desirous of saving something from his small earnings, in order to render old age more comfortable, or the great body of business men who desire homes at moderate rents, and whose families are highly cultivated, and would appreciate the advantages of a pleasant home, or to a still larger class whose needs are evident to none but themselves, but who would gladly embrace an opportunity to secure a comfortable home on easy terms and thus avoid the worry incident to living in houses which their circumstances do not warrant them in occupying.

In London apartment houses have afforded great relief, and the fact that thousands of disgraceful tenements have been torn down, that landlords pay more attention to the cleanliness and conveniences of their houses; that, notwithstanding scores of natural drawbacks, the city possesses the smallest death rate of any of the large cities of the world, and that within the past decade there has been a remarkable decrease both in poverty and crime, are significant results, traceable, we believe, largely to the construction of successful apartment houses. The erection of these houses both in London and other parts of Europe has been characterized by a general desire to abstain from all methods which would tend to pauperize tenants and lead them to look upon their homes as a piece of charity. Even the great Peabody fund, which was given with the primary intention of relieving the condition of the poor, has been construed by the trustees (with the subsequent sanction of the donor) to mean the working poor. Ample proof of the wisdom of this decision is found in the last report of the trustees of the fund, which shows that the original donation of 500,000 now affords homes for 18,000 people in over 10,000 rooms: that the annual income is over 80,000, and that new buildings are being yearly erected.

Mr. Charles Pratt of this city, has, in the midst of generous donations to churches, schools and other institutions, found time to practically and thoroughly solve the problem of supplying homes for the large class of people enumerated above and relieving the want and distress incidental with a need of home conveniences. In his efforts to thoroughly master the perplexing requirements he has spared neither time nor expense. it was necessary to exercise great caution before taking steps which would involve not only the expenditure of a large sum of money but also the success of Workingmen's homes in this country, and his architects have completely canvassed the subject and made an exhaustive study of the London apartment houses erected through the generosity of George Peabody, Baroness Burdett-Coutts, Sir Sidney Waterlow and others, beside carefully examining the work of Continental Europe and our own country in this direction. His aim has been to secure the most complete comfort at a minimum cost, and his decision has been in favor of a well constructed, centrally located apartment house. The construction of the building was given in charge of the Morris Building Company, who have devoted more than two years to the arrangement of plans.

The structure which is now rapidly nearing completion is known as the Astral Apartments and is situated on Franklin street, in Greenpoint, in the midst of a large population, having all the elevating influences of schools, churches and recreation grounds near at hand. it is within a few minutes walk of the Tenth and Twenty-third street ferries from New York, and is accessible to Fulton Ferry and Brooklyn Bridge by means of the Greenpoint street cars which pass along Franklin street. The building occupies a plot of land in the highest portion of Greenpoint and possesses the advantages of a central, healthy location, natural drainage and good gravel soil. It is six stories in height, of the massive round style of architecture and has a frontage of 200 feet on Franklin street, 135 feet on India street and 75 feet on Java street. Brown stone is the construction material to the under sills of the first story, also in the central facade on Franklin street and together with terra cotta, is used in the ornamentation of the doors, windows and cornices. Elsewhere the edifice is composed of brick and attracts the eye by the refinement and elegance of design. The noble Norman archways which characterize the magnificent Tiffany mansion on Madison avenue, New York, have been used in the construction of the six entrances, three of which are on Franklin, two on India and one on Java street. The whole structure is surmounted by an artistic cornice of brick and terra cotta, and gables supporting massive bordering chimneys.

On entering the building it will be found that the perfection of the exterior design does not surpass the completeness and utility of the Interior construction. The most desirable features of the best houses are found here__an admirable light, thorough ventilation, ample sanitary arrangements and entire security from the dangers of fire. The one striking feature is that by means of rear extensions twenty-four feet deep, separated by fourteen feet of clear space and extending from the base tot he roof, every room in the immense structure contains at least one window, and light shafts and similar accessories to illy- lighted and poorly ventilated houses are thus rendered unnecessary, an attainment which has never been equaled in a structure of its size in t his country. Six wide staircases constructed of stone between substantial fire walls separate the apartments into distinct sections; in the front and rear of each staircase openings extending from the bottom to the top of the building and fitted with buttoned windows to be removed in the Summer and permitted to swing in the Winter furnish unexcelled means of general ventilation and light. Separate hallways lead tot he several apartments which, on examination, are found to number 120 in all, consisting of from three to five rooms each, and intended to accommodate both small and large families. The several apartments are supplied with ample closet room; some have as many as two bay windows, and all have access to one of the six large dumb waiters, placed in brick shafts and having iron doors on each floor. In the cooking department the system in vogue in similar structures in England has been utilized. A large living room is connected with a completely furnished scullery, supplied with a sink, a coal box, a range, a swinging work table, a set of wash trays, beside access to a water closet. Every one of the latter is directly supplied with outside air and light, and the chimneys are made so as to furnish direct ventilation to each closet. The shafts descending to the basement serve to remove all the refuse, such as ashes, dust, etc., and the plumbing is so arranged as to be readily exposed for inspection and cleaning.

Three general features, on account of the thoughtfulness exercised in their creation, attract immediate admiration. In the basement on the India street side is a reading and lecture room, 38x44 feet, open from front to rear, thus affording excellent light and ventilation, and fitted with a huge fireplace in terra cotta, intended to give it a homelike appearance. This will undoubtedly prove one of the most valuable adjuncts to this magnificent structure and enhance the value of every apartment. On the two front corners of the ground floor large spaces are allotted for the accommodation of stores, to be managed on the co-operative plan, the net receipts of which are to be applied to the reduction of the price of rents. Similar stores in like apartment houses in England when managed on strictly business principles have proved valuable features in their management. In the rear of the building 8,000 square feet of ground will serve as an excellent playground, where the children can always be safe from the dangers of the street and under the watchful eyes of their mothers. Beside the fire protection afforded by the walls of the building fire escapes, connecting each story with the ground, afford ample means of egress in case of fire. A driveway on the Java street side enables coal and provisions to be brought into the rear of the building and be deposited in the basement, which is divided into spaces for the use of the several tenants.

The general conclusion formed from a careful examination of the building, its location and accessibility, its lighting, ventilating, plumbing and sanitary arrangements, together with a study of the plans, which show a multitude of thoughtful details, is that the Astral Apartments is the most perfect type of an apartment house in the world. The estimated cost of the site and the building will be from $250,000 to $275,000 and the price of rentals is intended to range from $12 to $30.

The building was erected by Van Dolsen & Arnott, under the constant supervision of Messrs. Lamb & Rich, of New York, with Mr. E.L. Roberts as consulting architect.

To Mr. Pratt's enterprise and munificence the community is indebted for what will undoubtedly prove the first successful low priced yet first class apartment house in this vicinity. The erection of similar structures throughout Brooklyn and New York would do more toward a practical solution of the Labor problem than thousands of pages of theory and hours of advisory addresses. Give the workingman and woman a chance to save a portion of their hardly earned wages, and they will find means for educating their children and improving their personal welfare. Charge moderate rents for attractive homes and enable them to secure a few of the benefits of life, and Socialism and anarchy and the thousand and one evils which follow in the train of dissatisfaction will be obliterated.



Website: The History
Article Name: Problem of City Living 1886
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle December 5, 1886
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