The Tenement Dweller 1902


In his address before the Municipal Club Mr. Alfred T. White sturdily combated the idea that we had any class of citizens who preferred the evil state of the older tenements to such beneficent conditions as have been inaugurated, largely through his efforts, in this city. Mr. White has built model tenements for people who had before been housed in slums and hovels that disgraced the community. It was by many believed that they preferred the slums; that they were oblivious to their ugliness; that they breathed the bad air willingly because they had lost their sense of smell and did not know it to be had; that they did not appeal for light because, in their experience, light did not belong in a house; that they threw dirt and garbage about the halls and stairs and yards because it was the easiest way to dispose of such off-castings. And it is a fact that in some quarters of Manhattan the efforts for reform were regarded not merely by landlords but by the tenants with indifference, if not with opposition.

But such indifference and opposition resulted, not from preference for evil but from ignorance of good. Mr.. White, as a landlord, and as one building and conducting tenements for a profit, finds reason to believe that if a man has his choice between a clean, safe, orderly and attractive apartment and one which is dark, damp, miasmatic, and filled with signs of squalor, he will take the better. Of his own tenants 40 per cent. are laborers, 40 per cent. mechanics and the other 20 per cent, are porters, small clerks and people who rely on chance ways of earning their bread. His company is, therefore, a type of the average tenement company: perhaps not of the population of the meaner tenements, because those include beggars and other shady persons, and a considerable number of unassimilated immigrants.

Among all of his tenant he finds that there is an appreciation of encumbered stairs, windows that admit the light, running water in apartments, halls and yards that are swept and mopped, prompt removal of ashes and garbage, and even of the strange institution of the bathtub, which is alleged to have been viewed with wonder and aversion by early occupants of the reformed tenements of Manhattan, and even to have been converted to use as refrigerators and coal bins. it is pleasant and reassuring to learn of these things from one who speaks with authority, for it inspires a new trust in human nature. There are men and women so undeveloped in their tastes and uncivilized in their practices that one is forgiven for a half belief that they prefer darkness to light and the foulness and abomination of the slums to decency. Yet the instincts and tendencies of the race are toward the higher and better things.

That there would be less happy fortune for the poor had not law stepped in to shield them from their own ignorance and from the greed of house owners is certain. The increasing misery of the slums, the moral and sanitary danger which went out from them, compelled the attention of philanthropists and legislators, and in spite of the obstacles which have been put into the way of progress, the slum has almost disappeared. Certainly there are no quarters in Manhattan that correspond to the congeries of rookeries and dives that made Five Points notorious, and that filled the day with excitement in Bottle Alley, Hell's Kitchen and the Pail o Blood. The tenements now erected in Manhattan, though far from perfect, and in every instance inferior to the apartments that Mr.. White has built in Brooklyn, are safer, cleaner, more sightly and more comfortable than the shacks and barracks that held the poor before the passage of the recent tenement law. The more of good examples that are seen, the better conditions will become and the less of tolerance there will be for the mean, the dirty, the ugly and the unsafe in houses, as in other things. Citizens of this Republic must be housed as becomes men who have a part in shaping the destinies of the country, and their inherent worth and manhood must be recognized by those who have the housing in their charge.

Website: The History
Article Name: The Tenement Dweller 1902
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


Brooklyn Daily Eagle March 9, 1902
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