The Tenement Dwellers 1909 Part I


As one goes down the side streets leading from the Bowery to the East River — almost any one of them will furnish illustration he notices many and increasing changes. The buildings are usually of brick with perhaps stone or terra-cotta trimmings, not small in proportions nor mean in entrances, but marred in appearance by many iron fire-escapes that descend in flights to the street. The fire-escapes are often littered with sorry-looking clothing, boxes, or cans; the blinds and doorposts are grimy with finger marks, the windows are dirty and often broken, and the steps and areaways are worn smooth with the shuffle of many feet. The streets are just as wide, and cleaned perhaps as often as the other streets of the city, but there are rows and rows of pushcarts that occupy the gutters, and the refuse from them makes the streets appear unkempt and uncared for.

Business after its kind goes on here as elsewhere, all sorts of shops are open, trucks rumble over the pavements, people come and go with bundles and baskets. And there is the same crowding and huddling of people as on Broadway, only more so. The East Side is possibly the most congested district in the world. Figures are forthcoming from sociologists to show how many hundreds live
on a block, or how many thousands live in a square mile of these tenements; but the passer-by does not need the figures. He can see for himself some thousands, at least, without leaving the curb. In warm weather the doorways exude humanity, and the windows fairly bulge with people. The protrusions of heads, arms, and elbows seem forced by the pressure of people from within. The fire-escapes and roof lines and cellar-areas hold their quota again. As for the streets, they are always full of half-grown children, while the sidewalks are more or less strewn with crawling babies. The stranger steps over them, and is lucky if he does not step on them. Always and everywhere are children, children, children.

The cross-streets running parallel with the Bowery —Orchard, Ludlow, Allen, Catherine, Market, or almost any other in that region are even worse than the side streets. Along them there are rows and rows of three-story buildings, with shops below and tenement quarters above, all somewhat the worse for wear, all hung with fire-escapes, all crowded and overflowing. Even the cellars are
sometimes occupied for living quarters in defiance of law. Occasionally there is an alley or small court that runs back or across the rear of the buildings, with its accumulation of rubbish and wretched out-houses where children play, and women sit, and thieves have their runways and hiding-places.

These are the tenements, where people gather by the scores in small, ill-ventilated rooms, and ply the sewing-machine, making cheap clothing. Men, women, and children work in these sweat-shops, eat there, sleep there. On almost every floor is the common hallway where people wash. Nothing is private. The inhabitants are tenants in common of all the liberty and all the license of the tenement.

In such rookeries, where dozens of families live in the same nest and each one is in the other one's way, there is a continual round of evil communication, foul talk, thieving, brawls, fights, and often murders. The respectable poor, cast there by temporary loss of work perhaps, begin to feel the contamination at once. In the acceptance of charity they lose self-respect, and, possibly, in a short time they are pauperized — quite willing to be helped and taken care of by others. The next step is vagrancy, with its attendant evils. Drink takes the place of food with the men and women, the young girls become depraved, the children frequent the alleys and the gutters rather than the schools. Degeneracy is swift and demoralization sure. It is almost impossible to uphold decency in such circumstances.

Then comes in disease to lend an added horror to the scene. Tuberculosis is in the lead; and all the train of ills contingent upon insufficient food, bad sanitation, foul air and evil habits, follow after. The small children bear the brunt of the attack, or rather they succumb to it ; but all classes feel it. In the winter, crowded in. small, ill-ventilated rooms for warmth, pneumonia ferrets them out; in summer, with the heat puffing in at the windows and the buzz of flies in the air, they are victims of intestinal troubles. Such a combination of miseries, such a welter of poverty, crime, and disease, make the well-to-do shudder, the charitable over-sympathetic and perhaps over-zealous, and the sociologists and settlement workers indignant. And not without cause.

This is not the place to thresh out the question of the tenements, and yet one cannot jump over it or push around it in a search for the picturesque or the commercial in New York. It comes up insistently with a " What can be done to stop the misery?" The charity organizations and the settlement workers have given answer, but it is not an altogether satisfactory answer. The substance of it is, Help the tenement dwellers to get on their feet, help them to get work, to live better, to be better mentally, morally, physically. Unfortunately, that is what a great many of them the paupers, the vagrants, the criminals do not want and will not have. Reclamation is something that even the socialist becomes pessimistic over at times. The outlook there is not encouraging.

Mr. Robert Hunter, a man of much experience, rather insists that government do its duty and  provide properly for the children, the sick, the crippled, the criminal, and also those in poverty. As regards the crippled and the helpless, whether old or young, everyone will agree that Mr. Hunter's remedy is the right one. For those who are merely pauperized or poverty-stricken perhaps the remedy is objectionable for no other reason than because it helps humanity. It is doubtful if people can be helped without harm resulting there from. A crutch is a convenient thing to lean upon, but how quickly it takes the place of a leg and renders the latter useless. What government has already done in schoolhouses, hospitals, almshouses, penitentiaries, Mr. Hunter deems insufficient. He would improve and better them, extend their scope and inclusion, make them more effective and comfortable. There it is again. Making things comfortable for people is to cripple their own exertions toward the same end. Carry their burdens, and they will let you carry to the end of the chapter.

Mr. Riis, another man of much experience with the slums and the tenements, has a different remedy. He would abolish the tenements, erect new and sanitary buildings with light and air, give the East Side family a chance at privacy and a home, and the children more schools, parks, and playgrounds. He insists that the tenement is the root of the evil, that it is badly constructed,
ill-ventilated, a hot-bed of crime and disease. He is quite right about the hot-bed, but is the building alone to blame? The same buildings housed respectable families in old New York fifty years ago, but there came from them neither murders nor contagions. Up town in the New York of to-day one finds scores of apartment-houses where there are small, half-dark bedrooms, opening
on narrow air-shafts, where people live (and pay high rents for the privilege) ; but again they do not produce crime or disease. Moreover, it should be noted that the situation has been greatly improved in the last five years by new tenements that are better types of housing in respect to light, ventilation, and general sanitary conditions, in conformity to new laws; but the East Side
remains practically the East Side. Is it the tenement that is so very bad, or is it the crowding of the tenants that produces the evil? If the East Side populace were transferred to the Central Park, with the blue sky only for a roof and fresh air all around, there would still crop out disease and crime from overcrowding. The military camp, and that too under strict discipline, often proves as much. The pleas for better homes, family privacy, children's playgrounds, more sunshine — in short, better living and greater comfort are, however, well made. A better living should be provided. But neither the charitably disposed, nor the landlord, nor the city
government, should provide it. The tenant should maintain himself and his family. Adversity is often galling, depressing, exhausting; but the breadwinner who emerges from it does so with more self-respect, a stronger will, a greater confidence, than ever. It is the making of the man.

But self-help, it is well argued, is not possible for all those on the East Side-- not possible at least within the city's limits. There are over a hundred thousand tenements and over a million of the poorer class of tenants in New York. There is hardly proper breathing space on the island for such a mass, to say nothing of comfortable homes and playgrounds. To improve the tenements, is perhaps a temporary makeshift. And besides, it results immediately in a new influx of tenants from without to take advantage of the improved conditions. The line of least resistance, whether it be a bread line or pleasant tenement conditions, is sure to be followed. The underlying evil of congestion is not even scotched.

To the cry of Mr. Riis, "Abolish the tenements!" there may be suggested an alternative. Why not abolish the tenants? Not all of them. There must, of course, be working people living in the city, and presumably there always will be factories to supply a large part of them with work, though perhaps they might better be located out of the town ; but there are certain undesirable
citizens, masquerading as "working people," who crowd the tenements and congest the city to the danger point, who might be eliminated from the problem, by forcing them to live elsewhere. Force (not necessarily physical) will be necessary, for of their own accord these people will not live outside the city. Rapid transit, a decent home in the country, plenty of fresh air and sunshine,
with steady work, have been tried and found to be without charm or interest for them. They prefer the crowded quarters of the town, with all their vice and squalor and misery and crime.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Tenement Dwellers 1909 Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The New New York, A Commentary on the Place and the People by John C. Van Dyke; The
Macmillan Company-New York 1909
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