Tenement House System Evils: Needed Reform 1885


A small company of ladies and gentlemen assembled in the audience room in the Union for Christian Work building, No. 16 Smith street, last evening and listened with interest to an address on the evils of the present tenement house system by Charles F. Wingate, Esq. Mr. Wingate spoke under the auspices of the Sociologic Society, whose president, Mrs. Imogene C. Fales, presided. He said that the word sanitary was of very recent origin, and that it was not until Prince Albert died and his eldest son narrowly escaped death that the labors and theories of Florence Nightingale received their just share of attention. Since then England has expended more than $5,000,000 in the cause of sanitary reform and improvements. We have now to face the tenement house problem here. The question is a modern one. The cities of the ancients held no slums. They grew around castles, but our cities grow around factories. Tenement houses are the natural outgrowth of our building system piling in small space the largest buildings possible. Even in Philadelphia, where the small house has had the greatest trial, tenements have sprung up, inhabited by Italian and Hungarian families, until St. Marys and Alsatia streets hold dens unequalled even in crowded New York. It was only forty years ago that the first tenement found place in New York.

In 1860 there were 10,000 of them, and now there are 18,000 regular tenements in the city and 8,000 second class flats that are little better. All these are fertile hot beds of disease. Seventy per cent, of all illness in the Metropolis found its rise in the tenements. Of the 30,000 deaths last year, 13,000 were children under 5 years of age, and 8,000 infants under 1 year. Aside from health considerations, the moral consequences of a system where no privacy and little cleanliness are possible are beyond computation and greater than the physical woes. They are moral pest holes and must soon be cleaned out. The Christian aid societies do much to alleviate this, but they are but few against many. A good sister told me but yesterday that "it was like fighting a dead wall" to make progress among them. The "gangs" are a legitimate product of these houses, miscalled homes. Boys have no place to go, and take to the streets and the street speedily makes them what they are. I agree in this matter with an eminent Brooklyn judge, who said to me recently that to his mind our present school system was all wrong, and that the lack of industrial education was a great cause of crime.

It cost $1,000 to bring an infant to maturity, hence a human life has a corporative cash value, and this lost at every youthful death. The bulk of poor men's wages goes to paying doctors' bills. All this calls loudly for reform, but reform means a long, hard struggle. Stringent legislation and energetic personal effort can alone bring the right result. A few good people have bought old houses and made them good and clean here and in New York. It pays well__6 1/2 per cent., I am told. The best model tenements in the world are those erected by Mr. White in Brooklyn. They are most successful. But in crowded New York land costs so much that all room must be utilized, else the rent cost will be too great for the poor tenant. We ask why the poor do not leave the city. The reason is simple. We are encircled by a belt of unhealthy land, all cities seem to be. The near country is more unhealthy than the city. This is why Staten island and Fort Hamilton are isolated and Astoria known as Bankruptville. Hence, to accomplish this, we must first get land and then make it healthful. Sanitary leagues are springing up and we may hope for some near solution of the great problem.

Mrs. Fales also spoke briefly and read some statistics regarding tenements in England.

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Article Name: Tenement House System Evils: Needed Reform 1885
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


Brooklyn Daily Eagle January 22, 1885
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