A Great Evil In The City: The New York Tenement System 1887


A number of gentlemen called upon Acting Mayor Beekman yesterday for the purpose of placing before him facts in relation tot he bad condition of the tenement houses in New York City. Among those present were Charles F. Mingate, who acted as spokesman; James P. Archibald, of D.A. 49 K. Of L.; Justus O. Wood, president of the Working-Women's Protective Union; James Crotty, president of the National Organization of Journeymen Plumbers; Edward Farrell, walking delegate of the Jouneymen Plumbers' Union, and Edward McCabe, of the same organization: Rev. Charles B. Spaer, of the Christian Union; Professor David de Leon, of Columbia College; H. Labouscher, of the Law Committee of the United Labor Party, and James Galatin, counsel for the Board of State Charities. Mr. Beekman received the gentlemen in the Mayor's private office, and he devoted over two hours in listening tot he testimony which was presented.

In his opening address Mr. Wingate told of the investigations he had been making during the past few weeks and presented for the Mayor's inspection several maps which he had prepared showing the location of the tenement houses which were in a bad sanitary condition.

He said in speaking about the matter: "The tenement house system has grown to be a great evil in this city. Its influences are destructive to the health and morals of the people and it assails the sanctity of the home and family. Three-fourths of the working population of New York live in tenement houses and it is incumbent upon the authorities to see that the laws are properly enforced so that the condition of these abodes will be such that the health of the people will be protected. There is abundant legal authority to prevent these places from being overcrowded and the plumbing put in good order. The Board of Health has the power to enforce the law, but they do not do it. When complaints have been made to them about different places, for some reason, no attention has been paid to them. During my investigations my attention was called to the block of tenements commencing at 540 East Sixteenth street. These buildings have had the highest death rates of any buildings in the city for years. In the rear are a number of buildings not over 21 feet from the front houses, and in the yard room are filthy closets, the stench from which is sickening. The drainage is poor, there is not sufficient ventilation, the cellars are full of water and filth, and the drainage pipes are broken and out of order. On each floor there are five and six families."

Mr. Wingate read letters from Rev. Dr. W.S. Rainsford, of St. George's Church and Rev. J.O. Huntington, of the Holy Cross Mission, in relation to the condition of these buildings.

Mr. Crotty stated that he and several gentlemen visited the houses on East Sixteenth street yesterday, and examined the sanitary arrangements. They found that the places were unsafe and in a terrible condition.

Walking Delegate Farrell told of his experiences in tenement houses during the last five year. He said that he had made numberless complaints to the Board of health, but few of them had been investigated, and he further remarked that not 20 per cent. of the tenement houses in the city were fit to live in. The owners of the buildings were never prosecuted if they violated the law, and the sanitary inspectors, whose duty it was to see that the laws were enforced, did not attend to their duties properly. Among the thirty-five inspectors there wore only two practical plumbers, the remaining thirty-three being broken down doctors and lawyers who knew very little about drainage and were kept in their positions through political influence.

James Degnan of the Sewing Machine Salesmen's Association described the scenes he had witnessed in the tenement houses while he was attending to his business and said:

"I wish to call the attention of the authorities to the tenement at 90 Mott street and 47 Elizabeth street, commonly known as the big flat. This building has in it hundreds of people who are living in squalor and poverty. The worst kind of immorality and crime exists here, and it is a general resort for the most desperate of the criminal classes. This building should be torn down. Not far away from here, at 45 Grand street, is another pest hole, and also at 196 South Fifth avenue. All over the city numberless cases similar to those I have mentioned exist. Last week I had occasion to go into a tenement on East Seventy-first street. On the top floor I met a widow lady in destitute circumstances. She owed my firm a bill, and when I asked her why she could not pay she said her baby was dead. A terrible stench pervaded the whole place. She pointed tot he place where the child was. It was placed on a chair in the center of the room and the body was fast decomposing. She said that it had died of measles, and that this disease, as well as scarlet fever, was raging among the children in the house. The reason of this was on account of the bad sewerage and the filthy condition of the building. Such black spots on the face of the city are a disgrace to humanity and works injury to the whole people."

A number of other gentlemen told what they knew about the matter and urged the Acting mayor to take some steps to bring about a reform and compel the Board of health to do its duty.

In reply, Mr. Beekman thanked the gentlemen for laying the matter before the Mayor, and said: "I have made a close study of the condition of the tenement houses in New York for a number of years, and I am in sympathy with your movement. Mayor Hewitt has also given this subject a great deal of thought, as well as the work of the Board of Health. The Commissioners of Accounts have been engaged in investigating this department, ad will be ready in a few days to hand their report to Mayor Hewitt. I think that a number of these buildings should be removed. I would have laid out in the thickly populated parts of the city a number of parks, that would be breathing spots for the poor. I would also have established free baths and lecture halls, where amusements could be furnished to the poor, and public lectures could be given which would help in educating the masses and making their condition better. The Mayor will be glad to receive the co-operation of citizens at any time to help him to enforce the laws and bring about reform. Acting Mayor Beekman advised the gentlemen to make out a list of the tenement houses, together with a number of complaints about their condition, and he would present them to Mayor Hewitt, who would cause an investigation to be made and would see if a reform could not be brought about.

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: A Great Evil In The City: The New York Tenement System 1887
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


Brooklyn Daily Eagle February 13, 1887
Time & Date Stamp: