The Tenement Houses of New York

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The evil of overcrowding is magnified to a prodigious extent in New York, which, being the port of arrival--the Gate of the New World--receives a certain addition to its population from almost every ship-load of emigrants that passes through Castle Garden.

 There is scarcely any city in the world possessing greater resources than New York, but these resources have long since been strained to the very uttermost to meet the yearly increasing demands created by this continuous accession to its inhabitants; and if there be not some check put to this undue increase of the population, for which even the available space is altogether inadequate, it is difficult to think what the consequences must be.

Every succeeding year tends to aggravate the existing evils, which, while rendering the necessity for a remedy more urgent, also render its nature and its application more difficult.

As in all cities growing in wealth and in population, the dwelling accommodation of the poor is yearly sacrificed to the increasing necessities or luxury of the rich. While spacious streets and grand mansions are on the increase, the portions of the city in which the working classes once found an economical residence are being steadily encroached upon--just as the artisan and labouring population of the City of London are driven from their homes by the inexorable march of city improvements, and streets and courts and alleys are swallowed up by a great thoroughfare or a gigantic railway terminus. There is some resource in London, as the working class may move to some portion of the vast Metropolitan district, though not without serious inconvenience; but unless the fast increasing multitudes that seem determined to settle in New York adopt the Chinese mode of supplementing the space on shore by habitation in boat and raft on water, they must be content to dwell in unwholesome and noisome cellars, or crowd in the small and costly rooms into which the tenement houses are divided.

As stated on official authority, there are 16,000 tenement houses in New York, and in these there dwell more than half a million of people! This astounding fact is of itself so suggestive of misery and evil that it scarcely requires to be enlarged upon; but some details will best exhibit the mischievous consequences of overcrowding--not by the class who, at home in Ireland, have lived in cities, and been accustomed to city-life and city pursuits, but by a class the majority of whom rarely if ever entered a city in the old country until they were on their way to the port of embarkation--by those whose right place in America is the country, and whose
natural pursuit is the cultivation of the land. Let the reader glance at the tenement houses--those houses and `cellars' in which the working masses of New York swarm--those delightful abodes for which so many of the hardy peasantry of Ireland madly surrender the roomy log-cabin of the clearing, and the frame house of a few years after, together with almost certain independence and prosperity. I have entered several of these tenement houses, in company with one to whom their inmates were well known; I have spoken to the tenants of the different flats, and have minutely examined everything that could enlighten me as to their real condition; but I deem it well to rely rather on official statements, which are based on the most accurate knowledge, and are above the suspicion of exaggeration.

The Commissioners of the Metropolitan Board of Health, in their Report for 1866, say:--

The first, and at all times the most prolific cause of disease, was found to be the insalubrious condition of most of the tenement houses in the cities of New York and Brooklyn. These houses are generally built without any reference to the health or comfort of the occupant, but simply with a view to economy and profit to the owner. The provision for ventilation and light is very insufficient, and the arrangement of water-closets or privies could hardly be worse if actually intended to produce disease. These houses were almost invariably crowded, and ill-ventilated to such a degree as to render the air within them continually impure and offensive. . . . The basements were often entirely below ground, the ceiling being a foot or two below the level of the street, and was necessarily far more damp, dark, and ill-ventilated than the remainder of the house.

The cellars, when unoccupied, were frequently flooded to the depth of several inches with stagnant water, and were made the receptacles of garbage and refuse matter of every description. ... In many cases, the cellars were constantly occupied, and sometimes used as lodging-houses, where there was no ventilation save by the entrance, and in which the occupants were entirely dependent upon artificial light by day as well as by night. Such was the character of a vast number of the tenement houses in the lower parts of the city of New York, and along its eastern and western borders. Disease, especially in the form of fevers of a typhoid character, was constantly present in these dwellings, and every now and then became in more than one of them epidemic. It was found that in one of these twenty cases of typhus had occurred during the previous year.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Tenement Houses of New York
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


Permission to use this excerpt from Chapter XI of the book " The Irish in America " by John Francis Maguire 1868  has been granted by Derek, owner and website administrator of Library
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