Tenements: How They Appear Inside and Out 1872


It is undoubtedly a hard matter to be without ice in times like these, when the mercury stands 90 in the shade, but if a few of the good people of Brooklyn, who look forward with fear and trembling to a possible deprivation of this kind, could only make the trip made by an EAGLE reporter yesterday, they would return to their homes and remain there calm and contented for the next six months. The average citizen of Brooklyn, however, is not given up to the spirit of exploration, and would in all probability die ignorant of the existence near him of a locality so classic as "Smoky Hollow" but for the daily papers. Yet, even through this medium, under ordinary circumstances, no just conception of the place is to be gained, because of the halo thrown around it by the reporters, who have learned to look upon it with loving eyes as the cradle of endless sensations and the birthplace of sparkling items. There are, it has been found, more fights in this locality in a week than in any other equal extent of space in a year. Five Points, in comparison, stands back abashed.

BRICK TOSSING has here reached the dignity of an art, and as a consequence whole heads are as rare as white faces in Central Africa. On Saturday evenings, all the inhabitants who can afford it travel around with umbrellas up. Experience has taught them the wisdom of this course. It is expected, however, that in the future comparative immunity will be enjoyed from attack of this kind, owing to the fact that all the chimneys and loose walls in the locality have been thrown away. But it won't do to be too sanguine about this matter, as that impulsive disposition of the younger denizens, which manifested itself last Saturday night in the demolition of a stoop, in order that no escape might be granted the fighting inmates of a house on Emmett street, may convert even the stony walls of some of the six story rookeries into ammunition.

THE HOLLOW, as it is called, is geographically speaking bounded on the north by Atlantic street, on the east by Hicks street, on the south by Amity and on the west by Columbia. The character of the inhabitants may to some extent be inferred from the belligerent aspect already mentioned. Every approach to the locality is guarded by a low groggery, in and around which congregate armies of loafers, ready to do any thing within human power for a glass of benzine. When a man with a clean face and a decent suit of clothes is seen within the territory, his presence is at once reported to the heads of the various gangs, who determine the disposition, if any, that is to be made of him. In the day time, if he be civil, he may escape by merely being sworn at; but should it be dark, his purse is very apt to be made the price of his temerity.

ON SATURDAY EVENINGS no stranger is supposed to show himself around the Hollow. If one should, let him look out; the denizens are not of the stripe who will stand being trifled with. The general aspect of the locality is that of a small town just relieved from a siege. As the name denotes, there is an atmosphere of smoke hanging over it all the time. The streets are as dirty as the refuse of crowded tenements can make them. Whole regiments of dirty, half clad, sickly looking children roll about on the sidewalks and fill the air with their shouts. Women in endless profusion, not much more profusely clad than the youngsters, and invariably barefooted, throng all the doorways, windows and alleys. They gossip unceasingly from morning to night, looking upon every incident, whether of pugilistic or peaceful character, which affords material for talk, as a godsend. From many of the windows, front and rear, clothes lines are stretched and garments hung out to dry, the effect of which is to give to each street the appearance of A RAG FARE.

The walls of every building are, of course, dark and dingy in the extreme, while the atmosphere smells, at times, heavy as that of Gehenna. There are policemen around, and they do their utmost to preserve order, but that utmost among this class amounts to nothing. When any ordinary crime is committed the criminal is considered safe if he only succeed in reaching cover. He can then travel about as freely as if in the catacombs. On the tops of the houses, under the houses, and through them, in a thousand ways the fugitive is at liberty to pass, while the officer, should he dare to follow, is in danger at every turn of having his head broken.

That an idea of the daily life of these people might be gained, an Eagle reporter, as has been intimated, visited several of the tenements in the Hollow yesterday. The first he entered was one known as BIG SIX, situated at 902 Hicks street. it is a double house and contains at present over fifty families. it is five stories high, and in each half has five families on a floor. The first floor is below the level of the street, and would under any circumstances be damp and unhealthy, but under present circumstances is totally unfit for human beings to occupy. The drainage, if there is any at all, is of so imperfect a character that the water from the adjoining closets oozes up in small pools all around, creating an odor that would knock a horse down. The passageway is, as is usual in such cases, dirty in the extreme. No air passes through worth mentioning, and what little does, comes creeping in from the rear of the houses, passing over YARDS AND OUTHOUSES that are a disgrace to a civilized community, only increases the all pervasive stench. Along the passage women and children were stretched, languidly endeavoring in under dress to keep cool, jabbering to each other, now loud, now low, in a manner not unworthy bedlam. The apartments appeared to be kept in as good order by the inmates as the circumstances would permit, but the circumstances do not permit of much order. Each family occupies two apartments, one which is used for cooking, dining, sitting, drawing room and wash house, while the other, which is without a window or any possible means of ventilation, except through the door, is supposed to supply sleeping room for the entire household. How it can be made to do so is a miracle, because it is not larger than an ordinary closet.

IN NONE OF THESE APARTMENTS did the reporter see more than one bed, and that generally but a straw mattress upon a rickety frame, covered with a cotton sheet. The inmates complained bitterly of the condition of affairs; all that it was possible for them to do, they said, they did, but the landlord would not be persuaded to spend a dollar upon the premises, not even to keep the yard and outhouse in order. The rent paid by these people is six dollars a month; and for such shelter as they got, is in all conscience more than enough.

ON THE SECOND FLOOR the appearance of things was pretty much the same. The doors and windows were all open, but it was hot as an oven. The house is so constructed that there is no opportunity given for fresh air, supposing any to be around, to circulate. Every door seems to open into a corner, and stuck in these corners are families domiciled. Right in the middle of the hallway on this floor a man was stretched out at full length, drunk; no one, not even the children, taking the slightest notice of him. It was evidently one of the features of every day life. Here, from one of the old women, the reporter learned that the very poorest of these poor people are in the habit of taking NIGHT BOARDERS, at the rate of ten cents a head. How under heaven they provide for them is a mystery; but one widow woman was mentioned who usually has half-a-dozen of these boarders, male and female, in her house. What sleeping there is, must be done upon the floor. Going up the third, fourth and fifth flights of stairs, the same state of things was found to prevail all the way up, the only difference being that with every step upward there was an increased degree of heat and a corresponding absence of fresh air, until at last it became marvelous that human beings could exist in such quarters. There is no water in the house; up these long, five fights of stairs from the pump at the corner the inhabitants have to drag every drop of water they use. Several of the more respectable tenants some of whom from their manner and speech looked as if they had known better days complained bitterly of the general behavior of their neighbors.

THE NOISE AND TUMULT here at night they could compare to nothing upon earth. Everybody as a rule man and woman gets drunk, commences fighting and continues until one or the other of the combatants is prostrated. The weapons generally used are bottles, pokers, broom handles and once in a while knives and broad axes; doors are smashed in, windows smashed out and heads cracked in these broils with the greatest possible un-concern.

TO HAVE THIS PICTURE complete in the mind, it is necessary to remember that there are about 250 people in the house, that the atmosphere is hot and heavy, that there is hardly room to turn round in the apartments, that almost every one is drunk, and that over all the din rises as if in horrid chorus the screams of affrighted infancy, as blow after blow descends upon the body of one or the other of the contending parents. Get this in your mind, gentle reader, and you will have some little conception of what life means in the place described. When such scenes are once visited it ceases to be wonderful that there are thieves and Magdalenes, and it becomes astonishing that from such rookeries and from amid such circumstances, the country should get so much honest labor and so many examples of virtue and uncompromising integrity.

After going through the house the reporter passed out into a large space called the yard, which seemed to stand in that relation to the entire block. It cannot be described. Every thing about it was sickening, and yet looking out upon it from every conceivable point were human beings, hundreds of whom had only this prospect presented to them from the solitary window in their houses; while as if to intensify that which seemed in all conscience bad enough, pigs, goats, ducks and chickens and the inevitable dog, ran, hopped and waddled about.

ON THE AMITY STREET SIDE of this square the prospect was, if any thing, more wretched and distressing than that presented toward Hicks street. The houses, if such they may be called, are at that point nothing but miserable sheds, hanging together as if stuck by lightning, and looking as if first erected merely to give their owners a pretense for the extortion of rent from people who would otherwise have escaped the tax. They are but two stories high, which is two stories more than they ought to be, and the windows of the first floor are almost entirely under the level of the street. They are, of course, like those already described, packed with humanity. Here, however, one apartment seemed to be the space granted to each family; and, as suggestive of how these people get along, the reporter NOTED IN ONE APARTMENT a shoemaker at work, a woman cooking and another washing, while in the doorway there were two small children playing. Scenes, if not entirely similar, at least akin to this, were visible all round the square.

At the corner of Pacific and Emmett streets there are three tenement houses in a row, containing an aggregate of seventy-five families, but to describe their appearance would simply be to repeat what has been said of the houses on Hicks street. Every thing, in a word, was cramped, crooked and dark. Everywhere an atmosphere hung that seemed to have pestilence in every breath, and on every hand were the evidences of the misery of those compelled to inhabit the apartments. Dirt outside and squalor in.

This is how some of our fellow citizens live in hot weather. They never think of the ice famine.

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Tenements: How They Appear Inside and Out 1872
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle July 17, 1872
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