Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tenement Living: Housing (1)

Topic: The Crowded Condition of New York Dwellings 1883

An interesting and valuable census has just been completed in New York under the supervision of the Mayor and Fire Department, and is now given to the public for the first time. It sets forth the number and character of all the structures in New York, such as piers, sheds, bridges, dwelling houses, business buildings and so forth. From the report we are enabled almost at a glance to understand some of the fundamental characteristics of the Metropolis, which will rather astonish dwellers in the substantial Old World cities who, when they build, seem to do so with the intention of erecting everlasting structures.

It appears from the figures before us that new York contains 102, 624 buildings, of which 78,368 are used as dwellings and the remainder as business buildings exclusively. Of these there are but 185 which may be considered absolutely fire proof; that is buildings constructed of non inflammable materials. Of these, 65 are dwellings and 120 business structures, a rather suggestive not to say uncomfortable showing when one reflects that 3,742 dwellings and 3,278 business buildings are more than four stories in height, and that not a few in both classes reach ten stories. The awkwardness of escape from such lofty buildings in case of fire has already been demonstrated, and the fact that a number of firemen have been trained especially for life saving purposes under these conditions will not materially console the occupants of the loftier floors. Nor is it especially encouraging to learn that, so valuable is space in New York, rear premises have been built upon to an extent scarcely conceivable in Brooklyn, or indeed in any of the large cities of the country. There are, indeed, no less than 15,798 such buildings, nearly one-sixth of the entire number, of which 10,594 are used for business purposes and 5,199 for dwellings. We do not need to be told what sort of dwellings these are. They are, of course, the wretched tenements where poor people are huddled together like animals and where disease and crime are bred to scourge alike the just and the unjust and to remind the rich, the hard hearted and the indifferent that human wrongs are redressed by Providence and that not all the money in the world is an absolute protection from pestilence.

Of the total number of buildings used as dwellings but 49,565 are occupied exclusively for this purpose, the remainder, 28,803, being partly given up to business. Comparatively small as this figure is, it does not fully express the crowded condition of the Metropolis. The total number of dwellings occupied by one family only is but 32,096, very much less than one-half of the entire number. Indeed, from this statement it is clear that the New Yorker no longer follows the Anglo Saxon method of housing his family apart and entrenching himself in his house as in his castle. The majority of dwelling houses being thus surrendered to more than one family it follows that the great bulk of the people live apart. In 10,314 houses the characteristic feature is that at least two families live there; in 16,992 one family occupies each floor, and in 18,966 houses there are more than one family on each floor. This gives us a better idea of how the people of our neighbor exist. The population that is represented by these three classes can be guessed at, if we suppose, a household or family to consist of six persons, including servants. The remainder will yield the enormous number who are more or less closely packed. Indeed, while these statistics are not given, if we take the population of New York to be 1,250,000 a small estimate the average number of occupants of each house used wholly or partly as a dwelling is very nearly 16. For several years past the pressure has been so great upon the area of the city, in spite of the elevated railroads which opened up a large territory, that in order to remain within reasonable distance of the business center the householder had to content himself with the tenement principle. New York has built into the air as the only direction in which it could spread. There must soon be relief, for it is clear that the limit of loftiness has been reached. No account is given, by the way, of the number of structures built in New York during the past year.

Brooklyn, however, has still plenty of room to grow and is growing in point of buildings more rapidly than any city in the country, not excepting even the young giant of the West, Chicago. She has added to her buildings during the eleven months of which record is made more than 2,500, the majority of which, we suppose, are dwellings. This is not a sudden speculation. The industry must go on for several years to come, for the supply is not equal to a demand based upon the mere prospect of rapid transit. When that becomes a fact the overflow from New York to Brooklyn must be provided for. That it must come in our direction is inevitable. The percentage of persons who would prefer the misery and unhealthfulness of tenement life in New York to the comfort of a house for each family in Brooklyn on moderate terms, in a city that is surpassed by but two in the world for healthfulness and by none for comfort, proximity to the salt water, and the pleasures of metropolitan life, must be very small. Indeed the solution of a most pressing and serious problem, namely, where the New Yorker can live, is solved only by our own hospitality. When rapid transit is fully developed here residents of our own outlying wards will be nearer to their places of business in New York in comfortable houses than they would be in noisome tenements on the other side of the river. With this growth of population must come about, moreover, a corresponding expansion of business. There is no reason in the world why New York should, even now, be depended upon to supply the needs of our residents. The growth of our city, therefore, is likely for some time to come to be more extraordinary than it has been in the remarkable past.

Source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle December 30, 1883

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