"The Day's Work of a "New Law" Tenement Inspector"

Lewis E. Palmer Charities and the Commons 17 (1906-1907), 80-90.
"Yes, it was a whole lot different ten years ago. In those days you weren't bothered while putting up your building and when it was finished it was finished and in went your tenants. Now you can't begin to think about tenants until the Department hands over your certificate. It's a round of inspections and re-inspections--tenants waiting to come in and loan due--but nothing doing until you get the certificate."

Thus muses the New York builder of today. He is learning by costly experience that his new buildings must comply with the law and that the law bends but very little. Some are trying their best to meet its requirements, others are using every subterfuge imaginable to get around the law and still others are held up by the slip-shod work of incompetent laborers. In the meantime the respect for the law is growing.

In organizing the new building bureau of the New York Tenement House Department, the various boroughs of the city were divided into districts covered by regularly assigned district inspectors. The boundaries of these districts are not fixed, but are often established with the changes in the amount of new building, and alteration work going on in a particular section. The work of the district inspector may be generally divided into two groups--that connected with new buildings and that connected with alterations. In both groups the work consists chiefly in reporting violations as they are discovered, making re-inspections and submitting reports prior to granting certificates. The construction work on all new buildings is followed in detail from the time the work is started until the building is completed and all violations must be removed by the builder before the work is allowed to proceed. When the new building is practically completed, the builder makes application to the department that a certificate be issued to him showing that his building conforms to the requirements. The district inspector then makes a careful examination of the building and reports whether or not it has been erected according to the law. A certificate is not granted on his recommendation, however. After the district inspector makes his final report, a special inspector is detailed to the same building. If he finds that the district inspector's violations have been removed and discovers no additional violations, a certificate is issued to the builder. If, however, he discovers violations they are noted and a re-inspection must be made. The certificate is not issued until the special inspector sees that the last violation has been removed.

In order to get an idea of the daily work of the new law tenement inspector, the writer has spent several days on the regular rounds of inspection.

First Impressions of a New Law Tenement.

Our first visit was for a re-inspection. Three times the inspector had found that certain violations had not been removed and he seemed to be rather skeptical about the success of his fourth trip. It was a five-story tenement on the upper East Side, built by a man whom the inspector described as "a fake and fraud--a fellow who would always outdo himself to get around the law." Next door to his "apartments," supported on one side by the wall of his building, was a miserable shack in front of which seated on old boxes were three women and two children, working over a pile of dirty rags, separating the woolen from the cotton material. The air was filled with dust from the clothes. One of the women was holding a nursing child that did not seem to mind the incessant jerking, as its mother ripped the rags apart. None of the workers looked up, as the pile must be finished before night. Here was a sample of the neighborhood life, and it could be imagined what the tenement might be like, even if it was a "new law" building.

In the inner court a workman was hacking away with a hammer at a water pipe that had become clogged. In order to clean it out, this enterprising laborer had smashed a jagged hole with his hammer, and as we came into the court he was jamming a stick up and down the aperture. In the meantime, the water was running down the side wall and collecting on the floor of the court.

It seems that on the site of this tenement a building formerly stood, supported by wooden piles. In erecting the new building the owner had not bothered to clear away the remains of the old foundation and consequently the cellar floor presented a curious growth of wooden piles projecting several inches above the cement.

"No more need to chop your wood on a rickety soapbox," commented the owner when questioned after the first inspection concerning the utility of the arrangement. "Practically every household can have an individual chopping block." He should have advertised, "four rooms and a chopping block" instead of the customary "six rooms and a bath."

On the first floor we found that the builder had in no sense endeavored to remove the violations. In a bathroom the plaster and lath had been torn from the wall, exposing a broken soil pipe. The pipe had become clogged and in order to remove the obstruction several feet of quarter inch wire had been jammed into the opening. In the meantime, the water was overflowing the bathroom floor.

From Tenements to Apartments.

The inspector did not go farther; he had seen enough and the prospects for the owner's certificate had vanished. Luckily, the builder was not present--at least, luckily for the builder. Three inspections without any apparent desire on his part to remove the violations had not improved the inspector's peace of mind and he vowed that "the fellow will toe the mark if it takes a year to do it."

From such a tenement it is quite a step to the "St. Georges" and the "Gwendolyns" that are rising along the Hudson River. An old building inspector visited one of these high-priced apartments on the West Side, a short time ago, leaving a notice for the owner with the bellboy. Across the envelope in black letters was printed--"Tenement House Department." The boy looked at the inscription, glanced over his shoulder at two silk-gowned women entering the elevator and whispered, "Gee, wat would de loidies tink if dey only knew."

One of these West Side buildings, with apartments ranging in cost from $900 to $1,600 a year, was next in order. Here we found quite a different type of builder. He had endeavored to comply with the law, and although the defects to be remedied were minor, the inspection was just as strict. Seventy square feet is the minimum space required for bedrooms. Here we find a room that the inspector sizes up as under the requirements. Out comes his rule and sixty-eight feet is the verdict. The builder insisted that the plans had called for seventy feet and seventy feet there must be. He would measure it himself. So down on his knees goes the builder, fighting to the last inch; but sixty-eight feet are not seventy feet even by the builder's measurement. The mistake must be remedied.

Another house we find with some of the apartments entirely furnished and the tenants waiting for word from the owners saying that the certificate was granted. Here is a builder who is so anxious to remove the last violation that he has a laborer following him around putting a covering of cement here and some plaster there. The inspector is doing all he can to help the builder. We rush up on the third floor to see if the dumbwaiter shaft has been fixed. The inspector leads the column, the door yields and then somebody screams. There is a flash of blue into the kitchen and a "Who are you, sir, and what are you doing here?" comes floating out. The inspector has a hard time trying to convince the lady that he is not a robber and she has an equally difficult task to persuade the inspector that she is not really occupying the apartments; that she had "just run in to straighten a few things up," and that she wouldn't think of "really living" in the rooms until the certificate was granted. "But will you please have it sent up as soon as possible" (as if ordering a pound of tea) "for we really want to move in so bad." And the inspector saw that the last violation was removed before the day was over.

Builder vs. Inspector.

Sewer traps covered by several feet of dirt with a coating of cement on top are not of much practical value. The builder was surprised. How it could have happened he really could not understand, but he would dig for the trap and the next day the inspector could see that it was there. Yes, of course it would be much better if the trap was on the surface merely for the reason that it would be much handier to get at.

On the first floor someone had blundered, and there were no flues for the gas stoves. "Now, isn't that discouraging?" said the builder. "That's a mistake of the plasterer's. Certainly there were flues there once for I saw every one of them, but that plasterer has gone around and plugged them all up. Wasn't that careless? You never can trust plasterers anyway." And then the builder stood back a few feet and squinted at the wall where the flue ought to be. "Ah, yes, I can see the outline of the hole. The flue's there all right, but of course it will be much better if the plaster is taken out."

Fire escape brackets must be "hot leaded" in the wall. Here is a builder who promised the day before that he would see that all of his brackets were properly fixed. The inspector climbs to the top floor and out on the fire escape. Here must have been a master workman. There are no signs of melted lead on the balcony beneath. To be sure, the brackets appear to be secured with lead, but the inspector's "jimmy" soon tells that it has been some time since that lead was hot and cold lead jammed into a crevice is not of much use in securing a fire bracket. "Yes, sir, hot leaded all through, sir," says the builder. "Big job, too."

"Where did you melt the lead?" asks the inspector. "Oh, we did that in the cellar--carried it upstairs, you know, and saved all the trouble of bringing the machine up here."

"You're a pretty quick worker, aren't you, to carry melted lead up six flights of stairs and still have melted lead?" queries the inspector.

"Oh, yes, sir; my man is quick you see---"

But in the end the builder (to his great surprise) finds that there never was any hot lead around the brackets, and his man gets the blame. He then tells the inspector that you can't place any confidence in laborers, anyway.

The law requires that there must be at least seventy square feet in the smallest room in the tenement. We find a bedroom which the inspector doubts. It is a queer shaped room, cut up into all sorts of odd angles, but when measured is found to comply with the law.

"Yes, that comes within the requirements, all right," said the inspector, "but what beats me is how you're going to get a bed in there, and then how anyone is going to get into the bed."

"Oh, that's easy; that's easy," replies the builder. "Here's where you stand. The bed, you know, will fit in that angle there. When you're all ready to get in just turn around this way and back up. And there you are." There was plenty of light and air in the room even if there was not much space for a bed.

The inspection in regard to the new law fire escapes is particularly rigid. The law says that the angle of the stairs must not be over sixty degrees. In one of the finest new apartments on the West Side, equipped with the best fire escapes obtainable, the inspector found that the angle in some of the stairs was sixty-two degrees. The error was technical and the builder argued that in such a fine building where violations had been found in only a few instances, the mistake ought to be passed. But every ladder had to be brought to sixty degrees before a certificate was granted. The inspector told of another instance where a bracket was so loose that with a little exertion he was able to pull it from the wall. He was obliged to inspect the fire escapes on this building three times before the violation was removed.

What impresses one most, perhaps, after spending a day with a new law inspector, is that his work is thorough from start to finish. It is hard work to bluff an inspector and the old German builder who recently told one that "he showed too much suspiciousness mit dem all" was wrong; for suspicion is one of the factors that is making the law accomplish things.

Has the new law proved a success? A prominent East Side builder has answered that question as far as he is concerned. For years he has been erecting buildings without regard to the health or safety of the tenants. It had been a paying business and the new law with its inspections and re-inspections, its requirements for sanitation and light and ventilation was causing him delay and consequent loss of revenue. This builder was frank enough to tell an inspector that he would give $10,000 at any time, if through it he could go back to the old type of building.

The Dumb-bell" Type.

The "dumb-bell" tenement that he had found such a profitable investment was first constructed in New York about 1879, and until the passage of the Tenement House Act in 1901, was the prevailing type of tenement building. For a breeder of ill health and immorality and as a menace to life the "dumb-bell" type cannot be surpassed.

The entrance hallway in the center of the building is a long dark passage three feet or less in width, extending sixty feet to the rear of the tenement. Each floor above the first is generally divided into four sets of apartments with seven rooms on each side of the hall. Of these fourteen rooms, only four receive direct light and air from the street, or from the small yard back of the building. The five rooms on each side of the house that get no light or ventilation from the street or yard, are supposed to be ventilated by an air shaft about twenty-eight inches wide and fifty to sixty feet in length, running from the top to the bottom of the building. There is no intake at the bottom of the shaft and as a result the ventilation is practically nil. In fact it would often be better if this narrow shaft could be closed up entirely, thus cutting off the foul air that is constantly arising from its semi-dark recesses.

One of the witnesses before the Tenement House Committee in 1900 said that the proper name was "foul air shaft" and others designated it as "a culture tube on a gigantic scale." To quote from the advance sheets of part of the report of the Tenement House Commission:

Many persons testified that the air from these shafts was so foul and the odors so vile that they had to close the windows opening into them, and in some cases the windows were permanently nailed up for this reason. Moreover, the tenants often use the air shaft as a receptacle for garbage and all sorts of refuse and indescribable filth thrown out of the windows, and this mass of filth is often allowed to remain, rotting at the bottom of the shaft for weeks without being cleaned out.
From other points of view than that of light and air the air shaft stands condemned. It serves as a conveyor of smells and noise and is one of the greatest elements in destroying privacy in the tenement house. Through it one hears the sounds that occur in the rooms of every other family in the building, and often in these narrow shafts the windows of one apartment look directly into the windows of another apartment not more than five feet away. Privacy under such conditions is not only difficult, but impossible.]

There is no requirement for the size of living rooms in the old law buildings. The front room, the largest in the apartment, is generally about ten feet, six inches by eleven feet, three inches, while the bedrooms average about seven feet by eight and a half feet. The latter generally get no light or air except from the air shaft.

The fire escapes with their vertical ladders make it practically impossible for any but a strong man to get from a burning building, and the wooden stairs and non-fireproof halls in the buildings as high as five stories, together with the inflammable flues furnished by the air shafts, cut off most of the chances for even a man's escape.

New Law Tenements--A Contrast.

And now what has the new law done? Perhaps most important of all, it has abolished the air shafts. In their places are inner courts at least twenty-four feet wide in the center of each building. At the bottom of each court is an intake tunnel through which a fresh supply of air is constantly passing. Every room in the new law tenements is light and well ventilated. At least one of the living rooms for each family must have one hundred and twenty square feet of floor space and seventy square feet is the minimum allowance for any room.

Instead of water closets in the public halls, used by two families, each family has its own closet in its own apartments. The old vertical ladders have been abolished from the fire escapes and in their places are substituted stairs with hand rails. The fire escape balconies, thirty inches wide on the old buildings, must now be at least three feet in width. The stairs and halls are completely fire proof, and the public halls are entirely shut off from the non-fireproof portions of the building.

Safety, sanitation and morality--the three principles that were so largely left out of consideration in the erection of the old buildings--have become with the new law the essentials of construction. And the new law houses are an unqualified success. Most of the builders are endeavoring to comply with the law not only because it is the law, but because in the end it is far more profitable for them to do so. Careful planning at the outset and thorough inspection during construction means in the end a building that will last--and perhaps more important to the builder--apartments that will rent.

In most sections of the city the demand for the new law buildings is growing. Only in a few of the outlying districts where the transit facilities are inadequate is this not true. Plans were filed in 1905 for 5,918 new law tenements. Of these the one-fourth located in Manhattan were to contain when completed 36,311 families. In many cases apartments are rented before the buildings are completed and in some instances rooms have been engaged after a study of the plans alone.

Happily those builders who would return to the old days of "dumb-bell" tenements are rare. From the standpoint of a money investment alone the new law tenement pays.

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