"The Tenement-House Exhibition of 1899"

Lawrence Veiller Charities Review 10 (1900-1901), 19-25.
It has been reserved for New York city, the modern, Rome to duplicate evils of tenement- house structure known in ancient Rome alone among all the cities of the world. In characteristic fashion, she has not only duplicated these evils, but has intensified them to a degree beyond belief. Since 1846, we have been conscious in New York city of a tenement-house problem. Although numerous efforts have been made to solve the problem at different times, we stand today in a much worse condition in many respects than we did fifty years ago, enjoying the unenviable distinction of having the worst tenement houses in the world, although the highest rents for living accommodations are charged. If one were to try to find the reason for the failure to solve the problem, it would not be hard. Interest in the question, aroused spasmodically every ten years, and then allowed to flag, is not calculated to secure either beneficent results or much progress toward improved conditions.

The latest movement in this direction, however, promises to have greater stability than any former one, and, therefore, holds out greater prospects of definite results. It was started about a year ago, by the formation of the tenement-house committee of the charity organization society of NewYork City. This committee devoted the first six months of its existence to attempting to secure from the local authorities an improved law relating to the construction of new tenement houses. None of its recommendations were adopted. The committee felt, however, that its six months' labor had been worth while, in that it has directed that attention of the community to what is needed in legislation. Being convinced that no real progress was to be made unless the whole community was aroused to a knowledge of existing condition, the committee then set itself at work to prepare for the public such a statement of tenement-house needs that no one concerned could longer neglect taking action looking toward the amelioration of the living conditions of theworking people of New York.

The tenement-house exhibition which has just closed, and which washeld in the old Sherry building on Fifth avenue for a period of two weeks, hasbeen viewed by a large number of persons, and has given to many a conception of what the tenement-house problem is that could not have been given in any other way. It has shown, step by step, the different changes that have taken place in New York tenement houses, and by means of 1,000 photographs has illustrated nearly all the evils of the present tenement-house system. Special emphasis has been laid upon the terrible evils of the dark, unventilated airshafts, which are the chief characteristic of the present type of buildings. There are over forty-four thousand tenement houses in the boroughs of manhattan and the Bronx, and in the year 1899 about two thousand new tenement houses were erected. These, as a rule, are built on lots twenty-five feet wide by one hundred feet deep, and are planned to accommodate four families on a floor. The buildings aresix or seven stories high, and each floor generally contains fourteen different rooms.

Only four of these rooms on each floor have direct light and air from the street or the small yard. The other ten open on a narrow "air-shaft,"which is a well hole closed at both ends, seldom more than five feet wide, whenbetween two buildings, and often only two feet six inches wide, varying in length from forty to sixty feet, and being generally from sixty to seventy-two feet high.

The first of the accompanying illustrations represent a typical airshaft. As usual, it is closed at both ends. It is two feet ten inches wide, forty-eight feet long, and seventy-two feet high. Forty-two windows open upon it, the sole source of light and air to the rooms. Rents in this building run from$10 a month for three rooms to $17 for four rooms. The baby's bathtub is hung out of the window because the rooms are so small that there is no place to keep it inside. The shaft is only a little wider than the tub.

Another of these well holes is shown. It, too, is closed at bothends. It is two feet four inches wide, forty-two feet long, and sixty feet high. Forty-five windows open on it, the sole source of light and air to the rooms. Rents run from $11 a month for three rooms, two of which open entirely on the shaft, to $17 for four rooms, three of which open entirely on the shaft. The picture shows the tenants utilizing the windows as well as the airshaft for the storage of furniture, on account of the smallness of the rooms. The picture was taken at 11 A.M., in bright sunlight.

The sunlight seldom penetrates below the fifth floor in these shafts. There is never a circulation of air. Bringing up children in such darkness andamidst filthy odors insures its inevitable result: $25,000,000 are annually expended for charity in the state of New York. It is a simple matter to investigate the records of our reformations, hospitals, dispensaries, and institutions of similar kind, to find out what proportion of the patients and inmates come from tenement houses. Here in New York we know that nearly all are tenement-house dwellers. We also know that most of our criminals are young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty- five, and that the majority of them come from large cities, the breeding places of vice and crime.

The tenement-house exhibition has enforced the general opinion that has prevailed for some time as to the conditions causing these evils, by presenting in accurate, scientific form a number of maps showing the entiretenement city of New York. These maps show on a large scale each block in the tenement-house district, indicating which buildings are tenement houses and which are business buildings or used for other purposes; they give the street number of each building, the height in stories, and show exactly the amount of land covered, the shape of the building, and the small amount left vacant for light and air. These maps are arranged in two parallel series, one of poverty maps, and the other of disease maps. Upon the poverty maps are stamped black dots, each of which indicates that five different families from the building marked have applied for charity to one of the large charitable societies of the city within a definite period of years. It seems beyond belief, yet is its a fact, that there is hardly a tenement house in the entire city that does not contain a number of these dots, and many contain as many as fifteen of them, meaning that seventy-five different families have applied for charity from that house. Similarly, on the disease maps, which are placed directly below the poverty maps, district by district, so that a comparative study of them may be made, there are stamped black dots, each indicating that from this house there has been reported to the Board of Health one case of tuberculosis within the last five years. While these dots do not cover the building to the same extent at they are covered in the poverty maps, it is appalling to note the extent of this disease. nearly every tenement house has one dot on it, many have three or four, and there are some houses in Cherry street that contain as many as twelve. Other colored dots indicate the prevalence of typhoid, diphtheria, etc. The maps also contain, stamped upon each block a statement of the number of people living in that block, so that the student thus has opportunity of weighing all the conditions that help to produce the epidemics of poverty and disease. The maps, as they appear in the exhibition, might well earn for New York city the title of the city of living death. No other words so accurately and graphically describe the real conditions as these.

An accompanying illustration gives the appearance of an actual block on the east side of New York city, as it stood on January 1, 1900. The block is bounded by Chrystie, Forsyth, Canal, and Bayard streets. It includes thirty-nine tenement houses, containing 605 different apartments for 2,781 persons. Of these 2,315 are over five years of age, and 466 under five years. There are 263 two-room, 179 three-room, 105 four-room, and twenty-one five room apartments, making a total of 1,588 rooms, or about two persons to a room day and night. There are only 264 water-closets in the block. There is not one bath in the entire block. Only forty apartments are supplied with hot water. There are 441 dark rooms, having no ventilation to the outer air, and no light or air except that derived from other rooms. There are 635 rooms getting their sole light and air from dark, narrow airshafts. The disease map shows that in the last five years there have been recorded thirty-two cases of tuberculosis, and during the past year thirteen cases of diphtheria from this block, while the poverty map shows that 665 applications have been recorded. The rentals derived from the block amount to $113,964 a year. It has been selected merely as characteristic of the city. There are worse.

The exhibition has been planned and developed to prove to the community the fact that in New York city the workingman is housed worse than in any other city in the civilized world, notwithstanding the fact that he pays more forsuch accommodations than is paid anywhere else, being compelled to give over one-fourth of his income for rent. To bring this fact home to the minds of the public a very extensive parallel exhibit has been developed, showing the great work accomplished in London and other cities in building model tenements for the accommodation of workingmen.

Beginning with the first model tenement in the world, the Pancras square building in London, of the metropolitan association for improving the swellings of the industrial classes, there are shown a series of photographs, plans, and charts, illustrating this work. Among other things, there are shown the results accomplished by George Peabody, who gave $2,500,000 to the workingmen of London at different time, to provide them with decent homes; and similar work of Lord Iveagh, who founded the Guinness trust, as well as the buildings of Sir Sidney Waterlow's improved industrial dwelling's company, and the work accomplished by Miss Octavia Hill, the pioneer of the movement for improving oldtenement houses by personal influence.

The committee has developed, also on a large scale, the work accomplished by different municipalities in Europe, in the direction of housing their working people. The very successful work of this kind accomplished in Liverpool, Manchester, Salford, Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and other cities is shown by photographs, plans, and elaborate tables of interesting statistics.

Believing that the tenement-house problem is at the root of most of our social evils, the committee has given attention to those subordinate problemswhich are affected by the housing problem, and which in turn deeply affect it. The need of playgrounds, parks, public baths, and libraries is shown in many ways. Probably the most interesting feature of this exhibit is a series of diagrams illustrating sixteen "city wildernesses" in New York. These are proposed as sites of needed parks, play-grounds, and public baths. The actual shape of the buildings on these blocks is shown' the number of people living in them, the character of the soil, whether near an underground stream or not, is stated; and the nearness to public schools, the character of the neighborhood, whether strictly a business neighborhood or one where business is crowding out tenements, is most carefully considered. The parks proposed indicate the minimum needs of the city at the present time. They are what is now absolutely indispensable, not what is desirable or ideal. They indicate what the city must do if it expects to have decent citizens. It is the first time that so definite and positive a program of the kind has been placed before the city authorities, or has been given into the hands of those interested in promoting thewelfare of the community. A series of photographs is displayed, showing how some waste places in the city have already been transformed into children's play-grounds, where thousands of children now enjoy themselves. There is now way in which the city can neglect its own welfare more than by neglecting its children. It is its first duty to see that they have an opportunity for play, that they have freedom for physical exercise, and that they are not represssed and hunted by the city authorities at every turn. It would be economical for the city to spend many millions of dollars in providing play places of this kind, thus cutting down its future appropriations for jails, almhouses, hospitals, and dispensaries.

More important than the opportunity for play is the opportunity for cleanliness. That we should have silently endured the reproach cast upon us by the last tenement-house investigation, which, in 1894, found that out of 255,000 persons with whom their investigation had been concerned, only 306 had an opportunity to bathe, is a disgrace, not only to the city of New York, but to the entire state. If the old-fashioned idea that working people did not wish to bathe, and did not wish to be clean, were true, there might be some reason for this state of affairs, but if there was ever an absurd and foolish fallacy, this is it. It has been demonstrated over and over again, that if the working people have an opportunity to bathe, they are only too anxious to take advantage of it. The only public bath house in the city which keeps open all the year round, a small building with small accommodations, bathed over 120,000 persons duringthe last year, notwithstanding the fact that a fee of five cents was charged for each bath. And yet nothing is done to meet this crying need. The new tenement houses that are being built provide no bathing accommodations, and few public baths are being constructed to meet the needs of dwellers in existing buildings.

The problem of how properly to house single men and women is one that has been a source of annoyance to us in New York for many years. We have at last solved the problem of housing the men, although we have as yet only started our attempt to properly house single women. A very interesting part of the exhibition is that showing the different types of lodging houses in the city of New York, beginning with the indescribably filthy police station lodgings which Commissioner Roosevelt abolished, and working gradually up through the Bowery lodging to the municipal lodging house and the Mills hotel which have supplanted the old buildings.

One way out of the tenement house problem, a way that has been thought for many years the chief way, but one which seems to the writer to have slight bearing on the question, is to set the drift back to the fields, away from the city. Such movements must be undertaken always, but is must equally be borne inmind that we shall continue to have in our large cities a dense population which must be housed. Let us not deceive ourselves and neglect the housing of this population, with the thought that people "ought to live in the country." The well to do classes do not live in the country, and so long as they live here there will be a large number of persons to do their work, on whom they are dependent for their very lives, "hewers of wood and drawers of water," or their modern equivalent.

Besides the many photographs illustrating how workingmen are housed in European cities, there is an elaborate series showing the worst workingmen's dwelling in every city in the United States having a population of 25,000 or more, so that students may compare the conditions under which workingmen live in New York with the conditions in other American cities. In no city, except Boston and Chicago, do we find the slightest trace of conditions at all similar to thoseof New York's tenement houses.

So much of the solution of the tenement-house problem lies in the scientific planning of the buildings, that any movement looking toward reform must concern itself primarily with this phase of the subject. Realizing this, the committee has tried to stimulate the interest of architects in the subject byoffering a prize for the best type of plans for model tenements. One hundred and seventy different architects submitted drawings in this competition. The plans were for buildings on lots of various sizes--25 feet by 100 feet, 50 feet by 100 feet, 75 feet by 100 feet, and 100 feet by 100 feet. A special jury of award was appointed to adjudge the merits of the different drawings, and, after careful deliberation and study, the first prize was awarded to Mr. R. Thomas Short, a New York architect. A copy of his plan is given on the following page. This plan is designed for a tenement house on a lot 100 feet wide by 100 feet deep. A space 10 feet in width and 100 feet in length is left at the rear of the building for light and air, as required by the New York building laws. The main features of the plan are the large street court, which in its narrowest part is 12 feet wide, and one-half of which is 24 feet wide. This court is 60 feet in total depth, and provides an abundance of light and air for all the rooms. Being open to the street, it permits free circulation of air at all times, and has the additional advantage of giving a number of rooms an outlook upon the street, thus creating a greater number "front apartments," and materially increasing the rental values of the building. The plan provides accommodations for fourteen families on a floor, having a total of forty-four rooms, and an abundance of closets. The lack of closet space has been one of the serious inconveniences of tenement-house life. Besides this, the plan possesses the further advantage of having a private hall for every set of rooms, thus insuring privacy to the tenants. Every family has its own water- closet entirely within its own control. There is no part of the building more than two room deep. This is the secret of the whole tenement-house problem, because it means that there are no dark interior rooms. Besides these many advantages, there are four light staircases and staircase halls provided for the tenants, thus securing greater safety in case of fire, and removing to a considerable extent the social friction that exists in the ordinary tenement house. A large open court also provides a natural play-ground for the children, and does away with the necessity of subjecting them to the influences of the street. Many of the other plans submitted are of unusual merit, and many contain admirable ideas excellently developed. It is gratifying to learn that already several builders are proposing to erect tenement houses upon some of these plans.

The exhibition has demonstrated to the people of New York city, in a way not to be forgotten, the fact that two-thirds of its population lives under conditions that ought not be tolerated by any community, and which can not help but cause poverty, crime, disease, and destitution. What the outcome of theexhibition will be, it is hard to say. It hardly seems possible that we are for another decade to sit idle and permit conditions to grow worse and worse, as they have done for nearly fifty years.

The writer, for one, believes that the time has come for radical measures. We can not expect to solve the problem by spasmodic efforts every ten years. The only way that success can come is through constant and continuous effort.

There are many things to be done. In the first place, legislation must be secured, absolutely prohibiting the erection of tenement houses of the present type. Then it will be necessary to put forth considerable effort to see that such a law is enforced. This will take care of the future, but negative work of this kind alone will not solve the problem. Model tenements must be built by wealthy men as investments, and on a large scale. In the last ten years two such tenements were erected in New York. In the same time nearly 15,000 tenements of a bad type were built by speculative builders. It we are to keep up with conditions, let alone get ahead of them, we must take up this work on a larger scale than has ever before been attempted. There is much that can be done by men and women of means in improving many of the old, bad tenement houses, buying them up, one at a time, altering them to suit the needs of the tenants, and then, by wise management, making them financial successes. Nor is this all that has to be done before it can be felt that New Yorkaffords decent living conditions. There is opportunity for nearly every form of social effort. The model tenement is the best kind of a social settlement. There is no other way in which so much personal influence can be exerted as in managing such a tenement.

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