This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
This week marks the 150th anniversary of New York’s passage of the Tenement House Law of 1867.
Loophole-ridden and difficult to enforce, this state law “for the regulation of tenement and lodging-houses in the cities of New York and Brooklyn” nonetheless opened the way toward considering the health and welfare of its citizens over and above a rigid concept of private property rights. Several go-rounds of legislation would follow into the next century, further addressing ventilation, overcrowding, and sanitation in New York’s previously unregulated housing stock.
It is not hard to step back and imagine what may have opened the way for such a law. New York’s squalor was notorious, and its death rate was higher than that known of other major cities. The ferocity of the Draft Riots of 1863 was not easily forgotten, and the return of cholera in 1866 reminded New Yorkers of the even worse epidemics that had preceded it. Physicians had become more outspoken in asserting their professional role in public health, pointing out the flaws in a health inspection system that was enmeshed in the patronage of the city’s machine politics.
The most concrete evidence of this concern can be seen in the block-by-block—even house-by-house—survey taken by physicians of the city’s poor living conditions. Calling themselves the Special Council of Hygiene and Public Health, and working on behalf of the reform-minded businessmen of the Citizens’ Association, doctors spread out in the city in the latter half of 1864 chronicling their grim findings. A hefty summary of their reports was published in 1865, calling attention to the fact that “the mobs that held fearful sway in our city during the memorable outbreak of violence in the month of July, 1863, were gathered in the overcrowded and neglected quarters of the city.”
Their raw data is found in the notebooks at the New-York Historical Society—nine of which survive—containing what the historian of public health, John Duffy, called “certainly for its day the most precise and exacting account of a city’s health and social conditions ever compiled.” Such notebooks also provide modern-day researchers with a snapshot of mid-19th century neighborhoods before much street photography was practiced.
The physicians were working before the acceptance of germ theory, but since the medical understanding of the time emphasized the negative effect of “miasmas” carried in bad air and poor ventilation, many of their conclusions had validity. The doctor-surveyors themselves tended not to have lucrative practices, but rather volunteered at $30 a month for this labor and often treated the poor in the very neighborhoods they canvassed. As he roamed Greenwich Village, Dr. J.W. Purdy of 61 Macdougal Street remarked upon the triangular square at Waverly Place containing the “Northern Dispensary with which I have the honor to be connected.”
His report mentioned the remnants of the churchyard and vaults of the Presbyterian church that once stood on Carmine Street where —“little boys and girls are every day digging for the remains of human bodies, pieces of bones, coffins, &c.”
As they walked through the square blocks they mapped out, the surveyors followed a numbered questionnaire that began with type of ground, drainage, number of structures, and progressed to a count of places where liquor was sold, and to the presence of slaughter houses and stables. Their numbered observations followed with the “prevailing character of the population” and presence of disease, before concluding with type of pavement and general comments. Because they were convinced on the matter of “Sanitary neglect as producing social degradation,” the adjectives used to describe neighborhood dwellers often fell into “good, bad, mediocre, inferior, low, depraved, ignorant.” At other times, they described occupations, such as mechanics or laborers. Or, in the case of a square block in the 8th ward (now Soho) with its 26 houses of prostitution: “The majority of the population are vile being of the lower order of strumpets.” This observation was confirmed in 1870 in a survey compiled for a very different purpose: a gentleman’s guide to brothels summarized here that went on to describe the “filth and turmoil” of the neighborhood.
Some of the doctor’s notebooks are more artful than others, with incongruous colorful maps used to depict fetid conditions, such as this of “the most insalubrious square” in the district: “That is 40 families, and 200 persons in this wretched building….halls small dark & foul; rooms small, damp, & close. It is no wonder pestilence exists at 311 Monroe St.!!” wrote Dr. Oscar G. Smith.
This foldout depicts a largely African American neighborhood in the 16th ward. The church on West 25th Street would only later house the historic African-American congregation of St. Philip’s Episcopal before its final move to Harlem:
The schematic below reminds us that the present location of Bryant Park once held the Receiving Reservoir, but penciled in also is the sobering reminder of the vacant lot between 43rd and 44th Streets “on which stood the Colored Orphan Asylum.”
The outrage of the orphan asylum’s burning during the Draft Riots just a year earlier was, ironically, one of the very events that prompted this, slow, steady crawl toward urban housing reform.