A Great Municipal Reform

IN the last two years the City of New York has effected one of the most notable social and governmental reforms in its history. It has done so in the face of powerful opposition from vested interests, unscrupulously resourceful, and antagonized only by a unanimous and well-directed public sentiment. The question at issue has been the betterment of the people’s housing, — a cause which, at irregular intervals, has been militant for the last half century. When we remember that the wealthy Trinity Church corporation itself has fought sanitary tenement laws in the highest courts of the state, we have a slight appreciation of the difficulties with which every effort to improve the condition of the thickly populated districts has been beset.

The fact, therefore, that the work of tenement reform is now proceeding under enlightened municipal management is a cause for general gratification. For the last twenty years the island of Manhattan has suffered the evil reputation of having the most deplorable housing conditions in the world. Social investigators from the great European capitals who have made a study of certain congested sections of the East and West Sides have pronounced them worse than anything in London, Glasgow, Paris, or Berlin. All foreign capitals have their tenement evils ; the improvement of English conditions has been a political question for years ; but, in every case, the difficulty is unlike that which is the bad eminence of the American metropolis. The European capitals have their closely packed slums, reeking with filth and disease. The chief life-battle of their wretched populations, nevertheless, is with poverty, improvidence, and crime. The main disadvantage to the life of our metropolitan poor, however, is more elemental. Here it is a struggle, not so much for food, for clothing, for shelter, as for light and air. Under the remarkable conditions which have grown up in Manhattan Island in one hundred years, it is these two foremost gifts of nature of which, above all, the poorer classes have been deprived. By a steady process, accelerated in the last ten years, the congested tenement districts of New York have become one great aggregation of sunless and airless rooms. Immense buildings have gone up by the thousands, five, six, and seven stories high, in which practically no provision for ventilation has been made ; and in which the occupants are undergoing a slow process of asphyxiation. Nor are these disadvantages confined to the submerged proletariat. The New York tenement system is pervasive. It reaches the industrious and well-paid workingman as well as his less worthy brother. It affects the fair-salaried clerk; the struggling professional man ; a good proportion, indeed, of the so-called middle classes. The lack of light and air is almost as great an evil on the West Side, inhabited by a public well advanced in civilization, as in the section south of Fourteenth Street, tenanted chiefly from the immigration ships. In other words, two thirds of the total population of New York, or 2,500,000 out of 3,500,000, live in tenement houses; a proportion which is increasing every day.

This remarkable situation is not without interest to the historian and to the social observer. The tenement problem as seen in New York is the result largely of the rapidity with which the city has been constructed. Probably building laws are one of the final expressions of civilization. They exist in bewildering complexity in such ancient capitals as London and Paris ; they exist only in their infancy in American cities. We have well-defined building laws as a protection against fire. We have begun also to exert the same state police power as a protection against disease. The ultimate expression of this same authority, exercised to excellent purpose in Paris, is in the interest of art; and to this some time we shall probably attain. The present picturesque street tangle in lower Manhattan is explained by the haphazard fashion in which each early Dutchman planted his house wherever he pleased, absolutely oblivious of any street plan. His successors have been almost as unrestrained in the construction of the present city.

The explanation of the tenement difficulty of Manhattan Island, therefore, is not especially complex. From time to time many picturesque reasons are assigned for it. It is caused, according to one theory, by the shape of the island itself, — a narrow tongue of land between two rivers, restraining all development east and west, and confining the city within a few square miles. The first agitation for better tenements, however, took place as far back as 1834, when the city did not extend above Fourteenth Street, and when there was plenty of room for expansion. Moreover, the multiple dwelling flourishes almost as much in the outlying boroughs as in Manhattan; it is even not unknown in suburban towns. Nor is the tenement to be attributed to the lack of transit facilities ; for the extension of the transit system merely pushes outward the edge of the tenement zone, and establishes such tenement centres as Harlem and the larger part of the Bronx. The high level of land values is no explanation of existing conditions ; this is the effect and not the cause. The one sufficient reason for the appalling evil is simply unchecked human greed. The great profits in establishing ten or twenty families upon the same amount of land usually occupied by one is apparent ; and, there being no municipal laws to prevent such abnormal growths, the land - owners have eagerly seized their opportunity. In a few years they have transformed the island of Manhattan from a city peopled almost entirely by families, each with a separate dwelling, into a city of tenement and apartment houses.

Though tenement evils were the subject of special investigation in 1834, it was not until the great immigration movement of the forties that the present conditions, in embryo, developed. There were no laws against crowding, against cellar occupation, and all available space was utilized for the accommodation of the multitudinous filth and misery from Europe. It is not the purpose here, however, to trace in detail the city’s retrogression in the matter of housing; but merely to sketch the growth of the tenement as the all but exclusive habitation of the metropolitan population, and the present peculiar phases of the evil. The tenement’s first appearance was as the metamorphosed dwelling-house. In order to convert the old private house into the abiding-place of several families it was usually necessary to leave several rooms absolutely windowless. As these houses were not deep, however, the evil was not especially flagrant, though emphasized by indiscriminate herding. This was followed by the erection of bona fide tenant houses, usually four stories high and four rooms deep, accommodating four families to a floor in tworoom apartments. The only rooms in these cases directly lighted were those in the front and rear, the intermediate rooms always being without ventilation. Conditions were made worse by the grotesque city plan of New York, the work of the Commission of 1807. This commission laid out the city in rectangular blocks, six hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide, which, in their turn, were divided into lots twenty-five feet wide or less. In the erection of the tenement house, therefore, the twenty-five foot lot was taken as the unit. No space was sacrificed ; nothing was given up for purposes of ventilation, except a yard in the rear. The houses were built flat up against one another, windows being absolutely unprovided for. The sudden discovery of the fact that a single city lot, formerly used for a one-family dwelling, could be made to house from twelve to sixteen had its natural effect in stimulating land values. As population grew, and the price of land went up, the houses were gradually increased in height and depth. Instead of being only four rooms deep, they became five, six, seven, and sometimes eight; and five, six, and occasionally seven stories high. The rooms thus became sunless cells. The municipality was asleep ; the idea that it had any responsibility for providing its people with a proper supply of air and sunlight had occurred only to a few misguided social reformers. The first important attempt made to ventilate tenement houses was in 1879. From that time dates the so-called " dumb-bell ” tenement. It differed from the prevailing type only in that it provided a thin airshaft, for the ostensible purpose of lighting and ventilating interior rooms. Nothing worse could have been devised. The shaft, usually about twenty-eight inches wide, was closed at the bottom and at the end, and thus permitted no free circulation of air. The house was six and seven stories high, twenty-five feet wide, and accommodated four families to a floor, or twenty-four and twenty-eight in all. Until 1901 this was the favorite commercial tenement plan in New York. In the last twenty years houses of this type have been built by thousands. In whole sections of the city dwellings, which were formerly the habitation of fashion and wealth, have been destroyed and replaced with tenement houses of this kind. They have been the receptacles into which have disappeared the eager hordes of the Old World. The Italian peasant, fresh from his own land of sunshine and blue sky, has found his New World promised land in two or three dark rooms of a dumb-bell tenement. The Eastern Jew, persecuted, overtaxed, deprived of all earthly pleasures as he has been by the Russian government, has found, on his arrival in New York, that there was one privilege of which even the Czar had forgotten to rob him. For the first time, and in free America, has he been deprived of light and air.

But it is not the wretchedly poor alone who have found their habitations in the tenement house. About 1878 the landlords discovered that other classes could be prevailed upon to live in multiple dwellings ; and it was in that year that the apartment house made its first appearance. It appealed to the hitherto private - house public because of its economy, and because of the numerous ways in which it simplified the details of housekeeping. An interesting phase of the question is the way in which the apartment idea has been extended, until it now comprises the richest as well as the poorest elements in the population. In some of the most luxurious apartment houses of recent construction the annual rentals for suites reach $5000, $8000, $10,000, and even more ; and yet the construction and management of these homes of luxury are regulated by the same laws that govern an East Side tenement. The process of what may be called the “ tenementization ” of the city has now been under way for some thirty years ; witli the result that the private dwelling, except as the abiding-place of the very wealthy, is all but unknown. As new districts are developed, the tenement, or the flat, or the apartment, is the almost invariable form of housing ; and the process of rebuilding old dwellinghouse sections along these modern lines is proceeding rapidly. The private dwelling, as a form of new construction, is found now only in Fifth Avenue and in other preserves of fashion and wealth. Less than one hundred private houses are built in Manhattan Island every year, the cost, including the land, averaging about $100,000 each. In other words, an annual income of at least $25,000 is required by the occupants. At the present rate of progress, therefore, in less than a generation only the millionaire will be able to afford a house of his own. And that same lack of ventilation which has been described in the more congested districts applies, in varying degrees, at least to the middle class of these buildings. Narrow airshafts, small, dark, and ill-ventilated rooms, restricted passageways, inadequate protection against fire, — all these are evils as common to the “flat,” the middle-class “ apartment,” as to the East Side tenement.1 In these so-called better sections, the builders have had everything practically their own way, and, in the course of twenty years, have rushed up a mass of the flimsiest and most unsanitary buildings, for which, in the main, they have exacted exorbitant rents. The highest class apartment houses, suites in which rent, say, from $1000 up, necessarily are built with more regard for the comfort and health of their tenants ; but even these, especially in the fire precautions, are far from ideal.

This herding of more than 2,500,000 people in a conglomeration of poorly constructed and poorly ventilated rooms naturally has a most important bearing upon the physical and moral character of the metropolitan population. If not checked, it must necessarily produce a new type of men and women. The apartment and tenement mode of life at its best, in its essential disregard of home life, in its substitution of a mechanical mode of existence for the domesticity of a previous generation, is a deplorable evil ; but in its present manifestation its results are something appalling. These appear, naturally, most offensively in the closely packed districts, — in the Jewish, the Italian, and the negro quarters. The effects, physical and moral, of crowding a single family, consisting perhaps of five or six members, usually reinforced by two or three more in the shape of “ boarders,” in an apartment comprising from two to four rooms, only one of them directly ventilated, in most instances not more than eight feet long and seven feet wide, can be readily imagined. We find, as a result, all kinds of physical and moral degradation. We find the deaths from consumption — whose most successful foes are air and sunlight — reaching a stai’tling total. We find the rate of infant mortality in some sections as high as 204.54 2 to the 1000. We find the lowest standards of personal cleanliness, not necessarily because of the natural tendencies of the tenement public, but because dark rooms and dark halls, to say nothing of the lack of ordinary household conveniences, are not conducive to the most exemplary habitsMore unfortunate than these physical ills, however, is the moral degradation which is the direct outcome of the New York tenement system. The tenement house has become the breeding place of the most revolting immorality. All standards of family life and family relations frequently give way in the loathsome conditions in which life is spent. The predominance of the tenement house as the all but exclusive housing form exaggerates the metropolitan evil of prostitution. The respectable and the disreputable live side by side in the same house, frequently on the same floor. The industrious workingman, in his efforts to educate his children in the ways of virtue, finds himself surrounded on every hand by the most debasing influences. To those who remember how extensively this evil figured in the municipal election of 1901, and how greatly it contributed to Tammany’s defeat, further details on this point are unnecessary.

It is evident, therefore, that the reformation of the tenement house evil in New York is not likely to be a simple task. The great result to be sought for, however, is at once apparent. The main thing is the lighting of these darkened rooms. The reform wrought in London by illuminating the streets with gas finds a parallel in the progress in municipal regeneration that might be made in New York by giving the poor a little fresh air and sunlight. It was not until Governor Roosevelt’s appointment of the De Forest Tenement House Commission in 1900 that the necessary remedial legislation took practical shape. This act itself was the result of many years’ struggle against corrupt politicians, — Tammany Hall, the self-appointed guardian of the poorer classes, has been a bitter enemy of tenement reform, — and against vested interests. Its long delay had greatly exaggerated the problem ; for meanwhile the conditions described had accumulated in appalling volume. The commission, however, was of high civic character, and was composed of men, several of whom had made an exhaustive study of the tenement problem. The law which was passed as a result of their investigation was the first sweeping and effective tenement measure since the enactment in 1867 of the first tenement house act. The newly elected Low administration found the enforcement of this statute one of its most important responsibilities. The law created a new branch of municipal service, — the tenement house department; and gave the tenement commission, in the shape of an elaborate code of housing laws, important supervision over the building of new tenements and the maintenance of old. The creation of this department marked a new sense of municipal responsibility. It was official recognition of the fact that municipal oversight of the physical surroundings of the people is an important governmental function. The conduct of this department during the last two years is one of the great successes of the Low administration. It has approached nearer than any other department the reformer’s high ideal of effective non-partisan administration.

The tenement department was the most available branch of the city government to test the non-partisan idea, simply because it was new, without traditions and abuses made venerable by time. It was also a department calling particularly for expert service; for the evils to be combated were complicated and deep-seated. Mr. Low showed an appreciation of the situation by selecting, as the head of the new department, Mr. Robert W. de Forest ; and, as his deputy commissioner, Mr. Lawrence Veiller. Neither of these gentlemen had strong political qualifications ; their only claim to office was that, simply on the merits of the case, they were the two men in the greater city preeminently qualified for the place. Mr. De Forest had given a considerable part of his time, through many years, to charitable and philanthropic work, and had been especially identified with the cause of housing reform. To Mr. Veiller, probably more than to any one man, is due the credit for the technical details of the present tenement law. The organization of the whole department was in keeping with the non - partisan character of the heads. All the subordinates were selected simply for fitness ; and they have been held to a strict accounting for the performance of their work without fear or favor. The utmost care was taken in the selection of inspectors, — varying from 150 to 200 in number, — who are to the tenement department what the patrolmen are to the department of police. In the same way that it is the duty of the rank-and-file policemen to protect the community against crime, it is the duty of the tenement inspectors to protect it against the encroachments of filth and disease. They are also subject to similar temptations. Improperly administered the tenement department could be made an abundant source of blackmail and oppression; and should Tammany return to power, unquestionably it would be made to yield a rich harvest. That men drawn from the great mass of the people — a tenement inspectorship pays not more than $1200 a year — can be made honest and efficient, under honest and efficient leadership, is shown by the experience of the present department. Mr. De Forest has kept a most rigid watch upon his inspectors, but, up to the present time, not one has been dismissed for bribe-taking.

The whole work of the department is practically centred upon this inspector. His work begins as soon as excavations are made for a new tenement house ; his supervision over that house does not end until it is torn down or destroyed. He watches it, brick by brick, and floor by floor, to see that it is built in strict conformity with the law. Through his superiors, he can make the builder, who has infracted the slightest provision of that measure, remove the offending part and start anew. After the building is entirely up, he can insist upon its reconstruction, in case the statute has not been complied with. No house can be occupied until the owner lias received a written certificate that all is in keeping with law. It is after it is filled with tenants, however, that the inspector’s most important duties begin. Then he steps in as the protector of the people against dishonest or careless landlords, even against themselves. A multiplicity of sanitary provisions must be complied with ; it is his duty to see that they are enforced. Every tenement house in Greater New York in which the yearly rentals are less than $300 must be inspected at least once a month ; oftener, if complaint is made. It is a significant evidence of the readiness of the poorest citizen to seize all opportunities to better his condition that the work of the inspector has been taken up chiefly in investigating complaints. Until the organization of this branch of the city government the tenement classes had practically no recourse against the dangers that lurk in defective drain pipes, filthy halls, cellars, and yards. Nominally complaints could be made to the Board of Health, but that department was usually too busy or too corrupt to attend to them. The health inspectors were in league with the property owners. They had no scruples in betraying the complainant to his landlord, with the result that a note to the Board of Health frequently caused the writer’s eviction. When the tenement classes realized that a special city department existed entirely for them, and that it was honestly administered, the response was almost overwhelming. Bad’ ly scrawled notes, wonderful in their orthography and dialect, began to pour in upon the commissioner. The department is given detailed information of “ whare ” an epidemic of “ smal poakes ” is likely to break out; of where “ 5 femlis du leiv tugeder an tliare iss siknez;” of where the inspectors will “ be up tu you neas in wateh,” and of where, “ the ofer from the sinkes is in a feareh condision an must be seet to.” In the first five months of its existence the department received, investigated, and acted upon 10,000 of these complaints, affecting as many houses; and they are now coming in at the rate of 600 a week. It is all a most notable evidence of cooperative government, — of the association of the citizen and his chosen representatives in municipal administration. Never have the submerged classes and the city officials been brought into such close and effective relations. Perhaps the most practical result of that new understanding is the elimination of prostitution in tenement houses. This abuse has been rampant in New York for the last forty years ; and has always been regarded as an inevitable incident of life in a great metropolis. The new law, however, gave the tenement commissioner unusual power in protecting the homes of the poor from this constant menace. As a result, prostitution in tenement houses is now practically unknown. It was only through the cooperation of the afflicted tenement dwellers themselves that the evil has been checked ; and in this single achievement, had the department nothing else to show for its eighteen months’ work, it is justified.

What has chiefly attracted public attention, however, is the actual production of new and sanitary tenements under the supervision of the present department. This success has been won in the teeth of the bitterest opposition. The new statute runs counter to property interests at many points, and these have stopped at practically no form of corruption to negative it. As soon as the present measure became effective the builders, architects, property owners, dealers in building materials, and large corporations financially interested in tenement houses, joined hands to howl it down. A powerful property owners’ association was formed, with a large membership, to fight it in the legislature and in the courts. That a large corruption fund was formed has been frequently charged. Dire prophecies were made concerning the practical workings of the law. It was asserted that building must stop ; that thousands of mechanics would be thrown out of work, and general misery follow. It was said that houses built according to the De Forest statute could not be constructed on a commercial basis, and that higher rents must inevitably follow its enforcement. Happily these malcontents found few supporters in the press; the metropolitan newspapers, almost without an exception, taking up with enthusiasm the cause of the tenement dwellers. The social and political organizations and the church, which represent the best public sentiment, have devoted their energies to the preservation of the law. Twice its opponents have appeared in the legislature to secure its repeal or modification ; and each time they have been met by these assembled forces. The practical success of the law, even under these adverse conditions, has been remarkable. For the first year, owing mainly to the fact that the city was overbuilt when the new law became effective, few new buildings were erected. Last fall, however, construction started in on a large scale, and is now in full progress. In all, about 600 tenement houses have been erected under the new measure. These buildings are the curiosity and admiration of the metropolis.

The most obvious change is the size of the new tenements. The old twenty-fivefoot unit has been discarded, the builders, in view of the land situation in Manhattan, showing commendable skill in adapting themselves to the new conditions. Tenement houses now built have a width of thirty-seven or of forty feet. The old dumb-bell type has been given up for all time. There are to be no more houses with dark rooms, with insufficient fire protection, with inadequate plumbing, and without the ordinary sanitary conveniences. There are no more narrow airshafts, the minimum court provided in the new law having a width of six feet, — and tills only when it is open either toward the street or the yard. The inner court, corresponding to the twentyeight inch airshaft of the old dumb-bell, is now twelve feet wide; and that, unlike the dumb-bell “ slit,” has a large tunnel at the ground, connecting with the street or yard, and thus furnishing a free circulation of air. In new tenements there are no rooms that do not have windows opening either on the street or yard or upon a court of the above generous proportions. Equally important are certain interior arrangements. Most apartments are provided with private halls, — the absence of private halls in the old type of building was one of its greatest evils, — all staircases and balls are fireproof, and, if the building is more than six stories, it is of fireproof construction throughout. Other technical improvements need not be elaborated here ; the great point to be borne in mind is that all tenement and apartment houses must hereafter be supplied with abundant light and air. The law went further than this, in that it aimed not only to safeguard the future, but to undo the mistakes of the past. It required radical changes in old tenement houses to make them more habitable. It provided for the abolition of certain unsanitary nuisances, and for the ventilation of all dark interior rooms. In addition to its other duties the department is now letting light and air into some 300,000 of these vitiated chambers,

— in some instances a considerable part of the houses being reconstructed for this purpose. The tenement commissioner’s probe is reaching into the deepest recesses of the underworld.

The response of the people themselves to these new buildings is the most encouraging feature of the reform. It has always been the cry of the landlords that the tenants got as good as they deserved ; that they preferred to live in filth, and that they would abuse whatever quarters were given them. Their stock argument has been certain venerable bath-tubs installed in model tenements by misguided philanthropists and utilized by the occupants as coal bins. The popularity of the new houses with the poorer classes, however, was sufficiently shown last winter, when a determined effort was made for its repeal. The whole East Side was aroused, largely attended meetings of tenement dwellers protested against the proposed legislation, and at the hearing in Albany a procession of more than 500 East Side citizens filed up to the capitol and made a personal appeal to governor and legislature in behalf of the existing law. There is no apathy on the East Side on the question of tenement improvement. As the new houses are built there is little less than a stampede to secure quarters in them. They are well cared for by the tenants; even the bath-tubs are frequently put to their intended use. As a matter of fact one of the chief reasons for accumulated filth in the old tenement houses was their darkness. It could not be seen. Practically all the halls and rooms, however, are now as bright as daylight; and the educational value of this illumination is evident in the neatness and domesticity of the new apartments. The popularity of the new houses has given them a great commercial value. As a result, the De Forest law is now as much appreciated by the builders as by the general public. The most reputable now declare that they would be the last to favor any retrogression in tenement legislation.

Nor have the better houses resulted in any great increase in rents. In this matter, too, the former opponents of the law have been proved false prophets. House rents have no intimate bearing upon the cost of production; it is purely a question of demand and supply. The new tenements bring slightly higher rents, — perhaps thirty cents per room per month ; but that is because they are new and scarce. New houses under the old law always brought higher rents than old. The question is confused at the present time because there has been a great increase in rents in all the tenement sections, owing to an increased demand and lessened supply ; and this has affected the old as well as the new houses. It will be readily admitted, however, that the De Forest houses are occupied by those highest in the tenement scale; but it is not necessary to conclude that the new law is doing nothing for the most wretched classes. In the first place, this view omits the work now being done under this law in other ways than the mere construction of new houses, — in the ventilation of old rookeries, sometimes at the expense of their reconstruction, and in their supervision by a special city department. Again, as far as the building of new houses is concerned, this is a reform which necessarily begins at the top. Progress is made only by furnishing the more thrifty with improved housing. There are numerous castes in the tenement quarter, and a constant moving up in the tenement scale. In five or ten years there will be thousands of the new tenements now so admired. The poorer classes, year by year, will find their habitations in them. Thirty and forty years hence our new law tenements will be among the rookeries of the East Side. Had the law been passed a generation ago, the present homes of the East Side poor would be wonderfully superior to the black holes in which they now live. Thus the new law, in the course of time, improves the houses of the more wretched as well as of the more prosperous in the tenement districts. Nor will the process necessarily be slow. The greater financial qualities of the new houses will accelerate the destruction of old to furnish sites for them. The East Side is undergoing rapid reconstruction ; the new law will stimulate it. Already, in the most popular districts are four and five story flats removed to make way for the De Forest type of building.

The new tenement law is the greatest forward step in civilization the City of New York has taken in years. Its influence is widespread, as its success has inspired other municipalities to improvement along similar lines.

Burton J. Hendrick.

  1. The word tenement in this article is used in its legal sense, — that is, as a house occupied by three or more families, each doing its own cooking on the premises {law of 1887).
  2. Report of the Tenement Commission of 1895. These, of course, are extreme eases.