Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Battle with the Slum. 1902.V
Druv into Decency
Around the corner there came from one of the side streets a procession with banners, parading in honor and aid of some church charity. We watched it pass. In it marched young men and boys with swords and battle-axes, and upon its outskirts skipped a host of young roughs—so one would have called them but for the evidence of their honest employment—who rattled collection boxes, reaping a harvest of pennies from far and near. I looked at the battle-axes and the collection boxes, and thought of forty years ago. Where was the Seven Dials of that day, and the men who gave it its bad name? I asked the policeman.
“They were druv into decency, sor,” he said, and answered from his own experience the question ever asked by faint-hearted philanthropists. “My father, he done duty here afore me in ’45. The worst dive was where that church stands. It was always full of thieves,”—whose sons, I added mentally, have become collectors for the church. The one fact was a whole chapter on the slum.
London’s way with the tenant we adopted at last in New in New York with the slum landlord. He was “druv into decency.” We had to. Moral suasion had been stretched to the limit. The point had been reached where one knock-down blow out-weighed a bushel of arguments. It was all very well to build model tenements as object lessons to show that the thing could be done; it had become necessary to enforce the lesson by demonstrating that the community had power to destroy houses which were a menace to its life. The rear tenements were chosen for this purpose.
They were the worst, as they were the first, of New York’s tenements. The double-deckers of which I have spoken had, with all their evils, at least this to their credit, that their death-rate was not nearly as high as that of the old houses. That was not because of any virtue inherent in the double-deckers, but because the earlier tenements were old, and built in a day that knew nothing of sanitary restrictions, and cared less. Hence the showing that the big tenements had much the lowest mortality. The death-rate does not sound the depths of tenement-house evils, but it makes a record that is needed when it comes to attacking property rights. The mortality of the rear tenements had long been a scandal. They are built in the back yard, generally back to back with the rear buildings on abutting lots. If there is an open space between them, it is never more than a slit a foot or so wide, and gets to be the receptacle of garbage and filth of every kind; so that any opening made in these walls for purposes of ventilation becomes a source of greater danger than if there were none. The last count that was made, in 1900, showed that among the 44,850 tenements in Manhattan and the Bronx there were still 2143 rear houses left. Where they are the death-rate rises, for reasons that are apparent. The sun cannot reach them. They are damp and dark, and the tenants, who are always the poorest and most crowded, live “as in a cage open only toward the front.” A canvass made of the mortality records by Dr. Rodger S. Tracy, the registrar of records, showed that while in the First Ward (the oldest), for instance, the death-rate in houses standing singly on the lot was 29.03 per 1000 of the living, where there were rear houses it rose to 61.97. The infant death-rate is a still better test; that rose from 109.58 in the single tenements of the same ward to 204.54 where there were rear houses. One in every five babies had to die; that is to say, the house killed it. No wonder the Gilder commission styled the rear tenements “slaughter-houses,” and called upon the legislature to root them out, and with them every old, ramshackle, disease-breeding tenement in the city.
A law which is in substance a copy of the English act for destroying slum property was passed in the spring of 1895. It provided for the seizure of buildings that were dangerous to the public health or unfit for human habitation, and their destruction upon proper proof, with compensation to the owner on a sliding scale down to the point of entire unfitness, when he might claim only the value of the material in his house. Up to that time, the only way to get rid of such a house had been to declare it a nuisance under the sanitary code; but as the city could not very well pay for the removal of a nuisance, to order it down seemed too much like robbery; so the owner was allowed to keep it. It takes time and a good many lives to grow a sentiment such as this law expressed. The Anglo-Saxon respect for vested rights is strong in us also. I remember going through a ragged school in London, once, and finding the eyes of the children in the infant class red and sore. Suspecting some contagion, I made inquiries, and was told that a collar factory next door was the cause of the trouble. The fumes from it poisoned the children’s eyes.
“And you allow it to stay, and let this thing go on?” I asked, in wonder.
The superintendent shrugged his shoulders. “It is their factory,” he said.
I was on the point of saying something that might not have been polite, seeing that I was a guest, when I remembered that, in the newspaper which I carried in my pocket, I had just been reading a plea of some honorable M. P. for a much-needed reform in the system of counsel fees, then being agitated in the House of Commons. The reply of the solicitor general had made me laugh. He was inclined to agree with the honorable member, but still preferred to follow precedent by referring the matter to the Inns of Court. Quite incidentally, he mentioned that the matter had been hanging fire in the House two hundred years. It seemed very English to me then; but when we afterward came to tackle our rear tenements, and in the first batch there was a row which I knew to have been picked out by the sanitary inspector twenty-five years before as fit only to be destroyed, I recognized that we were kin, after all.
That was Gotham Court. It was first on the list, and the Mott Street Barracks came next, when, as executive officer of the Good Government Clubs, I helped the Board of Health put the law to the test the following year. Roosevelt was Police President and Health Commissioner; nobody was afraid of the landlord. The Health Department kept a list of 66 old houses, with a population of 5460 tenants, in which there had been 1313 deaths in a little over five years (1889–94). From among them we picked our lot, and the department drove the tenants out. The owners went to law, one and all; but, to their surprise and dismay, the courts held with the health officers. The moral effect was instant and overwhelming. Rather than keep up the fight, with no rent coming in, the landlords surrendered at discretion. In consideration of this, compensation was allowed them at the rate of about a thousand dollars a house, although they were really entitled only to the value of the old bricks. The buildings all came under the head of “wholly unfit.” Gotham Court, with its sixteen buildings, in which, many years before, a health inspector counted 146 cases of sickness, including “all kinds of infectious disease,” was bought for $19,750, and Mullen’s Court, adjoining, for $7251. To show the character of all, let two serve; in each case it is the official record, upon which seizure was made, that is quoted:
No. 98 Catherine Street: “The floor in the apartments and the wooden steps leading to the second-floor apartment are broken, loose, saturated with filth. The roof and eaves gutters leak, rendering the apartments wet. The two apartments on the first floor consist of one room each, in which the tenants are compelled to cook, eat, and sleep. The back walls are defective, the house wet and damp, and unfit for human habitation. It robs the surrounding houses of light.”
“The sunlight never enters” was the constant refrain.
No. 17 Sullivan Street:“Occupied by the lowest whites and negroes, living together. The houses are decayed from cellar to garret, and filthy beyond description,—the filthiest, in fact, we have ever seen. The beams, the floors, the plaster on the walls, where there is any plaster, are rotten, and alive vermin. They are a menace to the public health, and cannot be repaired. Their annual death-rate in five years was 41.38.”
The sunlight enters where these stood, at all events, and into 58 other yards that once were plague spots. Of 94 rear tenements seized that year, 60 were torn down, 33 of them voluntarily by the owners; 29 were remodelled and allowed to stand, chiefly as workshops; 5 other houses were standing empty, and yielding no rent, when I last heard of them. I suppose they have been demolished since. The worst of them all, the Mott Street Barracks, were taken into court by the owner; but all the judges and juries in the land had no power to put them back when it was decided upon a technicality that they should not have been destroyed offhand. It was a case of “They can’t put you in jail for that.”—“Yes, but I am in jail.” They were gone, torn down under the referee’s decision that they ought to go, before the Appellate Division called a halt. We were not in a mood to trifle with the Barracks, or risk any of the law’s delays. In 1888 I counted 360 tenants in these tenements, front and rear, all Italians, and the infant death-rate of the Barracks that year was 325 per 1000. There were forty babies, and one in three of them had to die. The general infant death-rate for the whole tenement-house population that year was 88.38. In the four years following, during which the population and the death-rate of the houses were both reduced with an effort, fifty-one funerals went out of the Barracks. With entire fitness, a cemetery corporation held the mortgage upon the property. The referee allowed it the price of opening one grave, in the settlement, gave one dollar to the lessee, and one hundred and ten dollars to the landlord, who refused to collect and took his case into the courts. We waited to see the land-lord attack the law itself on the score of constitutionality, but he did not. The Court of Appeals decided that it had not been shown that the Barracks might not have been used for some other purpose than a tenement and that therefore we had been hasty. The city paid damages, but it was all right. It was emphatically a case of haste making for speed. So far the law stands unchallenged, both here and in Massachusetts, where they destroyed twice as many unfit houses as we did in New York and stood their ground on its letter, paying the owners the bare cost of the old timbers.
As in every other instance, we seized only the rear houses at the Barracks; but within a year or two the front houses were also sold and destroyed too, and so disappeared quite the worst rookery that was left on Manhattan Island. Those of us who had explored it with the “midnight police” in its worst days had no cause to wonder at its mortality. In Berlin they found the death-rate per thousand to be 163.5 where a family occupied one room, 22.5 where it lived in two rooms, 7.5 in the case of three-room dwellers, and 5.4 where they had four rooms. Does any one ask yet why we fight the slum in Berlin and New York? The Barracks in those days suggested the first kind.
I have said before that I do not believe in paying the slum landlord for taking his hand off our throats, when we have got the grip on him in turn. Mr. Roger Foster, who as a member of the Tenement House Committee drew the law, and as counsel for the Health Department fought the landlords successfully in the courts, holds to the opposite view. I am bound to say that instances turned up in which it did seem a hardship to deprive the owners of even such property. I remember especially a tenement in Roosevelt Street, which was the patrimony and whole estate of two children. With the rear house taken away, the income from the front would not be enough to cover the interest on the mortgage. It was one of those things that occasionally make standing upon abstract principle so very uncomfortable. I confess I never had the courage to ask what was done in their case. I know that the tenement went, and I hope—well, never mind what I hope. It has nothing to do with the case. The house is down, and the main issue decided upon its merits.
In the 94 tenements (counting the front houses in; they cannot be separated from the rear tenements in the death registry) there were in five years 956 deaths, a rate of 62.9 at a time when the general city death-rate was 24.63. It was the last and heaviest blow aimed at the abnormal mortality of a city that ought, by reason of many advantages, to be one of the healthiest in the world. With clean streets, pure milk, medical school inspection, antitoxin treatment of deadly diseases, and better sanitary methods generally; with the sunlight let into its slums, and its worst plague spots cleaned out, the death-rate of New York came down from 26.32 per 1000 inhabitants in 1887 to 19.53 in 1897. Inasmuch as a round half million was added to its population within the ten years, it requires little figuring to show that the number whose lives were literally saved by reform would people a city of no mean proportions. The extraordinary spell of hot weather in the summer of 1896, when the temperature hung for ten consecutive days in the nineties, with days and nights of extreme discomfort, brought out the full meaning of this. While many were killed by sun-stroke, the population as a whole was shown to have acquired, in better hygienic surroundings, a much greater power of resistance. It yielded slowly to the heat. Where two days had been sufficient, in former years, to send the death-rate up, it now took five; and the infant mortality remained low throughout the dreadful trial. Perhaps the substitution of beer for whiskey as a summer drink had something to do with it; but Colonel Waring’s broom and unpolitical sanitation had more. Since it spared him so many voters, the politician ought to have been grateful for this; but he was not. Death-rates are not as good political arguments as tax rates, we found out. In the midst of it all, a policeman whom I knew went to his Tammany captain to ask if Good Government Clubs were political clubs within the meaning of the law which forbade policemen joining such. The answer he received set me to thinking: “Yes, the meanest, worst kind of political clubs, they are.” Yet they had done nothing worse than to save the babies, the captain’s with the rest.
The landlord read the signs better, and ran to cover till the storm should blow over. Houses that had hardly known repairs since they were built were put in order with all speed. All over the city, he made haste to set his house to rights, lest it be seized or brought to the bar in other ways. The Good Government Clubs had their hands full that year (1896–97). They made war upon the dark hall in the double-decker, and upon the cruller bakery. They compelled the opening of small parks, or the condemnation of sites for them anyway, exposed the abuses of the civil courts, the “poor man’s courts,” urged on the building of new schools, cleaned up in the Tombs prison and hastened the demolition of the wicked old pile, and took a hand in evolving a sensible and humane system of dealing with the young vagrants who were going to waste on free soup. The proposition to establish a farm colony for their reclamation was met with the challenge at Albany that “we have had enough reform in New York City,” and, as the event proved, for the time being we had really gone as far as we could. But even that was a good long way. Some things had been nailed that could never again be undone; and hand in hand with the effort to destroy had gone another to build up, that promised to set us far enough ahead to appeal at last successfully to the self-interest of the builder, if not to his humanity; or, failing that, to compel him to decency. If that promise has not been all kept, the end is not yet. I believe it will be kept.
The movement for reform, in the matter of housing the people, had proceeded upon a clearly outlined plan that apportioned to each of several forces its own share of the work. At a meeting held under the auspices of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, early in the days of the movement, the field had been gone over thoroughly. To the Good Government Clubs fell the task, as already set forth, of compelling the enforcement of the existing tenement-house laws. D. O. Mills, the philanthropic banker, declared his purpose to build hotels which should prove that a bed and lodging as good as any could be furnished to the great army of homeless men at a price that would compete with the cheap lodging houses, and yet yield a profit to the owner. On behalf of a number of well-known capitalists, who had been identified with the cause of tenement-house reform for years, Robert Fulton Cutting, the president of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, offered to build homes for the working people that should be worthy of the name, on a large scale. A company was formed, and chose for its president Dr. Elgin R. L. Gould, author of the government report on the “Housing of the Working People,” the standard work on the subject. A million dollars was raised by public subscription, and operations were begun at once.
Two ideas were kept in mind as fundamental: one, that charity that will not pay will not stay; the other, that nothing can be done with the twenty-five-foot lot. It is the primal curse of our housing system, and any effort toward better things must reckon with it first. Nineteen lots on Sixty-eighth and Sixty-ninth streets, west of Tenth Avenue, were purchased of Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark, who took one tenth of the capital stock of the City and Suburban Homes Company; and upon these was erected the first block of tenements. This is the neighborhood toward which the population has been setting with ever increasing congestion. Already in 1895 the Twenty-second Ward contained nearly 200,000 souls. I gave figures in the previous chapter that showed a crowding of more than 1100 persons per acre in some of the blocks here where the conditions of the notorious Tenth Ward are certain to be reproduced, if indeed they are not exceeded. In the Fifteenth Assembly District some distance below, but on the same line, the first sociological canvass of the Federation of Churches had found the churches, schools, and other educational agencies marshalling a frontage of 756 feet on the street, while the saloon fronts stretched themselves over nearly a mile; so that, said the compiler of these pregnant facts, “saloon social ideals are minting themselves on the minds of the people at the ratio of seven saloon thoughts to one educational thought.” It would not have been easy to find a spot better fitted for the experiment of restoring the home to its place.
The Alfred Corning Clark buildings, as they were called in recognition of the effort of this public-spirited woman, have at this writing been occupied five years. They harbor nearly four hundred families, as contented a lot as I ever saw anywhere. The one tenant who left in disgust was a young doctor who had settled on the estate, thinking he could pick up a practice among so many. But he couldn’t. They were not often sick, those tenants. Last year only three died, and they were all killed while away from home. So he had good cause of complaint. The rest had none, and having none, they stay, which is no mean blow struck for the home in the battle with the slum. The home feeling can never grow where people do not stay long enough to feel at home, any more than the plant can which the child is pulling up every two or three days to “see if it has roots.”
Half the tenement house population—and I am not sure that I ought not to say the whole of it—is everlastingly on the move. Dr. Gould quotes as an instance of it the experience of an assembly district leader in distributing political circulars among the people in a good tenement neighborhood. In three months after the enrolment lists had been made out, one-third of the tenants had moved. No doubt the experience was typical. How can the one who hardly knows what a home means be expected to have any pride or interest in his home in the larger sense: the city? And to what in such men is one to appeal in the interests of civic betterment? That is why every effort that goes to help tie the citizen to one spot long enough to give him the proprietary sense in it which is the first step toward civic interest and pride, is of such account. It is one way in which the public schools as neighborhood houses in the best sense could be of great help, and a chief factor in the success of the social settlement. And that is why model tenements, which pay and foster the home, give back more than a money interest to the community.
They must pay, for else, as I said, they will not stay. These pay four per cent, and are expected to pay five, the company’s limit. So it is not strange that the concern has prospered. It has since raised more than one million of dollars, and has built another block, with room for 338 families, on First Avenue and on Sixty-fourth and Sixty-fifth streets, within hail of Battle Row, of anciently warlike memory. Still another block is going up at Avenue A and Seventy-eighth Street, and in West Sixty-second Street, where the colored population crowds, the company is erecting two buildings for negro tenants, where they will live as well as their white fellows do in their model tenements,—a long-delayed act of justice, for as far back as any one can remember the colored man has been paying more and getting less for his money in New York than whites of the same grade, who are poorer tenants every way. The Company’s “city homes” come as near being that as any can. There is light and air in abundance, steam heat in winter in the latest ones, fire-proof stairs, and deadened partitions to help on the privacy that is at once the most needed and hardest to get in a tenement. The houses do not look like barracks. Any one who has ever seen a row of factory tenements that were just houses, not homes, will understand how much that means. I can think of some such rows now, with their ugly brick fronts, straight up and down without a break and without a vine or a window-box of greens or flowers, and the mere thought of them gives me the blues for the rest of the day. There is nothing of that about these tenements, unless it be the long play-yard between the buildings in Sixty-eighth and Sixty-ninth streets. It is too narrow to have anything in it but asphalt. But the rest makes up for it in part.
All together, the company has redeemed its promise of real model tenements; and it has had no trouble with its tenants. The few and simple rules are readily understood as being for the general good, and so obeyed. It is the old story, told years and years ago by Mr. Alfred T. White when he had built his Riverside tenements in Brooklyn. The tenants “do not have to come up” to the landlord’s standard. They are more than abreast of him in his utmost endeavor, if he will only use common sense in the management of his property. They do that in the City and Suburban Homes Company’s buildings. They give their tenants shower-baths and a friend for a rent-collector, their children playrooms and Christmas parties, and the whole neighborhood feels the stimulus of the new and humane plan. In all Battle Row there has not been a scrap, let alone an old-time shindy, since the “accommodation flats” came upon the scene. That is what they call them. It is an everyday observation that the Row has “come up” since some of the old houses have been remodelled. The new that are being built aim visibly toward the higher standard.
The company’s rents average a dollar a week per room, and are a trifle higher than those of the old tenements round about; but they have so much more in the way of comfort that the money is eagerly paid; nor is the difference so great that the “picking of tenants” amounts to more than the putting of a premium on steadiness, sobriety, and cleanliness, which in itself is a service to render. One experience of the management which caused some astonishment, but upon reflection was accepted as an encouraging sign, was the refusal of the tenants to use the common wash-tubs in the laundry. They are little used to this day. The women will use the drying racks, but they object to rubbing elbows with their neighbors while they wash their clothes. It is, after all, a sign that the tenement that smothers individuality left them this useful handle, and if the experience squashed the hopes of some who dreamed of municipal wash-houses on the Glasgow plan, there is nothing to grieve over. Every peg of personal pride rescued from the tenement is worth a thousand theories for hanging the hope of improvement on.
With $2,300,000 invested by this time, the company has built city homes for 1450 families, and has only made a beginning. All the money that is needed for going on with its work is in sight. Nor are the rich the only investors. Of the 400 stockholders 250 have small lots, ten shares and less each, a healthy sign that the company is holding the confidence of the community. It has fairly earned it. No one could have done a greater and better thing for the metropolis than to demonstrate that it is possible to build homes for the toilers as a business and net a business interest upon the investment.
The statement is emphasized by the company’s experience with the suburban end of its work. It bought sites for two or three hundred little cottages out on Long Island, but within the greater city, and only half an hour by trolley or elevated from the City Hall. A hundred houses were built, neat and cosey homes of brick and timber, each in its own garden; and a plan was devised under which the purchaser had twenty years to pay for the property. A life insurance policy protected the seller and secured the house to the widow should the bread-winner die. The plan has worked well in Belgium under the eyes of the government, but it failed to attract buyers here. Of those whom it did attract at the outset, not a few have given up and gone away. When I went out to have a look at the place the year after Homewood had been settled, seventy-two houses had found owners under the company’s plans. After four years fifty-six only are so held, ten have been bought outright, and three sold under contract. Practically the company has had to give up its well-thought-out plan and rent as many of the houses as it could. Nine were vacant this last spring.
So what we all thought the “way out” of the slum seems barred for the time being. For there is no other explanation of the failure than that the people will not go “among the stumps.” Lack of facilities for getting there played a part, possibly, but a minor one, and now there is no such grievance. The simple fact is that the home-feeling that makes a man rear a home upon the soil as the chief ambition of his life was not there. The tenement and the flat have weakened that peg among the class of workers for whom Homewood was planned. I hate to say that they have broken the peg, for I do not believe it. But it has been hurt without doubt. They longed for the crowds. The grass and the trees and the birds and the salt breath of the sea did not speak to them in a language they understood. The brass bands and the hand-organs, the street cries and the rush and roar of the city, had made them forget their childhood’s tongue. For the children understood, even in the gutter.
“It means, I suppose,” said Dr. Gould to me, when we had talked it all over, “that we are and always shall be a tenement house city, and that we have got to reckon with and plan for that only.”
I think not. I believe he is mistaken. And yet I can give no other ground for my belief than my unyielding faith that things will come right yet, if it does take time. They are not right as they are. Man is not made to be born and to live all his life in a box, packed away with his fellows like so many herring in a barrel. He is here in this world for something that is not attained in that way; but is, if not attained, at least perceived when the daisies and the robins come in. If to help men perceive it is all we can do in our generation, that is a good deal. But I believe that before our children have come to the divide, perhaps before we are gone, we shall see the tide of the last century’s drift to the cities turn, under the impulse of the new forces that are being harnessed for man’s work, and Homewood come to its rights. I say I believe it. I wish I could say I knew; but then you would ask for my proofs, and I haven’t any. For all that, I still believe it.
Meanwhile Dr. Gould’s advice is good sense. If he is right, it is of the last importance; if I am right, it is still the way to proving me so by holding on to what is left of the home in the tenement and making the most of it. That we have taken the advice is good ground for hope, in the face of the fact that New York has still the worst housing in the world. We can now destroy what is not fit to stand. We have done it, and the republic yet survives. The slum landlord would have had us believe that it must perish with his rookeries. We are building model tenements and making them pay. Alfred T. White’s Riverside tenements are as good to-day as when they were built a dozen years ago—better if anything, for they were honestly built—and in all that time they have paid five and six per cent, and even more. Dr. Gould found that only six per cent of all the great model housing operations which he examined for the government here and abroad had failed to pay. All the rest were successful. And by virtue of the showing we have taken the twenty-five-foot lot itself by the throat.
Three years ago, speaking of it as the one thing that was in the way of progress in New York, I wrote: “It will continue to be in the way. A man who has one lot will build on it; it is his right. The state, which taxes his lot, has no right to confiscate it by forbidding him to make it yield him an income, on the plea that he might build something which would be a nuisance. But it can so order the building that it shall not be a nuisance; that is not only its right, but its duty.”
That duty has been done since; let me tell how. Popular sentiment, taking more and more firmly hold of the fact that there is a direct connection between helpless poverty and bad housing, shaped itself in 1898 into a volunteer Tenement House Committee which, as an effective branch of the Charity Organization Society, drew up and presented to the municipal authorities a reform code of building ordinances affecting the dwellings of the poor. But Tammany was back, and they would not listen at the City Hall. Seeing which, the committee made up its mind to appeal to the people themselves in such fashion that it should be heard. That was the way the Tenement House Exhibition of the winter of 1900 came into existence.
Rich and poor came to see that speaking record of a city’s sorry plight, and at last we all understood. Not to understand after one look at the poverty and disease maps that hung on the wall was to declare oneself a dullard. The tenements were all down in them, with the size of them and the air space within, if there was any. Black dots upon the poverty maps showed that for each one five families in that house had applied for charity within a given time. There were those that had as many as fifteen of the ominous marks, showing that seventy-five families had asked aid from the one house. To find a tenement free from the taint one had to search long and with care. Upon the disease maps the scourge of tuberculosis lay like a black pall over the double-decker districts. A year later the State Commission, that continued the work then begun, said: “There is hardly a tenement house in which there has not been at least one case of pulmonary tuberculosis within the last five years, and in some houses there have been as many as twenty-two different cases of this terrible disease. There are over 8000 deaths a year in New York City from this disease alone, at least 20,000 cases of well-developed and recognized tuberculosis, and in addition a large number of obscure and incipient cases. The connection between tuberculosis and the character of the tenement houses in which the poor people live is of the very closest.”
A model was shown of a typical East Side block, containing 2781 persons on two acres of land, nearly every bit of which was covered with buildings. There were 466 babies in the block (under five years), but not a bath-tub except one that hung in an air shaft. Of the 1588 rooms 441 were dark, with no ventilation to the outer air except through other rooms; 635 rooms gave upon twilight “air shafts.” In five years 32 cases of tuberculosis had been reported from that block, and in that time 660 different families in the block had applied for charity. The year before the Bureau of Contagious Diseases had registered 13 cases of diphtheria there. However, the rent-roll was all right. It amounted to $113,964 a year.
Those facts told. New York—the whole country—woke up. More than 170 architects sent in plans in the competition for a humane tenement that should be commercially profitable. Roosevelt was governor, and promptly appointed a Tenement House Commission, the third citizen body appointed for such purposes by authority of the state. Mr. Robert de Forest, a distinguished lawyer and a public-spirited man, who had been at the head of the Charity Organization Society and of the relief efforts I spoke of, in time became its chairman, and commissioner of the new Tenement House Department that was created by the new charter of the city to carry into effect the law the commission drew up. At this writing, with the department not yet fully organized, it is too early to say with any degree of certainty exactly how far the last two years have set us ahead; but this much is certain:
“Discretion” is dead—at last. In Manhattan, no superintendent of buildings shall have leave after this to pen tenants in a building with stairs of wood because he thinks with luck it might burn slowly; nor in Brooklyn shall a deputy commissioner rate a room with a window opening on a hall, or a skylight covered over at the top, “the outer air.” Of these things there is an end. The air shaft that was a narrow slit between towering walls has become a “court,” a yard big enough for children to run in. Thirty per cent of the tenement-house lot must be open to the sun. The double-decker has had its day, and it is over. A man may still build a tenement on a twenty-five-foot lot if he so chooses, but he can hardly pack four families on each floor of it and keep within the law. He can do much better, and make an ample profit, by crossing the lot line and building on forty or fifty feet; in consequence of which, building being a business, he does so. In a lot of half a hundred tenement plans I looked over at the department yesterday, there were only two for single houses, and they had but three families on the floor.
So it seems as if the blight of the twenty-five-foot lot were really wiped out with the double-decker. And no one is hurt. The speculative builder weeps—for the poor, he says. He will build no more, he avers, and rents will go up, so they will have to sleep on the streets. But I notice the plans I spoke of call for an investment of three millions of dollars, and that they are working overtime at the department to pass on them, so great is the rush. Belike, then, they are crocodile tears. Anyway, let him weep. He has laughed long enough.
As for the rents, he will put them as high as he can, no doubt. They were too high always, for what they bought. In the case of the builder the state can add force to persuasion, and so urge him along the path of righteousness. When it comes to the rent collector the case is different. It may yet be necessary for the municipality to enter the field as a competing landlord on the five-per-cent basis; but I would rather we, as a community, learned first a little more of the art of governing ourselves without scandal. With Tammany liable to turn up at any moment—no, no! Political tenements might yet add a chapter to the story of our disgrace to make men weep. I have not forgotten the use Tammany made of the people’s baths erected in the Hamilton Fish Park on the East Side—the Ham-fish, locally. They were shut from the day they were opened, I came near saying; I mean from the day they should have been opened; and two stalwart watchmen drew salaries for sitting in the door to keep the people out. That was a perfectly characteristic use of the people’s money, and is not lightly to be invited back. Rather wait awhile yet, and see what our bridges and real rapid transit, and the “philanthropy and five per cent” plan, will do for us. When that latter has been grasped so by the tenant that a little extra brass and plate-glass does not tempt him over into the enemy’s camp, the usurious rents may yet follow the double-decker, as they have clung to it in the past.
1. Old Knickerbocker dwelling.
2. The same made over into a tenement.
3. The rear tenement caves.
4. Packing-box tenement built for revenue only.
5. The limit; the air shaft—first concession to tenant.
6. The double-decker, where the civic conscience began to stir in 1879.
7. Evolution of double-decker up to date.
But if the city may not be the landlord of tenements, I have often thought it might with advantage manage them to the extent of building them to contain so many tenements on basis of air space, and no more. The thing was proposed when the tenement house question first came up for discussion, but was dropped then. The last Tenement House Commission considered it carefully, but decided to wait and see first how the new department worked. The whole expense of that, with its nearly two hundred inspectors, might easily be borne by the collection of a license fee so small that even the tenement house landlord could not complain. Lodging houses are licensed, and workshops in the tenements likewise, to secure efficient control of them. If that is not secured in the case of the workshops, as it is not, it is no fault of the plan, but of the working out of it. I do not expect the licensing of tenements to dispose of all the evils in them. No law or system will ever do that. But it ought to make it easier to get the grip on them that has been wanting heretofore, to our hurt.
8. Prize plan of Tenement House Exhibition, 1900 (fifty-foot lot).