How The Other Half Lives PDF

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The genesis of the Tenement

The first tenement New York knew bore the mark of Cain from its birth, though a generation passed before the writing was deciphered.

It was the “rear house,” infamous ever after in our city’s history. There had been tenant-houses before, but they were not built for the purpose.

Nothing would probably have shocked their original owners more than the idea of their harboring a promiscuous crowd; for they were the decorous homes of the old Knickerbockers.

The proud aristocracy of Manhattan in the early days.

It was the stir and bustle of trade, together with the tremendous immigration that followed upon the war of 1812 that dislodged them.

In thirty-five years the city of less than a hundred thousand came to harbor half a million souls, for whom homes had to be found.

Within the memory of men not yet in their prime, Washington had moved from his house on Cherry Hill as too far out of town to be easily reached.

Now the old residents followed his example, but they moved in a different direction and for a different reason.

Their comfortable dwellings in the once fashionable streets along the East Riverfront fell into the hands of real estate agents and boarding-house keepers.

And here, says the report to the Legislature of 1857, when the evils engendered had excited just alarm.

“in its beginning, the tenant-house became a real blessing to that class of industrious poor whose small earnings limited their expenses, and whose employment in workshops, stores, or about the warehouses and thoroughfares, render a near residence of much importance.”

Not for long, however. As business increased, and the city grew with rapid strides, the necessities of the poor became the opportunity of their wealthier neighbors.

And the stamp was set upon the old houses, suddenly becoming valuable, which the best thought and effort of a later age has vainly struggled to efface.

Their “large rooms were partitioned into several smaller ones, without regard to light or ventilation, the rate of rent being lower in proportion to space or height from the street.

And they soon became filled from cellar to garret with a class of tenantry living from hand to mouth, loose in morals, improvident inhabits, degraded, and squalid as beggary itself.”

It was thus the dark bedroom, prolific of untold depravities, that came into the world. It was destined to survive the old houses.

In their new rôle, says the old report, eloquent in its indignant denunciation of “evils more destructive than wars,” “they were not intended to last.

Rents were fixed high enough to cover damage and abuse from this class, from whom nothing was expected, and the most was made of them while they lasted.

Neatness, order, and cleanliness, were never dreamed of in connection with the tenant-house system, as it spread its localities from year to year.

While reckless slovenliness, discontent, privation, and ignorance were left to work out their invariable results, until the entire premises reached the level of tenant-house dilapidation, containing.

But sheltering not, the miserable hordes that crowded beneath smoldering, water-rotted roofs or burrowed among the rats of clammy cellars.”

Yet so illogical is human greed that, at a later day, when called to account, “the proprietors frequently urged the filthy habits of the tenants as an excuse for the condition of their property.

Utterly losing sight of the fact that it was the tolerance of those habits which was the real evil, and that for this they themselves were alone responsible.”

AuthorJacob Riis
Language English
No. of Pages326
PDF Size19.9 MB

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