New York City 1899

You can see Battery Park at the lower end of Manhattan Island, and the Brooklyn Bridge, which was completed in 1883, joining New York City to the fastest growing city in the U.S. at that time, Brooklyn. 

It was hoped Brooklyn would ease the over-crowding in New York City, but it was a false hope.  Both cities grew at rapid rates fueled by tremendous rates of immigration.  The tenements that blighted New York, blighted Brooklyn too.  However, it was in Brooklyn that new model tenements were built with much success, improving living conditions for the working poor.

In this era before sky-scrapers, it is church steeples that jut above the sky-line across the island, from many different denominations and language groups.

Ferries, many seen in the image, carried commuters, business people and tourists across the rivers and to and from the islands in the rivers, which housed criminals, the insane, paupers, and the dead in a cemetery. 

Goods were brought into the city via ships and barges, seen docked along both sides of the island and in Brooklyn, and via the railroad that ended at Grand Central Station near the geographic center of the island.

New York City circa 1905

You can see Central Park, which was built from 1857 to 1878, and improved upon since, principally with the addition of sports facilities, absent from the original park designs.  In those days, parks were designed to recreate nature outside of cities, not to provide physical activity for the sedentary modern office worker and city-dweller.  

The two bridges are Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883, and the Williamsburg Bridge, completed in 1903.  

Look closely, and you’ll see that rural New York began roughly where Central Park ended.

Jacob Riis

Mr. Jacob Riis, a poor immigrant from Denmark, first learned English to a level that allowed him to become a journalist, and then exposed those conditions, and orchestrated programs to improve conditions for all the poor in New York City. 

The terrible slums in New York at this time were not the result of a conspiracy against foreigners or the poor, but a result of explosive population growth in a city ill-prepared for it, and poorly run by a corrupt local government.  Three quarters of all people living in New York City in the 1890s lived in tenement buildings because there was no place else to live.

Mulberry Bend, now Columbus Park

In 1812, New York City’s population was a mere 150,000.  By 1889, the city’s population was estimated at 1.5 million but already in 1890 it was reaching 2 million.  From 1880 to 1890 the entire U.S. population doubled due to immigration from 37 million to 75 million.  Over 5 million immigrants had landed in New York in a space of 20 years, from 1869 to 1889, and that’s only counting the immigrants from outside of the U.S.  Many stopped in New York City before moving on.  The majority of the immigrants from abroad came from Germany and Ireland, but large numbers came from Scandinavia, Spain, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia, China, Arab countries, and Italy.  

Many internal immigrants came to New York City from the southern states as freed slaves, and there were many bankrupted farmers and out-of-work farm laborers from the mid-west.  

I quote here some of Mr. Riis’s observations from his books How the Other Half Lives, from 1890, and The Battle of the Slum, from 1892.  I show here some of his now famous photographs from that era.  

People lined up waiting for the Mulberry Street Police Station lodging house to open for the evening.

“…a midnight inspection in Mulberry Street unearths a hundred and fifty “lodgers” sleeping on filthy floors in two buildings.  In spite of brown-stone trimmings, plate-glass and mosaic vestibule floors, the water does not rise in summer to the second story, while the beer flows unchecked to the all-night picnics on the roof.  The saloon with the side-door and the landlord divide the prosperity of the place between them, and the tenant, in sullen submission, foots the bills.”

Tenement Alley

The earliest tenements (multiple-family dwellings) were family homes divided up into separate living units.  Later additions were the rear-tenements built in the family-home gardens.  In the image above, you can see the space that would normally be garden space, is completely built in with irregular buildings, added later, to capitalize on the housing shortage in the city.

Eventually purpose-built buildings were erected where homes had been torn down, or on any cheap land a builder could find, even land he didn’t own!  By 1900 tenement had been built all over Manhattan island, along the rivers, up through Harlem, to the city line and beyond.  And reformers’ early dreams of wide open spaces in suburbia died a quick death when tenements were built throughout fast-growing Brooklyn.

Tenement Back Alley
Behind Tenements

After much suffering on the part of the tenants, finally city officials legislated health and safety rules to save lives in these death traps.  Thousands died each year from epidemics, heat exhaustion, fire, suffocation…

The space allowed by law between the backs of tenements, from which tenants got their ‘fresh’ air and ‘light’, was barely 10 feet.  Then as now in New York, the higher the apartment, the higher the rent.  You must pay extra for ‘air’ and ‘light’.  This often meant an 8 story walk-up.  Men, women and children died every summer by rolling off the rooftops in their sleep, where they took refuge in the sweltering heat.

An Italian woman ‘rag-picker’ in her living space, with her packs of junk, few possessions including her straw hat hung on the wall behind her, and a child in her lap.


Children on Mulberry street sleeping outdoors because of the heat indoors.

The biggest difference between then and now, is indoor plumbing.  A century ago, outdoor water-closets were located in the alleys and courtyards around buildings, and a fire-hydrant served as the only water source for most tenements.  And to make it all worse, animals were often stabled in the same courtyards and alleys, adding to the rancid smells that wafted up the light and air shafts.  A special law had to be passed to stop people housing pigs in the city and letting them ‘graze’ freely on the street trash.

Sheds constructed in back tenement alley to house extended families

Unlike many others during his time, Mr. Riis believed that moral citizens, given a chance to improve their lives, will take that chance and rise out of poverty into the middle class.  He insisted that organized, systematic charity, sponsored by private wealth, together with strict laws setting high standards for decent living conditions and outlawing exploitation could work miracles in slum areas.  He saw much of that happen in his lifetime, as a direct result of his efforts.