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Sanitary condition of the City

1867: First Tenement House Act

NYC Creates the Dept. of Public Works

1879: Tenement House Competition

The Great Blizzard

1890: Jacob Riis publishes "How the Other Half Lives"

: Appointing of Commissioner of Street Cleaning

1901: Tenement House Law

1914: Street Cleaning Exhibition


For the nation, the 1860s marked a period of reconstruction following the end of the Civil War in 1865. On the one hand, this was a political endeavor to redefine race and national citizenship. On the other hand, however, it was a technological and industrial endeavor that would have a profound impact on health and the built environment. Although industry was established well before the Civil War-indeed, the nation had been creating a manufacturing economy since the beginning of the century-the 1860s, in some sense, marked the beginning of profound change in the nation. Improvements in steel making transformed the metal industry in the US, making possible the mass production of steel needed for railroads and skyscrapers. The first transcontinental rail was completed by the decade's end, in 1869, and over the course of the decade the miles of railroad track laid increased from 30,000 to 52,000. In New York City, the first elevated train was operational in 1868 and Alfred Beach was experimenting on the first underground pneumatic tube in 1870. New York City also helped to open the skyscraper era, with construction on the Equitable Building, which was begun in 1868 and finished in 1870.

Laboring bodies were needed to fuel the emerging industrial economy and the end of the Civil War saw the beginning of the first great wave of immigration, both from the nation's rural to suburban areas and from abroad. Immigrants from abroad were drawn primarily from England, Ireland, and the northern European nations. By the 1860s, New York City emerged as the nation's foremost center of trade, industry, finance and communication. Along with these changes came a profound reorganization in work, neighborhood, housing, family, and transportation. Homes, work sites and offices, once clustered around the ports and commercial sites of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn's shoreline, spread to outlying areas of Long Island and Westchester.

While New York began to spill over its bounds, it was also uniquely contained within them (at least prior to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge). New York in the 1860s was still geographically identical with Manhattan Island, located between the Hudson and East Rivers and bounded on the north by Westchester, the east by Brooklyn and Long Island and on the west by New Jersey. The island, far from being the level, neatly laid out grid of rectangular blocks, was marked by hills and gullies, streams, marshlands and meadows. Much of the shoreline had been filled in over the preceding decades yet areas along the Hudson and East rivers still had large pockets of swamp and wetlands. The densely populated area between Houston Street and Fourteenth Street and as far west as Tompkins Square was an uneven marshlands while just to the north along the water's edge lay land filled with the rubble, granite and earth excavated from the center of the island. The sparsely populated sections of the City north from Central Park were all the more uneven, with cliffs and valleys, streams and meadows. Therefore, while there was still room for expansion on the island, the city began to build upwards as well as outwards, and it would soon become one of the most densely populated cities the world has ever known.

New York's housing problems could be traced as far back as the eighteenth century. New buildings erected to alleviate the problems were strictly limited to the small space provided by an ordinary City lot, 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep. To counteract the limited space available, property owners began constructing double tenements on the same plot of land. These notorious "rear house" tenements, built alongside regular tenements with as little as 40 inches of space separating them, would become infamous over the following years as contributing greatly to the high mortality rate in the City due to their exceptionally poor conditions. Residents, who could not afford to live in the more expensive front house tenements, generally settled for the cheaper rear house units, where rooms were smaller and ventilation and sanitation worse. Following a report by the Council of Hygiene of the Citizen's Association in 1867-when Manhattan contained some 15,000 tenement houses-the first tenement house law was passed. The law required that every tenement house should be provided with a "window or ventilator" in every sleeping room, that every house should be equipped with a fire escape, and "should be provided with good and sufficient water-closets or privies." The law forbade cesspools to be connected to tenement houses. Rather, all new tenement houses "should be graded and drained, and connected with the sewer." Unfortunately, while this law did much to stimulate tenement reform, it was seldom enforced and did little to actually improve the unsanitary living conditions.

In 1864, the commercial avenues of the area were paved with cobblestones which, in turn, provided deep cracks in which refuse collected and rotted. But the streets were "very filthy" with accumulations of manure from the horses that traversed the area, dead dogs, cats and rats, household and vegetable refuse that in winter accumulated to depths of three feet or more. "Garbage boxes," rarely emptied, overflowed with offal, animal carcasses, and household waste. "Pools" of stagnant water collected in the carcasses of dead animals, and over sewer drains that were generally clogged. "Filth of every kind [were] thrown into the streets, covering their surface, filling the gutters, obstructing the sewer culverts, and sending forth perennial emanations which must generate pestiferous diseases," reported William Thomas, the Sanitary Inspector for the district. "Drainage is generally imperfect, the courtyards being ... below the level of the streets" and "everything is thrown into the street and gutters at all times of the day." While poorly designed sewers had been installed throughout the region, most of the population depended upon the outdoor "water closets" and privies in the courtyards of the tenement buildings, close to wells used for drinking.

The few amenities that were provided were generally inadequate, often becoming public health hazards themselves. The water closets, reported the Citizen's Association Committee in 1865, were usually "covered and surrounded with filth, so as not to be approachable." Others were "merely trenches sunken one or two feet in the ground, the fluids of which [were] in some instances allowed to run into the courts, stones and boards ... provided to keep their feet out of filth." Half of the houses in the district had no sewers connected to them making the stench that arose during the summer "absolutely unbearable and perilous." Over 29 brothels, 43 stables and 406 "dram shops" added to the generalized decay of a district that 75 years before boasted the purest water in the city.

By mid-century, then, New York had among the worst health statistics in the nation. Vital statistics gathered by the City showed that while one out of every 44 people died in 1863 in Boston and one of 44 in Philadelphia, New York's rate was one in 36. Even when compared with European centers such as London and Liverpool, New York fared badly. In London and Liverpool death rates hovered around one in 45 since the introduction of modern sanitary practices. Despite the fact that endemic conditions such as tuberculosis and diarrhoeal diseases among children were more important contributors to mortality in the City than epidemic diseases, the appearance of scourges such as cholera had a very real significance as symbols of the rapidity with which the City was being transformed.