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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


Mark Twain coined the term "the Gilded Age" to describe the period from the mid-1870s through the mid-1890s as a means of capturing the sense of great progress and great instability. As Robert Weibe argues, the isolated individual communities characterizing the American landscape had begun to dissolve by the 1870's. In its place, began to emerge a new ordered urban-industrial structure, which attempted to regularize a previously chaotic world. Americans were introduced to electricity as a source of light and power, helping to improve their standard of living, while cities concurrently struggled to dispose of waste and provide pure drinking water to a rapidly expanding population. The drive towards reliability was also reflected in the rise of the corporation during the 1870's-such as Rockefeller's Standard Oil, founded in 1870, and Carnegie Steel, founded in 1873-as a significant economic force. Yet sometimes dramatic fluctuations in prices and wages spawned both commercial and financial panic and strikes, such as the railroad strikes of 1877, and stimulated the formation of unions. The Knights of Labor, founded in 1869 as a secret organization, dropped its veils with the election of Terrence Vincent Powder as "grand master workman" in 1879. In 1881, craft unions formed the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, which would in five years become the American Federation of Labor under the leadership of Samuel Gompers.

In New York City, changes in the built environment reflected the ever-increasing presence of the poor and working classes. The 1870s saw the rapid expansion of hospitals, which were primarily religious and ethnic institutions that had evolved from almshouses. They served the poor primarily by providing warmth, shelter, regular meals, and basic nursing. Some of the major institutions opened in the 1870s included Presbyterian Hospital (1872), Reception (later known as Harlem) Hospital (1877), St. Johns Hospital in Brooklyn (1873), Long Island College Hospital (1871), Metropolitian Hospital Center (1875), and Roosevelt Hospital (1871). Before the end of the first decade of the 20th century, there were some 63 general hospitals in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Sparked by the increasing shortage of adequate housing for New York's poor immigrants, the magazine, The Plumber and Sanitary Engineer sponsored a design competition in 1879. The dual objective was to create more housing and maximize landlord profits-both of which were constrained by the Manhattan lot size of 25 by 100 feet. The prizewinner was James Ware's "dumbbell" design, so named for its narrow airshaft running through the middle of the building, yet it was essentially a front and rear tenement connected by a long hall. Each dumbbell reached six stories and housed 300 people in its 84 rooms. "Dumbbell" tenement construction ballooned after an 1879 housing law set new minimum standards for lighting and ventilation. Thousands had been constructed by 1901. Although the dumbbell did provide one window per room and airshafts designed to admit light and air into the floors of tenement buildings, because of the narrowness of the shafts and the height of the buildings, the shafts "simply [became] a stagnant well of foul air." More seriously, "tenants often use the air shaft as a receptacle for garbage and all sorts of refuse and indescribable filth thrown out of the windows, and this mass of filth is often allowed to remain, rotting at the bottom of the shaft for weeks without being cleaned out." In 1903, Lawrence Veiller reported that New York City's housing conditions were "the worst in the world," primarily because of the "evil of the air-shaft." Water-closets posed a second hazard in the new the dumbbell design. Even as late as 1900, it was not unusual for a family of four to share one water-closet. Reported one female tenant, they "stink horribly. So, we use it as little as possible." Surpassing the filth of the water closets, she elaborated, was the communal sink: "the worst of the sinks is that people wash at the sinks in the public halls. The halls are never clean on account of the sinks; people come out and wash their dishes in them, and wash their meat in the sinks. They spill the water around the sinks, and when the halls are cold in the winter the water freezes and makes the floors slippery."

While rubbish accumulated in tenement airshafts, a more intangible filth permeated City Hall. Whereas Tammany Hall had dominated New York City politics in the 1860s, reformist winds swept William M. "Boss" Tweed out office in the 1870s. Where once Vanderbilt, Astor, and Fiske, among others, curried the favor of Tweed, by the 1870's, the realization of near municipal financial ruin had turned the public and the emerging Robber Barons against the ward-boss method of local governance. Tweed began his ascent to the throne of Tammany in 1851, when he was elected to the board of alderman. After early political success on the Board of Alderman, Tweed progressed through various municipal positions, secured control of the seventh ward in the City's Lower East Side, and became the first "Boss of New York" when he was crowned the grand sachem of Tammany Hall in 1863. Characteristic of his politics, Tweed inserted himself on the boards of many influential city companies that worked for the city. He extorted dramatically inflated rates for these companies, nicely padding his own wallet. At the time his duplicity was revealed in 1871, Tweed was a member of the Harlem Gas and Light Company, the Brooklyn Bridge Company, the Third Avenue Railway Company, and the Guardian Savings Bank.

Tweed and his ring of conspirators, including A. Oakey Hall (mayor), Peter B. Sweeny (head, Department of Public Works) and Richard Connolly (comptroller), were exposed in both New York Times articles and a series of cartoons by Thomas Nast. The business relationships that Tweed and his cronies had cultivated throughout the 1860's came to abrupt halt at the advent of 1870's. Instead of skewing ballots, exacting bribes from Robber Barons, and siphoning off the City's wealth, Tweed spent the 1870's in court. Tweed was ousted from Tammany Hall in 1871. Although his subsequent criminal trial end in a hung jury, Boss Tweed was not so lucky at his second trial. In 1873, he was sentenced to jail and fined for his abuse of municipal power. Samuel Tilden took the lead in criminally prosecuting Boss Tweed. However, after one year in prison, Tweed was released. Immediately upon his release, Tweed was arrested on civil charges. He lost his civil case also, to the tune of $6 million dollars. Rather than face more prison time, Boss Tweed fled to Europe. He was eventually returned to prison, where he died of pneumonia in 1878. Prior to his death, Boss Tweed disclosed many of the intricacies of his ring of municipal manipulators.

Tweed was responsible for numerous changes to the built environment, notably the development of the Upper East Side. He used his position in the Department of Public Works to orchestrate the building and coordination of miles of high quality sewer, water, and gas lines along with roads. Mid-decade, the Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide was exuberant: "from One Hundred and Tenth street to Harlem river, from St. Nicholas avenue to the East river, the Boulevards and cross-streets are laid out and improved in the highest style of Tammany Art-opened, regulated, curbed, guttered and sewered, gas and water mains laid, with miles and miles of Telford-McAdam pavement, streets and avenues brilliantly lighted by fancy lamp-post" resulting "in one of the most desirable and picturesque localities for residence."

But for every such area in which the built environment was substantially improved, there were areas-also reflecting the presence of the poor-where change was absent. For example, electrification of the city began in 1879 when the Common Council authorized the Brush Electric Light Company to establish a generator and mount arc lights along Broadway. Arc lighting quickly spread in the City's commercial and financial districts. By 1887, lighting had become so integral to the life of the city that Mayor Hewitt associated it with crime prevention and "good order." Nonetheless, lighting was regarded as a commodity rather than a public good, and poor streets-not to mention residences, for the new dollar incandescent bulbs developed by Thomas Edison that began to illuminate both business and domestic interiors in the late 1870s and early 1880s, cost half a day laborer's wages-until well into the twentieth century.