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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


The turn of the century brought a new period of tenement reform, headed by City reformers including Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald. Their concerns for the health and welfare of the City's poor immigrants led to an investigation of tenement houses by The Tenement House Committee of the Charity Organization, bringing the appalling sanitary conditions endured by the poor to light. The City responded with enactment of the Tenement House Law of 1901. All tenement houses constructed after the passage of the 1901 law were referred to as "new law" tenements. These buildings were constructed according to specific minimum requirements for the size of rooms and amount of light and ventilation. The state had also entered the business of tenement reform. In 1900 the New York State Legislature created the New York State Tenement House Commission, which created a separate Tenement House Department for the City of New York. The City's Tenement House Department, during the first quarter of the twentieth century, vacillated between being an active reform agency and merely an impotent enforcement body depending upon its director. Nonetheless, reformers acknowledged the Tenement House Department's success in improving housing in New York City. As Edith Elmer Wood reported, although not all tenements were "'immaculate,' there were 'no accumulations of filth,' 'no dilapidation or extreme disrepair,' no privy vaults, and few old hall sinks." Tenement Department Commissioner Murphy reported, in 1915, that New York's death rate had dropped to 13.52 per 1,000 from 19.90 per 1,000 when the Department was established in 1901.

The 1900's continued to reflect the "search for order" in both the political and social spheres. After the assassination of President McKinley by a crazed anarchist in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt took office, heralding the arrival of Progressivism in the White House. Roosevelt's immediate policy initiatives called for greater federal control over corporations, increased authority for the Interstate Commerce Commission, extension of the merit system in civil service, and an aggressive foreign policy. The spirit of reform was not restricted to Roosevelt's White House. A series of popular writers made a national impact commentating on the human condition. The writers, whom Roosevelt called "the Muckrakers," included Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, among others. The introduction of federal legislation regarding meat inspection and the pure food and drug act largely turned on Muckraker popularization of these issues. The Progressive years were also characterized by efforts to improve municipal government throughout the country. Some key amendments included the development of initiative and referendum (1898), recall (1903), direct primaries (1903), the direct election of Senators (ratified in 1913).

In New York, a return to classical, yet cosmopolitan construction marked the turn of the century. Beaux Arts design, which characterized the city beautiful movement, became the dominant architectural style through the 1930's. Elected city officials followed the national trend for integrity and reform in government. Seth Low, the former president of Columbia University, was elected mayor on a fusion ticket in 1901. George McClellan, son of the Civil War general, ousted him in 1903. McCellan served two terms and was lauded for his public works initiatives (including expanding the water supply with the Catskill system), efforts to expand the subway, and overall efficient management of the city. He retired from politics after a dispute with Tammany Boss Charles Murphy over patronage.

With a never-ending stream of immigrants entering America through New York's ports, the City experienced an unprecedented population explosion. The Lower East Side acquired the distinction of being the most densely populated area on the globe. The deafening clamor of horses on cobblestone streets made it impossible for even the healthiest individual to ride in the over-crowded streetcars without a headache.

In 1863, London opened the world's first underground railway. A little over twenty years later, the profound economic and population growth prompted New Yorkers to develop a high-powered rapid transit system for New York City. In January of 1888, encouraged by the city's merchants and businessmen, Major Abraham S. Hewitt put forward a proposal for construction of an under-ground subway system to serve the city's commuters. After a subway plan was approved, work began in earnest in 1888. The Rapid Transit Subway Construction Company was awarded the first contract for $35 million. The first subway line ran from City Hall to 42nd Street, then west to Times Square and finally north along Broadway up to 96th street. By 1902, a second contract was extended to the Interborough Rapid Transit Company to build a line into Brooklyn.

Sources: Robert W. De Forest, "Tenement Reform in New York Since 1901," in The Tenement House Problem, Vol I (eds.) Robert W. De Forest and Lawrence Veiller (The MacMillian Company, 1903); Lubove, Progressives and the Slums, p. 151-170; Edith Elmer Wood, The Housing of the Unskilled Wage Earner: America's Next Problem (New York, Macmillan 1919):75-76; Kenneth T. Jackson, The Great Metropolis: Poverty and Progress in New York City (New York, 1993); Kenneth T. Jackson, The Encyclopedia of New York City, (New York, 1998); Clifton Hood, 722 Miles: The Building of the Subway and how they Transformed New York, (John Hopkins University Press, 1995).