The filthiest part of an old-law city tenement

That would be the air shaft—the slender opening between tenements that developers built to satisfy an 1879 requirement mandating a window facing outdoors in every room.

These shafts did provide a bit of air and light. Unfortunately, they also functioned as dumps, with tenants tossing their waste down the air shaft, rendering them funnels of filth and disease.

Just how disgusting was it? This passage conveys it well. It’s from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty’s Smith’s account (based on her own childhood) of a young girl growing up in a Williamsburg slum:

“The airshaft was a horrible invention. Even with the windows tightly sealed, it served as a sounding box and you could hear everybody’s business. Rats scurried around the bottom. There was always the danger of fire. A match absently tossed into the airshaft by a drunken teamster set the house afire in a moment.

“There were vile things cluttering up the bottom. Since the bottoms couldn’t be reached by man (the windows being too small to admit the passage of a body), it served as a fearful repository for things that people wanted to put out of their lives. Rusted razor blades and bloody clothes were the most innocent items.

“Once Francie looked down into the airshaft. She thought of what the priest said about Purgatory and figured it must be like the airshaft bottom only on a larger scale.”

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10 Responses to “The filthiest part of an old-law city tenement”

  1. petey Says:

    but, to be fair, not all were like that: ours never had refuse in it. pigeons used to build nests on ledges, until wire mesh was put across the top, so now we don’t even have those!

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Was yours old-law? I think the disgustingness of the old-law air shafts ushered in the new-law tenement act, which mandated that windows face real courtyards.

  3. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    They were pretty gross but since I was always 4th or 5th floor the stench never really reached up that far. Anyway, I always locked and bolted the windows from any burglars trying to get in. But they were disgusting in those years, 60s & 70s, by the 80s and 90s they seemed to be cleaned up.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    Interesting, maybe those anti-litter campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s really worked—-the crying Indian and all…..

  5. wordgrl Says:

    Maybe this is why my old apartment on Lafayette St. (built in the 1880’s, I think) had a window in an interior wall. No airshaft, but without this window, the interior room would not have access to light or fresh air.

  6. Katie L. Says:

    Wordgrl, on a tour of the Tenement Museum, I learned that that’s exactly what those windows were for–I think they were even called “tuberculosis windows.”

  7. Goggla Says:

    For years, there was a wine bottle at the bottom of my shaft that rolled around and knocked against the walls when ever there was a storm. Drove me nuts, but I could never reach it as I am three floors up. A couple of years ago, someone painted the interior of the shaft and it was only then that the trash at the bottom got cleaned up. I can only imagine what it was like a century ago.

  8. fawmanuyawka Says:

    I always think about the “crying Indian” anti-litter campaign … especially when so many years prior dog poop lined the curbs of our Rego Park neighborhood (opposite the still-being-built Lefrak City). Today, that “brave” would have had a google of coronaries for our overall environmental picture despite many inner city landscapes going green. Wait, the Indian was actually an Italian actor who was a lifelong wannabe. It’s enough to make me cry!

  9. Christmas in the tenements in the Gilded Age | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] are still at work sewing pants, making flowers, curling feathers, or doing any other of a hundred tenement tasks to help out the income supplied by the one or two who work […]

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