Lower Manhattan’s disease-ridden “lung block”

How would you like to live on a street dubbed the Lung Block by city officials?

This was the moniker given at the turn of the century to the gritty block bounded by Cherry, Catherine, Hamilton (Monroe), and Market Streets near the South Street Seaport.

The name comes from the high number of residents who suffered from contagious respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis.

“I know of no tenement house block in this city which is so bad from a sanitary point of view,” wrote Tenement House Commission head Robert De Forest in 1903.

“Every consideration of public health, morals, and decency require that the buildings on this block be destroyed at an early date,” he added.

Early 1900s journalist Ernest Poole recalled (by way of Philip Lopate’s excellent book Waterfront) that the Lung Block was home to 4,000 people, eight bars, and five “houses of ill fame.”

“And with drunkenness, foul air, darkness and filth to feed upon, the living germs of the Great White Plague, coughed up and spat on floors and walls, had done a thriving business for years,” recalled Poole.

The Lung Block finally bit the dust in the early 1930s, when public funds enabled developers to build Knickerbocker Village, which still stands at the site today (at right in 1934, from the NYPL Digital Collection).

There was at least one more Lung Block in the city: from Lenox to Seventh Avenues between 142nd and 143rd Streets in Harlem.

[Above photo: part of the Lung Block in the 1930s]

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11 Responses to “Lower Manhattan’s disease-ridden “lung block””

  1. WHAMMO Says:

    Sounds like someone wanted that land to build on and used this as an excuse to get public opinion on their side.

  2. rocco dormarunno(akafivepointsguy) Says:

    The name Knickerbocker Village rang a bell. I looked it up and was reminded that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg had lived there.

  3. Kayla Says:

    Thanks 4 the history lesson. Its a wonder they didnt burn it down. Like SanFrancisco let the make shift china tent town burn. There had been bubonic going on there. Kill those rats.

    History can srir so many emotions.

  4. Tom B Says:

    Would Knickerbocker Village be considered gentrification of the neighborhood back then? Were there any protests regarding new construction?

  5. Dave Says:

    That was the very beginning of the urban renewal era, and there probably were minimal protests at most, subsidized housing not having developed the stigma it had a few decades later.

  6. Steve Newman Says:

    I moved into Knick. Village in 2008. Wondered which bldg. the Rosenbergs lived in- the progressive italian/jewish mafia-ish type place was a natural place for them to live. But thanks for the only pic I have ever seen showing Hamilton St and Monroe St looking west, before KV. No one seems to have written of some early gentrification involved, only that the place was not 100% ready to move in [maybe other prioblems too] and there was a rent strike at the very beginning.

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