“The problem of living in New York” explained

“In no considerable, thoroughly settled city on the civilized globe is material living attended with so many difficulties as New York.”


So begins a November 1882 Harper’s Weekly article that lays out why making a home in the city is such an exercise in frustration.

Lack of affordable housing and the high cost of living, of course. “Even in London, to which alone we are second in commercial importance, it is not hard to find a house or rooms within the municipal limits at any season.”

Problemofnymorrisparkad“But one of the greatest troubles of the average New-Yorker is to secure a roof to shelter him and his. He has no expectation of a home—anything like a home is reserved for the very prosperous few; the most he dares to hope for is a sojourning place for six months, or a year or two at furthest.”

“The effort he makes to this end, the anxiety he suffers, are incalculable.” Because Manhattan is a long, skinny island, land is “so dear that every square foot is naturally turned to the utmost profit.”

The article points to a possible breakthrough. In the late 19th century, French Flats were introduced to the city, rental apartments where a family unable to afford a stand-alone house could live respectably.

ProblemofnybaileyparkadThe “elegant” rentals could cost up to $4,000 a year. The cheapest flat that wasn’t a tenement could be had for $400 per year. But with the average middle-class salary $1,500 annually, neither option was affordable.

Even with the development of the Upper West Side in the 1880s (top image), rows and rows of brownstones and luxury apartment buildings like the Dakota were way out of reach.

“It is estimated that a man and his wife, with one or two children, can not possibly live here in any degree of comfort on less than $5,000 a year,” according to the article.

ProblemlivingnyctheworldadThe result? A middle class resident “must pitch his tent, as it may justly be styled, in the rear of Brooklyn, along the lines of the New Jersey railroads, among the sand knolls of Long Island, or amid the pastures of Westchester.” (The ads above attest to the rapid development of the Bronx in the early 1900s.)

“New York is a great, a most opulent city, a marvel of enterprise and progress, in all likelihood the future capital of the world,” the article concludes.

“When it has achieved its highest density, let us hope that amid its splendors and its blessings may be included a few more houses.”

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]

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8 Responses to ““The problem of living in New York” explained”

  1. realeyezlife Says:

    Oh how times have NOT changed😦 …100,000 people a night fall asleep on the streets of nyc

  2. Lady G. Says:

    This is like reading today’s newspaper, and now it’s not just wannabe Manhattanites feeling the pinch. Now Brooklyn is astronomical. And I’m sure other boroughs like Queens and Staten Island. (So I heard from relatives)

  3. jccarlton Says:

    Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    NYC has ALWAYS been an expensive place to live. The solution to this problem was the NY Subway and the Commuter railroads like the NYC Hudson and Harlem Lines, the LIRR and the New Haven. You can still see the patterns of development along subway and the railroads.

  4. Tom B Says:

    Nice pic of the front/east side of The Plaza Hotel. A lot has been changed/added to that area. The Apple store is about 100 feet below that mound of dirt. What year is that picture (1907)?

  5. Robert S Says:

    Too short to be the Plaza Hotel. Perhaps the Dakota apartments on CPW?

  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yep, the Dakota

  7. A journalist’s assessment of the problem of living in New York in 1882 – Slinking Toward Retirement Says:

    […] I first found out about this article on the blog Ephemeral New York. […]

  8. Brooklyn’s “most perfect” 1886 apartment house | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] goes without saying that livable flats were in great demand. New York has always had a shortage of housing and space for its middle- and working-class residents, and this true even in the booming […]

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