“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.”
“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.
The “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.
The 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]