Posts Tagged ‘How the Other Half Lives’

A tenement in the summer is a “fiery furnace”

June 17, 2019

“With the first hot nights in June police despatches, that record the killing of men and women by rolling off roofs and window-sills while asleep, announce that the time of greatest suffering among the poor is at hand,” wrote Jacob Riis in 1890 in How the Other Half Lives.

Riis, a former newspaper reporter who immigrated to New York from Denmark 20 years earlier, hoped his book would open the city’s eyes to the lives of the city’s poorest—people who resided mainly in the cramped, filthy tenement districts of the Lower East Side.

No season illustrated how harsh life was for these tenement dwellers than summer, or “the heated term” in Gilded Age parlance.

That’s when the heat and humidity turned their substandard homes into what Riis described as “fiery furnaces,” forcing people to seek a cool breeze on flimsy roofs, shabby fire escapes, and filthy courtyards.

Riis’ descriptions will resonate with anyone who has lived in a tenement flat without AC in the summertime.

“It is in hot weather, when life indoors is well-nigh unbearable with cooking, sleeping, and working, all crowded into the small rooms together, that the tenement expands, reckless of all restraint.”

“Then a strange and picturesque life moves upon the flat roofs. In the day and early evening mothers air their babies there, the boys fly their kites from the house-tops, undismayed by police regulations, and the young men and girls court and pass the growler.”

“In the stifling July nights, when the big barracks are like fiery furnaces, their very walls giving out absorbed heat, men and women lie in restless, sweltering rows, panting for air and sleep.”

“Then every truck in the street, every crowded fire-escape, becomes a bedroom, infinitely preferable to any the house affords. A cooling shower on such a night is hailed as a heaven sent blessing in a hundred thousand homes.”

[Top image: Frank Leslie’s Newspaper 1880s; second image: Everett Shinn, “Tenements at Hester Street”; third image: 1879 NYPL; fourth image: John Sloan 1906, “Roofs, Summer Night”; fifth image: undated]

Where the homeless slept in an older New York

January 20, 2014

Before the existence of city shelters, there was one place the increasing number of homeless men and women in 19th century New York could sleep at night for free: police station basements.

Homelessleavingpolicestation“In 1857, the police formalized longstanding practice and required each precinct to designate a station house for lodging ‘vagrant and disorderly persons’ overnight,” states The Encyclopedia of New York City.

“Soon notorious for the crush of disreputable humanity they housed, such ‘night refuges’ did offer stranded citizens an alternative to the almshouse.”

How big was that crush of humanity?

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In 1880, after the Panic of 1873 drove up unemployment in an economically divided New York, more than 124,000 people had spent time sleeping on the “soft side of a plank” in a station house, as social reformer Jacob Riis put it in 1889’s How the Other Half Lives.

What to do about “tramps,” as anyone without a fixed address became known, was a huge concern at the time.

An 1886 Municipal Lodging House Act prompted the opening a city-run shelter for men, and the Charity Organization Society operated a “wayfarer’s lodge” on West 29th Street where the homeless could chop wood in exchange for accommodations.

Policelodgingroomeastside

Jacob Riis convinced the city to shut police station basements for good in 1896.

In his 1900 book A Ten Years’ War, Riis cheered their demise, dubbing these bare bones, reportedly disease-ridden places an “awful parody on municipal charity.”

Policelodgerswest47thstreet

In its place, the city housed homeless men on a barge in the East River, and then in 1909, at the Municipal Lodging House on East 25th Street and the East River.

[Top illustration: NYPL Digital Gallery; bottom photos of police basement lodgings: Jacob Riis]

What life was like in squalid “Blind Man’s Alley”

June 28, 2012

Of all the wretched courtyards and alleyways of late 19th century Manhattan, few sound as bad as the little nook known as Blind Man’s Alley.

Located at 26 Cherry Street, Blind Man’s Alley was so squalid, it made it into 1890’s How the Other Half Lives, by social reformer Jacob Riis:

“Few glad noises make this old alley ring. Morning and evening it echoes with the gentle, groping tap of the blind man’s staff as he feels his way to the street.

“Blind Man’s Alley bears its name for a reason. Until little more than a year ago its dark burrows harbored a colony of blind beggars, tenants of a blind landlord, old Daniel Murphy….”

Murphy made a fortune off rents, and he battled a health department mandate that he clean things up and make the alley more hygienic. [Above: photo by Riis inside one of the tenements]

“Sunless and joyless though it be, Blind Man’s Alley has that which its compeers of the slums vainly yearn for. It has a pay-day,” continues Riis.

“In June, when the Superintendent of Out-door Poor distributes the twenty thousand dollars annually allowed the poor blind by the city, in half-hearted recognition of its failure to otherwise provide for them, Blindman’s Alley takes a day off and goes to ‘see’ Mr. Blake.

“That night it is noisy with unwonted merriment. There is scraping of squeaky fiddles in the dark rooms, and cracked old voices sing long-for-gotten songs. Even the blind landlord rejoices, for much of the money goes into his coffers.”

[Right: Sketch of Cherry Street, where Blind Man’s Alley is located, from the NYPL Digital Collection]

The “Street Arabs” roaming Lower Manhattan

July 1, 2010

Urchins, gamins, Street Arabs—these were the tens of thousands of kids, mostly boys, who fended for themselves in the vast slums of post–Civil War New York City.

They slept in alleys and parks and made a living hawking newspapers and shining boots, congregating along Park Row, according to social reformer Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives:

“Whence this army of homeless boys? is a question often asked. The answer is supplied by the procession of mothers that go out and in at Police Headquarters the year round, inquiring for missing boys, often not until they have been gone for weeks and months, and then sometimes rather as a matter of decent form than from any real interest in the lad’s fate.”

Says one Street Arab Riis quotes:

“‘We wuz six,’ said an urchin of twelve or thirteen I came across in the Newsboys’ Lodging House, “and we ain’t got no father. Some on us had to go.’ And so he went, to make a living by blacking boots.”

[Photos by Jacob Riis, taken in the 1890s]