Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tenements, a reflection

In the past few years our kitchen floor has been rotting away, sprouting splinters and making it harder and harder to clean - ie food and garbage (like marbles and small toys) get stuck in the cracks, and in some places falls right through the boards. I can look between the boards and see the ceiling of my downstairs neighbor.

We have struggled with this issue for a long time because we aren't allowed to remove the flooring (lease violation) so we would have to cover it. This is a problem because it is so damaged in some spots that any covering would likely crack fairly soon after installation. One floor expert told me we could put down some thin plywood over the floor to level it, and then the flooring on top of that. It seems like the best solution, and we keep ALMOST making the commitment.

Then we stare at the floor and feel nostalgic and mournful over its passing. We love old-style detail, especially now when so many buildings and new construction consider great detail to be a floor-to-ceiling window and bare concrete.

There is no way to know when the floor was put in, but the possibility exists that it is many many decades old, and possibly the original floors from the 1920s or 30s when this building was built. The wood was (and is in less trafficked areas) beautiful wide oak, 3 1/2 inches wide. Some of the boards are the entire length of the kitchen. It has been painted dozens of times, but always wears back down to red paint that was put down in the early 1980's and a melange of colors that is really nice to look at, being a little bit psychedelic.

The East Village has a colorful history and I don't want to be the one to blot it out and move it into the future of gleaming windows and video billboards.

For example, in 1900 there were 21 houses of prostitution in my neighborhood. In 1899 -1900 41 tenement residents died in fires. During this same period, 47% of all fires in New York were in tenements. There were 6,324 fires that year. One fourth of all fires spread through the light shafts which acted like a flue. Dumbwaiters were also cited as a fire hazard. I dream constantly about knocking down the kitchen wall and repairing the dumbwater that is locked inside. While "careless use of matches" is cited as the most common reason that fires started (18%) the one type of fire that I would be most proud to die in is "fat boiling over."

In 1901 the tenement law was passed which required that all new tenements have running water and a water closet, one for every two families. However "old law tenements," those built before 1901, didn't have to comply.

In further research, a study in 1919 examined the conditions of Brooklyn residents. They surveyed over 17,000 people and had four organizations gather the data, including the Tubercolosis Day Camp. I am not making this up, read it yourself. In the sampling, 86% received some form of charity and they estimated about 60% of them were very needy.

Note that this study tries to compare its group with other groups to see if they are better or worse off, but I have to say, my mind wandered during that section and I can't tell you what they found. It was written in a convoluted way that would take me too much time to properly decipher.

This study says that New York City was the most densely populated city on earth at that time, but happily notes that "this evil is confined to Manhattan." There appear to be no actual statistics or notation to back up this statement.

It also showed that the population was dramatically changing from "American" and Irish, to Jewish and Italian. They studied the Jews because "every student of social conditions in New York City is aware that Jewish families naturally form themselves into separate communities in order to preserve social intercourse with other families of the same religious faith and who speak the same tongue." My grandfather would have been 9 years old in Williamsburg or Bushwick (not sure where the exact line is drawn) at the time this study was done. One of his few childhood stories, which was really a story of why he was deaf in one ear, was that he was in a gang and the Jews and Christians would fight by hitting each other in the head with their mothers' old stockings stuffed with rocks.

This study concludes that old law tenements were the "worst type of buildings in which human beings have ever been forced to live." Contrarily, no tenement in a new law apartment died in a fire at the time this study was published in 1919, which means that the building codes for new construction were indeed contributing to fewer fires and fewer deaths. Could it be true that nobody died in a fire for 20 years of new construction? However new law tenements cost more so there was MORE overcrowding because they needed more adults living together in order to pay the rent. An apartment rented for $11.24 per month, which was 25%-30% of the family budget. It was estimated that a family of five needed to earn $925 per year to live decently. The residents in this study earned $600, including charity, far below the poverty line.

At that time 18% of the studied group used a "yard toilet." Some neighborhoods, however, were far less equipped than the others. 70% in Bushwick did not have indoor toilets. When my grandparents got married they moved to East New York, which must have been a step up because 73% of the poor people studied had indoor toilets in 1918, so by 1934, the year they got married, it must have been a pretty decent place to live compared to some other areas. Today, East New York is one of the most crime ridden neighborhoods in Brooklyn, while Bushwick seems to be improving as gentrification is spreading in that direction.

Another interesting development in tenant law was that old law tenements were required to cut windows into interior rooms to provide light and air. Apparently, this was common - there were interior rooms that were completely shut out from any windows or ventilation. And this is in a day when there was no electricity and I imagine that bringing in a lamp and shutting the door could be poisonous. If we aren't allowed to burn a lantern inside a tent, imagine what could happen inside a wooden room. What a great law. Except it seems that it was fairly common for tenants to block up the window "for privacy." 75% of the tenements in Bushwick had interior rooms.

This report also proves that the people on the lowest economic scale receive the poorest housing accommodations. Yes, our tax dollars were well at work on this study. My great-grandfather's taxes that is.

Interestingly, the Jews lived in new law housing so presumably they had the better housing. But no, not true. There was an anomaly in the study that showed that even though they lived in new law housing, they shared the same percentage of dark interior rooms as everybody else. How to explain this? They conjecture that Jews are of two types - they either live in the better housing or, conversely in the worse of the worse, thus allowing the dichotomy of the facts, meaning, it's a statistical anomaly made by having a split demographic within the Jewish group with the poorest part of the group pulling everybody down with them into a statistical dark place.

Overcrowding was a big issue in those days. It was recommended that there not be more than 2 people per room in an apartment, so a 4-room apartment could comfortably house 6 people since one of the rooms needs to be used as a kitchen or living room. We are 3 people in our 4 rooms and let me tell you, we are 2 people too many. SIX? In 1918 the majority of Brooklyn families lived in a 4 room apartment, probably a lot like mine but maybe not so many flights up. Of the 1385 families living in a 4-room apartment, most had 5 people living in it. The average size of a family was 5.5, which was considerably higher than the rest of the US population. Bathing was often eliminated due to lack of privacy, as the kitchen was the only room warm enough in which to bathe. Bath houses were constructed in order to combat the odor. Let's for a moment imagine the smell. Ok, that's enough smell.

This study also disproved the common notion that paying lodgers were the reason for overcrowding. Most people did not take in lodgers. Myth busted... Except amongst the Jews who did take lodgers and that is why they are the most overcrowded group of the bunch.

In a familiar passage, the study also points out 4 room apartments are most common and it is hard to find larger apartments even if people could afford them, as they were rare. Is this not what I hear in the Manhattan real estate chatter that 3 bedroom apartments are the most in demand and the hardest to find, and thus the steep increase in price point.

The writers of this report conclude that the Italians and Jews are amongst the poorest, living in the most unsanitary conditions because they have not yet been taught how to achieve the high standards of the new world. And finally, and tellingly, the big picture conclusion was the recommendation to build affordable public housing that would meet sanitary conditions.

No comments: