Sunday, October 12, 2008
1860s-era NYC tenement brings modern times to mind
Oct. 10, 2008
Children falling sick - even dying - from milk contaminated by unscrupulous suppliers. Families struggling in substandard, overcrowded housing.
Sound familiar? It could easily be a story ripped from today’s headlines. But in fact it was 1860s New York City, in the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side.
I heard the story last week on a visit to NYC. Tipped off by a Victoria acquaintance we ran into on the ferry to Ellis Island, we took her advice and visited the New York Tenement Museum, where I found myself in a small, dark apartment that in 1869 had been the home of an Irish immigrant family.
The Moores had four children, one of whom died that year at the tender age of four months from the “swill milk” commonly sold to impoverished families. As has just happened in modern-day China, the milk was being diluted to increase profit, in this case with water, chalk and ammonia.
Hard to escape a certain sense of déjà vu when you hear a story like that. It wasn’t the only one I heard that day with troubling parallels to modern times.
The museum constructs its program around a tenement built in 1863 on Orchard Street by an immigrant tailor from Germany. More than 7,000 people subsequently lived in the five-storey building over the next 70 years, until tougher health codes finally shut the place down.
The museum’s tours are built around the lives of the actual families who lived in the apartments, their stories painstakingly stitched together from census data and genealogical research.
Those were tough times. The Lower East Side was awash in poverty and people, and the city was struggling to develop health standards as a new understanding developed of how disease spread.
It’s interesting to compare the way things were handled then and now. Back then, the public health authorities dealt with the problems of inadequate housing by demanding improvements - in the case of the Moores’ building, a minimum of two indoor toilets per floor and running cold water to every flat.
I’m sure the landlords didn’t like it. But they lived with it, and held the rents at about 30 per cent of the typical family income. Today, the more likely action would be to condemn the building and order the tenants out, with no other place for them to live. It’s not exactly what you’d call progress.
Life was pretty miserable for the Moores and their neighbours, and I don’t mean to suggest that there haven’t been improvements since those bleak days.
But as awful as it was for poor people in the 1860s, things were in fact improving for those living in poverty at that time - fewer dead babies every year, better living conditions, new and better care for sick people. Can we make the same claim now?
The 20-year-old tenement museum was set up by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a group of museums and historical sites with an interest in raising awareness of past injustices and struggles. After our tour, we shared popcorn and ice tea with our little group of fellow travellers at a session facilitated by museum staff - a “kitchen conversation” designed to get people reflecting on what they’d seen.
Our group included a couple from Oakland, Calif., and four British travellers from London and Birmingham. As talk turned to housing in our own home towns, everyone reported similar problems: an erosion of supported housing programs; more people on the streets; the emergence of what appeared to be a permanent underclass.
(“In Canada?” the woman from California asked us incredulously. “I thought you were the ones who were doing things better than us!”)
The building where the Moores lived was a grim place: 120 people sharing four outhouses and one water pump at the back of the building, families with three or more kids squeezed into 325 square feet of space.
We don’t tolerate tenement buildings like that anymore, it’s true. But we can hardly claim the moral high ground given that children are still dying by the dozen from swill milk, and tens of thousands of Canadians don’t even have running water and an indoor toilet, let alone 325 square feet to call their own.
The Moore family eventually moved to a nicer building. Their three children grew up, got jobs, bought houses, and lived better lives than their parents.
Life was bad back then, but it was getting better. A century and a half later, we can’t make the same claim.