Thursday, January 21, 2010

a tenement on Mulberry Street

In 1873 Harper's Weekly showed its readers this drawing of a disreputable tenement house in Manhattan's Little Italy.

{Caption: A tenement house in Mulberry Street, drawn by C.A. Vanderhoof, wood engraving, from Harper's weekly, v. 17, 1873 Sept. 13, p. 796; source: Library of Congress Prints and Photos Div.}
The accompanying article said the building had been condemned and vacated more than once. The author described the wretched state of the place and of the people who inhabited it.

There were no drawings of the rooms and their inhabitants, but a cover illustration from Harper's a decade later gives a reasonably good idea. From it we can tell, if we needed telling, that the lot of poor immigrants had not improved.

{Caption: Homes of the poor, drawn by T. De Thulstrup, 1883; Shows an interior view of New York City tenement house room crowded with men, women, and children, some working, one using a sewing machine. From: Harper's weekly, July 28, 1883, p. 465. source: Library of Congress Prints and Photos Div.}

By 1910 great quantities of photographic evidence had accumulated showing the continued suffering of the poor. This one might have been taken 35 years before in the Mulberry Street tenement house.

{Caption: Poor home. New York City tenement, 1910; source: George Eastman House}

The author of the 1873 article opens with this: "It is a trite saying that one half the world don't know how the other half live." He or she goes on to say that "abodes of foulness and misery" like the tenement in Little Italy exist but a stone's throw from the fashionable galleries and drawing rooms of Broadway and Fifth Avenue.

As it happens, just a few months before the tenement article appeared another periodical, Frank Leslie's Weekly, had printed the following drawing of New York's upper crust enjoying themselves at an art gallery located at 5th Avenue and 22nd Street, just off Broadway. The address isn't just around the corner from Mulberry Street, but it's not a very long walk from it. It may be trite to point this out, as the article says, but it's factually accurate all the same.

{Caption: New York City--An afternoon lounge at Goupil's Art Gallery, Fifth Avenue / drawn by J.N. Hyde. from Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, 1872 July 13, p. 280; source: source: Library of Congress Prints and Photos Div.}

As the caption states, the place was Goupil's Gallery, owned by Michael Knoedler and later to be called after him. This is what it looked like on the outside.

{Caption: Goupil at 170 Fifth Avenue (at 22nd Street), 1869-1895; source:}

Here is an image of the full page of Harper's Weekly giving the tenement drawing.

{Caption: A tenement house in Mulberry Street, drawn by C.A. Vanderhoof. Inspection of fruit in New York markets, by order of the Board of Health, drawn by R. Lewis, 1873, from Harper's weekly, v. 17, 1873 Sept. 13, p. 79. source: source: Library of Congress Prints and Photos Div.}

Here's the text of the article on the Mulberry Street tenement.
A City Tenement-House
Harper's weekly, v. 17, 1873 Sept. 13, p. 796.

It is a trite saying that one half the world don't know how the other half live. A French gentleman who traveled through England reported on his return that he had seen no poverty in that favored land. Every body was rich, or at least in comfortable circumstances. He had seen only the sunny side of society. A traveler might ride through Broadway and Fifth Avenue and receive the same impression in regard to New York. Yet a short divergence to the right or left, into some of the side streets, would bring him to scenes of squalor and distress unsurpassed in wretchedness by the dens of any of the Old World cities. Not in Rome, nor Paris, nor London can be found worse abodes of foulness and misery than the lower class of tenement-houses in New York.

The building of which we give an engraving on this page belongs to this class. It is a rear house on Mulberry Street, was formerly a church, but is now divided into five stories, with eight tenements on each floor. The ceilings are only six feet and a half high. The front building, from which it is separated by a narrow court, is six stories in height, and effectually obstructs the passage of light and air. The house is never cleaned, and the floors and walls are saturated with offensive effluvia, the accumulation of years, and the atmosphere within is rank poison. Decaying garbage and filth of every description cover the passage-ways and the court, and sickening odors and gases rise from the choked sewers and penetrate every part of the building. On every hand are met the signs of poverty and squalor. The doors are unhinged, the windows broken, the plastering hangs in shreds, the dust and grime o years blacken the walls.

This tenement-house, when inspected a short time since by order of the Board of Health, was found to contain twenty-one families, comprising over forty adults and forty children. The tenants were of the lowest class, steeped in ignorance and degradation. At night nearly all the adults were generally drunk, and their dismal orgies were a great annoyance and terror to the neighborhood. The building has several times been condemned by the Board of Health as unsuitable for a human habitation. In December, 1871, it was vacated by order of the board, at which time it contained forty families. The following February permission was granted for twenty families to occupy it. In 1869 the mortality among the tenants was at the rate of 75 in 1000. During the twelve months ending March 1 of this year the rate was over 96 in 1000.

Our picture shows the external condition of this miserable tenement. It is a wooden structure, liable at any time to take fire, and from its position, and from the fact that it is unprovided with fire-escapes, such a casualty might involve a frightful loss of life. The Board of Health has ordered that it be immediately vacated, and the whole structure renovated and remodeled in accordance with plans submitted by the sanitary inspector.
The following maps come from Bird's-eye-view of Manhattan and adjacent districts, New York City, published between 1900 and 1910. Lacking title and legend these come from Library of Congress Map Collections.

1. This map shows the location of Goupil's in the top square and the location of the Mulberry St. tenement in the bottom on.

2. The detail shows the corner of 5th Avenue and 22nd Street where Goupil's could be found. The park to its northwest is Madison Square.

3. This shows the part of Mulberry Street where it's likely the tenement could be found.

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