America 18/70

The Immigrant Experience – Finding Somewhere to Live?

Stepping ashore was one thing, surviving the first few months in the New World was quite another.

Immigrants had not the ability to choose where they should live or the means to choose how. They could not afford to buy homes nor could they layout much in rent payments. Their first thought was that the cost be as little as possible. The result was they got as little as possible. The immigrants found their first homes in quarters the old occupants no longer desired. As business grew the commercial centre of the city blighted the neighbouring residential districts. The most profitable solution was to divide the old mansions into multiple lodgings.

The plight of those living in such dreadful conditions became the subject of Joseph Riis’ book: How the Other Half Lives. (1890) Riis was an American newspaper reporter, social reformer and photographer who shocked the conscience of the city with his factual depictions of life in the slums.

As the population continued to grow so did the demand for housing. Developers saw profit in the demolition of the old houses and the construction of compact barracks that made complete use of every inch of earth. The new blocks conformed to the uniform city real estate plot, 25 feet wide and 100 feet deep. And so the “dumbbell tenement” was born.

Dumbbell Tenement floor plan, New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

The immigrant life was confined by the flat. Memoirs describe the living conditions people had to endure, and which made some wish to be back in their Old World villages. “Calico sheets hung on ropes divided up the domains, everything was in poor repair. There was nowhere to store things.  Even the simplest tasks were complex and disorganising. Every day there was a family to feed but how could the unfamiliar coal stove be managed. But what does one do with rubbish who has never known the meaning of waste? It was not really so important to walk down the long flight of narrow stairs each time there are some scraps to be disposed of. The windows offered an easier alternative, the filthy streets were seldom cleaned. The back alleys and rear yards were never touched. Sunlight and fresh air became luxuries. Water had to be carried up steep stairs from taps in the back yard. City dirt was harder to scrub away and there was no nearby creek. “A man got a good bath only twice in his life: from the midwife and the undertaker. “ “ from The Uprooted. The epic story of the Great Migrations that made the American People. Oscar Handlin.

In addition, the confining dimensions of the flat were very oppressive. The space simply would not yield to all the demands made upon it. Where were the children to play if the fields were gone? Where were things to be stored or clothes to be hung? There was only one living room and it contained the sink and stove. The man in the evening came home from work, found nowhere to rest and privacy was difficult to achieve. Many flats doubled up as workrooms for subsistence trades.

Tenement Sweatshop Diorama, New York State Museum, Albany, NY

In these tiny rooms that were all they could call home, many traditional activities withered and disappeared. Not here were friends welcomed, festivals commemorated, children taught, and the family united to share in the warmth. Emptied of these meanings and often crowded with strange lodgers, home was just the feeding and sleeping place. All else moves to the outside.