Epidemics and the City: Density

Side Sectional View of Tenement House, 38 Cherry Street, NYC, 1865

Workers or, more accurately, the working poor and immigrants were disproportionately affected by the means to make way for new public health improvements. Many, in cities, lived in tenement buildings which were, almost by definition, overcrowded and dirty. Initially, the buildings were divided into impossibly small apartments with interior spaces completely devoid of windows or ventilation. Conveniences like indoor plumbing was not included in the cheaply built buildings. Most had both the water source and outhouses in their shallow backyards. Overflowing and ill maintained privies contaminated water supplies spreading cholera. Cramped quarters were ripe with diseases like yellow fever and tuberculosis. The Tenement House Acts of 1867, 1879, and 1901 would make an effort to change that.

Tenement House Act of 1867 was a comprehensive legislation on housing conditions which prohibited cellar apartments unless the ceiling was one foot above street level, required one water closet per 20 residents, and required fire escapes. It was amended in 1879 to limit lot coverage to no more than 65%. Without enforcement these regulations the “dumbbell” shaped tenement came into being. These included air and light shafts on either side of the center of the building (as seen below).

The publication of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives in 1890 spurred public concern about the conditions in New York tenements. This lead to the US Department of labor publishing The Housing of Working People in 1895 which looked at housing conditions and solutions. Which ultimately lead to the Tenement House Act of 1901 which required running water and water closets in every apartment, a window in every room, issued fire-safety regulations, and more. Riveting stuff, eh? Let’s move on.

As mentioned, tenement residents were uniquely affected by these advances, for better and worse. With the new sanitation and building practices steadily expanding urban planners and designers began thinking of ways to harness the emerging thoughts on humans’ relationship with nature. This lead to the first public parks. City parks, as we know them, came to be in the 19th century. These parks were considered to be an answer to most of the ills of the times. By transplanting residents to country-like atmospheres it was thought to “instill a hallowed calm, and a spirit of reverence into the mind and heart of Man.” In other words, parks were meant to give people some respite from the filth of the city. Their attractiveness aside, parks became a way to break up the city’s high density.

New York, New York c. 1923 Aerial view of Central Park from Midtown NYC

New green spaces came at the expense of the poor as it was often an excuse to for slum clearance. For example, Seneca Village which was located along what is known today as Central Park West. Nearly 300 residents were evicted via eminent domain. Then all of the homes, churches, and even a school were demolished to make way for Central Park in NYC. The neighborhood was painted as a shantytown with squalid conditions and people seemed to quickly forget it once it was gone. It had been, however, a vibrant community for black middle and working class people.

Despite efforts to break up density (and gentrify *cough*), the popular conception was still that cities were dark, dirty, and unhealthy. People thought sunshine and fresh air were curative. So new city models were conceived to combine the mobility and economic fervor with the perceived health benefits of living in the country.

To be continued…

Apmann, S. (2016). Tenement House Act of 1901. Retrieved 3 September 2020, from https://gvshp.org/blog/2016/04/11/tenement-house-act-of-1901/

Carr, S. (2014). The Topography of Wellness: Mechanisms, metrics, and models of health in the urban landscape (PhD). Berkeley.

Clark, F. (1973). Nineteenth-Century Public Parks from 1830. Garden History1(3), 31. doi: 10.2307/1586332

Halliday, A. (2020). The Lost Neighborhood Buried Under New York City’s Central Park. Retrieved 3 September 2020, from http://www.openculture.com/2020/01/the-lost-neighborhood-buried-under-new-york-citys-central-park.html

Marques, S. (2019). The Early Tenements of New York—Dark, Dank, and Dangerous — NYC Department of Records & Information Services. Retrieved 3 September 2020, from https://www.archives.nyc/blog/2019/5/16/the-early-tenements-of-new-yorkdark-dank-and-dangerous

Nigro, C. (2018). Tenement Homes: The Outsized Legacy of New York’s Notoriously Cramped Apartments. Retrieved 3 September 2020, from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2018/06/07/tenement-homes-new-york-history-cramped-apartments

Warner, S., & Whittemore, A. (2012). American Urban Form: A Representative History (1st ed.). MIT Press.

Epidemics and the City: Sanitation

Intrinsically intertwined in the history of urban development, epidemics have shaped the way city dwellers live today. Before the 19th century city streets were often lined with mud, sewage, industrial runoff, animals, manure, and garbage creating a setting perfect for the cultivation and spread of disease. The transmission of disease, however, was widely misunderstood at the time.

“From inhaling the oudor of beef the butcher’s wife obtains her obesity.”

Prof. H. Booth, July 1844

People believed in the miasmatic theory or, simply, miasma, derived from the ancient Greek word for “pollution”, which was the idea that diseases floated aimlessly through air and water. Infection was thought not to be passed between individuals but rather affect those within a locale that gave rise to such vapors or “bad air.” Public health officials theorized that the unsanitary conditions of cities specifically, and the odors they produced, were to blame for epidemics.

The influx of people and factories to cities during the industrial revolution drastically increased the volume of sewage and garbage discarded in streets, rivers, and lakes. With waste being the responsibility of the individual or business there was no municipal coordination for its removal. With the crowding and waste outbreaks of diseases like cholera, typhoid, and yellow fever were quickly an issue.

Medical research had already made a connection between housing density and density of people with disease in the 1700s. However, the idea was still tied to the odors that came with such conditions. Edwin Chadwick published a report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain in 1842; arguing that drainage and airflow in houses must be improved. He said to a parliamentary committee in 1846: “All smell is, if it be intense, immediate acute disease…” Confident in this, he concluded that it was more important to remove smells from dwellings rather than to purify drinking water. This thought persisted despite the discovery of Vibrio cholerae (cholera bacillus), the microorganism responsible for cholera, by Robert Koch in 1883.

Miasma, the causes of which were blamed largely on density and waste, was enough to bolster a campaign of sanitation. Sewer systems soon became a mark of a healthy society as well as one that was “civilized” and had potential for economic, social, and cultural growth. By 1850 most major cities had sewer and water systems in place. Early sewer systems made an impact on the waste in the streets but noxious gasses escaped from them. With the miasmatic theory this was still a dangerous problem that needed to be solved. The solution, grading and paving to move water underground, was often done at the expense of worker and immigrant housing.

To be continued…

Arnsten, E. (2020). Six epidemics from American history show how urban design affects our health. Retrieved 1 September 2020, from https://news.northeastern.edu/2019/08/08/six-epidemics-from-american-history-show-how-urban-design-affects-our-health/

Carr, S. (2014). The Topography of Wellness: Mechanisms, metrics, and models of health in the urban landscape (PhD). Berkeley.

Clark, F. (1973). Nineteenth-Century Public Parks from 1830. Garden History1(3), 31. doi: 10.2307/1586332

Serhan, Y. (2020). Vilnius Shows How the Pandemic Is Already Remaking Cities. Retrieved 1 September 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/06/coronavirus-pandemic-urban-suburbs-cities/612760/

Shah, S. (2020). How Cities Shape Epidemics. Retrieved 1 September 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/02/urbanization-pandemic-excerpt/470214/