Riis begins a short history of tenements by tracing them back to early Manhattan, when they actually housed the city’s wealthiest residents. After the war of 1812, immigration increased the urban population fivefold, and the rich moved out of town. Their homes were bought by real-estate agents and boarding-house keepers, who partitioned the buildings into many cramped, often windowless rooms. The owners then fixed rents at a high rate for what was being offered, as—and here Riis quotes a report to the 1857 Legislature—the “privation,” “ignorance,” and “slovenliness” of the new, poor residents caused the condition of the homes to degenerate rapidly.
In this account, over the course of the nineteenth century vast changes in the makeup of America’s cities, due in large part to immigration, led directly to the rise of unsafe, squalid tenements. The irony that Riis explores here is that such tenements actually used to be home to New York’s most privileged residents, making it even more tragic that their conditions have deteriorated without the wealthy even paying attention.
Soon, new tenements were built on the site of old yards and gardens, with ten families packed into each apartment. The rise of the middleman, who rented full blocks of tenements to sublet them, inflated prices even more, while the middlemen turned a blind eye to rampant disease and overcrowding. Today, Riis says, the East Side of Manhattan is still the most densely populated district in the world. Children began to die of suffocation from unventilated apartments. Still, rents remained 25-30 percent higher in the worst slums than elsewhere in the city.
Riis explores the economics of tenement housing: aided by tables, graphs, and statistics, he argues that certain practices like those of the middleman made tenement housing become a center of corruption rather than a legitimate business operation. Riis is particularly interested in the injustice of squalid living conditions combined with skyrocketing rents.
Riis argues that the situation has hardly improved since the 1857 report. He’s heard one story about a fire in a Mott Street home, giving ten families no place to go. Its owner had made $600 a year on rent for a home fully insured at $800, and lamented the loss of so valuable a property. A few other anecdotes confirm Riis’s argument about the contrast between exorbitant rents and pitiable housing conditions.
While Riis often enters the neighborhoods of which he speaks himself, he also relies on official reports and anecdotes of others in order to create a comprehensive picture of the slum neighborhoods. This anecdote gives Riis further evidence revealing corruption.
Over the past few decades, such tenements spread from the old wealthy neighborhoods east, west, and north, sometimes packing up to forty families in one building. Riis quotes a report from the Society for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor describing the buildings in disrepair, outhouses and stables converted into homes, and the spread of vagrancy and juvenile crime throughout these neighborhoods. Though New York had a society for the promotion of education in Africa, there was not yet a Children’s Aid Society or comparable philanthropic organization for New York itself.
Riis traces the spread of tenements across Manhattan as immigration continued to increase and little decent space was found to occupy this new population. The Society for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor is one of the philanthropic organizations in which Riis places some hope, even as he argues that New York philanthropy is too often directed abroad rather than to its own neighborhoods.