Herbert H. Lehman and New York's Little New Deal

By Robert P. Ingalls | Go to book overview
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VIII
THE ADVENT OF PUBLIC HOUSING

During the 1930s, New Yorkers shed the illusion that either Progressivism or prosperity had brought much improvement in slum housing. Lawrence Veiller, a leader of the progressive crusade against tenements, declared in 1932 that American cities "have the worst slums in the civilized world; this is notably so [in] New York."1 Descriptions of the poorest homes in the world's richest metropolis read like pages out of Charles Dickens. In 1934, almost half of the apartment buildings in New York City dated from before the turn of the century when primitive housing codes allowed virtually any kind of structure. Two million people, almost one-third of the city's population, lived in these decaying multifamily dwellings some of which still contained rooms without windows to let in light or fresh air. Over 387,000 families had no central heat, 244,000 went without hot running water, and 189,000 lacked private toilets. Diseases like tuberculosis and rickets thrived in apartments with inadequate light, ventilation, and sanitation. 2 Congestion intensified the misery, and a 1932 study found "unbelievable crowding" in one Manhattan block.

In many [buildings], there were five and six persons in two rooms. In one case there were eight persons living in two rooms. . . . As the average family consisted of six members, there was over-crowding, lack of privacy, no space for recreation or study, and no possibility [for children] of decent hours of retiring. 3

In 1938, a housing expert noted with dismay that "Jacob Riis described these conditions 40 years ago and, except for a few changes forced upon owners since that time, they remain much the same." 4

Slums had also spread across upstate New York, which had virtually no local housing regulations. A 1928 survey of an unnamed community considered typical revealed that obsolete dwellings clogged the central district. Here the city's poor crowded into converted single-family houses and three-or four-story tenements, most of which had no

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