Mapping Disease: New York 1895

The morphology of the city was viewed as a source of the immorality of its inhabitants

The campaign to destroy the poor areas of the 19th century, was due to their being viewed in the public eye at the time to be breeding grounds for indecency. Overcrowding was linked with immorality. The morphology – the physical form and layout of the city– was itself viewed by the general public as a source of the immorality of its inhabitants, and was considered to be a significant obstacle to policing .

In the United States the housing tenements of densely occupied cities such as New York, led to a series of housing commissions and enquiries that were only to make a significant impact at the turn of the twentieth century. Population growth in New York in the latter half of the nineteenth century led to a rapid increase in population densities – an especially acute problem on Manhattan’s island and especially within the constraints of the standard lot size of 25-by-100 feet. With this increase in population, the tenement building emerged as a response to the demand for low-cost housing design, but without building regulation, buildings were constructed with a severe lack of light and ventilation. Lots could be covered up to 90 per cent, with a sequential layout akin to a railroad carriage (hence their being called ‘railroad flats’. The 1867 and 1879 Tenement Acts sought to introduce legislation to improve housing and led to a new housing form, the ‘dumb-bell’ (because of its shape in plan – see figure 1), which was an improvement, but did not yet achieve the desired outcome of improvements in light and ventilation, still allowing up to 65 per cent coverage.

Figure 1: Old-Law, Railroad; Old-Law, Dumb-bell, and New Law tenement housing and associated ground-floor plans. Image by Dr Garyfalia Palaiologou

The Tenement House Committee was created by the New York State legislator to enquire into the tenement housing problem. Its report, and maps, were presented on 17/1/95 and sparked much public interest after they were published in Harper’s Weekly, a widely-read publication that had frequently written on poverty and housing problems. The maps (see figure 2) “represented an important milestone in the use of new forms of graphic representation by reformers.”[i]

The upper map shows population density, showing the highest densities in the Lower East Side, an area of high immigrant settlement. The lower map was adapted from a colour version shown the committee, which, interestingly, anticipated Jacob Riis’ conception of the city’s various nationalities, which “would show more stripes than on the skin of a zebra, and more colours than any rainbow … [giving] the whole the appearance of an extraordinary crazy quilt.”[ii] Although it was never interpreted in any great detail, it was a powerful representation of two coinciding urban characteristics: on the one hand, the cluster of extreme high density in one corner of lower Manhattan and on the other, this being the heart of the highly diverse immigrant quarter.

Map of City of New York showing Densities of Population in the several Sanitary Districts, June 1, 1894. Image courtesy Cornell University
Zoom-in: Map of City of New York showing Densities of Population in the several Sanitary Districts, June 1, 1894. Image courtesy Cornell University


The Tenement House Committee’s maps appeared almost simultaneously with several reports, which collectively helped speed along the drive to cut out the diseased areas of the city from its body. In one notorious example, Dr John Bessner Huber wrote, [iii]

“Infection comes not only from the room, but as well from halls and stairways. An old Italian, a hopeless victim, sits out on the steps in front all day long in the sun, while the children play around him, and all through the evening, with men and women beside him. His cough never stops. The halls behind and above are grimy, offensive, lying heavy with cobwebs, and these cobwebs are always black. The stairways in the rear house are low and narrow, uneven, and thick…”

[i] Angela M. Blake, How New York Became American, 1890–1924 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009)., pp. 34-5. See also Richard Plunz, A History of Housing in New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

[ii] Jacob August Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890)., p. 25.

[iii] John Bessner Huber, Consumption, Its Relation to Man and His Civilization, Its Prevention and Cure (Philadelphia: Lippincott, c. 1906).


Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

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