Mapping Disease: Tuberculosis in New York, 1906


In last week’s blog post, I wrote about the work of the Tenement House committee’s maps, which was created by the New York State legislator to enquire into New York’s housing problem. Its report and maps sparked much public interest after they were published in Harper’s Weekly.

The Tenement House Committee’s maps had appeared almost simultaneously with several independent reports that collectively helped speed along the programme to cut out the diseased areas of the city from its body. In one example, a ground-plan of a ‘Lung-Block’, a single block in New York that was riddled with cases of tuberculosis, was published in a report by Dr John Bessner Huber (Figure 1).[i]

The Lung Block
Figure 1: The Lung Block, Huber, c. 1906

His report is full of graphic descriptions of the conditions in this single block of dwellings, whose appalling physical conditions he blamed for the block’s extremely high rates of consumption (tuberculosis), such that,

” 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…”[ii]

The graphic impact of Huber’s Ground-plan was widespread. It featured in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper in 1903, along with a long article discussing the appalling situation in blocks such as this (see Figure 2).

Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Figure 2: Excerpt from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 13 Sep 1903, Sunday, p. 11


The powerful image of the ground plan with its patches of shading to indicate the miniscule amount of open space in its interior, marked with the many cases of disease, crossed the continent so that just a couple of weeks later the Los Angeles Herald described the building as “supplied with tuberculosis germs on its walls and its ceilings, in its hallways, on all the furniture and in the dirt-filled cracks in the floors” (Los Angeles Herald, Number 1, 2 October 1903.) The article goes on to blame the city that permits such buildings to stand, but also that the new ordinance – evidently the Tenement Act of 1901 – will hopefully eliminate such buildings which breed disease. Indeed, soon after this date housing reform took shape in the form of localised slum clearance, which then became more widespread with a programme of slum clearance and public housing construction.


[i] {Huber, c. 1906 #3851}. The plan appeared on page 147. The publication date is only an estimate. It seems likely that it was published around the time it first appeared in the press in 1903.

[ii] It is not a coincidence that Jacob Riis also describes buildings such as this, with their “dirt and desolation” reigning in a tenement leading to “a dark and nameless alley, shut in by high brick walls.” {Riis, 1890 #3550}, From pp 29-31 Chapter IV The Down Town Back-Alleys., p. 149.





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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