Scary tales of New York: life in the Irish slums
In the 19th century, Irish people fled poverty at home for dirt, disease and danger in the American city’s overcrowded tenements
In 19th-century New York, even tenements were ranked. Some were considered too good for the Irish, who were relegated to densely packed hovels in the urban shanty town of Five Points, on the Lower East Side. Here families huddled together, with several hundred people in one building.
In the 1860s, almost 300,000 people lived within one square mile. Rear structures were appended and floors were added, stacked precariously one on top of another. Rooms were divided and subdivided. It was not uncommon for five families – about 20 people – to share one room that measured 12ft by 12ft and had two beds and no table or chairs. There was no ventilation or sanitation inside, and human and animal waste piled up in the courtyards outside. Swine roamed freely, and dead horses posed a major problem on the streets. The ordure and stench caused not only physical disease but what Jacob Riis, the pioneering photojournalist who recorded the slums of the city in the late 19th century, described as a “deadly moral contagion”.
As people were degraded by their living conditions, the levels of drunkenness and violence soared and became synonymous with the Irish. And, of course, corruption was rife. Public neglect was a major factor, but so too was private greed. Rents in the area were often higher than in decent housing uptown. Riis argued that “proprietors frequently used the filthy habits of the tenants as an excuse for the condition of their property, utterly losing sight of the fact that it was the tolerance of those habits which was the real evil”.
The Irish might have fled from oppression, poverty and hunger, but, perceived as importing disease, popery and intemperance, they were not warmly welcomed. The cartoonist Thomas Nast produced some of the most vitriolic images: The Day We Celebrate , published in Harper’s Weekly , on April 6th, 1867, depicts simianised Irish celebrating St Patrick’s Day as apes. The male stereotype, Paddy – stupid, drunken, violent and corrupt – was somewhat softened by the female stereotype, Bridget – hardworking, Catholic, decent and upwardly mobile – although Irish female drunkenness and prostitution were also noted.
And still they came. Between 1845 and 1852, a million Irish emigrated, followed by a further two million by the end of the century. In the 19th century, one in four people in New York was Irish.
The remarkable Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side tells the story of the only Irish family who lived at 97 Orchard Street, a tenement of five floors, with four apartments on each floor, housing 20 families with an average of six people per family; more than 10,000 people lived at this tenement between 1870 and 1915.
The sparse accommodation was palatial in comparison with the living conditions of many Irish in the city at the time.
In the immediate neighbourhood, known as Klein Deutschland (Little Germany), the ethnicity was German; this tenement housed saloonkeepers, sweatshop workers, seamstresses, laundresses and shop workers. There was a German beer saloon in the cellar, and Prof Dora Meltzer, a palmist and mind reader who had recently arrived from Europe, practised her charms upstairs. Among the people who lived in the house was one Irish family who were intent on improving their lot.
The house at 97 Orchard Street was built in 1863 and boarded up from 1935 until 1987. When the building was reopened, everything was as it had been when the tenement was sealed. During the restoration, more than 1,500 artifacts were found: kitchenware, toys, medicinal products, letters, newspapers, coins, scraps of clothes and so on. Lincrusta wallpaper, tin ceilings, tiled floors and painted medallions were preserved, revealing 70 years of city dwelling. Indeed, the museum is an extraordinary exercise in urban archaeology. As the layers of three-quarters of a century are peeled back, the social history of one building tells myriad stories about the people and the place at that time.