“Year after year New York seems to justify the painful, dispiriting averment that it is a city of paupers and millionaires,” wrote Junius Henri Browne in this 1882 cri de coeur, “The Problem of Living in New York,” which appeared in Harper’s Monthly magazine. Browne, a journalist who won fame as a Civil War correspondent for the New York Tribune, had published a booklong love letter to the city (The Great Metropolis: A Mirror of New York) in 1869. Just 13 years later, the bloom, for Browne, was off the rose.
Manhattan held half-a-million people in 1850 and 2.5 million in 1910. For the middle-class, native-born New Yorker in this crowded city, Browne wrote, “where and how he is to live is an ever-present, carking thought.” While immigrants found homes in the Lower East Side, he wrote, “Americans will not, and can not, as a rule, occupy tenements.” “Places to live for Anglo-Saxons,” Browne declared, invoking the racism and nativism of his time, “are totally inadequate.”
Apartment houses, a new innovation in the city in the second half of the 19th century, were too expensive: “As a generalization it may be said that reasonable apartments are not good, and that good apartments are not reasonable.” Nor was Browne totally sold on concept of apartment living, even if acceptable ones were to be made available in abundance. “Apartments at best are not and can not be, in any accurate import, homes,” he wrote.” “They are abodes where persons stay until they can find an opportunity or the means to go somewhere else. There is no idea or association of permanence with them. How can there be in any place that has no cellar, no nursery, no storeroom, no closets worthy the name?”
As his mention of the nursery indicates, Browne was quite concerned about the middle-class male New Yorker’s ability to provide a space for a growing family. The city encouraged bachelorhood: “New York may be an Elysium for bachelors, but for a husband and father with an ordinary income it is next door to Hades.” Children in Manhattan “seem to be regarded … as interlopers, certainly as impertinences,” he wrote. “In leasing houses, apartments, or rooms, the landlord or agent invariably asks the applicant, ‘Have you any children?’ very much in the tone and manner that he would ask, ‘Have you committed murder?’ or, ‘Are you afflicted with leprosy?’ “
Nor was living in the suburbs a solution. Browne wrote of commuting fathers: “He has no leisure, no repose; he is absorbed in town, feverish in the country; he sees little of his family, nothing of his friends; he is engrossed with his petty affairs, which he may despise, but which he cannot afford for an hour to neglect.” Such stress damaged family life and left men drained.
Yet, Browne finished, the oddest thing about the city’s present housing crisis was that most New Yorkers refused to leave their awful situation: “They are in some unaccountable way terribly in love with their own wretchedness.”
I first found out about this article on the blog Ephemeral New York.