Finding Cause in Street Cleanliness:  The Citizens’ Association of New York Report of 1865

By Anne Garner, Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts

It’s 1863. New York’s streets are dismal.  Downtown, the scents of manure, garbage and chemicals permeate the air.  The streets are littered with debris, and in some places, are navigable only by wading through standing water. The gaps between cobblestones catch sewage and other dirt discharged from nearby tenements.

Public health statisticians estimate that New York has upwards of 200,000 cases of preventable and needless sickness every year. The Board of Health, controlled by corrupt politicians, is ineffective.  In newspapers like Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News and Harper’s Weekly, the condition of New York’s thoroughfares is a punchline. Editorials, cartoons and newspaper stories blame immigrant populations, the poor, and an indifferent municipal government. [1]

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T. Bernhard Gillam, “The Streets of New York,” Harper’s Weekly, February 26, 1881.

What to do?  In December of that same year, a group of citizens met with Mayor Gunther, the recently elected reform candidate to consider the city’s social problems. The following year, these concerned citizens formed the Citizens’ Association of New York, dedicated to a cause they describe in simple terms: “public usefulness.” [2]  The organization quickly determined that physicians should play a prominent role in sanitary reform, and organized the Association’s Special Council of Hygiene and Public Health. [3]

In May of 1864, the Council embarked on a street-by-street sanitary inspection of New York City. Medical inspectors – all physicians—were assigned to 31 districts throughout the city in an attempt to gather detailed information about New Yorkers and their living conditions. For seven months, the inspectors visited every household in Manhattan and used a nine-page survey as their guide. [4]

​​During the course of the survey, the inspectors filled seventeen volumes of observations and notes comprising the most “precise and exacting account of a city’s health and social conditions ever compiled.” Many of these notebooks, including some remarkable hand-drawn maps, are available at The New-York Historical Society. The image below is taken from the Society’s archives and shows a tenant house for 200 people at 311 Monroe Street, in the 9th District. [5]

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Record of Sanitary Inquiry, 7th ward, 9th District, {BV Citizens’ Association}. Reposted with permission of the New-York Historical Society.

This survey, presented by medical inspector William Hunter to former New York Academy of Medicine President Joseph M. Smith, records the living conditions of a family of three recent Irish immigrants living in a three-story tenement on W. 14th Street in late October of 1864. The unit was comprised of David, age 30, described in the survey as an “intelligent but uneducated” gardener, Ellen, age 28, and Margaret, age 6. The survey suggests that all three family members had typhoid fever, likely contracted on their journey to America from Ireland just a few months before.  Though the family’s living conditions were described as “good,” Hunter notes that the six families in their apartment were living in close quarters in just six rooms, with only two windows as a source of light and ventilation, and in such proximity to the horse stable that the horse could freely wander into their hallway. [6]

Surveys of this depth and length were kept for every household throughout the city’s 31 wards.  Wards were frequently assigned to physicians who knew the neighborhoods and the residents.  Most of the residents were given a thorough medical exam, and the nuisances of their environment were recorded in detail. [7]  Each ward’s physician contributed a district report, summarizing their findings. Ezra Pulling, who was the sanitary inspector for the fourth ward, contributed a report on his district and his data was poured into the making of this extraordinary map, published along with the report in 1865.  ​

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Map of the Fourth Ward of the City of New York. Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens’ Association of New York. New York:  Appleton, 1865.

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Fourth Ward map, detail of Gotham Court

The long, rectangular building that you see here at the center of this detail is a tenant house called Gotham Court.  The stars here indicate that outbreaks of typhus and smallpox have occurred in the house.  Privies in the basement were discharged into subterranean drains or sewers that run through each alley and then outside through grated openings, blocking much of the waste. Inside, each individual has an average of 275 cubic feet.  If these dimensions are difficult to picture, imagine a closet 5 feet square and 11 feet high, allotted per person, for their body and for everything they own as well. Nineteen children were recorded as unvaccinated for smallpox (the only vaccine available at this time) here, and it was also noted that clothes were being manufactured in the building as well—clothes that were exposed to cases of typhus and measles. [8]

In another section of the map, we see a number of tenant houses north of the Bowery surrounded by stables, with a brewery and a coal yard at the east.  Less than 30 percent of the privies in this district are connected with drains and sewers, and at least ten of these, as marked on the map by black squares, are in extremely offensive condition. A number of these are indicated on the map below.

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Fourth Ward map, detail of the Bowery

The impact of the publication of the Citizens’ Association report and the map itself was mixed. The report led to higher sanitation standards throughout the city, and forced the attention of government officials, who passed a law to create the Board of Health.[9]  Under this law, at least three of the Board’s nine commissioners needed to be physicians. Though the Council went to great lengths to visually and verbally document the city’s housing conditions, the Council didn’t investigate wage equity or the frequency and rate of unemployment. Historian Elizabeth Blackmar has argued that “the surveys fueled the movement for developing building codes and sanitary inspection as a means of guaranteeing better housing, but they also erased from discussion reflection on the larger economic relations that produced them.” [10]  In some cases, the report’s writers unfairly drew a line of causation directly from better living conditions to economic security, implying that given the right housing, the poor could flourish, independent of employment opportunities, fare wages, and access to healthcare.

In spite of its shortcomings, the report offered keen observations about the city’s conditions, and was instrumental in inspiring great reform in the city.  Today, IMAGE NYC, a project launched by the Academy with the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research / CUNY Graduate Center earlier this year, embraces the methodology the Citizens’ Association deployed over 150 years ago, and largely for the same reason: to better understand the social determinants of health.  The site has an interactive map of New York City’s current and projected population, 65 and older.  Much like the Citizens’ Association map, the idea is to determine environmental risks and benefits to certain populations.  Here, instead of physicians canvassing the neighborhoods to note conditions, community members can use the 311 app to take pictures and send them to the city.

The Fourth Ward Map, published as part of the 1865 Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health, as well as the 1864 survey form documenting the household of the Irish immigrants living on 14th street, are on view in Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis, until this Sunday, April 28th.

References

[1] Bert Hansen. “The Image and Advocacy of Public Health in American Caricature and Cartoons from 1860 to 1900.”  American Journal of Public Health. Nov. 1997, v. 87, no. 11.

[2] Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens’ Association of New York. New York: Appleton, 1865, P. vii.

[3] John Duffy.  A History of Public Health in New York City 1625-1866.  New York: Russell Sage, 1968. Pp. 553-556.

[4] Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens’ Association of New York. New York:  Appleton, 1865.

[5] See also the excellent blog by Reference Librarian Mariam Touba of The New York Historical Society, here.

[6] Citizens’ Association of New York: Council of Hygiene and Public Health. Report of pestilential diseases and insalubrious quarters. New York: n.p., 1864.

[7] Duffy, p. 556.

[8] Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health…1865. P. 49-54.

[9] Duffy, 557.

[10] Elizabeth Blackmar.  “Accountability for Public Health: Regulating the Housing Market in Nineteenth-Century New York City.” In Hives of Sickness, edited by David Rosner. Rutgers University Press, 1995. Pp. 42-64.

The Influence of Sunshine and Pure Air: New York City Parks and Public Health

By Emily Miranker, Project Coordinator

My first picnic of the summer was picture-book perfect. Norman Rockwell would have approved: my friends and I clustered on blankets sipping lemonade, lightly toasted by the sun and gently cooled by a breeze, occasionally tossing a stray ball back to a child or sharing tidbit of our cold chicken lunch with an eager puppy.

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Central Park’s Harlem Meer.  Photo:  Emily Miranker

The belief that public parks are “a fundamental need of city life,”1  goes very deep. The father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted ‑to whom (along with Calvert Vaux) New York City owes not only Central Park; but Prospect Park, Carroll Park, Fort Greene Park, the Parade Ground and Von King Park,2 commented that it was more than delight in nature that made parks so vital. There was a health benefit too. “The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”3

The Park Association of New York City (today New Yorkers for Parks) took up Olmsted’s charge after his death. Several small associations banded together in 1908 to form The Parks and Playgrounds Association of the City of New York; primarily concerned with advocating for children with no outdoor spaces in their neighborhoods. This organization merged with the Battery Park Association and the Central Park Association to become the Park Association in 1928. “Our purpose,” they declared, was to advocate park extension, defense and betterment, as parks were “essential to the mental, moral and physical well-being of city dwellers.”4  The starting point was that ever persistent New York City need: land.

Our collection boasts a wonderfully-designed pamphlet from this period soliciting support for the Park Association.  The pamphlet argues for the maintenance of city parkland, and the acquisition and development of more land dedicated to greenspace.

The pamphlet includes a colorful fold-out map. On the map, green illustrates the city’s parks as of 1927, yellow, the land purchased and intended for park use but not yet developed, and red, land recommended for purchase by the 1927 Metropolitan Conference on Parks but not yet purchased by the city.

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Fold-out map published by the Park Association of New York City.  To Protect and Extend our City Parks for Posterity.  ca. 1927.

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Inside of pamphlet with introductory letter from President Nathan Straus.  To Protect and Extend our City Parks for Posterity.  ca. 1927.

The pamphlet’s call to action is to “make the yellow and red green.” Indeed, many of those patches on the map have since become green.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL), whose mission to create and protect land for people ensuring healthy and livable communities is much like the Park Association’s just on the national scale, spends a fair amount of time bolstering their advocacy for parks with research on the health benefits they provide. In 2006, TPL released a white paper on the health benefits of parks, underscoring the argument that parks are a wise investment for communities.5 You can read the report online for percentages, statistics, financials, and citations of peer-reviewed work; but in brief: greenways enable people to exercise, improve mental health, offer vital space for child play, and contribute to the creation of stable communities

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A 2011 geographic map of the distribution of parks and playgrounds done by the Built Environment and Health research team at Columbia University.6

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Map of New York City parkland (the dark green) created by The Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore rating system.7

A Fellow of The New York Academy of Medicine wrote on this very topic back in 1899. Dr. Orlando B. Douglas bemoans the lack of numbers to support his firm belief in the rejuvenating power of parks in The Relation of Public Parks to Public Health, written for the American Park and Outdoor Art Society. What he lacks in hard scientific data, he makes up for in poetic writing:

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Orlando B. Douglas’ The Relation of Public Parks to Public Health, published in 1899.

While he didn’t have the same kind of data to fortify his arguments available to TPL more than a hundred years later, Douglas supports his claims that “the public park system in cities resulted in diminishing the rate of nervous disease [and] the improvement of the general health in cities”9 with testimony from twenty-one other doctors throughout the state of New York. I imagine that Dr. Douglas would have been thrilled at our ability today to quantify the beneficial effects of parks; though his pamphlet is more enjoyable reading than modern white papers.

References

1.  To Protect and Extend our City Parks for Prosperity. New York: Park Association of New York City; 1929.

2. “Olmsted-Designed New York City Parks,” NYC Parks. Accessed June 14, 2016. https://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/olmsted-parks

3. Frederick Law Olmsted, “The Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees,” The Saturday Evening Post, July 18, 1868.

4. To Protect and Extend our City Parks for Prosperity. New York: Park Association of New York City; 1929.

5. “Parks,” Built Environment and Health Research Group at Columbia University. Accessed June 14, 2016. https://beh.columbia.edu/parks/

6. “ParkScore: New York, NY,” The Trust for Public Land. Accessed June 14, 2016. http://parkscore.tpl.org/map.php?city=New%20York

7.  https://www.tpl.org/health-benefits-parks accessed June 14, 2016.

8.  The Relation of Public Parks to Public Health. Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press; 1899.

 

Putting Asthma on the Map

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

Southwest Map

Map from The South-west and New Mexico for phthisis, weak lungs, asthma, bronchitis, etc. Chicago: American Health Resort Association, 1891.

On Wednesday, December 12, 2012, Carla Keirns, MD, PhD, from the Stony Brook University School of Medicine will present this year’s John K. Lattimer Lecture, “Putting Asthma on the Map: Weather, Pollen, Pollution and the Geography of Risk.”

Dr Keirns will discuss how the patient’s environment has been central to the prevention and treatment of asthma since antiquity, and how, beginning in the 19th century, physicians learned to use measurements of humidity, sunlight and rainfall to predict places and seasons that would be safe for asthmatics. During the same period, indoor and outdoor risks such as pollen and dust began to mark regions and spaces as risky or dangerous, and led to efforts to escape attacks through travel or fortifying the home environment against triggers. Recent efforts to predict or create safe places have turned again to the outdoors, both through national regulation of air pollution and the efforts of minority communities and their academic and activist partners to document the disproportionate environmental risks faced by their members.

Register for the event here.