In the Biggest New York Tenement

Nellie Bly

The New York World/August 5, 1894

Nellie Bly Spends the Two Hottest Days of the Year in the largest “Double-Decker” in Town.

3,532 People in the Block

One Family Occupying Only Three Rooms Have Eight Boarders and Lodgers

Sleeping on the Fire-Escapes

No Scenes of Disturbance of Disorder Among the Throngs of Over-Crowded Tenants

Strange Phases of Life in a Big City

An Interesting Chat with the Janitress of the Big Double-Decker Tenement-House

The most thickly populated spot on earth?

That is where I’ve spent the two hottest days we’ve had this summer—last Saturday and Sunday.

Three thousand five hundred and thirty-two people in one block! Actually in one block, Second street on the south, Third street on the north, Avenue B on the west and Avenue C on the east.

No other block upon this earth, or same space of ground, is so densely populated. At least so it is claimed and, so far as statistics go, proved.

Thirty-five hundred and thirty-two people would make a good-sized town, and towns of smaller population have a mayor, a postmaster, constables, churches and bankers all of their own.

In one of the big tenements on this block, No. 228 Second street, an apartment was hired for me, and on Saturday afternoon, when everybody else was taking a half-holiday and thanking heaven they were able to be out of the hot city over Sunday, I moved into my new abode.

My first intention was to dress very poorly, so as to look as much as possible like those with whom I was to live, but on second consideration, I decided that I had never found any excuse for the dirty poor, and that if I was to be poor it was not necessary to be also ragged and dirty. So I wore a plain gray skirt, a shirt-waist and a sailor hat, and in a small hand-satchel carried all the toilet articles I needed.

Although I was partly prepared for the crowded appearance of the block, still at the first sight of it I thought something must have occurred to cause such numbers of people to congregate in one spot.

The sidewalks were well-nigh impassable, but making my way along slowly, I soon found my number and, climbing over the people upon the dirty stoop, stood upon the threshold of a new and strange existence.

Into the Tenement

The hall was dirty and dark and forbidding. It seemed well-filled with children. I addressed a half-grown girl and asked for the housekeeper.

The girl shook her uncombed head; she could not speak English. I spoke to another, a smaller girl with thin, stringy hair and one solitary sleeveless slip between her and nudeness. I inquired for the janitress.

“The housekeepers in there, if that’s what you want,” she answered, pointing to the first door in the hall.

The door was open. It opened into a very small kitchen. The kitchen opened into another room, a parlor, they call it, which was in front and was the only room that had direct light, it having a window facing the street. The kitchen also opened into a back room, a small, dark bedroom. There was a big stove in the middle of the kitchen and in the stove was a roaring fire, although the day was the hottest New York has been afflicted with in years.

I could not help glancing at the hot stove and from it to the small rooms on either side, and I wondered if some way could not be found to compel the builders of tenements to use some thought for the comfort of the unfortunate poor who must help to pay the 14 percent interest on the money invested. The kitchen build between the two living rooms may save money for the builders, but it means frightful discomfort for those who do not know what “a few weeks in the country” means.

‘Are You Mrs. Brown?’

They must eat, and naturally to eat must cook, and a fire in the stock makes the other rooms, especially the rear bedroom, insufferably hot. Seeing me standing there the housekeeper left something she was looking after on the stove to come to me.

“An apartment was rented in this house for me, I believe,” I said to her. And she looked at me with a smile. “I will take you up,” she said, and she hurried into the rear room for the keys.

She led the way up the narrow, dirty stairs. I knew they were dirty, although I could see no more than I can at midnight when it is moonless and stormy; the vile stench made seeing superfluous.

With the instinct so exquisitely developed in dogs, I followed the housekeeper up the dark stairs, around a dark landing pregnant with the smothering smell of cabbage, and up a second flight. There she stopped and unlocked a door opening into a front apartment. They key was bent, and it took some time to accomplish this task; which being done, I walked into my new home.

Oh, the smell of it! It seemed to me that more than a million kinds of smell rushed out to embrace me in strong, if unseen, arms.

“Your furniture come, and I had ’em bring it here,” she explained, pointing to a pile of stuff upon the floor. There it was, sure enough—furniture that had been bought for my use in the tenement.

In Nellie Bly’s Room

I glanced at the floor; it was black with filth left by the last tenant, and a sickening smell seemed to run from it….

…’tain’t safe to leave ’em open when you go out,” the housekeeper explained. “There hasn’t been anything taken yet, but it’s better to be safe.”
She opened the dust-covered windows as she spoke, and then she brought me one of my two new chairs.

“Will you scrub for me?” I asked, “and put things to place?”

She promised readily enough.

“I need odd jobs,” she said.

Her arm was strong and willing, and in a short time the floor was as clean as it would come, and so hot was it that the wet boards dried almost as they were scrubbed. In fact, when she reached the doorside the entire floor was dry.

Then she set up the cot bed for me, put a chair at each of the front windows and a small table between them. My apartment consisted of three rooms, just like the housekeeper’s; the front room, then the kitchen, in which there was running water, and the dark rear bedroom.

The rent was $10.50 a month and 75 cents deposit for the keys.

The rent is lower and the rooms are better than in the town of Pullman.

There was no way to have any cooking done in my apartment, so I went uptown for my dinner, returning to my new rooms about 9.30.

Everybody on the Street

Making my way through a task that looked impossible, I went to my room and opening my window, leaned out on the fire-escape to watch the strange scene below.

The pavement on both sides of the street was filled with a mass of human beings. A woman sitting on the curb pushed a carriage containing two babies arm’s length and back. Another woman held a fretful child in her arms and kept balancing from one foot to the other to keep it quite. Four men clad in undershirts and trousers sat in chairs placed in a row on the curb. A woman was huddled down in a doorway, a shawl over her head and her face hidden between her knees. A group on a neighboring stoop were drinking turn about from a tin pail. An old man with an enormous beard and a long Dutch pipe stood smoking thoughtfully at the entrance to a dark hallway. A line of baby carriages, twelve in number, stood one after the other along the edge of the pavement, each carriage held one or two babies, and no one was in attendance.

Across the street, between the baker’s and barber’s front windows, was a soda fountain with three bottles of syrup, four long glasses and a mite of a showcase, a foot square, containing tobacco.

A bald-headed man sat hatless and coatless on a high stool behind the counter. Occasionally he sold a glass of soda to a woman or a child, or a package of cigarettes, with a picture and box of matches thrown in to a boy.

The strangest thing of all to me was the constant sound of voices which rose in one unbroken buzz from the street. Its like I never heard before, and so strange was it that I can find no words to describe it. It was one loud, continuous sound, much, I fancy, as would come from a mob advancing upon something. It was a distinct but distant sound, a constant buzz, with no distinguishable words. Within the tenement where I lived everything was comparatively still. It seemed to me that everybody must be out in the street.

After a while the housekeeper came to see me. She brought me a glass and pitcher and said she could buy the ice across the street.

She Was a “Widow,” Too

She returned with the ice. She put it in a pitcher and ran water over it. The water was thick with a black sediment, which finally settled in the bottom of the pitcher. She placed the pitcher and a glass upon the mantel for my service. I noticed that she looked lonely, so I asked her to sit down.

“Are you all alone?” she asked me bluntly.

I had to account for the “Mrs.,” which the man upon whom had fallen the duty of renting the room had credited to me, so I told her I was a widow.

“I’d never thought you were married, you look that young,” she said, and then she signed.

“Are you a widow also?” I asked, for it seemed she wanted me to ask.

“Yes,” she replied. “But my husband ain’t dead yet,” she added with an afterthought.
I looked at her curiously.

“He can’t live with me,” she explained. “He’s on Ward’s Island; gone in his head, you know.”

“Ah! That is sad,” I say, sympathetically, and I see her dark eyes fill with tears.
Her eyes have the sad, appealing look of a dog, and I remember that is her hair is tossed and untidy, her little rooms are spotlessly clean, and I like her.

“He was a good man,” she says, encouraged by my sympathy, “but he couldn’t sleep nights. That’s what was wrong with him. He never slept nights and his head ached so all the time. But he was such a good man.”

“Could nothing be done to make him sleep?” I assed.

Husband on Ward’s Island

No; he was always taking everything, everything he read about or people told him about, but it didn’t help, so the doctors said I’d better send him to Ward’s Island. They said he’d get worse all the time, and when he couldn’t work I couldn’t keep him because they said it wasn’t safe to leave him alone, so he had to go to the Island.”

“Do you ever see him?”

“I go to see him every two weeks. I was there today, but he seemed bright today. ‘Why do you keep me here?’ he said to men, an’ he cried. ‘Wasn’t I always a good man to you? Won’t you take me home?’

“That’s what makes it hard,” she said with quivering lips. “He was a good man to me always and to the children. So kind and quiet! He never said a cross word, even when his poor head ached so.”

“Is there no hope for his recovery?” I asked.

“No; the doctors say he has—I don’t know what you call it; his brain is all soft. He’ll get worse all the time, but they say he can live to be an old man; outlive me, for he won’t be working and I will. I never had to work hard when he was with me. He was such a good man! That’s what makes it hard.”

She told me she had five children, the youngest about two and the eldest about ten.

“I worked hard, took in washing and went out cleaning and everything, but I couldn’t get enough to keep them, so I had to give the three oldest ones to the home. They’ll be kept there till they’re sixteen an’ I can see them once a month.”

Making Both Ends Meet

“It’s better for them,” she added, as if to assure me of her rightful intentions. “It keeps them off the street, an’ my man wouldn’t have liked them to grow up in the streets, an’ they’ll get a schooling.”

“Yes; I should think they are much better off. How do you keep yourself now, and your two little ones?”

“I get my rent free for taking care of this house,” she replied. “That’s a good saving. Then I do washings or any work I can get. Work has been scarce for a year now, but I’ve had two boarders; two young ladies. They work in a cloak factory and they make $5 a week. I charge them $2.50 each for their board and wash. But they are going to leave Monday. The one is getting married and the other is going with her. I don’t know what I’ll do then.”

A child came running upstairs for the housekeeper.

“The new people are down there,” the child said, and the housekeeper said she must go.

“It’s a newly married couple that’s movin’ in tonight,” she explained.

“Rather a large move, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yes; but he wanted to help with it after his work,” she said. “I left the lights burning in the hall because they were coming. I always put them out at 10.”
Midnight, and I sat at my window watching the crowd below.

Midnight Noises and Sights

The boys on the trucks made attempts to sing; children still darted hither and thither; men and women clustered on the sidewalks; that strange buzz of life was just as loud as ever.

Will they never go to bed? I wondered.

The noise, that unearthly buzz, exhausted me. I felt that I needed sleep and that I would be unable to get any. The bad odors from the street and house had made my head ache.

Then lights came in a few of the windows opposite and men and women and children, each in a single undergarment, moved around as if making ready for bed. There was no attempt to close the shutters or left down the blinds.

I lay down upon my cot and tried to sleep. People came up and went downstairs, stumbling in the dark or striking matches against the wall to give them light. The newly wedded couple below me were hammering their furniture together. The baby in the apartment overhead was crying lustily.

I may have slept five minutes; it couldn’t have been longer. The baby overhead screamed so lustily and angrily that I felt half inclined to go up to see what was wrong with it. Somewhere else in the house I could hear a baby-carriage being wheeled back and forth on the bare floor to keep some child quiet.

I got a book and read.

The Fire-Escape for Beds

At 2 o’clock I went to my window. The bald-headed, hatless and coatless man at the soda-fountain was just selling a strawberry soda to a little girl who had to get on her tiptoes to reach the top of the counter. The men and boys were no longer attempting to sing, but were lying a dark mass in the bottom of the wagons. The line of baby carriages had disappeared. One woman on the pavement beneath my window sat upright on a chair and kept a baby-carriage in constant motion with her foot.

I noticed a little dark heap of something on the fire-escape near my window. I could have put out my hand and touched it, but I didn’t.

I merely watched it. Presently above the bundle of rags I saw a little curly head toss restlessly. A little girl was sleeping there.

I leaned out of the window and looked about. Beneath my fire-escape lay a man in his underclothes; a little beyond him slept a woman and child.

Because of the intervening bedclothing I could not see those upon the fire-escapes above, but I could get a view of the other side of the block and every fire-escape was transformed into a bed. The buzzing in the street never ceased; fewer people were moving about, though just as many as ever were sitting around as if they meant to spend the night where they were.

It was now nearly 3 o’clock in the morning. I went back to my cot so sleepy that I felt I should no longer mind the frightful heat, the smell and noise. Notwithstanding my weariness I laughed to find that the reporter who had been sent to buy my necessary household articles had only bought me one bedcover. It was a heavy woolen blanket!

And it was the hottest night in six years! And what was infinitely worse, to protect myself from mosquitoes I had to cover up!

I was so miserable and uncomfortable that I went to sleep, and when I woke again two babies, in place of one, were scratching matches against my door.

I went to the window and found little change in the street below. The woman still sat stiffly upright in a chair, rolling her baby carriage with her foot, and the bald man at the soda fountain was sitting upon his high stool with folded arms and motionless.

Then a milk wagon rattled up to a shop opposite, and the driver deftly tossed five filled cans on the pavement and five empty cans into his wagon. Then he yelled to the storekeeper and rattled the garden door; the other wasn’t closed.

…Sneider by this time was holding the screen door open the milkman whirled the cans inside. The quickness with which Sneider made his appearance proved that he had not undressed to go to bed. Nor did he return for a second snooze. He opened up shop at once, and as customers had not appeared, came out and sat before his open door.

I went to my cot again. When I woke the babies were still crying upstairs and the mosquitoes had disappeared, but their places were taken by busy, buzzing flies. I looked out upon the street. The soda-fountain man was still motionless on his high stool and the woman still sat by her baby carriage. A new woman had appeared. She was pacing up and down the pavement for the matter of ten feet, with a child in her arms. The child’s face in the early daylight wore the color of death.

The people still slept on the fire-escapes, but the men had disappeared from the wagons, curbs and door-stoops.

The heat and the constant noise had worn me out. The air in my room was stifling and had a heavy, vile smell. Still, I went to sleep and slept on until 8 o’clock.

Only One Sunday Paper

I went out for breakfast and came back to my post of duty a few hours later.

I found the strange block once again jammed with people. All the little shops, the butcher, the baker, the coal dealer and ice-man, the candy shops and the soda fountain, were wide open, doing business just as if it were a week day.

I noticed that in the entire block only one man had a Sunday newspaper. No one else read.

I also noticed that families had no particular hour for meals and that there was no ceremony about eating together. I also noticed that they mostly ate something with a spoon out of a bowl.

Just opposite three children were sleeping on a fire-escape, and above them two men in their under-clothing and bare feet took turns at drinking out of a broken pitcher, and on the fire-escape, still above them, a little boy of bilious yellow, clad only in a short shirt, kept crying to some boys in the street below, and never getting a reply: “Do you want a pussy-cat? Do you want a pussy-cat?”

As the day advanced the line of baby-carriages made its appearance upon the pavement, increasing steadily with the shade. The soda-water man did a pretty good business and the ice-man had constant customers. In fact, all the shop-keepers, including the barber, who, like the other men, wore only his undershirt and trousers, did a good-steady business.

I saw no fights and no disorder all the time I was there and I saw a policeman upon the block only once. The nearest approach to trouble was with an amateur baseball team who were howling themselves hoarse and bumping into everything in their limited field in the street.

At last the ball hit a small occupant of a carriage in the baby-carriage line, and a big, fat, dirty man with a pipe in his mouth yelled lustily for the baker’s wife, and the baby squalled like a young Indian. The baker’s wife ran out, wrapping up some cakes as she ran, and the baker, with his hands and arms covered with flour, came up out of the basement. Everybody clustered around the baby and the barker barber walked off in triumph with the ball, shaking his fist at the boys when they yelled “Hi, there!” to throw it back.

A Little Boy Visitor

A timid knock came upon my door, and I opened it to find there a pretty little boy in a white waist, and with his hair just as nicely brushed as it could be. He had big, trusting blue eyes, and he looked up at me and smiled, saying, pityingly, “Ain’t you lonesome?”

I told him I was, a little bit, because I didn’t want him to think I didn’t want to see him, and I asked him in and gave him a chair at the window.

His mother, who proved to be my neighbor in the rear, followed him in to explain that the child knew I was alone and thought he would come in to cheer me up.

Then I talked with the mother. She told me the house was the kind known as a “double-decker tenement,” and that there were four apartments to a floor, two front and two rear, of three rooms each.

She also told me that the largest family in the house numbered eleven, all of whom lived in three small rooms. She said that nearly all the people in the house kept boarders, and that there were three empty apartments at present and fewer people in the house than usual.

117 Persons Under One Roof

We counted the number of persons under the one roof.

There were, by actual count, one hundred and seventeen people!

The largest family numbered eleven. The smallest was my own.

The family that lived above me have twins. It was the twins that cried all night—sometimes solos, sometimes duets. The woman who sat on the pavement all night did so because her child is very ill and the night air is better for it than that of the hot, stifling rooms.

Her son and my little visitor had been at death’s door with diphtheria four weeks ago. For eight days and nights she sat without sleep or rest by his bedside, and then the doctor who told her to prepare for the worst at 10.30 one night shook hands with her at 6 and told her the little chap had “pulled through.”

She hadn’t cried before, but she cried then and cried herself to sleep. Her husband couldn’t sit up at night, because he had to work to provide food for them. The husband is a clerk in a hat store and gets $10 a week. He works from 7.30 until 10.30 every day, Sundays as well as week days.

Since her boy got well, four weeks ago, two other children had died in the house, and a man, the father of the eleven children. He died very suddenly of inflammation of the brain. Thirteen of them lived in the three small rooms.

When he was dying, she told me, the eleven children and the wife gathered around the bed and cried so loud and went on so that he couldn’t die; they wouldn’t let him. He was dead, she declared, but their wild lamentations made him come back to life.

Then a friend came in and said: “You must go away; he can’t die if you don’t.” And though it was because he was dying they cried so, yet they went out and gave him the chance. I thought if I had been one of the eleven and crying would have kept my father alive, nothing would have induced me to stop, but I didn’t tell her my thoughts.

They weren’t gone five minutes, she added, until the poor man closed his eyes, sighed gently and was dead. He could die when they didn’t cry.

(Source: Nellie Bly Online,

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