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The New York Rapid Transit Subway, How It Will Affect the City's Life and Business (1904)

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The Review · September, 1904 · pp. 306-311.

By Herbert Croly

The people of New York do well to celebrate with trumpets and drums the opening of the subway for travel. The event begins the emancipation of the larger part of the city's population from an excessively cramped and uncomfortable manner of living. The emancipation will not be finally effected without many years of additional labor and the construction of other tunnels than the one now about completed. Nevertheless, the opening of the subway is an event of great importance in the history of the city, because for the first time a machinery of transit has been provided which promises to be adequate in the quality, if not the quantity, of its service. The insular position of Manhattan Island, and its great length compared to its breadth, compels its inhabitants to travel tedious distances along one or two parallel lines, and develops a peculiar density of traffic throughout this territory. The subway provides for these conditions by means of an express service such as no other city has required. Had full provision been made for a similar service on the elevated roads when they were planned, almost a generation ago, New Yorkers would have been spared many discomforts and a good deal of money - but the elevated structures did not have the capacity properly to handle the traffic which they created. In a few years the subway will doubtless be as crowded as the elevated roads are now; but the crowds who use it will be compensated for the discomforts of travel by the advantage of being able to reach comparatively cheap land without giving more than half an hour to the journey.

In effect, the service of the elevated roads broke down fifteen years ago. During that whole period, New Yorkers have been slowly and painfully adjusting themselves to a longer average of inconvenient traveling and a smaller average of inhabited space than the population of any other city in the world. With the discomforts of traveling we are all familiar; and so, also, are we familiar, if not in our own persons, at least in those of our friends, with the dark, cramped little flats in which so many New Yorkers live. But we are not so familiar with the process whereby the population of a city of whom Cooper wrote, in 1830, that "no one who is at all comfortable in life would think of sharing his house with another person" have been obliged to adapt themselves to some kind of a multiple dwelling. Inasmuch as the first apartment-house for well-to-do people was built in 1869, the Stuyvesant, on East Eighteenth Street, this transformation has taken place practically during the life of one generation - and it differs from the process whereby Paris has taken the flat for its typical habitation in that the Paris apartment has prevailed because it was preferred, whereas the New York flat has prevailed because it could not be helped. The whole transformation has been due to the gradual increase in the price of accessible land in Manhattan, until at the present time a corner frontage of twenty-five feet in a tenement-house district of Manhattan will sell for more than a site on a fashionable avenue in a city of four hundred thousand inhabitants.

Without, however, going into the history of real-estate values in the residential neighborhoods of Manhattan, the transformation will be sufficiently described by showing the alteration which has taken place in the character of the residential building, by showing, that is, how the building of tenement and apartment houses has increased, and how they have gradually become higher and higher, and deeper and deeper, and by showing, also, how the building of private residences has diminished, and how those which have been built have become narrower, higher, and deeper. The year 1869 is a convenient date of departure for this story, because it was at about that year when the need for rapid transit was beginning to be acutely felt, and when the first modern apartment-house was built. Not, of course, that before that date the evidence of overcrowding was not visible. Tenements were already being erected, and New York had been the possessor of a "tenement-house problem" for twenty years. Furthermore, the three-story brick residence measuring twenty-five by forty feet, which was the original type of speculative private dwelling erected in New York, bad already been generally superseded by the twenty, or even the fifteen-by-fifty, brownstone dwelling, which was frequently four stories high, and which was one of the worst types of residence ever erected in large numbers in this country. Nevertheless, well-to-do people had not as yet begun to feel to any considerable extent the pinch of costly land, and the building of that date indicates very well the manner in which the New Yorker could then afford to live In 1870, plans were filed at the Building Department for 1,016 private dwellings and for 817 tenements. About one-third of these dwellings were four stories high, and very few were over twenty feet wide. Of the tenements, 450 were four stories high or under, while 367 were five stories high. There were no buildings given up to residential purposes more than five stories high, except an hotel or two. The elevator apartment-house was unknown. It was only poor people who occupied anything but private dwellings, barring, of course, the large boarding population, which has always existed in New York. The figures respecting the cost of these dwellings are not available; but the average residence required about ten thousand dollars to erect, and sold for prices that varied from fifteen to twenty thousand dollars. At this date, the bulk of the building was being carried oil in the "forties," "fifties," and "sixties," and there were no means of transit quicker than horse-cars and Broadway "buses." They were, if anything, packed tighter than the elevated cars are at the present time. "Rapid transit" was as eagerly discussed then as now; but the only transit improvement actually in process or construction was the Ninth Avenue Elevated Railroad, which for many years availed little.

Ten years later, in 1879 and 1880, conditions had changed, not radically, but at least significantly. The number of dwellings to be erected in Manhattan for which plans were filed was 1,017 in 1879 and 1,033 in 1880, against 1,016 in 1870. In view of the fact that population had increased over one-third during the decade, and that wealth had grown in even larger proportion, the fact that the building of private dwellings remained stationary plainly indicated that a larger percentage of the well-to-do population were seeking Brooklyn or the suburbs, or else were securing some other kind of residence in Manhattan. What this kind of residence was is suggested by the fact that during 1880 eight apartment-houses were erected, from six to eight stories in height, all of which contained elevators. The number is not particularly impressive, but these eight buildings were the forerunners of a host. They constitute the beginning of the modern elevator apartment-house, erected in Manhattan as a regular speculative building enterprise. Ten years before, no flat for which plans bad been filed was more than five stories high. It is true that the total number of tenements for which plans were filed in 1880, viz., 767, was, owing to general conditions, somewhat smaller than the total number for which plans were filed in 1870, viz., 817; and it is true also that in 1880 the multiple dwelling was still intended chiefly for poor people, four and five story tenements being the prevailing types. Nevertheless, a significant beginning had been made in the transformation of Manhattan from a city in which the middle class lived in private houses into a city in which they lived mostly in apartments.

During the next decade, between 1880 and 1890, this transformation made rapid strides. The momentum was somewhat retarded by the elevated roads, which came into full operation late in the 1870s; but the delay was not very serious, because the elevated structures, not being provided with room for any sufficient express service, did not do more than relieve existing congestion. Of course, the elevated transit enormously stimulated building to the east and west of Central Park ; but it no sooner encouraged people to settle between Fifty-ninth and One Hundred and Twenty-fifth streets than it, proved totally inadequate to furnish them with tolerable traveling accommodations. The consequence was that almost contemporaneous with what is known as the "West Side movement," which set in with a rush about 1S85, huge apartment-houses intended for comparatively rich people, such as the Navarro Flats and the Osborne, were projected into the architectural landscape immediately south of the park. On the whole, however, this West Side movement gave for a few years a new life to the small private dwellings in Manhattan, and from 1885 on a great many houses costing their owners, with the land, from fifteen thousand dollars to thirty thousand dollars were erected. In 1886, for instance, plans were filed for 1,315 private dwellings, which is a larger number than for any year which has yet been considered. The number of flats and tenements projected during the same year was also heavy, amounting to 1,151, the great majority being five stories high. The old four-story tenement, so popular during the preceding decade, almost disappeared as a type, while the modern type of six-story tenement without an elevator began to be erected on the lower East Side.

The year 1886, however, was an exceptional year; and thereafter the number of private dwellings erected in Manhattan decreased steadily. The value of vacant land on the West Side soon approximated to the value of land in corresponding situations farther south, and the congested condition of the elevated roads prevented much further expansion. Between 1889 and 1895, the number of dwellings for which plans were filed fluctuated between five hundred and eight hundred, the average cost per dwelling being about seventeen thousand dollars, and the expense to the purchaser rarely less than twenty-five thousand dollars, and generally more. Such prices as these severely restricted the market for private residences, and correspondingly increased the demand for apartments, as may be inferred from the fact that while only eight hundred and thirty-five dwellings were projected in 1890, plans were filed for 1209 tenement and apartment houses, a comparatively large proportion of them being elevator buildings.

It was late in the 1890s, however, that the process which I have been describing culminated. During this whole decade, nothing was done to improve the transit machinery of Manhattan except the substitution of electrical for horse power on the surface roads; and this improvement did not vitally affect the traffic for long distances. The people who preferred the inconveniences of city to the inconveniences of suburban life were forced to crowd in ever larger numbers into practically the same area. From 1895 to 1899, an average of about three hundred and fifty private dwellings were erected each year; but the cost of land was constantly increasing, and was making more expensive the grade of residence which must be erected in order to make profitable a speculative building enterprise in that class of property. In 1899, for instance, the cost of building the average dwelling erected in Manhattan had reached $24,000. Then came the surprising disclosure. In 1900, this average cost suddenly jumped to $35,000; in 1901, it became $59,800, and in 1902, $62,160. In 1903, the figure dropped back to $51,400, but this decrease is not significant for our present purpose. The important fact was established in these years that the only land on which it paid to put up new private dwellings was the extremely expensive land along the line of Fifth Avenue, which none but rich men could afford; and, of course, along with this limitation came an equally emphatic diminution in the number of new dwellings erected. In 1899, this number was 338; in 1900, only 112; in 1901, just 100; in 1902, 130; in 1903, as few as 56; and in the first six months of 1904, no more than 30, with the probability of an increase to 40 by the end of the year. In eighteen years, the number of new private houses which the residents of Manhattan could afford to build or appropriate in one year diminished from over 1,300 to about 40, and during the same period the character of these buildings radically altered. They became often as much as eighty feet deep, and generally at least five stories high. One of them is actually seven stories high, and almost all of them contain elevators.

In the meantime, apartment-houses were being built to accommodate people who under earlier conditions would have occupied private dwellings. Throughout the whole of the 1890s, an average of about thirty million dollars a year was invested in large flats and tenements; and toward the end of this decade, when the decrease in the building of residences became so extremely marked, fully half of this sum was annually invested in elevator apartment-houses built for people who paid eight hundred dollars a year rent and over. The building of such houses, seven stories high, received all immense impetus in 1897, when the cost of the elevator service was reduced, because of the opportunity which had been afforded to obtain electric power from the street conduits, the consequence being that in three years nearly fifty million dollars was spent upon these seven-story buildings alone. During the same period, the old five-story tenement very generally gave place to a type of six-story building, which since the new tenement-house law was passed has averaged about forty feet in width and has been a great improvement upon the old twenty-five foot house.

During the first three years of the new century, the great mass of the new building has been erected for business and miscellaneous purposes. Dwellings of all kinds have been, comparatively speaking, neglected, because there was an overproduction of flats and tenements in the years immediately preceding, and because the whole movement issued from the growth of Now York as a financial and commercial center. Yet, although there was an underproduction of house-room throughout these years, this period of big building projects and advancing real-estate values witnessed an enormous increase in the popularity of one particularly metropolitan class of residence, viz., the apartment, or family hotel. Hotels of this type, which may be described as a sort of twentieth-century boarding-house, had long been built at the rate, perhaps, of two or three a year, but all of a sudden they jumped into favor, and in three years plans were filed for a hundred of them, to cost in the neighborhood of seventy-five million dollars. This sudden popularity was brought about by the great increase in demand for house-room in a convenient location, and intended for the accommodation of people who wanted to live in every way with as little bother as possible. It was probably the culminating result of the gradual demoralization of domestic life among well-to-do people in New York, which has been caused partly by the difficulty of finding economical, pleasant, and convenient habitations. Apartment hotels have succeeded because they enabled a childless family to put up a good appearance in two rooms and bath. They are the final word which the ingenious builder can speak in the way of selling the smallest amount of living-space at the highest possible price, while at the same time sweetening his homeopathic dose of room with a coating of apparent privacy, flunkeys, chefs, and similar seductive vanities.

The existing situation, then, in regard to living accommodations in Manhattan may be summarized as follows: New private residences are being erected only for rich people. A great many families with fair incomes continue to live in them; but this number is actually, as well as relatively, decreasing, because of the constant displacement of the existing stock of residences by apartment-houses and business buildings. Had no relief been afforded, the result would undoubtedly be the complete destruction of private residences in Manhattan, except for very rich people, and the substitution in their place of huge apartment-houses and family hotels.

The subway, which is now being opened, will, however, afford some relief, because its express tracks will make an unoccupied area like Washington Heights almost as accessible from the financial district as the lower West Side now is. Under the impulse afforded by these better accommodations, there will be a revival of the building of small residences on Manhattan Island, and during the next five years Washington Heights will be the scene of a speculative building movement of a greater volume and momentum than that which took place on the West Side in the middle years of the eighties. There is no doubt, however, that the existing subway will, like the elevated roads, create more traffic than it can satisfactorily accommodate, and unless supplementary tunnels are added, there will be a renewal, in a few years, of the congestion from which the city is now suffering. Within another six years, however, other subways will surely be opened; and they, together with the new bridges and the tunnels under the East and North rivers, will permit New York to expand more freely than it has done for a generation; with the result, undoubtedly, of increasing both its industrial efficiency and its general wholesomeness of life. They will restore cheap land to a large part of the inhabitants of the city, reduce the cost of living, and encourage on the one hand the distribution of population, and on the other the concentration of business. But just because this immense invigoration of the city's power of circulation will centralize business as well as distribute population, it will merely postpone the day when those only will occupy a private residence in Manhattan who are rich enough to afford a large price, and any man who lives anywhere or anyhow in Manhattan will have to pay in one way or another, if not in money, then in space, light, air, and comfort.









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