The Argument to Create Suburbs in 1909

August 15, 2013 54 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch was one of the most passionate attendees of the historic National Conference of City Planning in 1909. Like many, she was a Social Progressive, concerned with the health and morality of the public. Simkovitch's speech was primarily concerned with the evils of density---perceived as 'overcrowding'. Also like many at the conference, she fervently believed that the answer to many of the ills of the era were to reverse the wheels of city density. Her main contribution to the DNA of the country was to provide a moral component to the planning discussion.

Address of Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, of Greenwich House, New York City,
To The National Conference on City Planning, Saturday Evening, May 22, 1909.  

In a side street in the heart of the lower west side of New York about a week ago was held a little pageant. From the doors of the settlement house emerged Robin Hood with his merry men, Friar Tuck, dancing fairies, King Richard — all interwoven into a spring festival.  A band played on the sidewalk in front of the house. The police commissioner had given his permission to close the street to traffic from 4 to 6  o'clock. The street cleaning commissioner sent an extra bevy of workers who hosed  off the little street until it shone as never before perhaps since the days when Greenwich village was a village indeed, and the Bleecker family walked demurely home from church through this little lane. Canvas was placed on the street, and while the archers  were busy with bow and arrow, the fairies rested on the spotless canvas.  Seventeen hundred people, all the inhabitants of this little block, looked on from crowded pavements, from filled windows, and airy fire escapes.

Chairs on the sidewalk served as  boxes.  It was a merry little show, and indicates how much fun and imagination can be realized on a little street generally full of people, trucks, garbage cans, and children  playing baseball. From 18 different countries come these 1,700 people. Our block  density is 975 per acre.  In one basement opposite the settlement 11 people sleep in three rooms. In a house to the rear an entire family works on the manufacture of  artificial flowers at 8 cents per gross.

Five saloons ornament the block, and if we want  to be statistical and divide the population into families and assume that each head of a family refreshes himself at one or the other of these convenient spots and  that each saloon pays its $1,200 a year license, to be paid for eventually of course,  by the consumer, we can say that these saloons cost each family head, irrespective of the amount that he consumes beyond the license value, enough to allow him to become a member of the Harvard Club.   From Ireland, Italy, Greece, Germany, the United States — yes, and from 13 other countries — have assembled this little group.

It sometimes seems to me that the problems of congestion are all to be seen right there  from our front door, and yet this block is by no means one of New York's most congested  blocks. There are 46 others with a higher density. Higher up on the West Side there is one block with 6,000 souls with a density of 1,145 per acre.

A little study made  by the Neighborhood Workers' Association of 250 families scattered throughout the  borough of Manhattan indicated that all but 23 per cent of the families were living in conditions recognized as overcrowded — that is, over 2 in a room ; 23 per cent, 3 in a room ;  27 per cent, 4 in a room; 12 per cent, 5 in a room. The very high percentage of income  devoted to rent in all our large cities, but especially in New York, has been brought to the attention of everyone through the careful studies made by Mrs. More in her  Wage Earner's Budgets, and by Mr. Chapin in the recent Sage Foundation publication  entitled "The Standard of Living.''

Anywhere from 18 to 33 per cent of the total income of working people in New York is devoted to rent.   It is well to analyze somewhat carefully just what we mean by congestion. The word has come to mean a conglomeration of pale faces, filthy streets, noise, poverty, disease, but of course this is not what the word really connotes. We mean by congestion simply overcrowding, and we have to ask ourselves how far congestion is itself  an evil and how far it accentuates other coexistent evils. Thus the ward in which I live in New York has the next to the highest death rate from tuberculosis of any ward  in the city. We also have a very high infant mortality. The charitable societies find  here the direst poverty, and yet the density of our ward is only the average city density.

Congestion then can not be held accountable for disease or for poverty, and if  congestion tomorrow were removed from the face of the earth, not even Mr. Marsh  could logically expect to see poverty and disease disappear forthwith. And yet, when I turn from our ward death rate to the death rate of Jones street, the little street of Robin Hood, in which Greenwich House is situated, I find the death rate from tuberculosis higher than the ward death rate, the infant mortality higher, the poverty more appalling. I look for the causes of tuberculosis in the district and I find them to be  threefold: First, the large number of Irish-Americans among whom the disease is so  fatal; second, the fact that we are a district of old, unimproved tenement dwellings that have no doubt become impregnated with the disease; and third, the fact that the  relatively low rentals of these old dwellings attract to them those who are already very  poor, and whose poverty is itself an invitation to disease. But in Jones street the overcrowding accentuates all these evils. While, therefore, congestion can not be classed  as the first cause of poverty or disease, it is certainly a factor that very largely emphasizes these evils.  Removal of congestion often removes just that factor which has made it impossible for a family to fight successfully with these other evils.   I have in mind a family— let us add them to the great army of Smiths — who lived  in a little ramshackle rear tenement on Jones street, a dark and insanitary place.

Two members of the family had tuberculosis; the father was chronically out of work;  the whole family had lost heart and was apparently content to let things sink to the  bottom. The entire group showed inertia and indifference, and would have been classed by anybody who insists on pigeonholing humanity as a hopeless case of the  city's submerged. An enterprising friend of the family's finally persuaded them to  move; got them into a quieter block where there was none of the hypnotizing excitement to which they had been accustomed, and where the rooms were sunny and  cheerful. Just that little change worked a miracle. The father was sufficiently  braced up to seek and find employment, the mother took better care of her children, the girl with tuberculosis went away in the country to visit an aunt and is rapidly  improving, and a similar improvement is noted in the baby who remains with the mother. In this case, as it must be in thousands and thousands of others, it was congestion that was really the most serious element in the situation.  With that removed, both the family itself and the helping agency with which it was associated had a chance to get to work effectively.

Congestion is not only an emphasizing factor in the whole complex social problem;  it also is an evil in itself; and from this point of view I do not think it has been sufficiently considered.

Overcrowding means excitement, going the pace, the same evil in times of leisure that we recognize as overwork in industry.

This excitement becomes a habit, and nobody can live without it. We have had appalling revelations in New York during this past winter of the conditions that exist in dance halls in New York to which our young girls resort in such large numbers.

Ten years ago the girls of New York were content with simple forms of recreation, with guilds and  clubs, an occasional evening at the theater; but now they must have excitement all  the time. The industrial and the social pace go hand in hand, and there is something in the presence of huge numbers of people which makes people desire more  and more excitement to satisfy the jaded senses. Congestion means the gradual substitution of sensationalism as opposed to reason, and that means social demoralization, ever ready to catch at the latest news, to float on the surface of the hour, never  to think a thought through, but to go on rapidly from one sensation to another.  This becomes the mental habit of all of us in congested cities.

The industrial education people see this; they recognize that the small boy and girl must engage in some constructive activity from beginning to end that will give  them a real grasp. But no introduction of industrial education will ever do what its advocates hope as long as the appeal to the senses from hour to hour is as dominant  as it is today. And, third, congestion renders problems too unwieldy to be met.  The vastness of the problem renders it impenetrable to ideas or influence. We may truthfully say that overcrowding is itself, therefore, responsible for a demoralization due to the substitution of sensation for reason, and for rendering a problem already  difficult insoluble.

Congestion is, therefore, an evil in itself and as a contributory cause of other evils.

In this latter connection one has only to reflect how perfectly futile an educational  campaign against dirt is in congested quarters. It would be very desirable if tenants  did not throw garbage out of the window. Now, an educational campaign against garbage throwing would be useful in less crowded communities, if not rendered totally  unnecessary by the fortunate working of the laws of imitation, but in a block of 4,000  people an educational campaign is almost silly. Nothing but municipal action is possible. Responsibility is removed from the individual and placed upon the community, and with every such shifting of responsibility we are tending to weaken the  development of individual character.

It is needless to point out, also, that in the case of increased overcrowding the danger from contagious disease is vastly heightened.  To get rid of overcrowding is therefore essential from every point of view. If we are  going to get rid of it we have got to know what causes it. There are five principal causes operating to produce congestion: High rentals, which force a large number of  people to live in a small space; and industrial conditions, which make it desirable for  people to live near their work. These are the economic causes. But the social causes are no less important.

First comes "consciousness of kind;" people who come from  the same village, people of the same race, people of the same religion, naturally like  living together. Then comes the powerful effect of custom. Nobody likes to move out into the unknown, and the city dweller doesn't like the country, partly because he  doesn't know it. When you think of it, who are the people who like the country?  They are the rich who have automobiles, tennis, golf, horses, who can lie abed in the morning and shut out the maddening noise of those objectionable little songbirds; or  it is the farmers who have gotten need to their farms, but who nevertheless we notice are  marching like a vast army to join the city throng; or else it is the people who live in the city for part of the year and who enjoy the country by contrast, and who, notwithstanding their expressions of joy when they reach the country, wouldn't stay there all the  year round for anything. The advantages of city life form a very conspicuous cause of overcrowding. To be near the school is convenient. The children can get there  every day, rain or shine. To be near the church has also its advantages. Around the  corner is the butcher, the grocery man, the dry goods shop, water is in the house, plumbing is furnished; almost everybody has a gas stove; there are 5-cent theaters to go to in  the evening; there's music to hear in the park; and there are those resorts to go to in the  summer time, which are not lonely like the country, and where you can go with your friends. Who wouldn't want to live in the city?

The reason the poor like to live in  New York is because it is interesting, convenient, and meets their social needs. They  live there for the reason that I do; I like it.

Now, if we are agreed that overcrowding is very bad, we have to meet both these  economic and social causes. From an economic point of view we have somehow or  other to provide lower rentals, if that be a possibility; better and cheaper transit facilities; and we have to take account of these social causes which operate so powerfully.  This means planning new cities properly and reducing the evils of the old cities to a minimum. It means a rational, conscious suburbanization and a development of country life with social centers from which to radiate; a country life that takes account of two elements, first, the agricultural immigrant who must be met at the dock, so to speak, before he acquires the city habit, and second, for city dwellers who will live in less congested surroundings if they have the same social advantages which the  city affords.  

The difficulties of working out this great complex of problem are very great, but  it is something to understand that there is such a problem and to be willing to tackle it. It will demand patient studying and experimentation for years, and those of us  who are in this fight must have no illusions in regard to the difficulties to be met.  In ten years we ought to be able to do a good deal. In the first place, we ought to make it impossible that any community now growing into a big city should repeat  the errors which have been so costly for us in New York. To do this we must continue the educational campaign.

We must also be clear that the housing question must be considered in its relation to congestion. Personally, I think that we should  take the stand that congestion can not be eliminated without some form of limiting  the number of persons who can live within a given area. We can reduce the number of persons to an acre by lowering the limit on the height of tenement houses. This  will in some cases result in its being unprofitable to build tenements on very valuable  land, and will serve to force people out of cities. It may be that this is unconstitutional, that the society which has created land values can not constitutionally do away with those values. This is a serious question demanding the most careful consideration.   A mere removal of either factories or dwellings from a center of congestion would be of no use if the new conditions are not safeguarded from the repetition of old errors.   To sum up, we might as well confess that we are in for two programmes — the long  distance and the short distance, which I shall venture to epitomize as follows, and I do this on my own personal responsibility without implicating any of my fellow members of the New York congestion committee. Our long distance programme involves:  

(1) The purchase or control of land outside of cities, insuring lower rentals and either
nearness to work or else a rapid, very cheap transit. This involves, of course, a scientific city plan.

(2) The furnishing of city advantages to suburbs and country communities.

(3) The gradual restriction of the number of persons living on a given area, which involves limiting the height of houses and the introduction of adequate inspection.  

Our short distance programme is not so terrifying in magnitude, but its a good five years' job. It involves:

(1) An educational campaign to bring about a city plan for every city and growing community in the United States.

(2) Cooperation with industrial removal societies and all private and public bureaus for the removal from city to country, and an organized opposition to the habit of charitable persons and societies of supplying money for rent to enable families to remain in the city.

(3) The appointment of a national commission or bureau to consider and report upon the entire sub-  ject.   If the preliminary work of our congestion committee in New York City shall have aroused national attention to this great question, we shall all die almost content.

transcribed by Stephen Dare
February 2010