The Underside of Urban Life

American cities could be full of glamor and excitement for upper-class and middle-class families. But most Americans living in cities were poor. Living conditions for these Americans meant disease, crime, slums, overcrowding, and pollution.


Poor Americans, including most of the new immigrants, lived in a type of housing called a tenement. Tenements were designed to hold many people. Most tenements became overcrowded, creating dangerous conditions. For example, the design of the tenements allowed fire to spread easily from one building to the next.

The overcrowded conditions also led to the spread of dangerous diseases, including cholera and yellow-fever. Tuberculosis killed many people. Almost one-quarter of the babies born during this time period died in their first year.

The Stench of Waste, the Stench of Crime

Conditions in the tenements were terrible. Public sewers created awful smells and polluted the air and the water. It was difficult to dispose of human waste, and the private cesspools overflowed in rainy weather. Often people dumped sewage directly into the rivers and bays, which were also the only sources of household water. There were no systems in place to collect and dispose of trash or purify water. City leaders realized that they needed to develop solutions, but even at the beginning of the 20th century, pollution and trash were still a problem.

People living in tenements also had to deal with crime. Poor people sometimes had to steal to feed themselves or their families. Even people working in factories didn’t earn enough to pay for food. Gangs of young people were on the streets. Desperate people engaged in gambling, prostitution, and alcoholism to escape the terrible living conditions and to earn extra money. The police, who were also underpaid, didn’t enforce laws evenly among poor people and the wealthier people.

Source: The Underside of Urban Life
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