PBS KIDS GO! Episode Menu Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 7Topic 3: Urban Renewal and ExpresswaysLife in the Slums
Life in the Slums

The slum housing that existed in New York City in the 1940s was filthy and disease-infested. "Walkups," two-to-six-floor row houses, were divided into tiny apartments. Each flat was overcrowded, and usually occupied by a large extended family. At night, beds were crammed with occupants, along with the insects and rats that often overran the housing and treaded over the toes of the residents while they slept. The poor condition of the housing was the result of neglect by the slum-building owners -- slumlords, most of whose only interest was to make as much money as possible without paying for the upkeep of the buildings.

Typical New York City slums

Typical New York City slums.
Although the buildings were grim, residents found ways of humanizing their bleak surroundings. The windows of some of apartments looked down on the surrounding streets, enabling families to watch their children play. Sitting or standing on their front-door stoops, tenants could see passersby coming from work or from nearby family-owned stores, socialize with friends, and be part of the familiar activities of the neighborhood. Thus, for children and adults alike, the streets were as important as the buildings, familiar places in which to grow up, fall in love, and live their lives.

Helen Levitt, along with Janice Loeb and James Agee, put together a documentary of footage she had collected in Spanish Harlem with a hidden 16mm camera. The sixteen-minute documentary was simply called "In the Street." While working with Levitt, Agee wrote of the slums' streets:

The streets of the poorer corners of great cities are above all a theater and a battleground. There, unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, a masker, a warrior, and in his innocent artistry projects against the turmoil of the street an image of existence.

The streets enabled people to be social, public, and to feel like their lives and their cares were individually meaningful.

Life in the Slums | Slum Clearance | Suburbanization and Highways
The Destruction of Neighborhoods | Jane Jacobs and Landmark Preservation

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