Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tenement Conditions in Chicago, 1901

Some editorializing here... "Gloomy"?
I've always been fascinated with the work done by early progressives in addressing social problems
of the city.  I'm especially interested in the graphic tools they used to analyze the issues and illustrate their recommendations.   Before digitization these reports were often hard to access for non-academics, but now they're available to anyone with a computer.

In 1901 the Investigating Committee of the City Homes Association submitted a report titled, "Tenement Conditions in Chicago, which examined three study areas in the city. The text was written by the chairman, Robert Hunter, but the committee included the redoubtable Jane Addams.  I've re-drawn a diagram form that report, which relates to the lack of light and ventilation that was characteristic of tenement housing in Chicago, as outlined in Chapter IV.

The report focuses on a number of interconnected issues, from overcrowding and unsanitary conditions to defective (or non-existent) plumbing and the spread of disease.  In the process it slams city government for having inadequate housing regulations and failing to enforce those requirements already on the books.

Chapter IV, Page 89.
In this chapter the report uses maps and diagrams to analyze inadequate light and ventilation.  This was not a qualitative analysis, but an in-depth investigation into floor area, window access, and light penetration on a building-by-building and floor-by-floor basis.  Thorough investigations like this are practically unheard of today, especially when private property is involved.  The diagram above examines the third floors of two adjacent properties, one of which contains a rear structure.  I tried my best to replicate the original shading scheme while making the graphic a bit more screen-friendly and easier to read.

Documents like these eventually led to the adoption of new building and development regulations.  Local governments received the resources to review and inspect over-crowded and unsafe conditions. But as usual, reasonable ideas were taken too far, and similar reports were used to justify the wholesale housing clearance of Urban Renewal in the 1950s.

Looking at the character of the study areas I'm surprised to see that they resemble some of the more historic (and pricey) neighborhoods still existing in Chicago, such as the Old Town Triangle area.  One of the study areas survives, and is an increasingly trendy section of Bucktown.  But a wood frame cottage which housed four families in 1901 might now accommodate a single family and a BMW, so I don't think this can be considered a victory for affordable housing.  But perhaps it does show that the housing itself wasn't the primary problem, but rather overcrowding and outdated infrastructure. 

So I may be rescuing and redrawing more of these early planning diagrams. With the increasing number of digitized text and reports I'm guessing there are plenty of interesting ones out there. And if you know of an under-appreciated example please drop me a line in the comments section...


  1. Read it, liked it. The photo reminds me of the alley between the apt.building that grandma belle lived in, and the one we. Deitches lived in on A best ave. Dark, narrow, gloomy, scary, and always damp. Backdoors opened onto that alley, it was a good place for hiding

  2. Thanks for your recollections Anonymous!