Monday, June 18, 2012

Surviving Summer in the City

We've already had a taste of hot weather here in New York this spring, prompting city dwellers to switch on the air conditioning and grab whatever's coldest in the refrigerator.

Of course, heat rises, so those who live on upper floors are especially in need of these 21st-century remedies for summer weather. But the tenement dwellers of the past didn't have these luxuries. In the early days, tenants couldn't even access water without making a trip to the communal faucet in the back yard.

In July 1895, the New York Times proclaimed it was so hot that "few ventured to walk in the streets," and tenement dwellers suffered particularly. Public health campaigns focused on the city's most vulnerable residents, advising mothers to take special care with infants in over-heated tenements. Some children were even admitted to a "floating hospital" on a barge, where temperatures were cooler.

But New Yorkers are resourceful folks who have always found tricks for beating the heat. Steam boats took thousands of New Yorkers to the Rockaways and Coney Island for swimming and ocean breezes.

Cooling off at Coney Island, early 20th century; Image Courtesy New York Public Library

New Yorkers also made their way to the city's rooftops to escape their airless apartments. While wealthier folks enjoyed meals in the elaborate rooftop restaurants at the Waldorf Astoria and Ritz Carlton Hotels, tenement dwellers sought relief atop their own buildings, or at humbler public gathering spaces like the Lower East Side's Seward Park Library.

Girls embroider while woman reads aloud at Seward Park Library's rooptop reading room c.1910;
Image courtesy New York Public Library

On the hottest nights of the year, some city dwellers hauled bedding upstairs to the roof, or onto a fire escape, and settled down to sleep in the open air.

"The recent "heated term" and its effect upon the population of the tenement districts A night scene on the East Side", August 1882; Image courtesy Library of Congress 

This practice wasn't just confined to working-class neighborhoods; a 1908 Times article reported that many of the city's "writers, sociologists, charity workers, and even a number of its well-to-do business men [are] spending the hot nights in the open air." Among them was famed singer Alma Webster-Powell, who converted the roof of her Brooklyn home into a "star parlor" with a "Bewildering array of rugs, hammocks, cushions and easy chairs".

Other families went a step further, setting up long-term camp sites in the Rockaways as affordable  summer homes. The Times reported that this was a "healthy, free life, such as cannot fail to promote health and happiness for the youngsters...Tent dwellers spend at least 3 hours a day in the water when the weather is fine and there is not too much surf."

-- Posted by Kira Garcia

1 comment:

  1. My mother's family would get blankets and pillows and sleep in the park (Crotona Park)


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