Understanding the move towards zoning in the early 20th century is a venture in identity-preservation. I suggested in my last post that Justice Sutherland in his description of the Village of Euclid’s comprehensive zoning plan (and what that plan protects against), and even city layouts preserve a layer of homogeny in areas society collectively chooses to protect the most. This is the nature of comprehensive zoning -- the most intense limitations in spaces we deem most necessary to protect.
But there is a flipside to the creation of homogeny -- marginality. Robert Park illuminates the disconnectedness of early 20th century cities with that of the more stable residential community:
A very large part of the populations of great cities, including those who make their homes in tenements and apartments houses, live much as people do in some great hotel, meeting but not knowing one another. The effect of this is to substitute fortuitous and casual relationships for the more intimate and permanent associations of the smaller community.
As Betsy Kilasmith suggests, “the luck and randomness of the ‘great hotel’ overpower any claim urban domestic spaces might make to intimacy or permanence.” This disconnection of apartment living was only reified by what one might perceive apartments and tenement houses to bring -- immigrants and squalor. Peter Hall described these places in New York’s Lower East Side as:
perversely result[ing] from a so-called improved housing design: developed in a competition in 1879, the notorious dumb-bell tenement allowed twenty-four families to be crowed on to a lot of 25 feet wide and 100 feet deep, with ten out of fourteen rooms on each floor having access only to an almost lightless (and airless) lightwell. Not infrequently, two families crowded into these wretched apartments; in 1908 a census of East Side families suggested that half slept three to four people to a room, nearly a quarter at five or more to a room; they depended on a few communal taps and fixed baths were non-existent.
This immense lack of separation was far more profound, though, than mere loss of space. One could say that the deprivation of “light and air” was emblematic of a deeper perception -- that tenement houses represented spaces without individualized place; rooms without separation, where families merged unnaturally without a separate life.
Jacob Riis, an early advocate of tenement reform considered tenement housing to be an inescapable moral problem of unsatisfactory living conditions; he described the common tenement noting:
every blade of grass, every stray weed, every speck of green, has been trodden out, as must inevitably be every gentle thought and aspiration above the mere wants of the body in those whose moral natures such home surroundings are to nourish. In self defense, you know, all life eventually accommodates itself to its environment, and human life is no exception.
As Kenneth Gandal observed of Riis’s descriptions, where there is no separate family life, “moral character is impossible as well.” Thus, Riis, and to an extent Justice Sutherland, reflect that the protection of space was a contemporaneous protection of the morals that space represents -- guarding openness creates a zone of protection without which our virtues may be diluted by the incongruous and disharmonious life that apartment dwellers may bring. Green-space, air, and light thus not only become metaphors of cultural superiority, but defining characteristics for the space most protected through the police power of the state.
Forthcoming: Reforming Tenement Spaces