A Family Mystery and the Deadliest Block in NYC
Tuberculosis raged in New York’s slums in the late 19th century. TB germs die in direct sunlight, but they proliferated in the era’s dark, damp, overcrowded tenements.
In 1898, one site on the Lower East Side was singled out for having more TB infections and deaths than any other block in the city. Five years later, a muckraking journalist dubbed the enclave the “Lung Block.” TB rates had already declined by then, but the sinister nickname stuck.
An exhibition about the Lung Block, curated by Ph.D. candidate Stefano Morello (The Graduate Center) and Kerri Culhane, is on view at the New York City Department of Records and Information Services (31 Chambers St.) through Aug. 29.
Uncovering the Lung Block story began as a personal quest for Morello. What had become of his great-grandmother Salvatrice, who left behind a daughter when she emigrated from Sicily to New York? Turns out she’d lived on the Lung Block and died in 1920 – not of TB, but of the Spanish flu.
That solved the family mystery. But Morello was intrigued by the larger story. After moving to New York from Italy himself to pursue his Ph.D., he kept digging, with Culhane’s help, into public health records, Census data, and other archives.
The story he and Culhane uncovered is partly about a public health triumph. The city Board of Health monitored patients, created neighborhood dispensaries, and ran multilingual campaigns to get residents to open windows and refrain from spitting. Officials also mapped TB cases house by house, a precursor to modern geospatial tracking. It was “one of the most aggressive” responses to an epidemic anywhere at the time, and it worked.
But the Lung Block’s reputation remained sullied. The community was demonized by the city’s high-minded reformers as “a threat not just to its poor immigrant residents but to the city at large … Death was embedded in the very walls of its buildings,” the curators wrote.
In 1933, a developer replaced the tenements with middle-class housing. Just like that, “a lively Italian immigrant enclave on the Lower East Side was wiped from the map.” Ultimately, Morello and Culhane wrote, the Lung Block is a story about gentrification and “the power of wealthy white reformers over the lives and destinies of the disempowered immigrants.”
The Knickerbocker Village apartments, built with government funding on the Lung Block site bounded by Cherry, Market, Monroe, and Catherine streets, still stand today.