‘The Lung Block’ – Disrupting the Narrative of Italian Immigrants

Visiting nurse in tenement yard, circa 1912. Photo by Jessie Tarbox Beals (Courtesy NYC Municipal Archives)

In 2012, when Stefano Morello was still living in Italy, he started to investigate a family mystery: Whatever happened to his great-grandmother Salvatrice Nigido, who in 1913 had left the town of Militello in Eastern Sicily to join her brother and sister-in-law in New York City, leaving behind her husband and 5-year-old daughter Antonia? Morello was the only member of his family who spoke English, and he had been coming to NYC while working for an exchange program. Eventually, by combing through vital records in New York’s Municipal Archives, Morello learned that Salvatrice had died in 1920 during the pandemic influenza in NYC, and he later learned that she had worked as a seamstress and become romantically involved with another Italian immigrant.

But in uncovering her story, Morello, now a cultural critic and Ph.D. candidate in English at the Graduate Center at CUNY, started to uncover a much larger story – about the square block in Lower Manhattan where his ancestor lived, and that became notorious in the the early 1900s as “The Lung Block.”

That moniker grew out of a popular narrative at the time – that the area, full of Italian immigrants, was a nexus of congestion, poverty and disease, with the greatest number of cases of tuberculosis in the city. It was a narrative embraced by social reformers who worked with immigrants and later by real estate developers in the 1920s.

But Morello, working with architectural historian Kerri Culhane, found that the reality was far different from the familiar narrative, and that prejudice and misinformation conspired to perpetuate myths about the Italian immigrants who lived in the block bounded by Cherry, Monroe, Market and Catherine streets. The two collaborated to produce a fascinating exhibit to set the record straight, replete with photographs, documents and an accompanying text, now on display at the Municipal Archives Gallery at 31 Chambers St. through Aug. 29, 2019. Morello says they plan to co-author a book on the Lung Block. (In 2015, Morello published a masters’ thesis on the Lung Block at the University of Naples L’Orientale, based on his earlier research.)

Misleading maps

Those maps developed by reformer organizations that allegedly showed that the worst rate of tuberculosis infection in the city was in the Lung Block? One map simply aggregated all cases reported between 1894 and 1903, suggesting that the incidence of the disease was on the rise. Another was likely compiled carelessly, the exhibit’s curators say, with the explicit intention of singling out the block, which some reformers hoped to turn into a park. Chinatown and Little Syria, also in Lower Manhattan, showed far high rates of TB infection and death rates, respectively, at the time. The deadly disease, known as the “white plague,” was highly infectious, especially in close quarters, and the New York Board of Health fought its spread aggressively in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Salvatrice Nigido, 1919 (Photo courtesy of Stefano Morello)

The reformers who took on the cause of helping immigrants and promoting public health, however, could be among the worst proponents of prejudicial views. Sweeping and insulting characterizations of Italian immigrants were commonplace. The famous chronicler of immigrants settling in New York, Jacob Riis, wrote that Italian immigrants were “content to live in a pigsty.” The journalist Ernest Poole, author of the 1903 pamphlet “The Plague in Its Stronghold: Tuberculosis in the New York Tenement,” once conceded that he’d invented the term “the Lung Block” on a whim, while reformers similarly attached names chosen to invoke horror to some of the buildings in the Lung Block: One was dubbed “the Ink Pot,” another “the Morgue.”

The very walls of the tenement buildings were said to harbor the tuberculosis bacillus. Everything about the neighborhood was “spectacularized and extremized and exoticized,” says Morello, as part of reformers’ efforts to sway public opinion. Poole wrote about monkeys loose on the street but didn’t point out that they belonged to Italian organ grinders, and he commented on children playing in the street, without noting that their mothers were doing piece work in the tenement apartments above and watching over them.

The Lung Block may have earned a reputation for crowding and poor ventilation in part because it was bisected by Hamilton Street, which bent through the block and made for greater density and less open space in the block. Still, while the tenements in Lower Manhattan often lacked for air and light, laws and regulations passed in the early 20th century improved conditions, and many of the owners and residents themselves worked to make their environs healthier. The history of the buildings in the Lung Block and their residents, Morello and Culhane learned, belie their sordid reputation: In 1899 an Italian shoemaker and his wife leased the building known as the Ink Pot, and its Italian population grew over the next decade. But over that period, Department of Health data show, the incidence of tuberculosis in the building fell markedly. By 1908, the Tenement House Department declared the block cured of TB, and other reports pictured clean and bright living conditions in the Lung Block.

Stefano Morello and Kerri Culhane (Photo courtesy of Stefano Morello)

But the area could not shake its reputation. Two decades later, the real estate developer Fred French invoked the old narrative, even using Poole’s 1903 pamphlet, as he presented his plans for development in the area to city planners. He bought up property, beginning in 1927, and started displacing residents. While his grand plans for Lower Manhattan were thwarted by the Depression, he did manage to secure the buildings of the Lung Block, and after demolishing them in 1934 began construction of a square block of middle-class housing that was called Knickerbocker Village. It was gentrification, 1930s style, and it drove many longtime resident families out of the area.

Morello has moved on in his research, and is now studying the punk music community in the East Bay area in California. The common thread, he says: learning the “micro histories of people who live in ephemeral, marginalized communities,” and giving voice to the lives of those people. For Morello, the lessons of the Lung Block course through history and are apparent today, as immigrants around the world are harassed and become the target of baseless criticisms, such as charges that they bring disease and crime with them. Today, he says, very broadly speaking, the Italian-American community isn’t always sympathetic with the new waves of immigrants, and he points that out to those who view the Lung Block exhibit. “‘Oh, they used to mistreat us,'” they say, to which Morello responds, “yeah, that’s why we don’t want to do that to other people.”

“The Lung Block” is on display at the Municipal Archives Gallery at 31 Chambers St. through Aug. 29, 2019. On June 25 at 6 p.m., Stefano Morello and Kerri Culhane will present a talk on the Lung Block at the Municipal Archives Gallery.

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