Harsh Lessons from the Urban Heat Island Effect

[“As many as 100,000 people were crammed into tenement-style dwellings in New York’s Lower East Side in the latter half of the 19th century. The overcrowded, poorly ventilated tenements became ovens during New York’s 1896 heat wave, which killed nearly 1,500 people. Above, the yard of a tenement at Park Avenue and 107th Street, circa 1900.”  Image from Library of Congress collection.  Source]

A bit different from contemporary ways to keep cool in NYC (both whimsical and institutionalized), historian Edward P. Kohn’s latest book, Hot Time in the Old Town, explores NYC’s little documented (and largely forgotten) 1896 heat wave.  Kohn uses the event as an elaborate backdrop for the political scene of the time, including police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt’s role in the free distribution of ice on the last of the 10 day heat wave.   However, it’s the author’s detailed descriptions of turn-of-the-century New York City that are most interesting (for me) and provide a remarkable contrast to the city’s contemporary technologies and infrastructures.

Kohn depicts a rapidly changing and vulnerable city on the cusp of the 20th century – an idiosyncratic mix of old and new systems typical of early industrialization crashing into modernity, with predictably harsh results – particularly for the economically disadvantaged.  To this day NYC citizens complain about the summer heat.  But imagine the near 100 degree city without the internalized oases supplied by air conditioning.  Or the grotesque stench of streets littered with the hundreds of horse carcasses left where they dropped from the heat.  The citizens that actually made it to hospitals with symptoms of heat exhaustion were documented with body temperatures above 110 degrees.

During the heat wave, the city’s architecture failed on a grand scale.  Accordingly, people tried to find night-time relief from residual high temperatures by getting out of their heat-retaining flats and out onto fire escapes, wharves and rooftops where they searched for cooler air, which incidentally, also had its own set of hazards.  Unfortunately, the city’s parks – the coolest, most temperate places in the city (which Kohn argues might have made a significant difference in the mortality rate) – were not an inhabitable option due to laws that forbid sleeping in them.

[Collectively adrift on impromptu convectional platforms in the hellish city.  Artist depiction of night-time NYC during the heat wave.  From the Library of Congress collection]

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