The city-planning and housing movements in most European countries are so closely intertwined that this relationship is taken for granted. In the United States they have had separate origins and run generally parallel courses without much contact except in the field of zoning. This is regrettable from every point of view. Slums unfortunately exist, and we cannot get rid of them by ignoring them.
An American city plan concerns itself largely with street and traffic problems. It aims to provide efficient circulation. It also deals with parks and playgrounds and with the location of public buildings. When it gets to zoning, it has to think about homes, their neighborhood, height, bulk, fight and air, but its only concern is with the homes of the future. Where a new town is being laid out, this is all that is necessary. In an old community with an unregulated past, it is tragically inadequate. A cancer patient needs a surgical operation, however true it may be that prevention is better than cure.
What is a slum? The word is at once unscientific and offensive. It should undoubtedly go into the discard. But it is so short, descriptive and easy-to-say that we shall probably go on using it. Subnormal housing sounds colorless, and the British official term "unhealthy areas" is even more vague. A slum, then, is a dwelling, a group of dwellings, or a whole district, which is injurious to health, morals or family life. So defined, about a third of our people live under slum conditions, more or less acute. To present the data to prove this would lead us too far afield, but the proof is available. The definition covers bad conditions in great cities, small towns and rural areas. Most Negro families, a majority of the foreign-born, and millions of native white Americans live in homes which hurt them physically and psychically.
Slums may be due to any one of four conditions, which it is necessary to distinguish sharply if we are to have clear thinking on the subject. In individual cases, two or three, or even all four, may be present together.
1. We have slums produced by faulty layout - too narrow streets or too large blocks inviting courts, alleys and rear tenements. The North End of Boston offers a classic example of both types, while the inhabited courts and alleys of Washington and old Philadelphia illustrate the effect of over-generous blocks. Better city planning could have prevented all this, but only clearance and replotting can cure.
1 Adapted from "Slums and the City Plan," American City, August, 1929.
2. Bad structural plans of the dwellings themselves may be the trouble. Where they cover too much of the lot and have dark interior rooms or dimly lighted rooms opening on small interior courts, there is ordinarily no cure but demolition. The most conspicuous example is afforded by the old "railroad" tenements of lower New York (built before 1879) which run from street to rear yard, four to eight rooms deep, with windows to the outer air in the front and rear rooms only. Proper housing or building codes, or zoning ordinances, prevent such conditions in future buildings, but cannot cure them where they already exist.1
3. A great deal of bad housing is caused by disrepair. Here the landlord is primarily responsible, but the tenant should in some cases share the blame.
4. The last group of housing evils are due to the tenant. They include (a) overcrowding and (b) uncleanliness, which are frequently referred to by those who should know better as if they were the only factors in bad housing. Obviously, tenants have no responsibility whatever for headings 1 and 2, and in many cases they have none for 3.