7/1/1896 - The Heat Wave Of 1896

During the summer of 1896, a 10-day heat wave killed nearly 1,500 people, many of them tenement-dwellers, across New York City. Many thousands of people were crammed into tenements on the Lower East Side, with no air conditioning, little circulating air and no running water. Families were packed together — with five to six people sharing a single room. Extra space on the floor was rented out to single men — many of whom worked six days a week doing manual labor out in the sun.

At the time, there was a citywide ban on sleeping in New York City’s public parks. Kohn says one of the simplest things the city could have done was lift the ban — giving people a place to sleep away from their squalid tenements, which might have prevented many of the deaths.

Until the very last days of the crisis, the city government did very little to help its poorest residents survive the heat wave. The mayor didn’t call an emergency meeting of his department heads until the very last day — and even then, it was a little-known police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt who championed the efforts to help New Yorkers survive the heat.

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