New York

New York rent strikes during the 1918 “Spanish” influenza

Rent strike in Harlem, New York City, September 1919


International Film Service, New York Times photo archive, Public Domain

As we’ve now become accustomed to hearing, COVID-19 is the worst pandemic in over a century, when “Spanish” influenza tore through a war-weary world in several waves across 1918-1919. Fifty million or more lives were claimed worldwide by the flu, close to twenty million people died on the Indian Subcontinent alone. Varying estimates have between 1-5% of the global population losing their lives, dwarfing the number who died in combat over the course of the calamitous war with which it had overlapped. The illness was characterised by the rapidity with which it took hold. What’s more, it could be transmitted before vectors showed any sign of symptoms. “Spanish” influenza disproportionately killed young adults who accounted for more than half of deaths overall, with pregnant women being particularly cruel and common victims.

The catastrophe of influenza joined a world already on fire. Not only did the war rage on till the end of 1918, revolution was fighting for its survival in Russia as domestic and foreign forces tried to crush it. Anticolonial movements against British rule intensified in Egypt, India, and Ireland. Postwar attempts at social revolution would ultimately be crushed in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere. The class war also raged in New York City throughout the height of the pandemic and it is there that we will turn our attention.

New York flu

New York was, by 1918, the second most populous city in the world, behind only London. The city suffered its first peak of the virus in the Spring and a much worse one in the Autumn, part of a deadly second wave globally. Both officials and the press were complacent about the outbreak, their primary focus was on keeping up morale for the war effort. Government and media campaigns abounded, encouraging patriots not to allow fear of the flu to defeat them. The city’s health officer, Royal Copeland, initially saw no danger in the epidemic, despite New York being the country’s largest port and main entry and exit point for US troops. Copeland was confident the illness would not affect “a well-nourished people”, disregarding the fact that many impoverished New Yorkers were malnourished.

On October 12, in an event that would become emblematic of official complacency and recklessness, President Woodrow Wilson led a parade of 25,000 people down Fifth Avenue to boost morale and encourage Americans to invest in war bonds. Dissenting voices warned at the time that public gatherings such as this would wreak havoc but they were ignored. Infection and fatalities would reach their peak later that month and a third wave would strike that continued into the new year.

Measures were eventually put in place to mitigate the spread of infection. Some businesses and public places closed. Elsewhere, opening times were staggered in an attempt to reduce crowding. Public funerals were banned with only spouses permitted to attend, though schools remained open. New York City’s official death toll was 33,000 people, but the real number is thought to be substantially higher.

Social context

Early twentieth century New York was a crowded hub of working class struggle, albeit one largely divided up into ethnically separate neighbourhoods. Labour unions and socialist parties formed and grew, radical newspapers (of multiple languages) were read widely and workplace strikes were organised across several industries. Living and working conditions were characterised by horrendous overcrowding and a lack of basic safety, illustrated most of all by the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911 that killed 146 garment workers, mostly Eastern European Jewish and Italian women and girls.

These newer immigrant communities would come to dominate the organised workers movement in New York in this era, flooding into its labour unions and forming new tenant unions. One “immigrant” community that could not integrate in the same way was the massive internal “Great Migration” of African Americ

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