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New York, 1950:
Unofficial Notes of a Census-Taker

- Abstract

The first doorbell I rang was answered by an old widowed Negro woman who lived alone on the top floor of a red-brick office building in the financial district of Manhattan. It was Saturday morning, the first day of the 1950 census. The old Negro woman made me feel that the happiest people in the world are old widowed Negro women with just enough money to live on and reasonably comfortable places to live in, and who aren’t afraid of the end of life. Perhaps they’re lonely, and sometimes they may ask: did God do all this and why? But still she seemed to be the happiest person I had seen in a long time. And, past seventy, she looked for work, kept house, and wanted to make sure that the government got everything correct about her.

Around the corner from her musty Victorian apartment, under the Third Avenue El, and farther east, close to the river, lived the handful of people that were left of the once densely inhabited downtown New York. The women stay on, eighty years old, seventy, living on the top floors of office buildings, cleaning for a living—or rather for rent—and afraid to move elsewhere; others have been charwomen for so long in the financial district that they feel it’s home and hang on to the few remaining habitable buildings. These are cold-water flats, no toilets, no tubs, dirty, dilapidated, the El roaring past the living room windows, no community, nothing but the curiously exciting daytime streets of the financial district. The people had to be tracked down, literally one by one, to their sunless, cold, ugly apartments. Under the El, two tenements, side by side, but for whole blocks no people. One man alone in a room that one can only enter through a public toilet. Another man living in the very upper tip of a skyscraper, so that you had to reach his apartment by climbing a circular staircase.

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