"Moving Day": How 1 million New Yorkers used to move house on the same day every year

A cartoon depicting New York's Moving Day. Image: H.P. Finn from the Comic Annual of 1831/public domain.

Think back to the last time you moved house: the panicking that you’ve left something behind, the cost, the sheer effort of it all. Now imagine that you had to do it at the same time as a million other people nearby. Because that’s what happened – and still happens, to an extent – in New York. It’s called “Moving day”, and from what we can tell sounds noisy, absurdly inconvenient and, also, like a bit of a laugh.

Though many cities had moving days, New York’s is probably the best example just for sheer scale. Up until World War II, almost all leases in the city would expire simultaneously on 1 May. That sounds just such a bad idea that you think it can’t possibly have happened, but sure enough, total mayhem would ensue every year as everyone moved at the same time.

Contemporary descriptions do a good job of capturing the chaos. English writer Francis Trollope described the scene in 1832 as resembling “a population flying from the plague”. New York lawyer George Templeton Strong wrote of the day in his diary: “Every other house seems to be disgorging itself into the street; all the sidewalks are lumbered with bureaus and bedsteads.”

Frontiersman Davey Crockett discovered the practice by accident in 1834: “By the time we returned down Broadway it seemed to me that the city was flying before some awful calamity.”

So, how did this bizarre practice get started? The Encyclopaedia of New York City claims the 1 May date was chosen to link with the English celebration of May Day. Others are more specific, and claim it’s a hangover from a kind of fair, in which English servants would attend to find new employers. Others still some argue that the date was chosen to commemorate Dutch colonizers setting out for Manhattan on 1 May.


We can be fairly sure that it started in New York’s colonial period in the 18th century: John Pintard, a founder of the New York Historical Society, wrote to his daughter Eliza that the city’s “practice of all moving on one day… is of an ancient custom and when the city was small and inhabitants few.”

It wasn’t long until it went up a notch. A law was passed in 1820 mandated that “every lease shall be deemed and held valid until the first day of May”. It was repealed eight years later, but the practice stuck as the city grew.

By the early 20th century a million people would take to the streets on 1 May. Yep: a million.

With the huge scale, things started to change. One New York Times reporter wrote in 1905 that it was now an organized affair. The movers’ carts were fancier, and New Yorkers had seen the last of “the rickety, green-painted express wagon with a semi-detached tin sign”. That said, a 1919 a piece in the New York Times still questioned “how much of the furniture would reach its destination as furniture and how much as firewood.”

The sheer scale of moving day was brilliant for the men operating the carts, who were in such demand that many renters were forced to pay over a week’s wages to hire them. Demand was so high that, as one letter in the New York Times in 1759 explained, “All the farmers from Nassau Island and the Jerseys come over and let out their wagons.”

So, then, what happened? We don’t hear about millions of New Yorkers all moving together these days; what gave?

In the end it took a world war to put an end to this baffling practice. Most able-bodied men went off to fight, and that meant very few cartmen were around. Moving was, as you’d expect, much more difficult.

More significantly, though, many would-be house builders had gone to fight in the war and there was a housing crisis: in 1919 only 22,000 of the city’s one million apartments were vacant, in contrast to 53,000 three years before. (Here’s something scary, though: 2.2 per cent of its homes were vacant in 1919, whilst only 2% of London’s are today. Our crisis is worse. We really are completely screwed.)

With so few vacant apartments, New York’s renters began to worry that they may well not find anywhere better than what they already had – no matter how high their rents got – and so opted to stay put. According to Robert M. Fogelson’s book “The Great Rent Wars”, in 1919 a woman from the Bronx told a court clerk, whilst five children were tugging at her apron, that her rent had been raised six times in two years. Yet “I have been to more than two hundred places in a week, and everywhere I looked I found some one had beat me to it.”

"Can't you take a few things more?" A cartoon from Harper's Weekly, 1869. Image: public domain.

The New York Tribune ran a piece in the same year which said that, “Many of the thousands who moved yesterday found the apartments they had engaged and hoped to occupy had not been vacated”. People with nowhere to go, understandably, refused to budge. Renters even doubted whether new apartments would actually be empty when they arrived.

A combination of these things meant that by 1945 a headline in the New York Times ran “Housing Shortage Erases Moving Day”. And that was it: New York’s millions had begun to move year-round.  

Amazingly, New York was far from unique in all of this. In Quebec a moving day was passed into law in the mid 18th century. Landowners had been hiring people to work their land and then sending them on their way just as winter approached. This was seen for as pretty unfair – which it was – and a law was introduced which made them provide accommodation over winter. This law eventually evolved to include urban leases, and stated that they must end on 30 April and begin on 1 May. (The date was later pushed back to July 1st, so more children could complete a full year at the same school.)

Chicago got in on the act too: during the late nineteenth century, a third of its households would move at once, until in 1911 the law changed and renters could move year-round. Nonetheless, 1 May remains a popular moving day there. And in Quebec, 115,000 city residents move in Montreal around July 1st each year.

If this is the first you’ve heard of moving day, then you might be wondering how on earth a practice that inconvenient lasted for that long without everyone realizing it was a bad idea. That said, doesn’t a part of you think it sounds like a laugh? In 1825, the New York Mirror wrote, “The spirits of anarchy and confusion might have roamed with delight through our streets on the first of May.” Admit it, you’re curious.

Sometimes I almost think a moving day might do London some good – might cheer us all up.

Then I remember how grumpy everyone was during the tube strike last week.

 
 
 
 

Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.


As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.

Vilnius


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City


New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.

Montreal


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv


Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.

Toronto

In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.