"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 It was repealed eight years later, but the practice stuck as the city grew.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.


Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.