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 It was repealed eight years later, but the practice stuck as the city grew.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


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.