The Lung Block: One Man’s Obsession With a Family Mystery

The so-called "Lung Block," near the Lower East Side waterfront around 1910-1915

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM 

It was a family mystery: What happened to Salvatrice Nigido after she emigrated from Sicily to New York in 1913, leaving her daughter behind?
That was the question Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Stefano Morello (English) needed to answer. Eventually he learned that his great-grandma Salvatrice had lived on the “Lung Block,” a block on the Lower East Side bounded by Cherry, Market, Monroe, and Catherine streets. This enclave of overcrowded tenements was singled out in 1898 for having more tuberculosis infections than any block in the city. At one point it was deemed the deadliest spot in the country.

An exhibition about the Lung Block created by Morello and his co-curator, Kerri Culhane, has just opened at the New York City Department of Records and Information Services (31 Chambers St.). A satellite show is on view in the lobby and library of The Graduate Center, sponsored by the James Gallery.

As it turned out, Morello’s great-grandmother died in 1920, not of TB, but of the Spanish flu. So the mystery was solved. But by then Morello was hooked, staying up night after night poring over census data and “It barely even made sense to me why I was so invested and felt so pulled into the story,” he said. “I felt like I had once been there and I was reconnecting with my fellow paesani. My dad went as far as speculating I could be Salvatrice's reincarnation!”

Morello did much of his research while living in his native Italy. But he came to New York for two weeks to comb through records here in 2015. That’s when he attended an open house at The Graduate Center and decided to pursue his Ph.D. here. His dissertation, due in 2021, isn’t about the Lung Block — though his master’s thesis back in Italy was. Instead, he’s writing on California’s East Bay punk music scene as part of a broader interest in post-1945 U.S. pop culture.

But he sees commonalities between his passions. “I know, crazy that I’m connecting an Italian-American enclave in the 1900s with punks,” he said. But both are “social and cultural histories of marginalized communities” in the larger field of American studies. 

Morello says there are two sides to the Lung Block story. On the one hand, city health officials saved lives with a “really scientific approach,” mapping TB cases house by house, monitoring patients, and creating multilingual education campaigns. A tenement commission also sought to improve housing. Work by Culhane, Morello’s co-curator, was key in documenting those efforts.

At the same time, Morello said, newspapers and reformers painted a “caricature of the immigrants.” That rhetoric spurred officials to act on the crisis, but it was also “dehumanizing.” Morello says the recent characterizations of Syrian refugees in Italy remind him of how immigrants were depicted a century ago in New York: “There wasn’t that much difference in terms of what words were being used.”
One of Morello’s most significant revelations was that the TB epidemic had already waned by the time a muckraking journalist coined the term “Lung Block.” But the sinister nickname stuck. The block was targeted for redevelopment, and in 1933, the tenements were replaced with middle-class housing. Just like that, “a lively Italian immigrant enclave on the Lower East Side was wiped from the map,” the curators wrote. The Knickerbocker Village apartments, built with government funding, still stand today on the Lung Block.

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Submitted on: MAY 9, 2019

Category: English | General GC News | Student News