New York Moving Day: Mayhem on The Streets

Nov 4, 2020 0 comments

The first day of May used to be absurdly chaotic for New Yorkers, for it was “Moving Day”—the once a year tradition when nearly a million tenants across the city swapped homes. 

Up until the end of World War 2, all leases expired simultaneously on May 1, causing everyone to change their residences, all at the same time. The landlords gave their tenants a 3-month notice informing them what the new rent would be after the end of the quarter. That day, February 1, was sometimes called “Rent Day”. If the tenant agreed to the new terms and the new rent, they stayed. If they couldn’t afford the rent hike, they started looking for new houses. Tenants usually waited until the very last day to vacate their old premises, resulting in utter chaos on the streets that can only be imagined.

New York Moving Day

The practice dates back to colonial times when the city was small and inhabitants were few. Some say the date May 1 was chosen because it was the day the first Dutch settlers set out for Manhattan. Others link it to the English celebration of May Day. However the custom started, it became law by an 1820 act of the New York State Legislature, which mandated that if no other date was specified, all housing contracts were valid to the first of May. Although the law was repealed eight years later, the practice stuck even as the city grew.

By the 19th century, Moving Day had become a pandemonium with the sidewalks rendered impassable and streets gridlocked with wagons carting household goods. “Old beds and rickety bedstands, handsome pianos and kitchen furniture, will be chaotically huddled together,” the New York Times reported in 1855.

“Everybody in a hurry, smashing mirrors in his haste, and carefully guarding boot boxes from harm. Sofas that go out sound will go in maimed, tables that enjoyed castors will scratch along and "tip" on one less than its complement. Bed-screws will be lost in the confusion, and many a good piece of furniture badly bruised in consequence. Family pictures will be sadly marred, and the china will be a broken set before night, in many a house,” the New York Times  continued.

New York Moving Day

George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer gave his impression of Moving Day on a diary entry:

Never knew the city in such a chaotic state. Every other house seems to be disgorging itself into the street; all the sidewalks are lumbered with bureaus and bedsteads to the utter destruction of their character as thoroughfares, and all the space between the sidewalks is occupied by long processions of carts and wagons and vehicles omnigenous laden with perilous piles of moveables. We certainly haven't advanced as a people beyond the nomadic or migratory stage of civilization analogous to that of the pastoral cow feeders of the Tartar Steppes.

The city’s carmen benefitted the most from Moving Day charging more than the official rates set by city ordinances. The promise of quick cash lured in farmers from neighboring Long Island and New Jersey, who left their fields and pigs for a day and came to the city with their wagons to cart furniture from one street to another.

“On the 1st of May, the carman becomes a different creature,” reported the Times in 1865, “Not particularly civil at any time, on moving day he must be approached with caution. He has become lord of the ascendant. Ordinary offers do not tempt him. He has been known to laugh to scorn a man who offered him $5 to convey a load half a dozen blocks. . ... He is above all ordinances; he is a creation of the day; to-morrow he will be a mere carman, amenable to law and standing in fear of the Mayor's Marshal.”

New York Moving Day

In 1848, the Tenant League denounced the practice of increasing rents every year. The cost of moving was another concern. It wasn’t uncommon for people paying up to a week's wages in order to be moved. As the years wore on, people became more sensible and some started moving a few days before or after May 1. But the practice continued and by the 20th century, nearly a million people in the city all changed their residences at the same time.

Finally, it took a world war to put an end to this baffling practice. That and rapid transit as did the construction of new homes in boroughs outside of Manhattan allowed people to spread out further, reducing demand for housing in the city which made rents affordable, thus putting an end to the practice of moving every year.

New York Moving Day

# Wikipedia
# Alex Dean, "Moving Day": How 1 million New Yorkers used to move house on the same day every year, City Monitor
# Marjorie Cohen, Believe it or not, May 1st was once moving day for the entire city, Brick Underground


More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}