This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Manhattan's Lower East Side as a Prism of Demographic Change

The twentieth century witnessed the most dramatic demographic changes ever to occur among human populations--huge declines in death rates leading to massive population increase, declines in fertility, a high volume of migration, urbanization, and changes in the way that people organized their households, families, and their lives in general. I thought about this yesterday in the car as I was listening to Here and Now on NPR. A story about the incredible demographic shifts in Manhattan's Lower East Side brought to mind the fact that this small plot of land has witnessed all of those demographic changes. Indeed, "demographic change" was the major story line as expressed by Adam Steinberg of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

In demography, the Lower East Side is especially important because it was the place that inspired Margaret Sanger to push for birth control. As it turns out, that story is also told at the Tenement Museum, as explained in a NYTimes article a few years ago:
WHEN you tour the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s restoration at 97 Orchard Street, you walk through the experience of the immigrants who arrived in waves at the turn of the 20th century, often to live five or six to a tiny room. According to the 1900 census, the 18 wives in the Orchard Street building had given birth to 111 children altogether, of whom 67 were then alive.
A 40 percent infant and child mortality rate sounds shocking now. Back then it was the norm. Maternal mortality was 99 percent higher than it is today; 40 percent of those deaths were caused by infection, of which half resulted from illegal or self-induced abortion. Birth control was to revolutionize women’s health. But it would take a social revolution to get there.
In 1912, Margaret Sanger was a nurse serving poor Lower East Side women like Sadie Sachs, a mother of three who had been warned that another pregnancy would kill her. When Sadie asked her doctor how to prevent pregnancy, he told her to tell her husband to sleep on the roof. Pregnant again, Sadie self-induced an abortion, contracted an infection and died.
Sanger began to address women’s lack of information about birth control by writing a sex education column called “What Every Girl Should Know” for The Call, a socialist newspaper. But in 1914, a warrant was issued for Sanger’s arrest. She stood accused of violating the Comstock law, which made it a crime to circulate “obscenity” through the mail.
Out of those efforts came the family planning movement and an increasing global awareness of the issues associated with population growth. So, next time you head to the Lower East Side for dinner or drinks at one of the many bistros and bars, think about the incredible changes in child mortality, birth control, the in- and out-migration of people that the neighborhood has witnessed in its history, and the subtle but important impact that it has had on demographic changes everywhere.

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