The narrow corridors of the Old and New Town were overcrowded, dark, noisy and not even broad enough for a carriage. No apartment had running water – instead, carts and carriers sold the precious liquid. Those who weren’t able to afford the price for fresh water, took it from the inner city canals, called “Fleet”. However, these canals were also used for the transportation of sewage and posed a constant health hazard. The disposal of waste water was a general problem in the Gängeviertel, where open sewers in the middle of the courtyard were the norm, which, together with the outhouses, created a terrible stench.
Another problem was the extreme population density: In 1885, 30% of citizens lived with four or more people in a single room, which was often also the kitchen. Additionally, thousands of shift-workers, called “Schlafgänger” had no apartment of their own and instead just rented a single bed for eight hours a day, while the owner was at work. Between 1860 and 1900 the conditions increasingly worsened, while Hamburg’s population tripled to 770,000 inhabitants. Every available plot was occupied with houses and every spare square meter was rented.
The terrible hygienic conditions strongly affected the health of the inhabitants: among children, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and measles were common; among adults, tuberculosis was the most common deadly disease in the 1880s. Countless rats spread lice, flees, and mites, while bedbugs and cockroaches swarmed the bedrooms. However, the most memorable demonstration of the terrible conditions in Hamburg was the cholera-epidemic of 1892, when 17,000 citizens were infected and 8605 died from the disease. The epidemiologist Robert Koch was sent to Hamburg by the emperor to combat the disease, which spread through the water system. Although many blamed the living conditions in the Gängeviertel for the spread of the epidemic, it seems more likely that responsibility lay with the political elites, who saved money on filtering and water systems. On the street Schulterblatt, where one side of the street received its water from Hamburg and the other from Danish Altona, only people on the Hamburg side contracted Cholera.
Moreover, in the contemporary Gängeviertel, overpopulation and hygiene were constant issues, since many people lived closely together between workshops and manufactories like the Fabrique, which produced metal fittings, the carpentry, and the slaughter-house on the current “Brache.”