GONZÁLEZ: Hey, everybody. I’m Ana.

NUNES: I’m Alex. And you’re listening to Mosaic.

GONZÁLEZ: Alright. So if you say the words “New England triple decker” to someone in California or Tennessee, they’re probably going to think you’re talking about a specialty sandwich. 

NUNES: But for people in our neck of the woods, there is no confusion. A triple decker is this iconically New England building: One house, three stories for three families, and, traditionally, a porch on every level. 

GONZÁLEZ: But triple deckers are much more than houses.

NUNES: Right.

GONZÁLEZ: They’re homes. And for generations, they’ve given immigrant families a path to the middle-class and a place to share their lives. 

NUNES: And in this episode of Mosaic, we go back more than a century to unpack another side of the triple decker story. We find out how they came to symbolize the threat to the old New England social order.

MORGAN GREFE (Rhode Island Historical Society): The house becomes a sort of metonym for the fear of the other.

NUNES: I’m standing outside a triple decker in the Social District of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, named for the old Social Mill that used to process cotton nearby. 

TENANT: You know it needs a lot of work. It needs a lot of work. The landlord really doesn’t do too much, and it’s very old.

NUNES: This woman is one of the tenants. 

TENANT: I’ve been here nine years now.

NUNES: Oh, nine years.

TENANT: Nine years, and the rent’s never late. It’s always on time. And the landlord still doesn’t do anything. I got rust coming down.

NUNES: This triple-decker is not the prettiest building in town: beige vinyl siding, concrete steps, overgrown grass, and a long water stain stretching down from a second floor air conditioner. But someone else has brought me here today, and he sees something special in this old building.

GENE: My grandfather, my grandmother, and their children. Nine kids and mother and father lived here. In one tenament. Each floor was a tenement. Yeah.

NUNES: This is Gene Peloquin. He’s French-Canadian on both sides and 87 years young next month. This triple decker is one of the first homes his mother lived in after she immigrated from Quebec Province in 1904. 

GENE: It was a poor home but a happy home. Fantastic brothers and sisters. She was like halfway in between. Not the youngest, not the oldest. Good parents. It was happy times. They made the right decision. They made the right decision to come. 

NUNES: Gene’s grandparents were poor, tenant farmers from Canada who came to Woonsocket because of all the jobs being created by the mills.

GONZÁLEZ: They were among thousands of French Canadians making their way to Woonsocket in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. 

NUNES: At that time, Woonsocket is one of many cities around New England seeing massive demographic shifts.

MORGAN: This is where you start to see a huge number of people coming. 

GONZÁLEZ: This is Morgan Grefe, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

MORGAN: And they’re coming from their countries for a number of reasons. There’s often political unrest in these areas. You’re also dealing with issues of overuse of land, droughts that are pushing people who have historically been farmers off of the land, and they’re seeking work, and they’re seeking opportunities for their families.

NUNES: In Rhode Island, there are plenty of those opportunities. Industry is booming. By 1900, Morgan says, Rhode Island is per capita the richest state in the country. So people start coming over in huge numbers from places like Portugal, Italy, and Eastern Europe.

GONZÁLEZ: And these are seriously big numbers. By the turn of the century, seven out of every 10 people in Rhode Island are first or second generation Americans. Morgan says Providence is nearly 32 percent foreign born.

NUNES: But there’s a big problem, and it has to do with housing.

GONZÁLEZ: Exactly. In some areas, companies are providing worker housing in mill villages. But not every mill is doing this. 

NUNES: So vast numbers of immigrant workers and their families are left with a dearth of available and safe housing. 

MORGAN: You have some really serious housing problems, shortages in New England urban centers and deplorable conditions. Almost unimaginable conditions around Providence for housing that is a century old, falling apart, no running water, of course, no plumbing. And really, it looks to our modern eyes, almost like a shanty town.

GONZÁLEZ: So the urban centers of New England are desperate for new housing stock.

NUNES: But the row houses of New York and Chicago don’t go up in large numbers. For reasons that aren’t totally clear, a new building pattern emerges out of the old, wooden company houses.

GONZÁLEZ: Right. And so we end up with the triple decker. 

NUNES: So we’re walking into the triple decker. Nice home.

GENE: Oh, yes. This would not be sort of a typical mill worker. He’d be like a foreman, you know? Have a bit more money.

NUNES: I’m with Gene at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket. He’s been a volunteer here since before it opened. We’re in an exhibit that’s a small replica of what the front parlor of an old triple decker might have looked like in the 1920s. There’s a player piano, graphophone, velvet loveseat, lamps, and a radio. 

GENE: The chairs, they’re all in style in 1929. The telephone, 1929.

NUNES: In New England, thousands of triple deckers like this one are built over a number of decades to house the growing immigrant population. Cities like Worcester, Dorchester, and Fall River, Massachusetts--Pawtucket and Providence in Rhode Island. They all have their streetscapes remade by triple deckers. 

Triple deckers go up in all different styles. Some are basic and practical. Others mimic higher end single family homes, with elaborate Victorian exteriors and woodwork. Inside, each level has a parlor in front, followed by a living room, then a big kitchen. There are a few bedrooms and one bathroom for everyone to share. Gene says it was tight, but the triple decker home made for close knit families and good memories.

GENE: French Canadians were hard working people, but they also loved to have a good time. The big holidays like Thanksgiving, Noël,

Christmas; New Year’s Day was a big, big day in the French Canadian heritage. And we’d always ask the grandfather to give us his blessing on New Year’s Day, and we continued that in my house with all my kids too.

EXHIBIT RECORDING: I was lucky enough, my mother sent me for tap lessons. And they used to have contests between me and the fiddler to see who would quit first. He’s sweating away and playing and all. I did my little tap. My reward was getting a piece of cake or whatever they had. So I felt lucky, because my brothers and sisters were upstairs, and I was downstairs with the party.

NUNES: But the benefits of the triple decker become more than just social togetherness.

GONZÁLEZ: Right. For many immigrants, they’re a ticket to middle class life. The goal becomes that you save up, buy your own triple decker, live on one floor and then rent out the other two.

NUNES: Then you pass the triple decker onto your kids. 

MORGAN: And that allows them then to have and then develop capital. And that can then be passed down through the generations, and we know that home ownership and that being able to pass down that capital is very meaningful for the establishment of capital and future generations.

GONZÁLEZ: So what is there not to like about the triple decker?

NUNES: Well, according to some people back then, there’s a lot to be concerned about. 

GONZÁLEZ: Right. So the naysayers you’re talking about are the old Yankees in New England. They see the triple decker as a threat to their American ideal.

NUNES: These so-called reformers want immigrants to assimilate and leave their old customs behind. They think rows of triple deckers create ethnic enclaves where people hold onto their languages and cultures. The reformers don’t like it.

MORGAN: They think that they are helping people achieve the American dream, and the American dream involves leaving your heritage at the border. 

GONZÁLEZ: The Yankees form citizens groups. Then municipal committees. 

NUNES: They come out against the triple decker in print, and they glorify the good old days of the New England single family home.

IHLDER ([Actor reading historical text): Dignified and beautiful dwellings arouse our enthusiasm not merely because of their dignity and beauty, but because they symbolize the spirit of their builders. These men and women not only conquered a wilderness but they set and, in spite of temptations, kept high standards for themselves and their community.

GONZÁLEZ: These are the words of John Ihlder from an article published in Providence Magazine in 1917. The subject is the so-called “three-decker menace.”

IHLDER: The newcomers to Providence find an environment perhaps more kindly to the weak, but less kindly to the strong. The newcomers have lower standards. Are we raising these standards or are ours sinking toward their level? And what will be the results in the future?

MORGAN: I think that it’s hard to lump all of the reformers into one basket. Some of them are actually believing that they are doing good work, that they are doing God’s work.

NUNES: Morgan says different reformers are driven by different priorities. 

GONZÁLEZ: Some of them probably just don’t like immigrants. Some are convinced that the lack of privacy in triple-deckers leads to poor moral character. Others think three-deckers are “dishonest” structures, because they pose as respectable homes but secretly house all sorts of questionable people.

NUNES: There were also concerns about health and safety: sanitation, a lack of toilets, the spread of germs, the fear of tuberculosis and other diseases.

GONZÁLEZ: Some fears about the triple decker are legitimate. But, to our modern eyes, a lot of it just looks like an excuse for xenophobia. 

MORGAN: And so the house becomes a sort of metonym for the fear of the other. 

NUNES: The reformers ultimately come to a pretty drastic conclusion: the best way to deal with the threat posed by triple deckers is to ban them entirely.

GONZÁLEZ: So, according to the New England Historical Society, by the late 19-teens, 36 municipalities in Massachusetts outlaw the construction of new triple deckers. Bridgeport, Connecticut, does the same. And, in 1923, Providence puts an end to new triple deckers. 

NUNES: But it’s kind of a little too late, right?

GONZÁLEZ: Right. The triple deckers are already here. 

NUNES: And even if though restrictions are in place, people are getting around them. They’re building these small third-floor apartments in supposedly two-family homes. 

GONZÁLEZ: And, in Providence, the ban is lifted in a couple decades anyway.

NUNES: Right. But, in the mid-part of the 20th Century, something else comes along, and it does what the old Yankee reformers couldn’t. And that something is urban renewal...

NUNES: I’m standing with Gene on Kendrick Avenue in Woonsocket. He has one more triple decker story to tell. It’s not about his mom’s side of the family. This time it’s about his dad’s mother.

GENE: This street here. There was a street here all the way down. My grandmother’s house was right on the corner here, a triple decker. And I was right next to them. We had a small bungalow, a small cottage. And the rest was all triple-deckers and four story buildings, three story buildings.

NUNES: But there are no triple deckers here anymore. They were all cleared years ago. Today this block is a modern housing complex.

GENE: They look pretty good, though. They’re not abandoned. They just refurbished them all.

GONZÁLEZ: Rows of triple deckers come down in other parts of Woonsocket too, just like in cities around New England.

NUNES: Urban planners get rid of them to make way for highways, hospitals, shopping centers, and university expansions. But the triple decker footprint is so vast that it can’t be completely replaced. 

GONZÁLEZ: Not by a long shot. The story of immigrant families moving into three-family homes continues. 

NUNES: And in the next episode of Mosaic, we hear from people who grew up in triple deckers. We talk about the smells, the sounds, the games and parties--and the unique sense of community inside the triple decker home.

GONZÁLEZ: Mosaic is a production of The Public’s Radio, edited by Sally Eisele with production help from James Baumgartner and Aaron Selbig. Our original music is by Bryn Bliska. Torey Malatia is the general manager of The Public’s Radio. I’m Ana Gonzalez.

NUNES: And I’m Alex Nunes. Thanks for listening. 

Support for this podcast comes from Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement, and the advancement of international peace and security at Carnegie.org.