Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s

Aimee Heidelberg - January 30, 2024

The masses of immigrants coming to America and settling in New York in the 1800s needed cheap housing. New York’s Lower East Side, as a hotbed for these affordable units, attracted thousands of these immigrants and others coming to the city to find work. But these newcomers found not the gold-paved streets of their dreams, but squalor and danger in the city’s low-rent tenements. In 1890, reporter Jacob Riis shocked the nation by publishing his photographic journal, How the Other Half Lives. His collection of photographs, taken in New York’s Lower East Side, wasn’t just a missive on the area’s poverty, it pleaded for conditions to change. Between 1902 and 1914, the New York City Tenement House Department started documenting the tenement conditions. Their photographs live on as a testament to the time when merely renting a space to live in put the tenants’ lives at risk.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Tenement of 1863, for Twelve Families on Each Flat. D, dark. L, light. H, halls. Jacob Riis, public domain.

Tenements Were Tight Quarters

In New York, tenements crowded into city blocks, taking up the whole block to maximize the rentable space. Squeezed between other tenements, they would be about 25 feet wide and 100 feet long (7.6 meters by 30.5 meters), with only a foot or less between neighbors. With so little space between buildings, windows couldn’t fit on the side of the building.

Only the street-facing units had windows. They were five, six, or seven story walk-ups with terrible ventilation; with little window space, the only fresh air would come from the main entrance and the rooms facing the street or rear yard. Jacob Riis counted twelve adults sharing a room only 13 feet across, and discovered infants were dying at a rate of 1 in 10, a shocking mortality rate, even for the times and in that location. Tenements were a terrifying, but often only, choice for the poor.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Bird’s Eye View Of An East Side Tenement Block From A Drawing By Charles F. Wingate, Esq. (1890) Public Domain.

Disease Spread Quickly in Tight Quarters

There had been few safety regulations or density requirements for multi-family tenement housing. The buildings were cheaply constructed, with little concern for fireproofing. Living spaces in these buildings were frighteningly overcrowded since the density (how many people could live in a certain amount of space) went unregulated.

Thousands of immigrants coming through Ellis Island to start a new life in America found affordable housing in these unsafe buildings, and landlords were happy to let them fit as many in a living space as possible, as long as they paid their rent. If a resident became exposed to diseases like smallpox or tuberculosis, it would rapidly spread throughout the building. If the water became contaminated, the whole building would become ill. When mold and mildew grew rampant, the building became flagrantly unsafe. Tenement conditions ensured the human toll ended up much worse than in other, more well-tended dwelling types.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Outhouse interior. New York City Tenement House Department (c. 1902-1914). No known restrictions.

Outhouses in the Backyard

Prior to New York City’s requirement that each tenement must have indoor toilets, residents of the overcrowded buildings had to use outhouses in the backyards. The outhouses, like the ones pictured here, were packed into an already tight backyard space. Tenement dwellers might have found four outhouses for every 100 people. They had to endure long lines, little privacy, and weren’t cleaned on a regular basis.

This image shows the filth a tenement dweller would have encountered in their attempts to relieve themselves. In desperate cases or in particularly cold or icy conditions, residents would skip the outhouses altogether and use a chamber pot. While chamber pots could be emptied into the outhouses as they filled up, some residents just dumped the chamber pots into the yard or into the air shaft, adding to the already unsanitary conditions of the area.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Rows of outhouses with laundry and fire escapes. New York City Tenement House Department (1902, no known restrictions).

Tenement Outhouses

The outhouses were merely open seats over a large hole in the ground. Unlike rural areas, where the hole could be covered up and the outhouse moved, urban dwellers couldn’t just move the hole. It had to be pumped out manually. Men would come to the outhouses after dark, with outhouse traffic at its lightest, and shovel the waste, animal carcasses, garbage, and anything else thrown onto the pit.

They put their loads into containers and put them on a cart, to be hauled away. This refuse, called ‘night soil,’ then ended up dumped into empty lots in the Upper West Side or dumped into the East River or Hudson River to flow away from the city. The New York State Tenement House Act of 1901 required indoor toilets and bathtubs in all new apartments built in the city, but the mandate didn’t impact tenements that were already built.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Outhouses behind tenements. New York City Tenement House Department (c. 1902, no known restrictions).

Outhouses Persist

By the time the New York City Tenement House Department took this picture, a new law had been passed to try to fix the outhouse situation. The 1901 laws required “In every tenement house hereafter there shall be a separate water close in a separate compartment within each apartment.”

But tenement owners only reluctantly followed the mandate. The bathroom facilities were haphazardly installed, and shoddily maintained. In 1937, approximately 165,000 families were living in buildings without functional indoor facilities. Despite the dilapidation of the outhouses, they continued to be the only reasonable option for the people living in older tenement complexes, despite indoor toilets being a common household item in areas with sewer lines like New York City.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Tenement interior with male resident. New York City Tenement House Department (c. 1935 – 1936). New York Public Library, no known restrictions.

Water Supply and Stagnant Air Helps Disease Spread

While New York City had the capability to provide fresh water to residential units in the late 1800s and remove waste through a sanitation system, the demand for these services overwhelmed the system. The people in the overcrowded units had no reliable water. The 1894 Tenement House Committee found almost no water being supplied to residents. Residents couldn’t bathe even if they wanted to.

The lack of washing and the buildup of garbage and waste in back yards and air shafts created a superhighway for contamination. Disease, once it took hold in a tenement, grew impossible to stop. The transoms over doors were intended to help natural air flow to mitigate some of these problems, but the transoms merely opened up units to the contaminated garbage air. And the transoms came with trouble of their own; they made fires harder to contain.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Tenement House Fire On Second Ave. Harper’s Weekly (1868, No Known Restrictions).

Fire Was a Constant Threat

The tight, overcrowded tenement buildings were under a constant threat of fire. Tenements were typically mixed-use buildings. Stores and services took up space on the street level, and the residential units were accessible through a doorway next to the store then up a single set of narrow, wooden stairs.

Some of the commercial units on the first story posed a particular fire hazard. Bakeries, especially when they used fats and oils to create their food, posed a particular threat. Storage and warehouses held combustible goods. Hay and feed for the horses could ignite. If not safely stored, the resulting fire could wipe out a whole tenement.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Terrible loss of life! Burning of a tenement-house in Forty-fifth Street, near Sixth Avenue (1860). Public Domain.

Tenements Gave New Meaning to the Phrase “Spread like wildfire”

Fire posed a special danger in the tenements due to poor construction, lack of fire safety measures, and far too many people living in one building. The threat ended up far worse, however, by the other density problem – how many unsafe, overcrowded buildings squeezed onto a city block. The blocks were packed with these tenement structures.

If a fire broke out in one building, it easily spread to the other. Fire easily and rapidly spread, thanks not only to these fire-prone buildings, but to the garbage packed between them and boarded-up fire escapes. Before the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) organized in 1865, firefighting services were made up of volunteers. Colonial-era bucket brigades gave way to more organized firefighting equipment and an organized volunteer firefighting force, but even the volunteer force couldn’t stop a multi-tenement fire once it started raging.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Tenement row in Manhattan. New York City Tenement House Department (1934). New York Public Library, no known restrictions.

Fire Escapes For All! Technically, Anyway

Riis’ book wasn’t the first call for change. For decades before Riis published his book, the City of New York had attempted to fix the blighted conditions of its tenements. In 1867, the City passed the first Tenement House Act. This Act required fire escapes for each residential unit, and at least one window for every room.

Landlords complied with the letter of the law but not the spirit. They placed windows room-to-room or facing interior hallways rather than opening to the outside. Tenement owners had to install fire escapes, but the exits might be boarded up or blocked. Each tenement had to be built with one toilet or privy for every twenty people living there, but these may not be well – or at all – maintained, nor did they have to be indoors. The 1867 Tenement Act didn’t fix the problem, as property owners found ways around the regulations.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Airshaft of a dumbbell tenement, New York City, taken from the roof, ca. 1900. Federal Public Housing Authority, Public Domain.

Closing Some Tenement Loopholes

The City of New York caught on to these ‘work arounds’ when the tenement problems continued. The Second Tenement Act of 1879 addressed the 1867 ‘window in every unit’ regulation by requiring that the window must face a source of fresh air, not another room or interior hallway. A further amendment in 1887 stated the toilets had to be placed inside the building. New developments were constructed with air shafts between the buildings to ensure a fresh air source.

Once again, there were loopholes. Nobody said there had to be an access to those air shafts to clean them out, so the garbage stacked up. Additionally, these regulations didn’t always change conditions for existing buildings. Despite the city’s attempts at fixing the problems, loopholes revealed themselves, building violations outnumbered the inspectors, even landlords that wanted to fix the problem sometimes couldn’t afford to do so. Conditions didn’t get much better.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Tenement House Commission Report of 1895, New York Municipal Library.

Tenement Design Evolves

New York’s local regulations for each tenement to have a window led to creative solutions by landlords to meet the words of the law. Figures 4 and 5 in this image show early tenement arrangement, with small units stacked side by side, with few of the them having window access, only the front unit and the back apartments would have this luxury.

The central ones had no natural light or air flow. In the early years of mandating windows in every unit, the windows would be installed wherever it might be cheapest (meaning interior walls and hallways into the units). But as tenement design advanced (Figure 6 and 7), the units were arranged so there were four multiple-room units arranged around an air shaft. Each unit had at least one room facing either the street or facing the backyard, with at least one or two windows per unit.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Evolution of the tenement in twenty years. Jacob Riis (1890). Public domain.

Dumbbell Tenements

The tenements constructed under the 1879 regulations designed the air access into the building exterior, but still managed to maximize their rentable floor space. Near the midpoint of the building, the floor plan angles in a bit, squeezing the middle a few feet. The effect made the design resemble a piece of exercise equipment, giving the design its nickname.

The contemporary designs were called “dumbbell tenements.” When placed close to the next building (designed in the same manner) the ‘squeezed area’ became a shared air shaft between buildings. To maximize useable space, the air shafts between buildings or courtyards for each building didn’t usually include any access point. Residents used these air shafts to dump garbage, waste, and wastewater. It festered there, with no way to be removed, compacting and decomposing to create new levels of unspeakable odors.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Old Law tenement kitchen with view of interior bedroom. New York City Tenement House Department (1937). New York Public Library, no known restrictions.

Dumbbell Tenements Attempt at Air Flow

To meet the new city regulations, new tenements, with their access to windows in at least one room of the unit, would install windows like the one shown in this image, to encourage air flow and natural light into the interior rooms. In the time before the open floor plan became popular, these windows created a partition between rooms and could be opened and closed for light and air.

This image shows the arrangement of rooms in these “Old Law” tenements. The main door opens into the kitchen. The living space (or bedroom, or workshop, whatever the tenant used it for) is separated by the window and covered with a curtain to create a separation of the space.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Jacob Riis (1900). Public domain.

Jacob Riis Sparks Tenement Reform

Riis’ work In 1890 shed light on these conditions, exposing them to a mass audience that otherwise would never see the reality of New York’s most impoverished residents. Riis, himself an immigrant, lived in the desperate conditions he would later make famous. Riis, a police reporter for The New York Tribune, covered impoverished areas, places riddled with crime, overcrowded areas full of people scraping money together by any possible means.

Riis taught himself photography to document the conditions of these neighborhoods, sharing them with a shocked public. The resulting collection of photographs, How the Other Half Lives, exposed the worst, blighted slums. It quickly became a bestseller and sparked nationwide interest in tenement and social reform. The City, by order from President Roosevelt, closed the worst lodging houses. And the city, again, tried tenement reform and stricter enforcement of tenement housing policies.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
A man sits in a kitchen-bedroom with dishes, clothes, irons. New York City Tenement House Department (1904). No known restrictions.

Government Tries (Again) To Fix the Tenement Problem

Aside from the Tenement Acts of 1867 and 1879, tenement reform stayed in the realm of philanthropists and private citizens when Riis’ book came out. Government Tenement Acts were riddled with loopholes. Although reform efforts, private and governmental, would continue through the early 1900s, the 1901 Tenement Act seemed to finally have teeth. Tenements were required to include an access point to remove trash and waste.

In the period between 1902 and 1914, the New York City Tenement House Department inspected and photographed the conditions in its tenements for an exhibition. The New York City Tenement Department organized in 1901, had a mission to enforce tenement building standards (and clear up the loopholes) and investigate health, safety, sanitation, and architectural violations in the tenement buildings. This “New Law” didn’t suddenly fix all tenement problems, but helped with the design of new tenements in the city.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Orchard Street, New York City Tenement House Department (c.1902-1914). NY Public Library, no known restrictions.

Tenement Dominated Orchard Street

Orchard street, once the site of a lush orchard, sat at the heart of Lower East Side tenement housing. The street, lined with the five, six, or seven story walk-up buildings, was initially settled by German immigrants. Over time, Jewish immigrants settled the area, coming from Ellis Island to settle in this densely populated, bustling street lined with shop awnings and buildings with fire escapes dominating their street side.

This image shows the busy street life on Orchard Street. People walk on the street, only clearing if a cart or vehicle needs to pass. The buildings have balconies, putting this image before the time fire escapes were required by law and the upper stories. These building fronts would soon be covered in fire escapes. The balconies appear to be used as secondary storage space, but also provided a respite from the sweltering interior during warm months.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
A Child Frolics As A Man Walks His Dog In Front Of Tenement Block. Library Of Congress, No Known Restrictions.

Eleganti Apartmenti

An inspector’s notes show these properties at 233 E. 107th St. were called the “Eleganti Apartmenti.” The name belies the desperate conditions inside. The inscription on the photograph stated that the property owner had recently had their license revoked. “And, after that,” states the unnamed inspector, “our investigator found eight families doing home-work there. It is in miserable shape.”

In the early 1800s, tenements were often used as at-home sweatshops, with every member of the family pitching in to do piecework, or factory-style assembly of small products for a company. The company, then, would pay for each piece of the item correctly assembled. Today the Eleganti Amartmenti is gone, and the street is closed to traffic. It serves as a plaza and parking lot for an Urban Renewal-era apartment complex, a turnaround from the cramped complexes and dangling laundry from the image.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Back yards in New York tenements, c. 1900 – 1910. Library of Congress, public domain.

Tenement Backyards on Laundry Day

Tenement backyards fly laundry like signal flags using laundry lines shared between buildings. While the residents may have been concerned about keeping their own laundry clean, many tenement dwellers would do laundry for others as another source of income, and a consistent one (if not well-paid) one, as laundry will always need doing.

Much of this freshly cleaned and dried laundry may not actually belong to the people in these tenements. People can be seen on the fire escapes and leaning out windows, putting laundry out and taking it in. On frigid days, the clothes would be strung inside the tenements, crowding out the family and creating yet another fire hazard.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Approximately 10 irons on the stove. New York City Tenement House Department (c. 1902 – 1914). New York Public Library, no known restrictions.

Ten Irons on the Stove

The context of this image has been lost, as there seem to be no other notation on the image other than “Approximately 10 irons on the stove.” But it would be unusual for a family to need that many irons. The people living there may just have that many family members creating heaps of laundry.

More likely is that the tenants of this flat have taken in laundry to supplement their income. Beyond the stove itself, the tenement is in rough shape, with ragged walls, broken wood, thin shelving, and exposed pipes. There is little sign of anyone actually living in the space, but even if only used as a workspace, the conditions would be miserable and dreary, even just for working hours.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Bayard Street Lodging House Men Sleep In Tenement Space Rented For Five Cents A Night. Jacob Riis, 1890. Public Domain.

Bayard Street Tenement: Temporary Housing

Tenement landlords and residents found alternative ways of earning money. They might take on piecework or do laundry. In cases like this, tenement space rented out for temporary housing. For five cents, a man could rent a spot for the night. It wasn’t a luxurious space, crowded, and not particularly clean.

In this image, belongings are hung haphazardly on the wall. Boots and socks are stowed next to mattresses on the floor. The stove is covered with more belongings, and every space is taken up with people or possessions. There is even a lofted mattress to maximize the amount of rentable space. The people who slept there were thrown into unfamiliar space with other people, who knew what might happen to their stuff or start a fight just for the fun of it.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
The Ceru Family Works From Their Tenement Home (1912). Library Of Congress, No Known Restrictions.

Tenement Workshops

In this dingy flat at 143 Thompson Street, the Ceru family does piecework making artificial leaves. They will sell these leaves back to a manufacturer for a purpose lost to time. Perhaps the leaves were put in a hatband, or a decorative floral spray for someone’s living room. In tenement workshops, labor is a family affair; everyone is involved except the babies and small toddlers, and in the case of the Ceru family, their dog and cat.

Even the five-year-old Ceru girl helps. The ten-year-old girl, suffering nearsightedness, works until 9pm. She has glasses, but she doesn’t wear them at home. She keeps them on a nearby shelf. When asked about this odd arrangement, she explained to photographer Henry Wickes Hine, in his documentation of child labor, that she keeps them safe there “because Mother says I look funny with them. Now I got to go out and shop.”

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Marengin family works shelling nuts In their New York tenement. Library Of Congress (1911), No Known Restrictions.

Marengin Family Turns their Tenement into a Workshop

In this image, the Marengin family works together to crack nuts with their teeth in front of the windows that open not to the outside, but to another interior room in the tenement. The Marengins then give the nuts to the manufacturer, who pays them for their work. The unnamed manufacturer then produces them for public consumption.

The mother, who is referred to as “Mrs. Raphael Marengin” manages the operations, overseeing her children while her husband is away working on the railroad. Many of them work until 8 or 9 at night, shelling the nuts with their teeth. By the time the New York City Tenement House Department made these documents public, the law prohibited the manufacture of food products in tenement houses. There were too many health concerns, given the possibility of disease and unsanitary practices in these tenement homes.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Whole family works making artificial flowers, c. 1909 – 1919. Library of Congress, no known restrictions.

Working From Home Meant Something Different in the Early 1900s

This family works together to create artificial flowers. The woman sits side by side with three children as they create piles of the flowers. Although there weren’t sanitation concerns like the at-home nut shelling industry of the Marengin family, it still used the children as workers, their tiny hands perfect for the detailed piecework.

The record doesn’t indicate whether these children went to school or if they worked, but either way, they all pitched in, working long hours of repetitive work, to contribute to the family income. The image does reveal some attempts to create a home for the children; a decorative calendar hangs on the wall, as does a poster showing a landscape. A clean curtain hangs over the interior window, separating the workspace from other areas of the house.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Dilapidated tenement hallway at 266 Elizabeth St

Tenement Hallway, 266 Elizabeth Street.

Tenement homes, despite being homes, rental space, and used for the manufacturing of clothing, accessories, and even food, were not known for being well maintained or clean. This image shows the conditions at 266 Elizabeth Street. The ceiling has crumbled, exposing the rotten beams. The support column is likewise rotting, possibly a casualty of whatever caused the water seepage on the floor.

With all the damage to the wood and ceiling, the pipes are questionable at best. Beyond the water damage, the wainscoting along the hallway appears to be likewise rotten and dirty. Whatever mold colonies may be growing in this hallway, it is getting all it needs to thrive. Riis blamed “profiteering landlords” for providing buildings “to shelter at as little outlay as possible, the greatest crowds out of which rent could be wrung.” The landlords either couldn’t or wouldn’t keep up with repairs, leading to these conditions.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Overcrowding. New York City Tenement House Department (c. 1902 – 1914). New York Public Library, no known restrictions.

Too Crowded Tenement

Tenement housing wasn’t affordable for everyone. It wasn’t unusual to find several beds or mattresses on the floor rented for pennies a night. Some tenants took in these ‘visitors’ to supplement their income. In this image, inspectors found seven beds in a small room. This exceeded the occupancy limits, so they ordered them to be removed. It may have been boarders, or extended family, or perhaps there were numerous children.

The context of this image is lost to time. Whichever the situation, in 1894, the New York State Assembly Tenement House Committee found 38,000 tenement buildings in New York. The Lower East Side had up to 700 people per acre residents per acre by 1894, an extraordinarily high population density for such a small area.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Side Sectional View of Tenement House, 38 Cherry Street, N.Y. Albert Berghaus (1865). Public domain.

East Side Relief Work Committee

Over the winter of 1894 and early 1895, the East Side Relief Work Committee began a formidable project. They hired unemployed laborers to whitewash the cellars, living spaces, air shafts, alleys, and cellars of select tenements. But the conditions they found were far too foul.

The Committee and its volunteers categorized what they found, which included, “150 barrels of ashes, 100 barrels of rags, 54 of bones, 47 of leather, shoes, etc., 44 barrels of wet straw, 41 of excelsior, 29 barrels of old iron, 18 of broken glass and 19 of old tin.” They removed dead and decomposed dogs, cats, rats. They found food, but nothing edible; a can of milk that had been forgotten in the cellar for more than a year, along with rotten sauerkraut, putrefied meat. Some of the Committee workers refused to work on the cellar after this trash trove.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Kitchen with stove, table, and cupboard. New York City Tenement House Department (c. 1902 – 1914). No known restrictions.

Some Residents Attempt to Make a Nice Living Space

There are people who, no matter how foul their situation, will try to make the best of their circumstances. This image demonstrates how some tenement residents tried to make a nice living space for themselves and their families. The room, despite its dilapidated stovetop, exposed tubing, and stains on the walls, shows care, even pride, in the space.

The dishes are artfully arranged on the shelving. The shelves themselves have been decorated with either crocheted lace doilies or paper cut to look lace-like. The table is covered with two fringed tablecloths, an effort to provide some decoration. While the flooring appears to be peeling up a bit behind the table, the resident of this unit clearly took care to decorate the unit.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Kitchen with ornate stove and dishes. New York City Tenement House Department (c. 1902 – 1914). No known restrictions.

Taking Pride in their Meager Space

Like the previous tenement dweller, the residents of this unit have also tried to make their tenement into a home. This kitchen shows a great deal of care and tending. The floor and cabinets are clean. The dishes are neatly stacked away. The shelves are decorated with a scalloped-edged cloth or paper.

And this unit has a unique stove, much more decorated than what one might expect in a tenement. This image and the previous one shows that there were tenement dwellers who took particular pride in their living space, trying to make it a nice living space for themselves and their families.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Inhabited room with stove, tubs, beds. New York City Tenement House Department (c. 1902 – 1914). New York Public Library, no known restrictions.

Others Just Used it as a Stopover

While some residents took care to decorate their tenement unit and create a home, others used it as a bare bones living space, with little consideration for decoration or creating a welcoming space. This unit shows the meager living quarters of its occupant. Unmade beds, some cookware on a grimy stove, chairs strewn about in no discernible

manner, a washtub laid haphazardly on top of a cabinet. A covering sags over the window. It is difficult to see behind that curtain, but the photo indicates that natural light and air are mostly blocked from the unit, despite the large window and transom over the door. There is little evidence that the resident was trying to make this space a home.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Tenement interior, unknown location. New York City Tenement House Department (1936). New York Public Library, no known restrictions.

A Space to Live, But Not to Live

When something in a tenement broke, it frequently stayed broken. The landlords had little incentive (or in some cases, money) to fix it. Nor did the residents. In this image, the walls are dilapidated and chipped. The bed is nothing more than a metal frame, although the bed itself is reasonably neatly made, and the floor picked up, showing an effort to take care of their living space.

An article of clothing or a towel hangs from a nail or hook above the bed, and a warped shelf contains the few personal treasures visible in the image, including an American flag. But of greater concern is the broken window with shards of pointed glass looming over the bed. The lack of an attempted fix shows a lack of care by the property owners and landlords to properly maintain the dwelling units.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Inhabited kitchen. New York City Tenement House Department (c. 1902 – 1914). New York Public Library, no known restrictions.

1901 New Law Tightens the Loopholes

The force of change weighed heavily on New York’s tenement districts. “Pre-law” and “Old Law” tenement standards, referring to those attempted reforms in 1867 and 1879, were no longer acceptable. Air shafts had to be provided and the buildings couldn’t be sited so compactly anymore.

After the New Law, the 1901 Tenement Housing Act (aka “New Law”), tenements needed reasonable open space on the lot to allow air and light inside the building and access this light and air via windows from each unit. The New Law tightened safety measures in tenement design, maintenance standards, and safety regulations than its predecessors. This concerned landlords and property owners, who rushed to build their Old Law style buildings before the New Law went into effect. There was a rush of Old Law tenements constructed in haste, making 1901 a remarkably busy year for tenement construction.

Living Hell: New York’s Tenements were Nightmares in the Early 1900s
Tenement Demolition, New York. Urban Renewal would later see a lot of similar demolitions. New York Public Library (1934). No known restrictions.

The Death Knell for Tenement Housing

Reforms, Acts, and inspections weren’t working. The pictures from the New York City Tenement House Department documented many of these poor living conditions between 1902 and 1914, after the New Law went into effect. But tenements, with the occasional reform effort, continued to house the impoverished and new arrival, and landlords continued to neglect their properties. But in the 1950s, cities were enthusiastically embracing a new trend in reform: Urban Renewal.

Urban Renewal was a federal program that allocated federal money to cities, who used these funds to clear blighted areas of their community. It was an attempt to modernize and eliminate problem areas in major urban areas across the Unted States. Since tenements, always a thorn in New York City’s side, were among the most blighted properties, many of them were cleared out in the 1950s and 60s, until the program faded in the 1970s.

 

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

The Tenement House Committee of 1894 – Public Health Progressive. Dr. Anne M. Fillaci, Lillianwalkd.com,

Housing Density: From tenements to towers. (n.a.) Skyscraper.org (n.d.).

Outhouses and Night Soil Men: New York City before the invention of indoor plumbing and indoor toilets. (n.a.) History Daily, 20 January 2017.

Pioneering social reformer Jacob Riis revealed “How the Other Half Lives” in America. Jimmy Stamp, Smithsonian Magazine, 27 May 2014.

Ten Homes that Changed America. WTTW, PBS.

Tenements. History.com editors, History.com, 22 April 2010.

 

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