How the Other Half Lived …and Lives

“Bandit’s Roost,” Richard Hoe Lawrence, c. 1890, Museum of the City of New York

The New York City tenement of the nineteenth century once stood as perhaps the most potent symbol of poverty. The narrow, dark, and crowded houses populated New York City by the thousands in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Tenements, 1930s, New York City, NYPL

In general terms, a tenement was no more than a multi-family apartment house of five stories, sitting on a 25-foot lot, with long, narrow interior apartments, often called “railroad flats.”

Prior to the first laws (in 1901) seeking to ameliorate conditions within these apartment houses, the apartments were usually surrounded by other tenements, making the interiors entirely closed off to light and ventilation; often only one front room had a single window. Plumbing and electricity were amenities not available within the tenement apartments. Residents were required to fill pots of water to haul upstairs for cooking and bathing. Outhouses behind the buildings provided the only lavatories. Unsanitary conditions prevailed within many tenements, and fires were common, especially in those buildings whose interiors, especially stairways, were constructed of wood. Until the laws were passed to alter some of the unsafe conditions, residents were often trapped inside these burning buildings with no means of escape since fire escapes were not required by law.

Making artificial flowers in a tenement: living space often doubled as a work space.


Tenement exterior

While the first tenements were constructed in New York City in the 1830s, they burgeoned after the American Civil War; as immigrants poured into the city, mass housing became a need to be filled by developers who saw the new arrivals as potential income waiting to be made. And indeed, while the buildings that housed many of the city’s new immigrants and poor had few, if any amenities, the rents to live in the tenements were not cheap.

Overcrowding was a serious problem in the areas where tenements sprouted up like weeds, especially in Manhattan’s lower east side.  By the 1880s, an estimated 334,00 people were living within a single square mile in the lower east side. (See an 1899 map of part of the area).

Social reformers spent much time and effort attempting to better the conditions of life in the tenements. Perhaps the most famous of these reformers was Jacob Riis, himself an immigrant from Denmark, who spent much of his career documenting conditions in the tenements in order to show the wealthy and professional classes how this “other half” was living.
Riis arrived in New York City in 1870. With little money, he experienced the plight of a new immigrant in New York City, suffering greatly as he struggled to find food, work, and a place to live. Ultimately, he would come to embody the American success story as he made a career for himself in journalism, eventually working for the New York Sun and New York Tribune. He never really left the slums he lived in during his first years in America, since he would be devoted to a lifelong effort to document the squalid conditions of the tenements and surrounding slums.
Jacob Riis (1849-1914)

Along with several colleagues, Riis adopted the new fangled technology of flash photography to literally throw light on the darkest regions of New York’s poverty.  It seemed that words alone were not enough to move the hearts of those far-removed from the slums, and thus Riis’ photographs served as visual documents to underscore the need for reform. View a slideshow of Riis’ images here.

Book Cover: Riis Sheds Light on Conditions

“To-day three-fourths of [Manhattan’s] people live in the tenements,” wrote Jacob Riis in his seminal study, How the Other Half Lives (1890), “and the nineteenth century drift of the population to the cities is sending ever-increasing multitudes to crowd them. The fifteen thousand tenant houses that were the despair of the sanitarian in the past generation have swelled into thirty-seven thousand, and more than twelve hundred thousand persons call them home…. We know now that there is no way out; that the “system” that was the evil offspring of public neglect and private greed has come to stay, a storm-centre forever of our civilization.” (How the Other Half Lives, 2)

Tenement Interior, NYPL

Some critics argue that Riis and other reformers demonized the very people they were attempting to help. Drug addiction, prostitution, crime, and vice were, in their eyes, the chief exports of the tenements. Purity that is born of a wholesome family home life was rare in the tenement, or so they argued. And particularly for those eyeing the waves of immigrants with concern, the dwellers of the slums, with their exotic ways, foreign tongues, and isolated communities, posed a threat to the fabric of American society.

To be sure, those who lived in the tenement could be just as thrifty, clean, and moral as anyone else. It was the condition of their circumstances that was at the heart of their problems.

And indeed, Riis cast blame for the conditions using a wide net: he continuously pointed a finger at the slumlords and corrupt politicians who were the real villains in the tenement situation. And despite the criticism of Riis’ attitude toward the poor, it is true that his work did make an impact. Laws were passed over the years that would eventually relegate, by the 1930s, the tenement, as it was initially envisioned and constructed, to history.

Tenement today: 1st Ave and E. 64th St

Today, however, that history is still present in New York. Tenements can still be found, although many have undergone various degrees of renovation. By 1988, an estimated 200,000 apartments in so-called “old law” tenements were occupied. From gut rehabs to minimal renovations, the changes the buildings underwent were viewed as preferable to demolition.

Some of the more famous new uses of the tenement include a boutique hotel, (the Blue Moon Hotel at 100 Orchard Street), and a museum, (the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard, founded in 1988).

Another new trend surrounding the modern uses of the New York tenement has appeared in the last decade. The wealthy now eye these multi-family dwellings as a potential single family mansion. Converting such a building, and adding perhaps a roof terrace, turns the once over-crowded, dimly lit, space into a palatial home where only the wealthiest New Yorker can live.

These conversions, however, are not without an enormous amount of controversy.

In 2002, a wealthy couple, Alistair and Catherine Economakis, ran into legal trouble upon serving eviction notices to the tenants of the former tenement building at 47 E. 3rd street in the East Village. The couple argued that they simply wanted to turn the former tenement into a home only for themselves (and thus removing many rent-stabilized apartments from the city’s increasingly unaffordable real estate market). Opposition to the conversion mobilized people to take part in a variety of demonstrations, but eventually, the conversion took place. Now the 11,600 square foot “tenement mansion” is a symbol of the greed of the city’s “other half.”

Other buildings have been similarly purged by the owners, prompting even more demonstrations.

McTenement: 47 E. 3rd Street

As New York, especially Manhattan, has been given over to the wealthy (its cost of living is more than twice the national average), even the once reviled tenement has become a status symbol; the city is becoming more and more a playground for the wealthy only.

Ironically, with the onslaught of the great recession, the suburb, once seen as the attainable site where average people could realize the American Dream, came to stand as the next slum.

What would Jacob Riis make of this, the irony of history?

~Jenny Thompson



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