THE EARLY TENEMENTS OF NEW YORK—DARK, DANK, AND DANGEROUS
When they walked off their ships, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children stayed in New York and had to live in apartments—that were cramped, dark and impossibly small —in buildings that were decaying firetraps, with substandard or broken plumbing and conditions not fit for a human being.
Much that they found on the Lower East Side and northward is documented in records, government agency reports and graphic photos in the City’s Municipal Archives and Library. These include Jacob Riis’ ground-breaking book, How the Other Half Lives, and details about the nefarious “Lung Block,” the subject of a Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) exhibition that ran in August of 2019.
It is a classic tale of exploitation, greedy owners and developers and battles in Albany and City Hall between real estate interests and people striving for better lives.
The Municipal Library held a copy of Riis’ book, published in 1890, which noted in chilling detail and sickening photos the conditions of Manhattan’s tenement houses.
Buildings that once housed comfortable dwellings were cut up and added onto to accommodate the newly arrived immigrants who swelled the city’s population, eventually quadrupling it from 125,000 in 1820 to just under one million by 1870.
To meet the need for quick, cheap housing, Riis reported that the properties “fell into the hands of real estate agents and boarding house keepers… and in the old garden where the stolid Dutch burgher grew his tulips or early cabbages, a rear house was built, generally of wood, two stories high at first. Presently it was carried up another story, and another. Where two families had lived ten moved in.”
More than 20 years after the Tenement House Act of 1867, Riis described such horrendous conditions—crowded and dangerous buildings that incubated cholera, malaria and tuberculosis—it resulted in a public outcry and led to an investigation by the Tenement House Committee. The Tenement House Act of 1901, which echoed Riis’ findings and called for reforms, led to the creation of New York City’s Tenement House Department, which issued annual and biennial reports from 1902 through 1937—all of which are housed in the Municipal Library.
Prior to 1867, tenements known as “Pre-Law” buildings had few strict requirements. The Act of 1867 brought the first “Old Law,” buildings which required fire escapes—most shoddily built. Subsequent “Old Law” buildings, erected between 1879 and 1901, required slender air shafts for ventilation. Buildings erected after 1901 were considered “New Law” buildings and had stricter requirements.
Still, in its 1902 report, the Tenement House Department noted that “tenement conditions have been found to be so bad as to be indescribable in print,” including “vile privies… cellars full of rubbish… garbage and decomposing fecal matter… dilapidated and dangerous stairs… dangerous old fire traps without fire escapes (and) disease-breeding rags… The cleansing of the Augean Stables was a small task compared to the cleansing of New York’s 82 tenement houses, occupied by nearly three millions of people.”
Outdated building design, shabby construction and greed-fueled attempts to squeeze as many people as possible into the tenements spurred the transformation of the old one- and two-story Knickerbocker dwellings with a large backyard on a 90-foot lot, to cut-up tenements—often housing a 10-member family in a single apartment—then to dark and dank to rear tenement “caves” with a small yard between the front and back building.
“If we take the death rate of children as a test, the rear tenement houses show themselves to be veritable slaughterhouses,” the report to the Legislature found. “The unfortunate tenants live virtually in a cage.”
What followed was known as the “packing box” tenement with almost no ventilation, and a tiny yard, a design Riis described as “a hopeless back-to-back type, which meant there was no ventilation and could be none.” He noted that allowed “stenches from horribly foul cellars” to “poison” tenants living on the fifth floor.
Next came the double-decker” with a small air shaft. The state report called the double-decker “an evil which is peculiarly our own” and “the one hopeless form of tenement construction.” Though a slight improvement on the packing box, “the double-decker cannot be well-ventilated; it cannot be well-lit; it’s not safe in case of fire.”
The final iteration was the Dumb-Bell building, which had larger shafts along the sides in the middle, which gave the floor plan the look of that piece of weightlifting equipment.
Despite the new law, the Tenement Department, in its first heavily documented and illustrated report for 1902 and 1903 noted that “some of the conditions found in these buildings surpasses the imagination. It does not seem possible that human beings actually live under them and still retain the least vestige of health.”
STREET CHILDREN HUDDLED FOR WARMTH