By Laurie Lewis
If you lived in New York City sometime in the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, your home most likely would have been a tenement. About two-thirds of the city’s residents lived in tenements, a prevalence that remained fairly steady despite a rapidly growing population.
An 1867 law defined a tenement as a dwelling for more than three families who lived independently. The term conjures up images of a slum, but the earliest tenements actually began as pleasant single-family rowhouses. The original residents of these homes moved north in the city when New York started to attract large numbers of immigrants—mainly from Ireland to escape the potato famine in the 1840s and 1850s and from Germany slightly later. The immigrants moved into these abandoned homes, converting them from single-family dwellings to tenements. Sometimes, floors were added on top to provide room for more newcomers.
As the city continued to grow—the population roughly doubled every ten to twenty years during the nineteenth century—tenements built specifically to house multiple families began to rise on the Lower East Side and nearby areas. Typically, these narrow buildings filled the standard 25-foot-wide city lot. Most tenements were four stories tall and had four two- or three-room apartments per floor. The interior bedrooms had no windows to let in fresh air or light. Residents had to go out to the small back yard to get water and to use a toilet.
The 1867 law that defined tenement also aimed to improve living conditions, but only minimally. Fire escapes became mandatory, as did privies, one for every twenty residents; but the toilets could still be outdoors. The statute had so little substance that any tenement built or converted from private housing before 1879 is known as pre-law.
Back-yard view of tenements, showing privies, hanging laundry, and fire escapes
(From the New York Public Library Digital Collections)
The Tenement House Act of 1879 made a serious effort at improvement. A contest solicited designs for better housing, and the winner was what became known as the dumbbell apartment; seen from above, it was in the shape of a dumbbell. By law, any new tenements could fill only 65 percent of the lot. Air shafts between buildings (which created the dumbbell configuration) allowed some light to penetrate the center of the structure. Every room had to have a window, and every floor had two hallway toilets for four apartments to share. (That still meant many people per toilet, because families were large and often took in newly arrived kin and unrelated boarders.) Buildings that conformed to these requirements are called old-law tenements.
Although the dumbbell tenement was a theoretical improvement over housing of the pre-law era, in practice it came up short. The narrow air shafts didn’t let in much light, and residents often used the opening to dispose of garbage, worsening already poor sanitary conditions. Part of the problem was the narrow lot size.
Starting in 1901, a larger lot and bigger air shafts were necessary for so-called new-law tenements. Now, every apartment had to have running water and its own toilet, as well as a window in each room. The 1901 law—passed 117 years ago this month— also mandated improvements for the thousands of apartments already standing. That affected many people; 2.3 million New Yorkers lived in upwards of 80,000 tenements by 1900.
The demand for housing continued to soar as new waves of immigrants, now coming mainly from Italy and Eastern Europe, arrived in New York. More than 200,000 new apartments were built by 1916. As soon as living space became available, somebody moved in, even if it meant walking up six flights of stairs. A tenement might not be beautiful, but it offered shelter and the hope of a better life than the hardships left behind in the old country.
The Tenement Museum
If you have difficulty picturing a tenement apartment, make a visit to New York City’s Tenement Museum at 103 Orchard Street. In this and a neighboring building, you can take a tour of restored tenements that during a 72-year period housed more than 15,000 working-class immigrants from some twenty countries.
The Tenement Museum is an immersive and evocative experience. Climb the wooden staircase, and imagine what it was like to do this several times a day with packages and children in tow. Step into a three-room apartment, and picture what it was like to cook, study, work, and sleep in the small, dark space.
For more information about the museum, see www.tenement.org. For a personal account of a visit to the Tenement Museum, see our April 1, 2018, blog.
Most Take a Walk New York tours cover 1 to 2 miles, last 2 to 2½ hours, and cost $25 per person. Advance registration is required. To register and to learn the meeting place, email the guide (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). Please arrive a little before the start time. Tours are cancelled if nobody has registered or if the weather is extreme; if in doubt, call or text Laurie (917-306-2868) or Alan (917-363-4292).
Mansions of Fifth Avenue
You can still find magnificent mansions built about a hundred years ago on the Upper East Side. These freestanding mansions are interspersed among luxury apartment buildings—mansions in the sky. Hear about these palatial homes and the people who lived in them—New York's own rich and famous.
Laurie gives this tour on Sunday, April 8, at 1 PM. To reserve a place and to learn the meeting location, email her at email@example.com.
400 Years of History in Less Than a Mile
Lower Broadway is like an illustrated history textbook, with the pages out of order. This stretch of Manhattan illustrates American history from colonial times to the present. Take a walk in the footsteps of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Hear stories about heroes like them, as well as rogues like William "Boss" Tweed. Look at beautiful buildings, including the first department store.
Join Alan on Saturday, April 14, at 11 AM to take this walk through history. Please email him (firstname.lastname@example.org) to reserve a place and to learn the meeting location.
Fort Tryon Park
The high ground in Upper Manhattan that appealed to the new American army for a defensive fort later attracted millionaires who wanted to build castles on the Hudson. We'll walk from the site of Fort Washington to Fort Tryon Park, exploring vestiges of a Gilded Age estate. We'll take in the Heather Garden and the park's extraordinary Hudson River views. You'll hear about a fearless woman who was a good shot with a cannon, a self-indulgent tycoon, and a generous Rockefeller. We'll end at the Cloisters Museum, which you may want to visit on your own.
Alan leads this 90-minute tour on Saturday, April 21, at 11 AM. To make a reservation and to learn the meeting location, email him at email@example.com.
Greenwich Village: In the Footsteps of Writers
Many writers and other creative people have called Greenwich Village home. On this tour, you'll meander through charming Village streets and peek into hidden cul-de-sacs as you learn where some famous writers—including Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, and Edward Albee—lived. Maybe the Village aura will spark your own creativity!
Laurie gives this tour on Sunday, April 22, at 1 PM. To reserve a place and to learn the meeting location, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Central Park: Highlights of the Southern Half
In the popular southern half of Central Park, you'll recognize some of the most filmed and photographed sights in New York, including Strawberry Fields, the Sheep Meadow, and Bethesda Terrace. The park beckons in all kinds of weather. On this tour, we'll look for signs of spring and observe design elements that are hard to detect through the foliage in later months.
Take a walk with Laurie through the southern half of Central Park on Sunday, April 29, at 1 PM. Please email the guide (email@example.com) to register and to learn the meeting location.
May Preview: Jane's Walk
Jane's Walk is an annual global event held the first weekend in May. It is named for Jane Jacobs, a twentieth-century urban activist who spent much of her life in Greenwich Village. All Jane's Walks are free, and registration is not required.
As in the past, we will be leading a Jane's Walk. Please join Alan and Laurie on Saturday, May 5, at 11 AM, to take a walk through the northern half of Central Park. We'll be meeting on Central Park West between 90th and 91st Streets, opposite the El Dorado apartment building. This is a great opportunity for you to try one of our favorite tours for FREE.
For the latest information, please see the organizer's website, https://www.mas.org/events/central-park-marvels-of-the-northern-half.