In the 19th century, people began crowding into America’s cities, including immigrants seeking a better life. In New York City buildings that had once been single-family dwellings were divided into multiple living spaces to accommodate this growing population. Known as tenements, these narrow, low-rise apartment buildings–many of them concentrated in the city’s Lower East Side neighborhood—were cramped, poorly lit and lacked indoor plumbing and proper ventilation. By 1900, some 2.3 million people (a full two-thirds of New York City’s population) were living in tenement housing.
In the first half of the 19th century, many of the more affluent residents of New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood began to move, leaving their low-rise row houses behind. Immigrants began to flow into the city, and concentrated themselves on the Lower East Side, moving into row houses that had been converted into multiple-apartment tenements, or into new tenement housing built specifically for that purpose.
A typical tenement building had five to seven stories and occupied nearly all of the lot upon which it was. With less than a foot of space between buildings, little air and light could get in. Interior rooms had no ventilation. Later, speculators began building new tenements, often using cheap materials and construction shortcuts. Even new, this kind of housing was at best uncomfortable and at worst highly unsafe.
New York was not the only city in America where tenement housing emerged as a way to accommodate a growing population. In Chicago, for example, the Great Fire of 1871 led to restrictions on building wood-frame structures in the center of the city and encouraged the construction of lower-income dwellings on the city’s outskirts. Unlike in New York, in Chicago they tended to cluster around centers of employment, such as stockyards and slaughterhouses.
In New York, a cholera epidemic in 1849 took some 5,000 lives, many of them poor people living in overcrowded housing. During the infamous “draft riots” that tore apart the city in 1863, rioters were not only protesting against the new military conscription policy; they were also reacting to the intolerable conditions in which many of them were living. The Tenement House Act of 1867 legally defined a tenement for the first time and set construction regulations; among these were the requirement of one toilet (or privy) per 20 people.
The existence of tenement legislation did not guarantee its enforcement, and conditions were little improved by 1889. Author and photographer Jacob Riis was researching the series of newspaper articles that would become his book “How the Other Half Lives.” Hard facts included in Riis’ book–12 adults slept in a room some 13 feet across, and that the infant death rate in the tenements was as high as 1 in 10. Many in America called for reform. City officials passed the Tenement House Law, which effectively outlawed the construction of new tenements on 25-foot lots and mandated improved sanitary conditions, fire escapes and access to light.
By the late 1920s, many tenements in Chicago had been demolished and replaced with large, privately subsidized apartment projects. The next decade saw the implementation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which would transform low-income housing in many American cities through programs including slum clearing and the building of public housing.
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