In the first half of the 19th century, wealthy residents of New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood moved northwards, leaving their low-rise row houses behind. At the same time, immigrants flowed into the city, many of them fleeing the Irish Potato Famine in Ireland or revolution in Germany. These new arrivals tended to find homes on the Lower East Side.
By 1900, more than 80,000 tenements had been built in New York City. They housed 2.3 million people, two-thirds of the city's total population.
A typical tenement building had five to seven stories and occupied nearly all of the lot upon which it was built. Many tenements began as single-family dwellings, and many older structures were converted into tenements by adding floors on top or by building more space in rear-yard areas. With less than a foot of space between buildings, little air and light could get in. In many tenements, only the rooms on the street got any light, and the 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. Often, 12 adults slept in a room some 13 feet across, and the infant death rate in the tenements was as high as 1 in 10.
A cholera epidemic in 1849 killed 5,000 people, many of them poor people living in overcrowded housing. During the infamous New York draft riots that tore apart the city in 1863, rioters protested the new military conscription policy and the intolerable conditions in which they lived.
The Tenement House Act of 1867 legally defined a tenement and set construction regulations, including the requirement of one toilet per 20 people.
The 1901 Tenement House Law outlawed the construction of new tenements on 25-foot lots and mandated improved sanitary conditions, fire escapes, and access to light.
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