History of Tenements

History of Tenements in the Lower East Side

Before the first New York tenement, the infamous “rear house”, there had been tenant-houses already built. The original owners of these building, however, never intended for their buildings to house “promiscuous crowd[s]” as they were previously the homes of Manhattan aristocracy. An increase in the flow of trade, and  immigration that followed the war of 1812 caused them to be displaced. Within 35 years, the city went from a population of less than a hundred thousand to half a million people who all need homes (Riis 7). The population doubled every decade between 1800 and 1880 (Tenements).

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(c) www.socialexplorer.com

Though tenement building existed else where in the city, most of them were concentrated in the Lower East Side (Tenements). Old tenant house residents began to vacate “the once fashionable streets” along the East River and headed north, leaving behind their masonry row houses for real-estate agents and house keepers to divide up into tenements ( Riis 7; Tenements).

A report to the Legislature of 1857 had stated “in its beginning, the tenant-house became a real blessing to that class of industrious poor whose small earning limited their expenses, and whose employment in workshops, stores, or about the warehouses and thoroughfares, render a near residence of much importance(Riis 7-8).”

As business increased, and the city’s population accelerated in growth, the gal-estate agents and house keepers saw the necessity of the poor newcomers as an opportunity to augment their wealth. The report also states:

“large rooms were partitioned into several smaller ones, without regard to light or ventilation, the rate of rent being lower in proportion to the space or height from the street; and they soon became filled from cellar to garret with a class of tenantry living from hand to mouth, loose in morals, improvident in habits, degraded, and squalid as beggary itself.[…] Rents were high enough to cover damage and abuse from this [poor] class [but….] Neatness, order, cleanliness, were never dreamed of […] the entire premises reached the level of tenant-house dilapidation, containing, but sheltering not, the miserable hordes that crowded beneath mouldering, water-rotted roofs or buttoned amount the rats of clammy cellars (Riis 8).”

More often than not, only the rooms on the street received light while the interior rooms didn’t get any ventilation. When building new tenements, speculators would frequently use “cheap material and construction shortcuts.” Brand new building, at their best, were “uncomfortable” and at their worst, were highly dangerous (Tenements).

In addition, from 1815 to 1855, the NYC mortality rate heightened from 1 in 41.83 to 1 in 27.33 from the spread of sickness and disease due to the overcrowded and unsafe living conditions (Riis 10).

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(c) New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

By the time of the cholera epidemic, the population had increase to half a million residents in the tenement-house and on the Lower East Side, which was then the most densely populated district in the world (Riis 10).

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By 1900, more than 80,000 tenements had been built, but two-thirds of the city’s population, roughly 2.3 million people, lived in these tenements (Tenements).

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When confronted about these conditions, proprietors would shift the blame on the “filthy habits” of the tenants for the dismal state of the tenement houses. By converting houses and blocks into barracks, and dividing space into proportions just big enough to “[contain] human life”, real-estate agents and owners were able to maximize their profits from these properties (Riis 9). Work towards reform was later reached shortly after the 1863 “draft riots” that protested to these undesirable living conditions in addition to the new military draft policy. The Tenement House Act of 1867 defined tenements for the first time and issued construction regulation for tenement housing but there was little done to enforce this new rules (Tenements).


Interior of 97 Orchard Street Tenement

The factual evidence included Jacob Riis’ book, How the Other Half Lives, shocked many Americans and others around the world, leading a calling for reform for tenement housing. For most of the general public, the truth about the overcrowded conditions and mortality rate was unknown until this book was publish; For example, 12 adults would sleep in a confine of 13ft, and the infant mortality rate was 1 in 10. After further investigation, including two major studies completed in the 1890s, New York City officials passed the Tenement House Law in 1901, prohibiting the construction of new tenements on 25-foot lots and made improved sanitary living conditions (fire escapes, access to light, etc.) mandatory. Under the new legislation, over 200,000 apartments were built and supervised by city authorities within the succeeding 15 years. Additionally, programs included in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reconstructed low-income housing in many American cities, clearing slums and building new public housing. First Houses was the first fully government-built public housing project in New York City and it opened in 1936. This project even included the rehabilitation of tenements that were created before the Tenement House Law of 1901 (Tenements).


97 Orchard Street Today

Today, you can still find remnants of the old tenements at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, located at 97 Orchard Street. These buildings were constructed in 1863 and were occupied by over 7,000 workers for the following 72 years. In 1988, the abandoned tenements were converted into what is now the Tenement Museum, persevering what remained from1935 (tenement.org).


Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890

“SUMMARY OF VITAL STATISTICS 2010 THE CITY OF NEW YORK.” Nyc.gov. NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND MENTAL HYGIENE, n.d. Web. <http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/vs/vs-population-and-mortality-report.pdf>.

“Tenements.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. <http://www.history.com/topics/tenements>.

“Tenement Museum New York City – NYC Museum.” Tenement Museum New York City – NYC Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.tenement.org/>.

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