Part One (http://westviewnews.org/2015/03/the-greatest-evil-early-history-of-tenements-in-new-york-part-one ) explained the setup of the 1811 grid and the waves of immigrants that flooded the city. Part Two addresses the fight to reform and the state of tenements today.
Fight to Reform
For many immigrants, life in the tenements may have been barren and difficult, but they were there out of necessity. However for the established New York middle-class, the tenements were in a condition they could no longer tolerate. In the typical five-story tenement layout, 40 out of 60 rooms had no natural light or ventilation, nor did the stairwells and hallways. Street-facing rooms were considered premium because of the stench of the privies in the backyard. Reform movements chipped away at the unpleasant conditions within the tenements, pioneering the idea that governments could regulate residential conditions.
Often people would sleep in shifts on the same beds, depending on their work schedules, so that more people could occupy the same apartment. What may have been originally planned for two families per floor, now became four families per floor, with each apartment occupied by 10 or more people, in less than 325 square feet of space. The hazard of fire from wood-burning stoves and candles was a constant threat.
Jacob Riis’ exposés in the 1860s, a cholera epidemic, and the draft riots during the Civil War all contributed to reform movements for tenements. Although small improvements were introduced to improve sanitation and ventilation from 1865 to 1900, existing tenements were typically “grandfathered” in with their existing conditions. Finally in 1901, the Tenement Law imposed new design guidelines that greatly changed new tenement construction.
There are still thousands of tenements in the city today. (Hint: look for the iron fire escapes across four windows above a central entrance below.) Even some of the old law pre-1901 tenements are still in existence, but with mandatory amenities added. Many have been stripped of their ornamentation, including their ornate cornices and door trim. In some, the lower levels may have been transformed for stores and other commercial uses. Nevertheless, they are still recognizable throughout the city. There are still many on Hudson, Christopher, Greenwich, West 10th and other streets in the West Village.
Today zoning and building laws restrict the number of people in each apartment, the minimal size of each apartment, minimum light, ventilation and fire protection. Of course, all units must have working kitchens and bathrooms. If tenements are the worst curse ever on the city, then they are necessary evils that have been reformed to better serve the city’s population.
The Tenement Museum is at 97 Orchard Street, and their visitors’ center and offices are nearby. Call (212) 431-0233, or visit http://www.tenement.org for more information.