asks you to explore what
it was like to live in a

 Tenement of the Lower East Side

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Tenement, Lower East Side, N.Y.C., 1927


<< Movie Theater

Rear view of an east side tenement building, New York, New York, 1927



Flatbush Avenue

Public School No. 109,
Brooklyn, New York

Lower East Side

The Loew's Pitkin,
Brooklyn, New York

Tenement of the
Lower East Side
"Tenements" were buildings that were erected to house multiple working-class families. Typically these multi-storied edifices were built between the middle of the nineteenth century and the start of the Great Depression. These dwellings were filled with tenants beyond any reasonable capacity; eventually living conditions became deplorable. It was not until 1929, the year during which the Stock Market crashed, that New York State passed its "Multiple Dwelling Law" which recognized the shoddy living conditions that existed in these tenements and specified how these conditions were to be improved. In part the law, Chapter 13 of the Laws of 1929 stated:

It is hereby declared that intensive occupation of multiple dwelling sites, overcrowding of multiple dwelling rooms, inadequate provision for light and air, and insufficient protection against the defective provision for escape from fire, and improper sanitation of multiple dwellings in certain areas of the state are a menace to the health, safety, morals, welfare, and reasonable comfort of the citizens of the state; and that the establishment and maintenance of proper housing standards requiring sufficient light, air, sanitation and protection from fire hazards are essential to the public welfare."

Real estate prices back in the early 1800s were expensive. Because of this, much of the real estate up until that point was constructed for the well-off, i.e. those who could afford to pay a higher price for a dwelling, whether it be residential or commercial. Starting in the late 1840s, however, hordes of immigrants began arriving in the United States.  Most of them decided to live in New York City, especially on the vastly overcrowded Lower East Side. It was obvious, after a time, that the number of housing facilities available at the time of this huge influx would not be enough to keep up with the demand. The multi-family dwellings that existed before this influx were not created on such a grand scale, at least to the degree that it could satisfy the greatly increased need for housing. At some point, it was realized that money could be made if many of the poorer folk could be housed within these buildings. This proved to be a valuable business.

These landowners then, who owned land in New York City, decided that housing the working class en masse could be a monumental source of profit, i.e. if they could produce as much housing as possible on their available land and build these "tenements" as cheaply as possible. It should be noted that until 1867 there were no laws in New York that regulated such development. There were no requirements that the landowners provide their tenants with running water, gas, proper ventilation or light. The only ones who would be willing to live under such shoddy conditions would be the poor, those who toiled for low wages.

What could the immigrant do? They needed to work to earn money. They needed money to feed themselves and their family. They needed living quarters, and these tenements were most often the only type of accommodation they could afford. Thus these tenement dwellers lived in very poor conditions, often in dilapidated and unsanitary conditions. Because of this, it was not unusual for epidemics to spread within these tenements....


Photo courtesy of  the New York Public Library/Humanities and Social Sciences Library / Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy.

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