Living Conditions In Tenements Progressive Era Essay

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 further north, leaving their low-rise masonry row houses behind. At the same time, more and more immigrants began to flow into the city, many of them fleeing famine in Ireland or revolution in Germany. Both of these groups of new arrivals concentrated themselves on the Lower East Side, moving into row houses that had been converted from single-family dwellings into multiple-apartment tenements, or into new tenement housing built specifically for that purpose.

Did You Know?

By 1900, more than 80,000 tenements had been built in New York City. They housed a population of 2.3 million people, a full two-thirds of the city's total population of around 3.4 million.

A typical tenement building had five to seven stories and occupied nearly all of the lot upon which it was built (usually 25 feet wide and 100 feet long, according to existing city regulations). 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 (unless air shafts were built directly into the room). 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.

"Lodgers in a crowded Bayard Street tenement"

Lodgers in a boarding room on New York's Bayard Street charging "five cents a spot" exemplify the overcrowded, frequently squalid living conditions that immigrants in New York City faced at the turn of the twentieth century. As documented in Jacob Riis's groundbreaking How the Other Half Lives, which mixed Riis's photography with his journalistic accounts of immigrant life, such conditions had become endemic in New York by the end of the nineteenth century. Although Riis's account was not immune from the sensationalist journalistic practices of the time, not to mention his own frequently condescending attitudes towards certain ethnic groups and the poor, How the Other Half Lives is often credited with spurring some of the much-needed urban reforms of the early twentieth century.

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Lodgers in a crowded Bayard Street tenement --

Source | Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1971, originally published 1890), 58.
Creator | Jacob Riis
Item Type | Photograph
Cite This document | Jacob Riis, “"Lodgers in a crowded Bayard Street tenement",” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed March 10, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1106.

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