Lower East Side, ca. 1890s. Department of Street Cleaning Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

We are a nation of immigrants. Whether our ancestors arrived on exploring vessels, slave ships, crowded steamboats from Europe and Asia or illegally from everywhere, most came seeking the American Dream. But while they searched for it, many endured racism, discrimination, and exploitation in schools, the workplace and housing.

Interior rooms of an Old Law apartment, n.d. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

When they walked off their ships, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children stayed in New York and had to live in apartments—that were cramped, dark and impossibly small —in buildings that were decaying firetraps, with substandard or broken plumbing and conditions not fit for a human being.

Much that they found on the Lower East Side and northward is documented in records, government agency reports and graphic photos in the City’s Municipal Archives and Library. These include Jacob Riis’ ground-breaking book, How the Other Half Lives, and details about the nefarious “Lung Block,” the subject of a Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) exhibition running thru August 2019.

It is a classic tale of exploitation, greedy owners and developers and battles in Albany and City Hall between real estate interests and people striving for better lives.

First Report of the Tenement House Department of the City of New York, 1903. NYC Municipal Library.

The Municipal Library held a copy of Riis’ book, published in 1890, which noted in chilling detail and sickening photos the conditions of Manhattan’s tenement houses. Buildings that once housed comfortable dwellings were cut up and added onto to accommodate the newly arrived immigrants who swelled the city’s population, eventually quadrupling it from 125,000 in 1820 to just under one million by 1870.

To meet the need for quick, cheap housing, Riis reported that the properties “fell into the hands of real estate agents and boarding house keepers… and in the old garden where the stolid Dutch burgher grew his tulips or early cabbages, a rear house was built, generally of wood, two stories high at first. Presently it was carried up another story, and another. Where two families had lived ten moved in.”

More than 20 years after the Tenement House Act of 1867, Riis described such horrendous conditions—crowded and dangerous buildings that incubated cholera, malaria and tuberculosis—it resulted in a public outcry and led to an investigation by the Tenement House Committee. The Tenement House Act of 1901, which echoed Riis’ findings and called for reforms, led to the creation of New York City’s Tenement House Department, which issued annual and biennial reports from 1902 through 1937—all of which are housed in the Municipal Library.

Wooden stairs of Old Law Tenement, destroyed by fatal fire, n.d. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

Prior to 1867, tenements known as “Pre-Law” buildings had few strict requirements. The Act of 1867 brought the first “Old Law,” buildings which required fire escapes—most shoddily built. Subsequent “Old Law” buildings, erected between 1879 and 1901, required slender air shafts for ventilation. Buildings erected after 1901 were considered “New Law” buildings and had stricter requirements.

Still, in its 1902 report, the Tenement House Department noted that “tenement conditions have been found to be so bad as to be indescribable in print,” including “vile privies… cellars full of rubbish… garbage and decomposing fecal matter… dilapidated and dangerous stairs… dangerous old fire traps without fire escapes (and) disease-breeding rags… The cleansing of the Augean Stables was a small task compared to the cleansing of New York’s 82 tenement houses, occupied by nearly three millions of people.”

Outdated building design, shabby construction and greed-fueled attempts to squeeze as many people as possible into the tenements spurred the transformation of the old one- and two-story Knickerbocker dwellings with a large backyard on a 90-foot lot, to cut-up tenements—often housing a 10-member family in a single apartment—then to dark and dank to rear tenement “caves” with a small yard between the front and back building.

“If we take the death rate of children as a test, the rear tenement houses show themselves to be veritable slaughterhouses,” the report to the Legislature found. “The unfortunate tenants live virtually in a cage.”

The evolution of tenement design, from Pre-Law to Old Law to New Law, an illustration from the Tenement House Commission Report of 1895. NYC Municipal Library.

What followed was known as the “packing box” tenement with almost no ventilation, and a tiny yard, a design Riis described as “a hopeless back-to-back type, which meant there was no ventilation and could be none.” He noted that allowed “stenches from horribly foul cellars” to “poison” tenants living on the fifth floor.

Next came the double-decker” with a small air shaft. The state report called the double-decker “an evil which is peculiarly our own” and “the one hopeless form of tenement construction.” Though a slight improvement on the packing box, “the double-decker cannot be well-ventilated; it cannot be well-lit; it’s not safe in case of fire.”

The final iteration was the Dumb-Bell building, which had larger shafts along the sides in the middle, which gave the floor plan the look of that piece of weightlifting equipment.

Despite the new law, the Tenement Department, in its first heavily documented and illustrated report for 1902 and 1903 noted that “some of the conditions found in these buildings surpasses the imagination. It does not seem possible that human beings actually live under them and still retain the least vestige of health.”

First Report of the Tenement House Department of the City of New York, 1903. NYC Municipal Library.

The new department reported that in the first two years its employees made 337,246 inspections, filed 55,055 violations and made more than 21,000 repairs. It said that 16,768 families—or 83,840 people were now housed in new or upgraded buildings.

Shared toilet in tenement building, n.d. Credit Cosmo-Sileo. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

It also breathlessly reported—perhaps too optimistically—that “the evil of prostitution has been practically abolished in tenement houses.” The report said all previously “dark” and “unventilated” rooms were now well-lit and ventilated and height and depth limits were set for all new buildings.

Among the first areas the new department targeted was the predominantly Italian “Lung Block,” bounded by Hamilton, Catherine, Cherry and Markets Sts. The 1907 and 1908 Tenement Department report noted that the block had the highest death rate of any block in the city; claiming there were 58 tenement houses in the 45-acre block with 829 families consisting of 4,145 people.

The reports of 1912-1914 noted the gradual elimination of many “Old Law” buildings but noted that some owners circumvented height requirements and limits on the number of allowable apartments by putting a store on the first floor that also contained apartments in the back.

Rear apartment rooms of a store at 193 Manhattan Avenue, 1935. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

State lawmakers, apparently at the behest of owners and real estate interests, made periodic efforts to water down the law. The Department noted various schemes that included failing to file paperwork, making misleading and inaccurate claims and trying to grandfather in some dangerous buildings. In its 1915 and 1916 report, the Department said legislators passed various laws in “attempts to destroy” the “Department’s efficiency,” but Mayor John Mitchell vetoed them.

Rents continued to rise, and the Department noted that budget cuts and fewer inspections as part of a “do nothing policy” from 1918 through 1929 gave owners “no incentive to do anything” to improve rapidly deteriorating properties and deteriorated.

Family at kitchen table in a dumb-bell “New Law” tenement, ca. 1935. Note the angled kitchen window onto an air shaft. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

In 1927, the State Legislature declared the Tenement House Law had “outlived its usefulness” and replaced it with the Multiple Dwelling Law. Around that time, as the Tenement House Department saw its effectiveness slipping away, the Fred W. French Company began buying and emptying buildings in the old Lung Block and used federal funds to erect the “affordable” Knickerbocker Village in what is now Chinatown.

Part of his argument, as quoted in the Lung Block Exhibit, was that poor people had no reason to live in Manhattan and should be replaced with “a certain class” of middle-class and more affluent people (aka gentrifiers) who were “wasting their time” commuting to work from the suburbs or other parts of the city.

Knickerbocker Village, Catherine and Monroe Streets, 1937. WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection, Neg. 529. NYC Municipal Archives.

In 1933, French declared: “Another class of people, who live there now, and who need not live there… would thus make room for those tortured men and women who have suffered in the subways.”

Three hundred and seventy-nine Lung Block area families wanted to relocate to the “affordable” Knickerbocker Village, but only three could afford the rents.