Haunting emptiness of the city’s lone tenements

The tenement is a New York invention—typically a six-story residence shoddily constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries to capitalize on a surge in population and the need for cheap yet affordable housing. (Below, 10th Avenue and 57th Street)


These “nurseries of pauperism and crime,” as reformer Jacob Riis deemed them in 1890, housed three-quarters of New York’s population in the late 1800s.


Tenements (like the one above at University Place and 13th Street) then were “packed like herrings with human beings,” wrote the city board of health in an 1873 report.


For decades, rows and rows of them filled entire blocks. Yet these days, with developers knocking down old buildings and putting up luxury apartments and offices, there seems to be an uptick in single tenements sticking out of the cityscape with nothing on either side. (Above, Tenth Avenue and 30th Street)


These tenements are ghostly remnants that look eerily out of place and abandoned, even when window curtains and lights make it clear that tenants live there. (West Street, above)

lonetenementbellowsThere’s something haunting about a tenement standing alone. Painter George Bellows realized this.

His 1909 “Lone Tenement” (at left) shows a deserted brick walkup in the shadows under the then-new Queensboro Bridge, a representation of the displaced, cast-off men warming themselves by a fire nearby.

lonetenementgrabachAnother social realist painter of the early 20th century, John R. Grabach, was also touched by the lone tenement.

His 1929 work, “The Lone House,” is a portrait of abandonment—of a tenement and people.

Some of today’s lone tenements might be next in line for the wrecking ball. Others stay up perhaps because their owners refuse to sell to developers.


TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverAnd others await development to creep in and surround them—like this tenement on East 14th Street, which stood unmoored and alone for a few years and is now encased on either side by the concrete shell of a future apartment building.

Check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, for more on the history of the New York tenement.

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8 Responses to “Haunting emptiness of the city’s lone tenements”

  1. commandhistorian Says:

    From 1944 until 1959 I lived on the top floor of a five-story tenement building in the Bushwick Section of Brooklyn. Recently I came across it on the internet where my old apartment was listed for rent at a mere $2400 per month. I believe my parents rent was less than $50 per month. Here is a recent photo of the place. http://www.zillow.com/homedetails/464-Bushwick-Ave-APT-5C-Brooklyn-NY-11206/2105347751_zpid/

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Wow! Bushwick as you know has had a renaissance of sorts, harkening back to the days when Brooklyn’s beer barons built their homes there.

    • commandhistorian Says:

      Many of the Bushwick Beer Barons are buried in elaborate mausoleums in the Cemetery of the Evergreens at the end of Bushwick Avenue. This cemetery compares favorably to the more well known historic cemeteries like Wood Lawn and Greenwood.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes, I’ve seen them there–so many of the tombstones have German surnames. The Evergreens is an underrated repository of New York history, with its firemen’s memorial and memorial to the unidentified victims of the Triangle fire.

  4. BavariasBestBeer Says:

    A small window (probably by a quick-thinking tenant) in the uppermost picture.

  5. petey Says:

    still plenty uptown: i live in an 1883, old law building. lots of these in yorkville.

  6. Joyce Says:

    I grew up on Fox St in the Bronx on the ground floor of a 6 story tenement. The coal cellar was beneath our 3 room apartment. One after another, the buildings emptied and burned down around us. We left in 1964. Rent controlled since 1945, over the years the rent rose to $33.30.

  7. Mary Finn Says:

    I lived for 27 years of my life on the third floor of a four floor walk up built a century ago. I don’t miss it. I nearly died so my landlord could move me out. Now, the new kids on the block can pay nearly 2K month, heat extra, to see the brick wall outside.

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