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)
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.
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.
And 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.