The poorest New Yorkers lived in these shacks

By the end of the 19th century, two-thirds of New Yorkers lived in dark, crowded tenement houses—the city’s answer to the housing needs of the working-class and poor.

As bad as some tenements could be, they may have been a step up from the shacks that some city residents called home until the turn of the century and even beyond.

Some of these broken-down dwellings were crammed behind newer tenements downtown, others were patched together with scraps of wood and other materials and located in uptown areas that were transitioning from farmland to part of the urban city.

Jacob Riis took the first photos in this post. Riis was the journalist turned social crusader who wrote How the Other Half Lives in 1890.

He took the top photo in 1872, of what he called a “den of death,” for the Board of Health. It was at Mulberry Bend, part of the infamous Five Points neighborhood.

In 1896, he took the second photo, a shack in an unnamed neighborhood. All we know is that is was part of a shantytown with new tenements rising eerily beside it.

The third image is another dwelling in this shantytown, with a family posing amid what looks like laundry lines.

Riis took the photo, as well as the fourth shot, from 1890, of a rundown home between Mercer and Greene Streets in what would not be a choice neighborhood at the time.

Madison Avenue and 77th Street is pretty luxe these days. In 1891, a man named Blind Tom Foley lived in this shack there with his family.

In 1910, Amsterdam Avenue had its hardscrabble sections, as this photo of a group of shacks there shows.

The final photo was taken in 1894 and gives us Fifth Avenue at 101st Street. Not far from where Andrew Carnegie’s massive mansion would rise, New Yorkers lived in these hovels, the riches of the Gilded Age no where in sight.

[Photos: Museum of the City of New York digital collection: (1) 90.13.4.35; (2) 90.13.4.307; (3) 90.13.2.228; (4) 90.13.4.79; (5) New-York Historical Society; (6) MCNY: X2010.11.14370; (7) MCNY: X2010.11.4959]

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19 Responses to “The poorest New Yorkers lived in these shacks”

  1. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Stark contrast.

  2. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    No matter how NYC has evolved people would still be fighting for places like that. And I’m sure greedy landlords have a price in mind.

  3. Tom B Says:

    Was this the beginning of gentrification? Comparing different times in NYC is all relative. Is there squaller any where like that now in the 5 boroughs?

    • Stan Solomon Says:

      First: it’s “squalor”, NOT “squaller”.

      More importantly: Exactly WHERE in the 5 boroughs are you finding squalor?
      WHERE are tumbling-down wooden hovels?
      WHERE are dirty penniless children begging for a hand-out??
      WHERE is there chronic unemployment???

      Even in the trouble-plagued NYCHA projects the living conditions are no way as dreadful as the living conditions shown above…and there are many agencies dedicated to helping the less-fortunate.

      NYC may have its always-present income-inequality, but it is NOT like the Favelas of so many third-world countries.

      • Tom B Says:

        Stan, I’m just asking the question about squalor, not making a statement. Not being a resident my references would be ‘on location movie scenes’, i.e. Midnight Cowboy & Ft Apache, the Bronx. Didn’t know about NYCHA. I guess being homeless is the ultimate squalor.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’ve never seen anything like this in the contemporary city. But as you say Tom B, it’s all relative. City housing today is definitely better than a shack, but the conditions aren’t ideal. Mold, leaks, no heat . . . NYCHA has a lot to work on, from what I’ve been reading recently.

    • Zoé Says:

      I understand your point Tom. Perhaps now this sort of poverty is hidden inside of sturdier buildings. Or outside for those who can no longer afford an apartment due to astronomical prices & gentrification; hence are forced to sleep on park benches in summer or in shelters in winter. And who can forget the many shacks in Tompkins Square which were torn down which caused the riot only about 30 years ago.

      My husband & I were without heat one whole winter on the LES in the early 80s. The broken boiler in the tenement was so old it was made of cast iron. The old wooden window frames had over the years pulled away from the plastered brick walls so there were gaps for the wind to sail through. The wide pine floors were made of the wooden shipping boxes that came into the harbor downtown. We had giant water bugs that you couldn’t get rid of because they lived in the pipes. And rats & mice because people threw their trash out the window & there was a burnt out building next door. (I kept them out of my own apartment by stuffing steel wool in the walls around the pipes & plastering).

      Only a few blocks away on the other side of Houston there were some empty lots w/ a small wooden shack in the middle just like the ones in these photos.

      So for those people made homeless by increasing gentrification & who sleep in alleys & doorways & on park benches – I believe you’re right Tom – that it’s “relative”.

  4. Dymoon Says:

    you post the amazing photos.. of years gone by. I so look forward to your posts.

  5. petey Says:

    to think, just 100 years ago …

  6. polarflares Says:

    wow, great photos, I look forward to your posts in my reader. I can see the similarities in other big cities like Paris and San Francisco where fire was a number one fear and lack of plumbing led to disease. Housing is still a problem here in Anchorage where people has settled in the woods of the urban parks. I can’t help but admire people who build their own shelter even if it is hazardous and I do love the look of the old wooden houses but safety rules.

  7. Zoé Says:

    Thank you for these astonishing photos Ephemeral.

    What’s surreal is the brick buildings behind or surrounding them in some of these photos.

    When I lived on Stanton Street on the LES there were some nearby empty lots (forget which streets) & in the middle was a wooden shack that looked like some of these. This was in 1989. Perhaps someone else may recall this & have more detail. There were dog fights & cock fights in the neighbourhood which may have had something to do w/ this shack. (Just a guess on my part).

    The first photo here was used by the art director/set designer for the Scorsese film Gangs of New York; referring to Five Points. If you don’t remember it; they did a great job of recreating it.

  8. Mark Says:

    Just for accuracy’s sake: the last two photos are taken at the same spot (look at the building at the far right in both photos).

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Oh, good eye—the caption had the second to last photo at Amsterdam Avenue and the last one on Fifth and 101st.

  9. David H Lippman Says:

    It’s staggering to look at these photographs and realize that today, some of the city’s most expensive real estate properties now stand on these sites.

    These buildings were not old even by the standards of the time — they were slapped together as basic housing for the unbelievably poor, at a time when there were no stacks of housing codes and housing code enforcement inspectors. The latrine was a communal outhouse, water came from a nearby hydrant, and I guess the cooking was done with a spit and an open flame, if at all.

    The folks who lived in these houses all worked, and I mean ALL worked. Kids, too. Nobody went to school. The biggest reason you had a lot of kids was that the more kids in the house, the more money they could bring in, even in the face of diseases that ran through these neighborhoods killing everybody in sight.

    It was a horrible existence. It was the “Gilded Age.”

    • Zoé Says:

      Vividly described David. Good point about the construction. Another reason people had a lot of children was because they often did not make it to age five. (And also no birth control). (Shhh about “The Gilded Age”. Just hold a handkerchief over your nose when you remember it).

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