Posts Tagged ‘tenements in New York City’

Haunting emptiness of the city’s lone tenements

October 17, 2016

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.

Faded outlines of long-gone Manhattan buildings

January 12, 2015

Ghostbuildingwest30sSigns for long-departed stores, retaining walls no longer in use, trolley tracks peeking out from asphalt streets: New York’s past leaves its imprint everywhere.

The sides of buildings give us glimpses of the city’s history too. The faded outlines of tenements and other buildings long gone often remain, at least until new construction comes along and obscures them again.

On a lonely block in the far West 30s is this classic city walkup, with a roof on a slant–a modest place to make a home in what was once a modest neighborhood.


Hebrew Union College put up this building in 1979, at Mercer and West 4th Streets, almost covering the two chimneys from the building that previously occupied the spot. A tenement perhaps?


Considering the pace of construction in a luxury-building crazed New York, these remains of a 43rd Street walkup might already be sealed out of view.


Same with this former home—maybe a brownstone?—on 86th Street, on a stately block near Fifth Avenue.


Also in the far West 30s near the Javits Center is this outline of a humble tenement on the side of another humble tenement, the people who once lived and worked there and their stories lost to the ages.

More faded building outlines—dormer windows too!—can be seen here.

A teenager leads the great rent strike of 1907

June 21, 2014

Paulinenewman2By 1907, 16-year-old Pauline Newman (left) had been in New York City for six years.

Her widowed mother moved Pauline and her sisters from Lithuania to Madison Street on the Lower East Side in 1901, into a tenement with no bathroom or windows.

A few years later, Pauline began sewing shirtwaists in a factory—the Triangle Waist Company, actually, though this was three years before the deadly fire there.

Active in the growing labor movement and a future leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, Pauline was frustrated with the working and living conditions around her.

Tenement life was rough. And then, in fall 1907, landlords called for a rent hike—without making the buildings any more liveable.

RentstrikeLOCJan1908So in December, she helped organize a rent strike, enlisting 400 other “working girls” who supported themselves on factory wages, to try to persuade other families to join with them and demand an 18-20 percent rent decrease.

“From 1905 to 1907, the average rent had increased 33 percent,” wrote Susan Campbell Bartoletti in Kids on Strike! “The cost of a two-room apartment had risen from fifteen dollars to twenty.”

On December 28, having convinced 10,000 households to withhold rent, the strike began.

Rent wasn’t paid, building code violations were tallied and reported, kids burned an effigy of a landlord (below photo) and The New York Times dubbed Pauline the “East Side Joan of Arc.”

RentstrikeleskidseffigyLandlords fought back by shutting off water and ordering evictions, wrote the Times.

Some landlords agreed to reduce rents somewhat, but evicted tenants got no sympathy from the NYPD chief, who reportedly said, “If you don’t like your rents, get out.”

In early January, both sides claimed victory. “The rent strike resulted in reduced rents for approximately two thousand families,” wrote Bartoletti.


“[The strikers and their supporters] lobbied for rent to be capped at 30 percent of a worker’s income. But rent control was difficult to win; it took over twenty years for the passage of rent control laws.”

Laws we’re still debating today.

[Second photo: LOC; fourth photo: from The New York Times archive, a 1919 rent strike in Harlem inspired by Pauline’s efforts]

Manhattan’s lonely little holdout buildings

May 31, 2014

These walkups were once the sought-after modern buildings of the block.

Now, they’re the holdouts—sometimes well-kept, often shabby reminders of an earlier New York that refuse to bow to the wrecking ball.


Without these low-rise survivors, many more city streets would be a boring canyon of uniform buildings.

The two tenement holdouts in the top photo, on West 36th Street, have had their side exteriors raked over by developers. Yet these 19th century stalwarts refuse to go.


Nestled between two limestone apartment houses is this Upper Fifth Avenue beauty, holding its own across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


On Eighth Avenue at 39th Street is this blue former townhouse, now a commercial building. It makes the block resemble a gap-tooth smile.


This three-story sliver on lower Seventh Avenue in Chelsea is a bit of a mystery. It’s architecturally the same as the building next door, which houses the Rubin Museum.

Yet it’s painted the same color as the former Loehmann’s store on the other side, being renovated into Barneys once again.

Check out more holdout buildings here, and of course, the most famous of all the holdouts—the one in the middle of Macy’s.

Fancy flats—or low-rent tenement apartments?

February 22, 2011

In the late 19th century, could you class up a typical city tenement building by calling it a flat?

Looks like some developers thought so.

“French flats”—distinguished from tenement houses by modern luxuries such as parlors, dining rooms, servants’ rooms, and indoor plumbing—caught on in the city after 1870.

But considering that neither Williamsburg nor the East Village were upper-class neighborhoods, I doubt the residents who ended up in the Havemayer Flats, on Havemayer Street, or the Mascot Flats, at 6th Street near Avenue D, had servants.

Mascot Flats has an interesting recent history. Abandoned and then torn apart by thieves and drug addicts by the early 1980s, it was renovated in 1986 with help from Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity.

Check out photos of the pre-renovated interior here. A 1990 documentary, The Rebuilding of Mascot Flats, chronicles its rebirth.

When tenements were named for U.S. presidents

December 1, 2010

I wonder if New Yorkers respected their presidents more around the turn of the 20th century, when all of these residences went up.

Or perhaps developers gave their buildings presidential monikers because they were all constructed in poor neighborhoods.

Maybe having the name of a leader above the front entrance lent a low-rent tenement a more aspirational air.

Whatever the reason, there sure are a lot of presidentially named buildings. Lincoln (on West 51st Street) is understandable, and Roosevelt (East 14th Street) was New York’s former governor.

But McKinley’s (East Village) connection to New York? I’m not aware of one. His may be a sympathy choice; he was assassinated in 1901, right around when the building named for him appeared.

The beautiful tenement of West 51st Street

April 12, 2010

“Beautiful” and “tenement” don’t generally go together; tenements were intended to be cheap housing for the masses, and for the most part, developers didn’t care much for aesthetics.

But sometimes you come across one with incredible ornamental details, like this five-story walkup in Hell’s Kitchen—the twin of a similarly detailed tenement next door.

Above and below the windows are swirls of terra cotta leaves, flowers, birds, and angels.

It’s a lush and lively facade. The developer must have wanted his building to stand out, and it does.

Health care for poor New Yorkers, 1890s-style

February 1, 2010

Medical care in the city’s poorest slums was pretty nonexistent in the late 1890s. So social reformer Lillian Wald—founder of the Henry Street Settlement and namesake of a housing project on Avenue D—established a visiting nurses service.

Her Nurses’ Settlement eventually had a staff of about 100 blue-uniformed nurses who went from tenement to tenement offering free or low-cost check-ups and treatment, mostly for immigrant mothers and kids. 

Rather than climbing all those tenement stairs on their rounds, the nurses simply hopped from rooftop to rooftop, like this nurse is doing here.

Why are tenements mainly named after girls?

June 29, 2009

Or maybe the question should be why unremarkable five- and six-story apartment buildings have names at all. Sometimes you see one with a male name, but mainly they’re named after women.

I guess it was a way for the builders to honor their wives, mothers, and daughters. I wonder who Henrietta was, and why her name graces this tenement on Madison Street:


The Bertha, with this lovely flower motif, is in Harlem:


Here’s more on the women who gave their names to New York City buildings.