L I T T L E   I T A L Y
N E I G H B O R S   A S S O C I A T I O N   ( L I N A )

t e n e m e n t s  (cont'd)

But the 1879 housing law, which was only loosely enforced, did little to rectify the substandard conditions prevailing in the tenements. Writing in 1885 on the "moral side of the tenement house problem," reformer Charles F. Wingate warned:

  Probably seventy-five percent of the maladies in the cities, which often pass over into the better quarters, arise from the tenement houses. Ninety percent of children born in these dens die before reaching youth . . . . There is a gradual physical degeneracy. Wasting diseases prevail. Infantile life is nipped in the bud; youth is deformed and loathsome; decrepitude comes at thirty.  

Accounts such as these, though replete with phony statistics and exaggerations, did much to draw public attention to the "scourge" of the tenements. Perhaps the most famous housing reformer of this period was Jacob Riis, whose 1890 expose, How the Other Half Lives, pushed the city to raze some of its worst slums.

The New Tenement House Law was enacted in 1901 to bring light and air into the tenements. Buildings constructed after this date are known as New Law tenements. Erected on much larger lots than used before, they are noticiably different in style from pre-Law and Old Law tenements. An apartment building at the intersection of Broome and Mulberry Streets, designed by the architects Sass and Smallheiser, is typical of low-income housing built in accordance with these standards.

A contemporaneous commentator, applauding the 1901 regulations, summarized the changes they imposed. "Perhaps most important of all," he said, "[the New Law tenement] has abolished the air shafts. In their places are inner courts at least twenty-four feet wide in the center of each building . . . . Every room in the new law tenements is light and well ventilated." He concluded: "Safety, sanitation and morality -- the three principles that were so largely left out of consideration in the erection of the old buildings -- have become with the new law the essentials of construction."

The lowly origins of the city's tenements should not obscure their virtues. Although spartan and functional in terms of their interior amenities -- at least as originally built -- many tenements are gloriously decorative from the outside. Ornate tin cornices, intricate fire escapes, and eye-catching stonework are among their characteric charms. (Some would say that this example goes overboard.)

As of the mid-1990s, some 200,000 tenement buildings remained scattered throughout New York City, with the largest concentrations found in Little Italy, Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Some of the most striking examples of the genre -- unfortunately ignored by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission -- are in Little Italy. The area's special zoning district has done much to preserve these distinctive structures, so redolent of the city's history and culture, but the recent real estate boom has resulted in the damage or destruction of a few buildings.

Anthony Jackson's A Place Called Home: A History of Low-cost Housing in Manhattan (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1976), details the saga of greed, political ambition and social activism that shaped the development of the city's tenements. A visit to the Lower East Side's Tenement Museum is also highly recommended. Only five stories tall, the building housed over ten thousand people between the years 1870 and 1915.

Other links to life in the tenements: Robert Alston Stevenson, The Poor in Summer (1902); Mary Van Kleeck, Child Labor in New York City Tenements (1908); Lawrence Veiller, The Tenement-House Exhibition of 1899 (1901); Lewis E. Palmer, The Day's Work of a "New Law" Tenement Inspector (1907).