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Tenement Housing

A tenement is a substandard home for multiple families in the urban core. They’re old and occupy the poor.

File:Yard of a tenement at Park Ave. LOC det.4a28182.jpg

Exactly when the first tenement appeared isn’t known. Some historians have dated it back to the 1830s, others to the 1840s, but it’s clear that by the 1860s tenements—that is, buildings that were specifically built to house large numbers of poor families in the same structure with very few amenities—begin to appear in large numbers.

Photo of 97 Orchard Street, now the Tenement Museum,
from the early 1940s. City of New York Municipal Archives

In the first half of the 19th century, many of the more affluent residents of New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood began to move further north, leaving their low-rise masonry row houses behind. At the same time, more and more immigrants began to flow into the city, many of them fleeing famine in Ireland or revolution in Germany. Both of these groups of new arrivals concentrated themselves on the Lower East Side, moving into row houses that had been converted from single-family dwellings into multiple-apartment tenements, or into new tenement housing built specifically for that purpose.

A typical tenement building had five to seven stories and occupied nearly all of the lot upon which it was built (usually 25 feet wide and 100 feet long, according to existing city regulations). Many tenements began as single-family dwellings, and many older structures were converted into tenements by adding floors on top or by building more space in rear-yard areas. With less than a foot of space between buildings, little air and light could get in. In many tenements, only the rooms on the street got any light, and the interior rooms had no ventilation (unless air shafts were built directly into the room). Later, speculators began building new tenements, often using cheap materials and construction shortcuts. Even new, this kind of housing was at best uncomfortable and at worst highly unsafe.

An illustration of an outdoor toilet in the 1903 annual report of the Tenement House Department of the City of New York, which advocated for water-closets on each floor.

An illustration of an outdoor toilet in the 1903 annual report of the Tenement House Department of the City of New York, which advocated “for water-closets on each floor.”
Andrew Dolkart Collection

The earliest tenements were built on the 25-foot-wide lots that were laid out as part of the New York grid, so it was on a lot that had been planned to house a single family. Suddenly you had 20 or 22 families living in a custom-built building.

By 1900, more than 80,000 tenements had been built in New York City. They housed a population of 2.3 million people, a full two-thirds of the city’s total population of around 3.4 million.

Tenements in Berlin, Germany

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-69536-0010, Berlin, Marienstraße, Wohnhaus, Altbau.jpg

Berlin was known as the largest tenement city in the world. They were built between 1860 and 1914, when population was increasing. These building are usually at least 5 stories high, if not more. Blocks were large because the streets were required to be able to handle a lot of weight, required also to have courtyards large enough for firetrucks to be able to turn around, the buildings have front, rear and cross building enclosing the courtyard.

The buildings were laid out with their rooms reached with a generalcorridor, which even the Berlin Architects’ Association recognized was unhealthy and detrimental to family life. Sanitation was a problem and in 1962 only 15% of the apartments had a toilet and a bath or shower, 19% had a toilet,  and 66% shared staircase toilets.


This is a bathroom staircase in 1925. The girl is standing at a sink and the door behind her is the toilet. This was common up until the 1900s.

I would find living in tenement housing difficult in terms of privacy because there would constantly be people around you and to find space to be alone would be difficult. It would be depressing and crowded with hardly any light let in.

Worbs, Dietrich. “The Berlin Mietskaserne and Its Reforms,” Berlin/New York, pp. 144–57

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