18 May 2010

Learning from New York – The Tenement Building

New York City marks the last of the three major cities in which I have lived thus far. This is home to perhaps the richest and most complex history of housing I have yet explored. Manhattan alone is home to a vast array of housing types and lifestyle options. The Tenement building symbolizes the way housing developed from early immigrant times through the adaptive reuse of many of these historic structures today.

A typical Tenement facade

The island of Manhattan has represented a roller coaster of real estate development since immigrants first started flocking to this land through the present day. The relatively small footprint of this land in comparison with the overwhelming density of people wanting to live on this prime real estate has created, throughout history, a dynamic of skyrocketing price points and plunging quality of spaces.

One of the earliest examples of this phenomenon is the Tenement Building. This architectural style first began appearing in the 1850’s – long before housing standards or enforcement procedures were established in the United States. These buildings evolved as a result of landlords making efforts to maximize their rents by increasing the density of their properties – often at the sake of human comfort and sanity. In an effort to accommodate the maximum number of people in the smallest amount of space, many necessities of healthy living became obsolete. These buildings sprang up in areas of the lower east side of Manhattan and were occupied by a tidal surge of working and lower class immigrant families, arriving in America in search of a better life.

The Tenement Building can be loosely defined as a structure of five stories, built on a plot measuring twenty-five by one hundred feet in area. Often as much as ninety percent of this plot was occupied with built structure, leaving little space for outdoor comfort, air circulation, or lighting. Often, only rooms facing the street offered windows, and back lots became filled with waste and debris. At the earliest inception of these structures, there were no regulations in place to require plumbing, electric, or fire prevention or escape, and as a result the earliest tenants of these buildings often went without all of these seemingly essential components of design.

A typical 'dumbbell - shaped' Tenement floor plan

Many hazards were associated with these designs, the dominating factor being fire hazard, but also including disease and health issues. As it became increasingly apparent that these living conditions were unsuitable for human society, regulations began to pass, laws were put in place, and eventually a regulatory system was established to improve conditions in Manhattan and throughout the United States. The culmination of these movements became the Tenement Act of 1901 – the first governance of its kind. This sent minimum size requirement, required indoor bathrooms and plumbing, and most importantly established the Tenement Housing Department to enforce these mandates.

This history of housing in New York City is as rich and storied as any aspect of America’s largest urban metropolis. It is a city that draws flocks of new residents each year, and must continually adapt to meet the needs of this ever-expanding population. As the urban structure of New York grows and expands, it adapts to a society that is increasingly aware of healthy living standards. Manhattan continues to set standards for density of living, and thanks to acts and reinforcements like the Tenement Act of 1901, is able to do so in positive and adaptive ways.

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