In books, Tenements are always depicted as these terrible, unhealthy houses packed with immigrants in the slum. In this article, we’ll be discussing if this is fact or fiction. But first, let’s discuss what they actually are.
Tenement houses were first created in the 1840’s to house the wave of immigrants that were coming here to find work, escape famine or for religious freedom. They were five to six stories high, housing four apartments on each floor.
They represented the Urban working class until the New Deal, where tenement became worse than it had been before. By the 1900’s, more than 80,000 tenements had been built in New York City. They held about 2.3 million people, housing 2/3rds of the City’s population (3.4 million people) within their closed walls.
Tenement buildings were built 25 feet wide and 100 feet long to live within the regulations of the city. With less than a foot between each apartment, little light or air could get into the tenement buildings, leaving them practically blind and suffocating besides with candle light and vents. Though, ventilation was a problem by itself; the interior rooms often had no vents at all within their walls. Though, if that wasn’t bad enough, it only got worse as speculators rebuilt the slums, using cheaper materials and making it overall highly unsafe.
These buildings didn’t only exist within New York City; They ran rampant in Chicago as well after the Great Fire of 1871’s wood restrictions forced them to rebuild many buildings. Though, while New York’s tenement buildings were highly concentrated in areas of the ‘slums’ or unemployment, Chicago’s buildings were all around high work areas like factories or within the city itself. Though despite the tenement buildings being everywhere, no situation became as bad as New York’s situation with the Tenement buildings on the lower east side.
A rather large and rampant Cholera outbreak killed 5,000 people, most who were all within the tenement building in overcrowded areas. Riots broke out over the living standards, and an infamous book came out, by Jacob Riis, about tenement living to lead to a larger upgrade.
Jacob Riis’ book, ‘How the Other Half Lives’, inspired many others to take to the streets and demand a better regulation towards how tenement houses were built and the code around it. This book was released in the 1890’s, leading to the Tenement House Act passed in 1906. Even with this done, the reform movement continued, aiming for better regulations. Fact or fiction? From what we’ve seen, I’d say it’s a fact.