Lower East Side Tenements — Then and Now

Starting in the early 1880s, thousands of immigrants arriving monthly in the Lower East Side desperately needed immediate housing. Willing landlords took advantage of every inch of space, and built tenements as multifamily housing for the poor.

A typical tenement building had five or six stories with four apartments on each floor, making the landlords rich but leaving little room for comfort for the apartment dwellers. As many as ten people were crowded together in small, dim, airless apartments. The buildings adjoined one another, allowing for only two windows, facing either the front or rear. Many inner apartments were left with no natural light or fresh air. In addition, an entire floor would share one toilet.

Numerous laws were passed to try to improve the tenements' design and bring about better living conditions.

The owner of 97 Orchard Street (1863), unwilling to comply with new regulations, shut down the apartments, leaving only the lower floors open for commercial space. This building was taken over by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and guests to the museum today can see what a tenement from 1863 looked like.

The tenement building standing at 60 Hester Street (Ernest Flagg, architect -- built in 1901) won a citation because it offered apartments that would significantly improve living conditions for immigrants in the Lower East Side. Since the building did not cover the entire lot, it left space on either side of the building for much needed light and air. The building also had twent-eight toilets for fifty apartments, a very high ratio for that period.

Sixty Hester Street still exists today as a tenement building and is fully occupied. There are now 38 units, with each apartment having its own bathroom.

Many old time Lower East Side residents feel threatened by new housing in the neighborhood for which the rent is over two thousand dollars a month. Sixty Hester Street does not offer the amenities of new buildings, but as is the case with other old tenement buildings in the area, people are happy to live with a rent that they can afford.

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