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Tenement Housing: 10+ Photos Show the Tragic Lives of New York City’s Immigrants in the 1800s

Photo Credit: Jacob A. Riis / Museum of the City of New York / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Jacob A. Riis / Museum of the City of New York / Getty Images

In 1870, 21-year-old Jacob Riis boarded a small boat from his hometown of Copenhagen, Denmark to Glasgow, Scotland. On May 18, he boarded the steamer Iowa with nothing but $40 donated by friends, his necessary immigration paperwork, and a gold locket with a stand of hair from his now lost love Elisabeth – whom he was forced to leave behind in search of a better life in America. Little did Riis know, he would come to capture the horrific lives of immigrants and impoverished families living in tenement housing and slums across New York with his camera.

Immigrants traveled to New York for a fresh start in terrible conditions

A photo of the tenement slums of New York City shows laundry on clothes lines
Laundry drying on clotheslines in the backyards of New York City tenement slums, circa 1900. (Photo Credit: FPG / Getty Images)

On June 5, Riis arrived in New York and became one of the 12 million people who immigrated to the United States between 1870 and 1900. What he likely saw while walking the streets of New York City for the first time was a stark contrast between the wealthy upper class and the cramped, filthy, and overcrowded dwellings of the Lower East Side.

People in the busy streets of New York's Lower East Side
The Lower East Side of New York City, circa 1900. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

In the 1880s, over 300,000 people were crammed into a single square mile of the Lower East Side, making it the most densely populated place on the planet. Most of them lived in tenement apartments, in buildings that were in shambles with no indoor plumbing or proper ventilation. They were typically breeding grounds for disease and crime.

Shacks and run down buildings in one of New York's tenement slums
An aerial view of the slums and tenement buildings in New York City, circa 1895. (Photo Credit: Archive Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

By 1900, 2.3 million people – roughly two-thirds of New York City’s population – were living in these tenement apartments. Many of the photos you see here were taken by Riis, who shed light on New York’s financial disparity when many preferred to keep it in the dark.

The rise of tenements

A row of tenement housing
Hundreds of immigrant families do garment work for a living in tenement houses like this one on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, 1912.  (Photo Credit: Lewis Wickes Hine / Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG / Getty Images)

Following the end of the American Civil War, a large influx of people moved into urban areas like New York City. Soon after, European immigrants began to arrive, fleeing disparity, famine, and war. At the same time, New York’s wealthier residents began to move north, out of the Lower East Side and into the Upper East Side – which is still regarded as one of the most lavish districts in Manhattan.

A woman in a cluttered and dirty tenement apartment
A woman sitting by the stove in the squalor of a tenement building in New York City, 1905. (Photo Credit: Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

Mainly Irish and German immigrants arrived first, moving into converted row houses in the Lower East Side that took single-family homes and made them into multiple apartments known as tenements. Tenement buildings typically had five to seven stories. The apartments inside were small and the majority of them had no windows, natural light, or ventilation.

Newly constructed tenements also began to pop up throughout New York, typically made hastily with cheap materials. By 1900, more than 80,000 tenements had been built, housing roughly two-thirds of the entire city.

Haunting images of tenement life

A little girl lays on a bench in a run down tenement
A child slumped over in a dilapidated tenement apartment on the Lower East Side of New York City, 1896. (Photo Credit: Museum of the City of New York / Byron Collection / Getty Images)

Many tenement residents lived in squalor. Families with many children were often allowed only one room, which was roughly 325 square feet. Legislation enacted in 1867 required that there be one privy or toilet per 20 people in tenements, and buildings typically only had one water tap in the backyard that provided every resident with the water they needed to bathe, cook, and do laundry. Infant death rates were as high as 1 in 10, and a lack of sanitation often meant diseases like cholera spread quickly.

A woman with her baby in a tenement room
An Italian immigrant rag-picker sits with her baby in a run-down tenement room in New York City, 1887. (Photo Credit: Jacob A. Riis / Museum of the City of New York / Getty  Images)
A woman knits while in her tiny New York tenement apartment
Mrs. Benoit, a Native American widow, sews and beads while smoking a pipe in her Hudson Street apartment, New York City, 1897. (Photo Credit: Jacob A. Riis / Museum of the City of New York / Getty Images)

By the early 19th century, the industrial revolution was in full swing. Thanks to an influx of cheap immigrant labor, new businesses boomed throughout New York City. Steamboats allowed raw materials to be easily transported into the city, where shipyards, tanneries, refineries, and publishers all began to pop up. By 1825, New York’s garment industry was also incredibly lucrative. Many tenement buildings included labor stations and served as places where people worked and lived.

An entire family in a cramped tenement apartment
Immigrants in a Bayard Street tenement, New York City, 1888. (Photo Credit: Jacob A. Riis / Museum of the City of New York / Getty Images)
A worker sits in a messy tenement apartment
A man living at Mulberry Bend in the Five Points neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, a notorious slum, circa 1897.  (Photo Credit: Jacob Riis / Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

Workers, which often included children, labored long hours in one of the factories for low wages. If a family couldn’t afford to pay the $10 a month rent in the tenements, they’d be forced to take up residence in one of the nearby shantytowns made up of makeshift shelters and shacks.

Orphaned children were especially vulnerable and often ended up living on the streets. Orphanages were overcrowded since many parents opted to place their children in someone else’s care until they could afford to look after them.

Men sleeping on the floor of a run down room
Men sleep on the floor of a New York homeless shelter, 1886. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)
A large family in a New York tenements building
A family living in a tenement apartment, circa 1910. (Photo Credit: Jacob Riis / Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

‘How the other half lives’

A homeless man sleeps on a plank balanced between two barrels
A homeless man in a Manhattan slum sleeps in the corner of a cellar, circa 1886. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Jacob Riis, the Danish immigrant, eventually worked his way up and found a job as a crime reporter for local evening publications. His job put him directly in the heart of New York’s grimy Lower East Side, where gangs ran rampant and poverty was around every corner. He began to capture what he saw on camera. As someone who had experienced similar hardships, Riis knew that what was happening to residents in the tenements at the hands of landlords was criminal.

Young children play marbles in the back of a building
Children play with marbles in the alleyway of one of New York’s tenements. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)
Men and women work in a textile manufacturer tenement operation
Men and women make neckties inside a tenement on Division Street, New York City, circa 1890. (Photo Credit: Jacob A. Riis / Museum of the City of New York / Getty Images)

Hoping to draw attention to the deplorable living conditions in the Lower East Side, Riis started researching and writing a book. Published in 1890, Riis’ book How The Other Half Lives included his magnetizing and haunting photos of life in the slums of New York. His work likely inspired two major studies released in the 1890s.

By 1901, city officials passed the Tenement House Law which outlawed the construction of new tenements built on the typical tiny 25-foot lots. The law also mandated improved sanitation, fire escapes, and access to light and ventilation. City authorities also began supervising new tenement buildings under construction to ensure the law was being followed – even by greedy landlords looking to cut corners.

Children help their mother made artificial flowers by hand
Young children help their mother to assemble artificial flowers in the New York tenement district. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)
Gang members pose for a photo underneath a pier
Members of the Short Tail Gang sit underneath a pier in the Corlears Hook area of the Lower East Side, circa 1890. (Photo Credit: Corbis / Getty Images)

Reforming public housing and gutting tenement buildings

A family with young children asleep on a tenements fire escape
A family spends a hot night sleeping on the fire escape of their tenement building in New York City, 1918. (Photo Credit: Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

By the 1920s, subsidized affordable housing initiatives became more commonplace and the tenement system was ultimately abolished. New York City’s first fully government-built public housing project, called First Homes, opened in 1936, and many of the original tenement buildings were gutted and rebuilt to accommodate a higher standard of living.

Three children sleep huddled against a wooden barrel in the street
Three homeless children sleep on the stairs of one of New York’s slums, 1890. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)
An old man sits next to a makeshift sleeping area
An Italian immigrant man smokes a pipe in his makeshift home under the Rivington Street Dump, New York City, circa 1890. (Photo Credit: Jacob A. Riis / Museum of the City of New York / Getty Images)

More from us: 8 Facts About The Twin Towers That Changed New York City’s Skyline

Today, many of the original tenement buildings are gone. But one, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, continues to educate the public about what life was like for early immigrants. Reflecting on these once horrific living spaces is a reminder of how far we have come. It’s also a reminder that many people continue to experience homelessness and poverty even in some of Manhattan’s most glamorous boroughs.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast