In the decades surrounding the end of the nineteenth century, immigrants came to the U.S. not only with limited language skills, but also with limited education and money. Many of them entered the country in New York City and settled into the tenement districts of the city's Lower East Side.
At the end of the 1860s, the population of New York City had more than quadrupled, and almost HALF of its residents lived within tenements -- low rent buildings that barely met city housing standards. With such a large influx of immigrants, the city's tenement districts were not prepared to support the stress of its new population and living standards began to falter.
In the summer before 1870, the German-Jewish couple of Julius and Nathalie Gunperz married and moved into the tenement building at 97 Orchard Street, now the site of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. A typical tenement residence, the building consisted of four apartments on five floors reached by an unlit, wooden staircase built through the center of the structure. There were no toilets, no showers, and no baths. Families, like the Gunperzes, had to exit the building to use privies, or outhouses, and to access the single-faucet water supply in the backyard.
It was the standard for families to live with at least thirteen people in their small three-room apartments. While there were regulations limiting occupation to five people, the lack of housing inspectors made it easy for families to accommodate more. For many, officials and immigrants alike, packing people into such tiny places was a good response to New York's housing crisis. However, the concentration of population within areas with poor sanitary conditions (i.e. outhouses located near the water supply) almost devastated the tenement districts with domestic pestilence and infectious disease. Children growing up in tenements had only a 60% chance of survival. Nathalie and Julius's one son died of dysentery when he was only fifteen months old.
Drastic living conditions also created serious personal difficulties. After having lost his business during the depression in the 1870s, Julius Gunperz had to hold four jobs to support his wife and family. On October 4, 1874, however, Julius never came home. While the mystery surrounding Julius's disappearance is still unknown, it was very common at the time for husbands to desert their wives and families. In fact, local papers soon started to publish columns like, "The Gallery of Missing Husbands", which would print the names and photos of men who had allegedly abandoned their families. Papers also encouraged abandoned wives to write letters to their husbands to describe their plight. Suicide Halls, where destitute tenement residents could go to share their agonies and end their lives, also began to emerge.
As a result of the deteriorating conditions in New York's tenement district, the Tenement Act of 1901 outlawed the construction of new tenements in meager twenty-five foot wide lots, and required access to lights and improvements to hazardous sanitary conditions. More powerful than previous laws, the Act of 1901 mandated changes to preexisting conditions in old tenement houses. Building owners at the time did not take well to the new law, as it required very expensive measures for improvement. Many tenement buildings were forced to close down. In fact, almost twenty years later, 97 Orchard Street was closed, after its owner could not afford to fireproof the building in accordance with the most recent housing codes.
If darkness, rancid smells, poor health, suicide, and abandonment marked the lives of overcrowded immigrant families living on the Lower East Side, how did people survive? How could they face such struggle and move on?
Well, the truth of it is, many immigrants to New York were escaping persecution in their own countries. The majority of immigrants at the time were Germans fleeing their political revolution and Irish escaping the potato famine. They left unbearably oppressive conditions and maintained hope in the freedom of "the promised land". Many were grateful for the little freedom and limited possibilities they had, so they challenged the barriers of illiteracy, language, and poverty in pursuit of a better future for their children and future generations.
While tenement life meant hardship, immigrant families developed talents for survival. After her husband left her and forced her to create a source of income for her children, Nathalie bought a sewing machine on credit and began to run a dress mending business out of her tiny living room.
Living in such tight quarters then forced families to be innovative with their lifestyles. It was common for families to stack boxes next to one another for beds or to have four people sleeping on one sofa, half of their body supported by chairs placed at the sofa base. Families would find jobs at all hours of the day and night so that they could sleep in shifts . It was also typical for families to share a building with immigrants from twenty different nationalities, all living together peacefully. The creation of community within buildings like 97 Orchard Street is a testament to the solidarity tenement residents used to create a space for the growth of their children at the doorstep of an entirely new world.
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