I had previously written that I enjoy learning the social contexts of older buildings, things that open a window into the past. Sometimes I get a little bit of a time-traveling chill from just looking at antique photographs, because of this time-window phenomenon. Walking through older streets can have this same effect on me, if I understand how people lived at the time the buildings were new. This museum, this tour of two recreated apartments in an 1863 tenement building, provided this in spades.
The apartments in this building had been empty since 1935, when the city made some changes to the housing code that the landlord couldn't meet. The first-floor storefronts were kept open, though, so the building was somewhat protected. There had been several changes over the years to the building, to meet changing codes for light and electricity and plumbing. The Tenement museum is restoring apartments to recreate the apartments as they were at different eras, researching the families that lived in those apartments. One of the big stories of the museum is that when they started to renovate the building, a woman came by whose family had been evicted from the building in 1935, when she was a child. So they grabbed her and made her a resource and restored her family's apartment to what it was in the 1930s. That apartment was one on my tour.
The museum's web site has virtual tours of the apartments, but of course this doesn't compare to an actual visit.
Here are some assorted things I learned, things that opened up the past:
At the time this tenement was built, there was a tremendous housing shortage in New York City, Families were living in tents, sometimes several families in one tent. Although originally the tenements were just three empty rooms, with no heat or electricity or plumbing or gas lights -- and you had to provide your own stove -- this was a big improvement over what came previously for most of the residents. In the tenement, you could close your door and the space was yours, even if it was three tiny sweltering smelly rooms for your whole family plus boarders.
In the late 19th century, the area surrounding this building was probably the mostly densely populated square mile on the planet, with the possible exception of Calcutta.
What happened, by my understanding, is the subway came in, which made it possible for people to live in areas that were not walking distance of where they worked. In terms of walking, the Lower East Side is supremely convenient. Once people could live elsewhere, the landlords of the Lower East Side had to start making improvements to keep tenants ("improvement" like electricity and flush toilets -- communal, most likely), although of course there were always people for whom the crowded awful tenement buildings were the only option.
People got out of the tenements as soon as they could afford to, and there was a lot of turnover. In just over 70 years, over 7000 tenants lived in this building.
The housing codes that caused the building to be boarded up were, of course, intended to improve the living conditions of the city's poor. Unfortunately, in the mid-thirties many landlords couldn't afford to meet the codes -- the boarding up of this building was not at all unusual -- so this resulted in many evictions. In 1935 only half the apartments in the building were occupied. The code that caused the building to be boarded up was not something like heat or plumbing, as I had imagined, but a law that an apartment building couldn't have a wooden staircase. The old dry wood of the staircase really is a tremendous fire hazard, in the middle shaft of the building, but it would be pretty expensive to replace.
It seems as though the Lower East Side is in the midst of a big revival. Certainly there was much new construction going on in the neighborhood, of fancy apartments. As I say, this is actually an extremely convenient location for anybody who works in Manhattan. And the main streets, without their pushcarts, are big and wide and sunny.
You should check out the virtual tour on the web site, and you should probably check out the museum itself.