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April 19: The Tenement

April 18, 2016

250px-97_Orchard_Street_FrontA five-story tenement building at 97 Orchard Street on New York’s Lower East Side was given National Historic Landmark status on this date in 1997. The building now houses the Tenement Museum, which notes at its website that between its construction in 1863 and being boarded up in 1935, some 7,000 tenants from some twenty countries at that address, in twenty three-room apartments, in one of the most crowded neighborhoods in the world. “The standard bedroom, about 8.5 square feet in area, would have been completely shut off from natural light and fresh air. Despite the fact that the Croton aqueduct had provided the city with water since the 1840s, the apartments initially did not have any running water—let alone toilets, showers, or baths. The privies were located in the rear yard of the building, and it is possible that they were not connected to the sewer pipes running below Orchard. The main source of heat came from the fireplaces located in the apartment’s kitchens. However, tenants had to purchase the cooking stoves on their own.” Between 1870 to 1890, about half of those living in the building were Jews; after that, until the 1930s, virtually all the tenants were Jews. In 2007, the Tenement Museum embarrassed itself by resisting an effort by its employees to unionize.

“The building... has withstood as a monument of urban poverty in the U.S. and reflects many of the efforts of reformers that sought to alleviate the harsh conditions the poor working class were forced to endure.” —The Tenement Museum