The thriving city that never sleeps, New York City, was not always as bright, welcoming, or enchanting as it is now. In fact, New York's most popular destination has undergone many changes throughout the centuries, much of which has helped to shape the city it is now. New York City was once considered to be America's 'melting pot,' with immigrants from all over the world meeting in one place for the first time to try and start a new life. America was once a shining beacon of hope to the rest of the world and when a ticket was purchased for passage to a new life, people once thought of the words, 'hope,' 'freedom,' and 'future.'


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With crowds escaping their own countries in search of a better life and cities such as New York becoming increasingly populated week by week, problems also arose with the influx of people. In a short amount of time, more immigrants flooded New York City than the city was really equipped to handle which meant shortages of just about everything became a major issue. Housing, specifically, was something that needed to be remedied, as groups of people would have ended up on the streets were it not for the implementation of tenement housing. However, this also led to its own problems on what is now the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The Rise Of Tenement-Bourne Issues

By the 1900s, it's estimated that roughly 2.3 million people were living in tenement buildings. In short, this was approximately two-thirds of the total population of New York, crammed into spaces that often had poor lighting, was cramped and led to people essentially living on top of one another with no personal space, and no indoor plumbing, which meant hygiene was also a major concern at the time. The apartments were narrow and low-rise and were built to support the growing number of people who fled to New York City, and ended up becoming the downfall of immigration, as well, until tenement reformations, later on, forced into action by riots, transformed the city and did away with the poor living conditions.

It's common sense that many people leaving too close to one another in conditions that are less than hygienic can easily lead to the transmission of disease and other sicknesses. This was one of the major problems with tenements - while they continued being built, diseases were left to ravage through each building, with tenants unable to do much but deal with the consequences of poor living conditions. It's estimated that over 80,000 tenement buildings had been constructed by 1900 alone, and each one had no more than seven stories, taking up all the space on the lot it was constructed on. The lots themselves would normally be around 25 feet wide by 100 feet long which, as one can imagine, left very little space to do much of anything. When the tenements were first built, they were intended to be single-family apartments and as the need increased for more living space, apartments would be added on, taking up backyard space and being added to the roofs of buildings.

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With this rapid form of building, tenements began facing other issues: They were entirely unsafe for those living in them. The interior apartments had little or no ventilation, as air filters needed to be built into the apartments prior to them being open for people to live in. The apartments on the streets had ventilation but only because they had windows - an amenity which the interior apartments sorely lacked. This also led to a lack of light, which meant that candles and any other form of fire-powered light source were necessary in order to see after the sun went down. This brought on hazards in itself, such as fires, in which an entire tenement building could go up in flames due to its cheap construction and minimal if any, safety regulations.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was the first wake-up call for those living in tenements and those cities responsible for building them. This forced restrictions on wooden frame construction and also encouraged cities to begin building living spaces on the outskirts of the city, forcing people to spread out and, by extension, encouraging housing in multiple areas rather than just those that surrounded their workplaces in the middle of the city. After the cholera epidemic in 1849, which was responsible for taking the lives of 5,000 people, a major turning point happened: the New York draft riots. These riots, which were against new military conscription but also against poor living conditions, forced the Tenement House Act of 1867, changing the way people lived in New York City from there on out.

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