Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Immigration, Then and Now - A History of Housing

Overcrowded, illegally partitioned apartments are as common in New York's immigrant neighborhoods today as they were back in the 19th century. The New York Times made the comparison in an article last week, opening with a description of a Mexican couple's 23 X 11 foot room in Bushwick, one of nine to twelve apartments squeezed into a five-family brownstone.

“Have you ever been to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum?” asked Javier Valdes, who visited Guadalupe’s room recently and who is deputy director of Make the Road New York, a community services group of which Guadalupe is a member. “It’s like a repeat of history. It’s just a different group of people going through it.”

The only difference? When 97 Orchard was built, housing regulations were next to nonexistent. When the first crop of tenements sprang up in the 1860s, landlords tried to cram as many working-class families into the buildings as possible. Beyond these squalid apartments, cheap housing options were limited. Some immigrants squeezed into subdivided one-family houses. Others lived in dark, airless basements, rear tenements (which sat behind streetfront buildings), or shantytowns on the fringes of the city, where Central Park is today.

The residents of 97 Orchard were lucky, because Louis Glockner, their landlord, had an incentive to keep standards high (even before NYC passed the nation's first housing law in 1867): he himself lived in the building. In 1870, 97 Orchard's apartments were relatively bright and spacious, housing, on average, no more than 3-4 people.

Then - Officials investigate a crowded tenement in 1900, several decades after housing codes are passed. Photo courtesy of the History Place.

Now - New York Times photo of an immigrant couple's 11 x 23 ft. room

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