10 That Changed America Blog

You are here

The Tenement

Dan Protess

Discuss >

This “Home that Changed America” is a bit different: it’s not a single house, but a type of home that you will find in many American cities: the tenement.

There is probably no better place to learn about the history of this notorious type of housing than at the Tenement Museum on New York’s Lower East Side, where we filmed on two successive mornings with the museum's Annie Polland. The museum is housed in a former tenement, which has been partially preserved in a ruinous state, and partially furnished to look as it did in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, when immigrant families packed into its 325 square foot apartments. The dark, cramped units were not the brainchild of a particular architect, but the product of a simple equation: as immigrants flooded the nation’s urban cores, there were too many people, and not enough space. Life was often hard, but these tenements served as a kind of incubator for the American Dream, and eventually a wave of housing regulations that governed tenements would ensure that most American housing includes basic necessities like windows, indoor plumbing, and electric lighting.