Last week I visited the Tenement Museum whilst in New York City. I joined the ‘Hard Times’ tour which examined the lives of two families living in a tenement house between 1863 and 1935. The tour began in the communal areas which took us through the entrance, the hallway and the shared toilets. The lack of natural light and ventilation was striking and even though we were only a group of about ten, the space felt claustrophobic. It was difficult to imagine the spaces at rush hour on a day-to-day basis. I also noted the stark difference in shade between a restored wall and a wall left “as was”. The former was a cream layer of paint that even boasted a beautiful landscape painting embedded within the wall surface. The latter was a black canvas, covered in dust and smoke particulates after years of candle lit journeys through the hallways both in the day and at night.

We were then taken around “apartments” on the second floor. These, I was told, often held four families or more and were comprised of three rooms each, with each room measuring roughly 3 x 3 metres. The threat to public health and safety was clear, particularly the central room that served as a kitchen, dining room, washroom and bathroom. The enclosed space in which both culinary and body cleansing activities took place was a recipe for illness and disease contractions. In addition, it was easy to imagine the fire hazards present during that time such as clothes drying above the stove.


The central room that served as a kitchen, doing room, washroom and bathroom as described above (1)

Contemporary Urban Planning by John M. Levy (2) states the first regulation pertaining to tenement housing was enacted in 1867, after which a number of additional legislations followed. Examples of retrofitting could be seen in the house such as doors that connected one apartment’s bedroom to that of another to provide fire escape routes and thus comply with fire regulations enacted at the time. The literature cited above also explains how the city’s 1901 Tenement House Act was considered a ‘landmark’ legislation that changed the face of tenement housing conditions.


The door on the far left of the image connects this apartment to the apartment adjacent to it. This was a retrofit implemented by the landlord to comply with fire regulations (3)

The tenement house demonstrates the struggle some families faced in terms of achieving basic standards of living before and during the Great Depression. It is worth noting, however, that although tenement houses are a feature of the past, urban planning still has a long way to go in NYC due to the city’s densely packed nature. In fact, Contemporary Urban Planning by Levy states that New York City is ‘the most densely developed city in the United States’ (4). This is particularly the case in poorer neighbourhoods where population density and building overcrowding is prevalent and poses a significant threat to health and safety.


  1. Image Source:
  2. Levy, John M. Contemporary Urban Planning. 2014. Page 34.
  3. Image Source:
  4. Levy, John M. Contemporary Urban Planning. 2014. Page 150.