Emma Lazarus perhaps said it best in her immortal poem in which she spoke about the wave of immigrants that were welcomed to American’s golden shores. Generation upon generation of newcomers have chosen to settle in New York City and its boroughs to find their piece of the American dream. They came from every country, economic class and social strata to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, to Brooklyn and Queens, to places like Bushwick and Bensonhurst and many other neighborhoods, to start a new life in America. Between 1820 and 1860, a total of four million immigrants entered the United States, most coming through New York City.
The Early Housing Movement
Needless to say, this teeming new population needed places to live. Ghettos of tenement housing developed as the most expedient form of housing accommodation for the poor and lower middle class, and it was substandard at best, with densities that defied description. According to Richard Plunz, in “A History of Housing in New York City,” the housing design of the tenement was specifically engineered to maximize densities within the constraints of New York City’s 25-by-100-foot building lot system. “The height was five or six stories. The long tenements were commonly called railroad flats because the rooms were organized like cars on a train. Frequently older structures were converted to tenements by adding floors vertically, and by ‘back building’ or filling in the rear-yard areas with additional housing. By 1865, hundreds of Manhattan blocks had been overbuilt as tenement housing, with no standards for minimum space, light, or ventilation,” Plunz says.
This pattern of overbuilding and grossly unsanitary conditions ultimately led to social reform, legal intervention and legislative oversight of the city’s building bureaucracy. The city’s first comprehensive housing law, the Tenement House Act of 1867, marked the start of reforms bent on raising the standards of low-cost housing design. This act attempted to impose new building construction regulations to address the special problems inherent in tenement housing. Most of the upper class housing of the day was limited to three or four-story brownstones or Federal-style townhouses with all of the lavish accoutrements that a person of John Jacob Astor or William Henry Vanderbilt’s stature would expect.
A breakthrough came in 1880 with the perfection of the passenger elevator for residential use. This, among other modern inventions such as gas lighting and plumbing, was instrumental in the development of the high-rise luxury apartments we know today.
Cooperatives Come Into Existence
Cooperative housing was said to have had its start in Rennes, France, according to a legal brief written by Attorney Richard Siegler of Stroock, Stroock & Lavan and Herbert C. Levy of the National Association of Housing Cooperatives (NAHC). England, Switzerland, and Scandinavia also experimented with the concept through the early part of the nineteenth century. Several buildings have reportedly laid claim to being New York City’s first cooperative building; some of them were called ‘home clubs.’ Siegler says it was most likely The Randolph, an apartment building on West 18th Street built in 1876.