The Evolution of the New York City Apartment From Tenements to Residential Palaces

The Lower East SIde Tenement Museum

When you close your eyes and imagine 'New York City,' what do you see? There are a million different 'versions' of the city to influence your imagination. There is the city you live, work and play in—the bills, your commute, and your favorite place to get a sandwich. 

There is the romantic, stylized version presented to us in movies and television shows—Carrie Bradshaw walking down Park Avenue in her Manolos. There are the gritty, dark streets that are less familiar, like 10th and Avenue C where you think you lost your favorite pair of earrings. What we think of when we imagine New York City is different for all of us, shaped by our experiences, our memories and our point of view. But one universal experience that all urbanites share is the necessity of place to rest our head. Whether your zip code is 10004 or 10128, whether you are just getting by and live in a fifth floor walk-up or you have a doorman who knows your name and you take an elevator straight to the top, we all live here. We are inhabitants of a city with a wide variety of residential experiences histories—and the actual, physical living spaces we inhabit have their histories too. 

The New York City apartment has changed, evolving every decade to fit the fluctuating market and occupants, but always existing as a metropolitan symbol and a foundation of the urban experience. 

In the 1800s, single family row houses were common but with the city’s population ever growing, and surging further after the Civil War, later in the century the city had to expand up and out, turning row houses into multiple family units. Though developers hoped to create an apartment building for multiple tenants that appealed to both the affluent citizens as well as the working class, the wealthy were resistant to abandon their private luxury for shared space of any kind, especially when they saw that most apartment buildings were poorly constructed, overcrowded and lacking in style. These were also known rather unflatteringly as a “tenement.”  

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, recounts, “Depending on how you define it, the first apartment buildings were the tenements constructed in Lower Manhattan in the 1830’s. On the outside they looked not unlike the single-family row houses built around the same time, but were simpler in their exterior and interior designs, and of course divided up into multiple, much smaller units (single family houses were sometimes converted to rooming houses, or less well-off homeowners sometimes too in boarders to make ends meet).  These apartments were often one, two, or three rooms at most, and were occupied by the city’s poor.” 

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