Posted by: history591seventeen | June 9, 2010

Lower East Side/Tenement Housing

On our east side walking tour today we saw Mulberry Street, where tenements houses once stood and where writer/photographer Jacob Riis helped get them torn down and replaced by a much needed park. 

Riis understood the need for open space that these families living in tenement housing would not have had any other way.  We also walked past a Jewish cemetery that is actually located within Chinatown, and that information serves to remind us that the culture of a neighbor can change over time, which is absolutely the case in New York, and our guide explained to us that this occurred all over the place.

Ed, our guide, also showed us many examples of prime property.  There was one building he showed us that actually wrapped around another building, allowing another building to be built on the store front and corner site.

Lastly, we went to the Tenement Museum, which showed three different apartments that actual families lived in between 1890-1910.  I must say I was surprised by the amount of room there was in each apartment.  I know that may sound funny, knowing that each apartment was only 325 sq ft; but in the photos I have seen, taken by social reformists like Jacob Riis, I always felt the space was even smaller, which I know was truly his intention.  I plan to use much of what we saw today to teach about tenement housing, needs and space.  I think I will tape off an area of 325sq ft in my classroom and then allow student groups to set up house, after they have worked as a group to brain storm ideas about what they would need and want in their 1900 time-period apartment.  It will be interesting to see if everything they think they need would fit.  We can then look at some of the photos from the different books I picked up today.  There are so many discussions we can have; we can discuss everything the tenement people had in their homes and then we can compare what students now have in their homes; we can talk about why different items were found in the tenements and why other items were not, just to name a few ideas.



  1. Wouldn’t it be cool to do this activity by making the list prior to marking the space both for a 1900s era home and a home today. Then mark the space out to get it all to fit. They would see how our possessions have increased with our standard of living. That could lead to a discussion of need vs. wants.

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