As a new transplant to New York City, the hardest part of moving was finding a place to live. For most people relocating to the city, the criterion usually consists of general accessibility to public transportation as well as proximity to work. However, something we do not question when we look at apartments is if it has an indoor bathroom or running water. If an apartment search yields a place without a bathroom inside the unit itself, majority of people would turn their backs and move on to the next listing. While quite possible to find a bathtub in an apartment in New York City, it is probable that majority of prospective tenants would scoff at the listing. The process can often leave us feeling as if we are in foreign country even if only miles away from our hometowns. If you are unfamiliar with the city’s neighborhoods, Greenwich Village, the East Village, Upper West Side, and the Lower East Side might mean nothing to you. The apartment that you end up with may not be the glamorous New York City apartments seen on television, but you can be sure that they have clean running water and toilets that flush.
While it can feel foreign for someone in their own country looking for an apartment in New York City, imagine how foreign and incomprehensible it was for immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century who had just stepped off a ship from another country with little knowledge of the city they had just relocated to . It was no small feat to find a residence that was livable and affordable. Unlike my apartment search which yielded in running water, a private bathroom and kitchen amenities such as a refrigerator and stove, majority of immigrants who ended up in New York City would just be happy with a bedroom. Immigrant populations that ended up in the Greenwich Village population in the mid nineteenth century into the early twentieth century ended up living in less than desirable conditions. An apartment with running water would be a great amenities and the idea of having a personal bathroom in one’s apartment was unheard of for the rent they could afford. Finding a place to live in a crowded foreign city was problematic.
The South Village, which resides on the outskirts of Greenwich Village, was majorly composed of working class families and many of these working class people had immigrated over to the United States and stayed in New York City upon arrival. The majority of Immigrants were Italian but an 1865 sanitary inspection report lists Irish and Germans as other dominant immigrant communities existing in Greenwich Village. Along with immigrants were free African Americans who were migrants from southern states and saw the worst in housing in the south village in the nineteenth and twentieth century. This area of Greenwich Village was quite diverse as America saw an influx of immigrants. All of these people making their way to the city needed a place to live. For some, Greenwich Village was the answer.
Today, many structures from the nineteenth and twentieth century that housed these immigrant communities still exist in the village. From traditional tenement buildings that rise four to six stories high to the row houses that are prominent in Greenwich Village, there are various examples of immigrant city dwellings in the nineteenth and twentieth century in New York City. You can find tenement buildings that immigrants lived in on McDougal Street where structures are predominately brick. With an influx of immigrants and need for more housing the city the row houses that Greenwich Village is famous for were converted to tightly packed multi-family tenement buildings in the mid 1800’s. Row houses like this can be found in streets in the village such as Sullivan, Bleecker and West Houston Street. When you walk through Greenwich Village today, you cannot miss these dwellings which many newcomers to New York City called home.
Living conditions were sub-par at the best, especially for those living in the late nineteenth century during a time where housing codes allowed ten to twenty families to reside in overcrowded buildings. Oftentimes these buildings were cheaper to rent because they lacked amenities, were small in size, and congested. These buildings lacked running water and you guessed it, toilets. Chamber pots or outhouses outdoors would have to do. Living in a tenement apartment was not only cramped but sometimes stifling, especially in the warmer months. Each apartment had one window leaving one room to reap the benefits of natural light and fresh air. Although, that air would not be so fresh in a time before public garbage pick-ups were available. Given that Greenwich Villagers were mostly working class some people may have had the ability to contract out a private company to pick up their trash. If you did not have the money, on the street your trash went with everybody else’s. For many immigrants and the working class, New York City living was not a luxury. Living in the city was a struggle to survive.
Having a roof over one’s head was much more important that our modern standards for apartments today. The late 1870’s saw a slight change in tenement buildings when laws were enacted to make the buildings safer. However, tenement building owners broke the law or still offered cheaply constructed buildings with little to no amenities. Landlords exploited immigrants who knew no other option and were working with a language barrier. Being a newcomer to New York City as an immigrant in the nineteenth and twentieth century was difficult. The move often started in financial struggle and sub-par housing conditions. Needless to say, those apartment hunts that yield a shower in the bathroom do not sound so bad after all.
The South Village: A Proposal for Historic District Designation, The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, 2006.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation was founded in 1980 to preserve the architectural heritage and cultural history of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. GVSHP is a leader in protecting the sense of place and human scale that define the Village’s unique community.