The Causes of Conflict Between Tenement Residents and City Officials

New York City c1900


The Formation of Cities and Tenements

As the “American City” expanded its industry, people began to pour into the city. Immigrants and people from the hinterlands moved to the city looking for a better life and more opportunities. In other words, they came to work. And as more people moved into the cities, the greater the demand was for living space close to their jobs.[1] As a result, tenement buildings sprung up around the city. The owners of the tenements, in hopes of getting rich quick, built buildings cheaply and divided them in such a way to fit as many people in their buildings as possible.[2] These factors caused the tenements to have many problems. City officials attempted to rectify these problems by inciting public health and safety regulations. However, these reforms caused conflict between the tenement residents and city officials.[3] Using the book, City People, and the lectures of Virginia Steward, I will examine that, although the reforms were made with the best intentions, they were resented by the tenement residents because they did not allow the families to meet their basic needs of family income and shelter. This resentment created the conflict between the tenement residents and the city officials.

[1] Virginia Stewart, Hist 263, “Urbanization in the 19


Century,” September 16, 2010.
[2] Gunther Barth, City People (Oxford, 1980). 44.
[3] Virginia Stewart, Hist 263, “Dividing Space,” September 21, 2010

Problems with the Tenements

Tenement buildings had many problems before there were reforms made by city officials. Old residence buildings had been transformed into tenement buildings by subdividing each floor, which had been originally meant for a single family. The rooms from the subdivided floor were then rented out individually.[1] These subdivisions led to overcrowding in the tenements because multi-children families would move into the new spaces allotted.[2] The families would also find lodgers to come and share the room with them in order to have a little extra money to pay the rent. Also at this time there seemed to be an almost constant flow of new immigrants coming to the United States and subsequently the cities. As the number of people in the city increased, the number of people, especially poor immigrants, needing affordable housing increased. These new immigrants were more concerned about having shelter than the conditions of the building.[3] The owners of the tenements usually did not care about the condition of the building, and left the residents alone as long as they paid their rent on time. This problem of the owners not caring about the condition of the building and the fact that the buildings were so close together without many windows, led the buildings to be filthy, smelly, and the ideal place for disease to run rampant.[4] The buildings were also not equipped with safety features such as fire escapes or indoor running water.[5]

[1] Barth, City People. 42.
[2] Barth, City People. 43.
[3] Virginia Stewart, Hist 263, “Dividing Space,” September 21, 2010
[4] Barth, City People. 44.
[5] Virginia Stewart, Hist 263, “Dividing Space,” September 21, 2010

Russian Immigrant Home in New York City


Tenement Reforms

Many of the reforms made by city officials were created to combat the problems listed above. Cities’ public health committees first put regulations on the tenements as a measure to stop the spread of disease through the buildings and the city. Disease had become a severe problem among the immigrants. The infant mortality rate was so high that the people of the cities were taking notice and demanding something to be done. Immigrants worked throughout the city; many immigrant women worked as maids in the homes of wealthier city residents. This close contact between the city residents caused the disease, originating as a problem for the immigrants, to affect the entire city.[1] As a result of this, the Board of Public Health made the first regulations on tenements. They made ordinances that every room had to have at least one window and that every floor, eventually every room, had to have running water and toilets; the number of people allowed per square foot of space was limited as well as proximity of how close the next building could be. Some of these regulations also doubled as safety regulations. In case of fire overcrowding was an extreme liability. The buildings before reform had no fire escapes or running water, and the staircases to get up to the higher floors were made of wood. The buildings were also built so close together that there was very little ventilation into the building.[2] In some cases, if there was a fire, residents on the top floors had a better chance of survival by escaping onto the roof and running across the roofs of neighboring buildings than to try to go down the wooden staircases to the bottom floor.[3] Because of these safety hazards city officials placed more regulations on the building tenements. Every building now had to be equipped with fire escapes and stairwells were no longer made of wood. In addition during this time, the new reforms mandated children to attend school. A new type of officer was created: truancy officer. Truancy officers had the responsibility of investigating how many children should be in school, how many/who were not in school, and why they were not in school. Furthermore, they made sure that all children were attending school.[4] These reforms made by city officials were created with the best intentions for the safety and well being for all, yet they cause great conflict between the tenement residents and the city officials.

[1] Virginia Stewart, Hist 263, “Communications and Commerce,” September 23, 2010
[2] Virginia Stewart, Hist 263, “Dividing Space,” September 21, 2010
[3] Virginia Stewart, Hist 263, “Communications and Commerce,” September 23, 2010
[4] Virginia Stewart, Hist 263, “Dividing Space,” September 21, 2010

An Italian Family Waiting at Ellis Island


Response to Reforms

The new reforms made by the city official caused turmoil with tenement residents because they limited the residents’ ability to meet their basic needs. The tenement buildings had to undergo significant remodeling in order to meet the new codes. In order to have windows in every room for ventilation, the shape of the buildings were changed from rectangular shapes to dumbbell shapes. This change in shape actually made the rooms in the tenements even smaller than they had been before. Buildings had to install windows, fire escapes, toilets, and running water; all of which cost money to install. These regulations made the rooms more expensive for the tenants, and along with the new occupancy limits, families could no longer have lodgers stay with them to add extra income for the rent.[1] The reforms on truancy also limited the family economy, : an already fragile affair for many families which depended on the contribution of all members. Children were forced to go to school and as a result they were no longer able to work and contribute money or labor to their families.[2] These factors caused conflict between the city officials and the tenement residents. The residents felt threatened by the city officials because their reforms made it even more difficult for them to have shelter and provide for their families.[3] In some cases the reforms made the cost of living too high for poor families. The new reforms also limited the amount of space tenants had which was already small to begin with.[4] Finally conflict arose because the majority of the residents wanted to be left alone to survive in the city by their own means. They viewed the inspectors’ visits as too invasive. City officials were seen as the bad guys taking away the residents ability to live.[5]

[1] Virginia Stewart, Hist 263, “Dividing Space,” September 21, 2010
[2] Virginia Stewart, Hist 263, “Communications and Commerce,” September 23, 2010
[3] Virginia Stewart, Hist 263, “Dividing Space,” September 21, 2010
[4] Virginia Stewart, Hist 263, “Communications and Commerce,” September 23, 2010
[5] Virginia Stewart, Hist 263, “Dividing Space,” September 21, 2010

Two officials of the New York City Tenement House Department inspect a cluttered basement living room



In conclusion, resentment from the tenement residents of the reforms on health and safety made by the city officials caused there to be conflict between the two groups. The poor conditions and overcrowding of the tenement buildings led there to be new regulations of the buildings. These regulations, although created with the best intentions, made life difficult for the tenants because they raised the price of living while making it more difficult for the families to raise the money for their rent. This conflict between the tenement residents and city officials is an example of a similar conflict that continues today. Many people in the United States are forced to choose affordability of a home over comfort every day. Young people today often live with roommates in order to share living expenses. These people are doing what they have to do to survive. At times this includes having children work in order to add to the family income. At times city officials still seem to interrupt the lives of these people trying to get by. More reforms have been made since the time of high immigration and tenement housing. However, the reforms made then still exist today and have set a standard for the reasonable living conditions that people are expect to have available to them.

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Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 6 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Congrats on HOTD! This was an interesting hub about the tenement conflicts back in the day. Though with all of the footnotes, it's treated like a research paper and not like an ordinary hub. Maybe you could move the footnotes to the bottom of the hub and not under each text capsule for a smoother read. My two cents.

Ted 6 months ago


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