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History Repeats Itself : Inspect & Protect Your Tenement


An unusable bathroom at 159 Suydam Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Credit: Jake Naughton for The New York Times.

Relics in our present often spark an intriguing interest to look back into our past. This is the framework that makes 97 Orchard Street such a compelling place to visit. Known today as the Tenement Museum, this repository of memories of New York’s humble past was the home to nearly 7,000 working class immigrants. Dated back to the early 19th century these tenement buildings were not just buildings five to six stories high but they were buildings associated with poverty, overcrowding and working-class families.  Before building codes and housing laws existed, these buildings were burdened with a lack of  lighting, central heating, running water or indoor plumbing. The poorest corners of New York City became infected with a housing crisis unimaginable to those who live in apartments today. These severe living conditions would eventually lead to reform as the city could no longer avoid the indisputable proof.

Today, the stigmas of “tenement buildings” are almost non-existent and the word is synonymous with “multiple family dwellings.”  However from time to time reminders of our past rears their ugly heads.  80-years later, we still find remnants of a past full of deprivation and despair.  A report by the New York Times confirms these issues and conditions still exist today. “Landlord Bribed Inspectors in Ruse to Evict Tenants, Prosecutors Say” by journalist Mireya Navaorrofeb reveals the proof; the life of the early tenements lives on in contemporary New York City.  The article focuses on a four-story tenement building located in Bushwhick, Brooklyn, NY. The instantaneous correlation separated by 80-years is alarming as tenants relive the many stories and lives that are also shared by former tenants that lived at 97 Orchard Street.  As New York City urban working-class neighborhoods transition, others lose sight and overlook the housing laws that were placed to protect the tenants in the first place.

Frank Campasano, the landlord at 159 Suydam Street, forces his tenants to endure living conditions that reflect early tenement housing in the Lower East Side. His determination to evict his tenants has lead to repulsive living conditions.  Ms. Navaorrofeb states, “The city’s housing website shows more than 50 open violations against the building for leaks, lead-paint hazards, lack of cold water, bedbugs and other problems.” These consequences are in result of bribery linking two New York City inspectors, who were paid off to look the other way. This corruption left the tenants at 159 Suydam to fend for themselves without the support of the laws placed to protect them.  Tenant Frank Cruz is forced to live in a windowless room. In the 19th century LES, many tenement rooms were also windowless, until the Tenement Housing Act of 1901 required landlords to install windows on every room to provide better ventilation and airflow. Ms. Navaorrofeb continues to explain the extreme conditions of 159 Suydam, “Some men who share an apartment with seven rooms on the first floor had no workable bathroom. A turkey roaster on the floor of their living room collected water leaking from a sizable hole in the ceiling”.

The resemblance between the past and present is frightening as tenants are forced to shower in a communal bathroom four flights up. In the midst of this ordeal, just as the original tenants at 97 Orchard Street, those at 159 Sudyam still consider these inhumane living conditions, home. The tenants of 97 Orchard Street most likely continued to live in substandard conditions due to a complex combination of new immigrant insecurity in speaking a new language, finding and working in new industries, and creating stable financial situations. We compare the past to the present and we can only imagine these same reasons affect tenants today.

To better understand the history of housing conditions and laws, visit the Tenement Museum on Friday, March 6 to take on the role of a housing inspector in 1906. The assignment: investigate 97 Orchard Street to see if the building is up to code, and interview actors portraying the building’s landlord and tenant to get both sides of the story. Find out if 97 Orchard was in compliance, and delve into the broader questions of social justice and housing.

–Posted by Krysta O’Pharrow, Evening Events Assistant