"The Lower East Side: The Tenement Problem and the Tenement Exhibit of 1900"


Reformers in New York saw in tenement housing the chief source of urban social evils-- ill health, immorality, and poverty. Owing to overcrowding, inadequate provision for clean air and water, and lack of public sanitation, dwellers in tenement blocks on the Lower East Side were ridden by tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid, and scarlet fever; rates of infant mortality there were among the highest in the western world. In such environment, criminals and paupers multiplied while immigrant families found it impossible to maintain a healthy home atmosphere.

At the turn of the century the Tenement House Committee of the New York Charity Organizational Society sponsored an Exhibition aimed at informing a concerned citizenry of these evils in the expectation that an aroused civic conscience would lead to the initiation of reforms-- revised standards of sanitation and fire protection in building codes; the addition of baths; public inspection of housing and the expropriation of "irremediably unsanitary houses." The Exhibition called also for the clearing of spaces for public parks and playgrounds.

Chief among the reformers was Lawrence Veiller (1872-1959), who campaigned his life long for such reforms, and became in 1901 the author of the New York State Tenement House Law, discussed in the articles below. As the report of Lewis R. Palmer makes clear, administration of that law, hampered by bureaucratic inefficiency and municipal corruption,was generally lax and ineffective. Crowded housing, with its attendant evils, remained a breeder of ill health and poverty.

Table of Contents