The Lower East Side fascinates us. How many New Yorkers — how many Americans — can trace their family histories to that part of Manhattan? We're fascinated, and appalled, by the grinding, primitive poverty in which so many New Yorkers once lived, and worked like mad to leave. A new twist on our longstanding fascination is that some of the very tenements that once exemplified the worst living conditions in the city are now high-rent apartments in a newly chic neighborhood.
Histories of Lower East Side life abound. The architectural historian Andrew S. Dolkart's new book, "Biography of a Tenement House in New York City" (Center for American Places, 140 pages, $27.50) is, however, unique. Mr. Dolkart provides a very detailed history of a single tenement building from the 1860s, when it was built, to the present day. The building in question was not randomly selected. It is 97 Orchard Street, between Delancey and Broome streets. We now know the building as the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
The 1903 Tenement House Survey determined that the block bounded by Orchard, Delancey, Allen, and Broome streets was the most densely populated block in the city. (The block very likely was the most congested in the country.) On a little more than two acres lived 2,223 people. That computes to a density of almost 700,000 people per square mile, at a time when Manhattan had an overall density of slightly more than 80,000 per square mile. (Manhattan today is down to a little fewer than 65,000 people per square mile.) By 1903, this part of the Lower East Side overwhelmingly comprised recent Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They were part of the second of three great waves of immigration that have transformed the city. When 97 Orchard Street was built, we were still experiencing the first wave, that of Irish and Germans. (The third great wave, of Asians, Latin Americans, and others, is taking place right now.)
In the 1860s, 97 Orchard Street was in "Kleindeutschland," the German immigrant neighborhood. A tailor named Lucas Glockner built the structure, which was part of the first generation of purpose-built "tenant houses" or "tenements," the multiple-family dwellings built to serve an immigrant influx that had previously had to make do with subdivided single-family houses. Glockner built 97 Orchard when few laws regulated tenement house design. His was neither the best nor the worst its era produced. Though Croton water pipes had recently been laid under Orchard Street when no. 97 was built, the building had no indoor plumbing. But the backyard privies did flush into the sewer system.
Indeed, Glockner and his family, unlike the slumlords of lore, lived in the building. The building was, however, typically lacking the light and air that tenement design laws — the "old law" of 1879 and the "new law" of 1901 — required.
For many years, garment factories operated in the 325-square-foot apartments of 97 Orchard Street. Mr. Dolkart explains that many New Yorkers feared that clothing produced in tenement apartments would carry germs spreading disease to other parts of the city.
The Lower East Side turned over its population very rapidly, so that relatively few people endured its dismal conditions for very long before climbing the economic ladder. But the population remained constant in number because for each immigrant that moved out, another moved in. That is, until 1924, when federal legislation put an effective end to the era of mass immigration into America. From that point, as people moved out of the Lower East Side, no new residents moved in. As the Lower East Side lost population, so did Manhattan. By 1930 Brooklyn was for the first time the most populous borough. Mr. Dolkart writes that in 1925 half the apartments in 97 Orchard Street were empty. Declining rent rolls meant landlords like Moishe Helpern (who owned 97 Orchard at this time) felt they could no longer afford to comply with the constructional mandates of further tenement reform legislation, and closed their buildings. From 1935 to 1988, 97 Orchard stood empty.
Mr. Dolkart's final chapter details how the Lower East Side Tenement Museum came to be, how it "restored" 97 Orchard, and the extraordinary efforts made to research the lives of the building's onetime residents, including tracking down those who were still alive.
Mr. Dolkart is without peer among New York's architectural researchers, and it shows in this book's meticulous scholarship. The writing is clear, the illustrations are superb, and well placed within the text. The book is an invaluable addition to Lower East Side and New York City studies.