Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lillian Alling: Tenament Life in 1920s NYC

When Lillian Alling arrived on the east coast of North America in the 1920s she was part of the post-war crush of immigrants from Europe. She joined the hordes of people processed through Ellis Island seeking prosperity, a new world, or just a fresh start. Many of these newcomers would end up living in Manhatten’s Lower East Side, in what would become known as the tenements of New York.

As immigrants flowed into New York City, builders rushed to construct housing quickly and cheaply. The most cost-effective way to meet the demand for housing was to put many families in the same building. Usually made of bricks, early tenements were built side by side on narrow lots. The law defined a tenement as any house occupied by three or more families living independently and doing their own cooking on the premises. Similar to a very small apartment, a tenement flat was usually no more than two rooms with shared toilets in the hallway. One room typically served as kitchen and living space, and the other as a bedroom. Families often set up one of these rooms as a workshop as well where they laboured for long hours, sewing clothes, rolling cigars or as in the photo below, making artificial flowers for ladies’ hats.

Many of the cramped rooms lacked fresh air and light until 1901 when new laws required landlords to construct narrow airshafts between the tightly packed buildings. Strung between the tenements, clotheslines reflected the lively spirit of the poor immigrants who inhabited the neighbourhood.

The sights, sounds, and smells of many cultures blended into a dynamic and vibrant part of New York City that was composed of several neighbourhoods, notably the East Village, Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), Five Points, Little Italy and the Bowery. All these neighbourhoods were squeezed together on a section of land in lower Manhattan just fourteen miles square.

With this snapshot into the maze of the tenements of New York City, Irene’s explanation to her son Jimmy of Lillian’s arrival suddenly makes sense:

Jimmy: Where did she go? What did she do?
Irene: “I come for to be with Jozéf Nikitich!”
Jimmy: So she found him?
Irene: The address she had was “Brooklyn, USA”. It only took her a week.
Jimmy: Holy God!

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