American xenophobia and the roots of the housing crisis

Harris Fine Block, Broome and Orchard Streets, New York (1898 and 1901).
Hornberger & Straub, architects. These facades are typical of many immigrant-built
tenements of this period. Recently rehabilitated, they command high rents
 in an increasingly desirable neighborhood. Photograph by Sean Litchfield.

Lecturer, Parsons/The New School of Design

As I was finishing the final manuscript for The Decorated Tenement over the course of 2016-17, the nation was once again thrust into the depths of a culture war that in so many ways resembled the story I was telling about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The elements were there: xenophobia that dissolved into calls for a sharp curtailment of immigration; a widespread public debate on what it means to be an American; vocal anti-urbanism despite the growth of cities; and all of this in a time of heightened economic disparity. But in some ways the past was not like the present. During the Gilded Age the housing question, indeed the thrust of the housing reform movement, was not about quantity or even affordability (at least in New York and Boston, where I focused my research); in fact, the Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century was at many times a renter’s market, with vacancy rates and competition among landlords that would be the envy of any current-day, rent-burdened New York City tenant.

The Decorated Tenement demonstrates that the old American xenophobia is deeply intertwined with the roots of the new American housing crisis. My story focuses on a widespread, but little understood, culture of erecting radically improved “decorated” tenements in the Lower East Side and the North End and West End of Boston between about 1880 and 1910. This construction was carried out almost exclusively by recent immigrant builders (primarily Germans, Eastern European Jews, and Italians) who built buildings designed by immigrant architects. In an era when the needs and desires of the immigrant working class were routinely disdained or ignored, these buildings represented a vast physical, technological, and aesthetic advancement over the iconic slums that they replaced—even if they did not meet middle-class expectations (or subsequent ideals).

Yet if the increasingly vocal proponents of housing reform in this period even perceived the substantial social and material improvements represented by these buildings, they dismissed them as cheap shams or a distasteful sign of misplaced priorities. Whatever their other motivations in advocating the reform of housing conditions, many viewed the tenement as simply un-American: a foreign invasion, an evil that civic-minded elites were called upon to restrict by leveraging their cultural, political, managerial, and spiritual prowess. Most considered the eventual elimination of the tenement in favor of a cottage in the suburbs to be the highest social good. Many saw multi-family housing as a treacherous deviation from a divinely inspired social order. William B. Patterson, a leader in the Methodist Episcopal church, was perhaps the most unabashed, suggesting with rhetorical flourish that the biblical murderer and city builder Cain himself was the originator of the tenement. Patterson plainly articulated an idea commonly held by many American Protestants: “The tenement is an impediment to God’s plan for the home.” No matter how decent, safe, or commodious such a building could be made, he insisted, “this basic fact will remain.”

Elaborate parlor of a Mulberry Street tenement, pictured circa 1905.
From Lewis E. Palmer, “The Day’s Work of a ‘New Law’ Tenement Inspector,”
Charities and the Commons 17 (October 6, 1906): 85.
Courtesy of Harvard College Library. 

The permanence and intentionality of the new, immigrant-built decorated tenements seemed to embody the elite fear that highly visible signs of social, cultural, and economic difference were now an immutable feature of American urban life. In these buildings tenants had a whole host of things that many in the working class never had access to before: a kitchen with a range, a boiler, and a sink with running water and sewer connection; a dumbwaiter easing the vertical lugging of goods and fuel; a flush toilet, albeit likely down the hall and shared with a number of other families; a separate parlor, wallpapered, with folding blinds, a faux-marble mantel, and fancy lambrequins, even if the room was rented out at night or doubled as a bedroom; gas lighting; maybe a dining room; a marble lobby with colored glass, painted frescoes, and tile floors; all in a building whose facade employed widely understood visual symbols of respect and propriety.

Reformers critiqued these buildings harshly. Many framed their denouncement with ethnic stereotypes, often with explicit racism and anti-Semitism. “For the old absentee landlord, who did not know what mischief was afoot,” reformer Jacob Riis noted in 1902, “we have got the speculative builder, who does know, but does not care, so long as he gets his pound of flesh.” Earlier Riis had called the Jewish tenement builders of the Lower East Side “intruders,” nefarious outsiders impervious to criticism and insults. Riis was particularly blunt about the spiritual dimensions of his war against the tenement and its creators. “It is the devil’s job,” he declared of tenement building, “and you will have to pay his dues in the end, depend on it.” These characterizations served to bolster the reformers’ claims of superior knowledge and moral standing, reinforcing their claims to greater control over the working-class landscape.

Just as many immigration restrictionists in this period called for a curtailment of European immigration as a way to preserve an American identity, many housing reformers advocated for and succeeded, by the 1920s, in constructing a regulatory structure that led to a sharp decline in the private construction of affordable housing. Nothing like it has happened in the American city since. Soon a severe but essentially permanent housing crisis developed, which even public housing and rent regulation were ultimately inadequate to address. The demonization of the tenement also provided fodder for proponents of the mid-twentieth-century urban renewal schemes that led to the destruction of wide swaths of these neighborhoods. In many ways we still live with this legacy. Despite the thousands of decorated tenements still extant and occupied — at increasingly high rents — we can see the roots of the present housing crisis in the conflict over their construction.


Zachary J. Violette is author of The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age. Violette is preservation consultant and lecturer at Parsons/The New School of Design.

“A rich array of unique historical insights into market-driven design, urban building and financing practices, and the consumer desires and aesthetic preferences of immigrant renters grasping for modernity in America.”
—Donna Gabaccia, University of Toronto

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