The Cost of Apartment Living In New York In 1892
New York has always had a wide range of housing choices. But the gulf in living conditions between rich and the poor remains vast. If you have a lot of money, your housing choices are unlimited. If not, you are hard pressed to find anything decent. As Kansas gunslinger and New York journalist Bat Masterson observed in his final column, “Everybody gets the same amount of ice — the rich get theirs in the summer and the poor get theirs in the winter.”
Over time when it comes to housing a lot of things have changed, others have not. In 1892 living conditions for the very poor in New York were abysmal. Maybe not as bad as they are now, but pretty close. The majority of New Yorker’s were not living in poverty, but were just plain working people at various income levels; some struggling to survive and in many cases raise a family.
Which brings us to the question about living in New York in 1892 – just what sort of housing did you get for your money?
The fabulous King’s Handbook of New York City, (1892), delves into everything related to New York, including home life, and answers the question.
One chapter in the book devotes itself to the types of housing available in New York.
The mansions, high class homes, bachelor apartments, middle income flats, boarding houses, tenements and lodging houses are all covered.
The most surprising thing is that you could live in a relatively decent neighborhood with room and board for about $10 per week. Realize of course that an unskilled laborer might barely earn that amount of money and paying room and board put them at the the precipice of poverty. For those people it typically meant finding lodging at a $2 per week boarding house.
The wealthy, professional and merchant classes could afford to choose their housing according to taste and preferences with a good deal of flexibility. The middle class also had choices which varied widely. So when you read about what you got for your money at $50 or more per month, you cannot help but feel envy for Gotham’s dwellers of the past. You come away with the feeling that New York was a much more affordable city 123 years ago. The prices quoted may have you looking for a time machine.
From King’s Handbook, a selection from the section on housing:
Now you cannot buy even an old house in a decent neighborhood, in the city proper, for less than $10,000, and a single ordinary lot is worth more than that, even without a house on it. The majority of the single private residences are worth from $25,000 to $50,000 each.
Below $25,000 there is not much to be found of a desirable character, and in good neighborhoods. Above $50,000 in value come the houses of the millionaires, occupying several city lots, splendid examples of architecture, and decorated and furnished at lavish expense. A list of these homes of the wealthy would number several hundred that might reasonably be called palaces. Rents are high, even for ordinary houses. It is possible to rent as low as $600 or $800, but either the house will be old and without modern improvements, or the locality objectionable. For a tolerably decent house in the heart of the city from $1,000 to $2,000 must be paid; and the figure must be increased to $3,000 and upwards if something desirable is sought. The West Side above 59th Street has within a few years developed into the most agreeable residence-quarter. Rents there are a trifle lower than farther down-town, while the houses are in every way more attractive architecturally, and more modern and convenient in arrangement. In all respects this section of the metropolis might justly be taken as an example of the perfection of attainment in the contemporaneous home-life of a great city. In the country annexed district across the Harlem, values and rentals are at a lower figure, because municipal improvements have not yet wholly reached there.
Apartment Houses it has been said, hold more than half of the middle-class population of Manhattan Island. Real estate is so valuable and consequently rents so high that to occupy a house is quite beyond the reach of a family of ordinary means, and the suburbs on account of their inaccessibility are out of the question.
Consequently apartments and flats have become a necessity, and a system of living, originally adopted for that reason, has now become very much of a virtue. Apartment-life is popular and to a certain extent fashionable. Even society countenances it, and a brownstone front is no longer indispensable to at least moderate social standing. And as for wealthy folk who are not in society, they are taking more and more to apartments. There is a great difference in apartments. You can get one as low as $300 a year, or you can pay as high as $7,000 or even more annually ; in the former case you will be the occupant of a flat, but below that rental figure the flats degenerate rapidly into tenements. But even the low-priced flats have much to commend. They have generally five or six small rooms with private hall, bath-room, kitchen-range, freight-elevator for groceries, etc., janitor’s service, gas chandeliers, very fair woodwork and wall-paper and often steam-heat.
Between $25 and $50 a month rental the difference is chiefly in location, in number of rooms and minor details of finish. A small family with refined tastes and no social ambitions can have an agreeable home of this kind for $50, or possibly $40 a month, the latter figure in Harlem. There are in such flats many comforts that are lacking in houses in the suburbs, and the drawbacks are only contracted quarters, impossibility of privacy, and the chance of annoyance from other tenants. Above $50 a month the apartment may be of seven, eight or nine rooms, handsomely finished, and with much luxurious show in the way of tiled floors, marble wainscot in the public halls, carved over-mantels, stained glass and other fine appointments. In houses where the apartments rent for from $50 upward there are uniformed hall-boys at the public entrance, and when you reach the $1,000 a year figure there will be a passenger elevator and other conveniences. On the West Side are the majority of the medium-priced apartments, renting from $30 to $75 a month, and also several of the highest class houses of the kind. In Harlem the variety and the number is greater, with almost none of the first rank. On the East Side there are more of the low-priced flats, and on Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue and adjacent streets a few of the best quality.
Most of the handsomest apartment-houses in the city are in the vicinity of Central Park. One of the largest and best, is the Dakota, at Central Park West and 72d Street. It is a many-gabled building in the style of a French chateau, and is elegant in all its appointments. In 59th Street near Seventh Avenue are the Central-Park, or Navarro Flats, which include several independent houses constructed as a single building. Architecturally they are notable with Moorish arches, numerous balconies, grand entrances and highly ornamental facades in the Spanish style. In interior appointments the houses are not surpassed in the world. The structure cost $7,000,000. The different houses in the group are known as the Madrid, Granada, Lisbon, Cordova, Barcelona, Valencia, Salamanca and Tolosa.
Other superior apartment-houses on the West Side in the neighborhood of the Park are the Osborne, Grenoble, Wyoming and Van Corlaer, in Seventh Avenue; the Strathmore, Windsor, Rutland, Albany and Pocantico, in Broadway ; the Beresford, San Rerao, La Grange, Endicott and Rutledge, in Central Park .West ; and the Nevada, on the Boulevard. In Madison Avenue are several elegant modern houses of the highest class, with rents up to $2,000 to $4,000 a year, like the Earlscourt, St. Catherine, St. Honore, Hoffman Arms, and Santa Marguerita. In Columbus Avenue are the Brockholst and Greylock ; and in Fifth Avenue are the Hamilton and the Knickerbocker. In the central part of the city are the Gramercy-Park, Anglesea, Chelsea, Florence, Westmoreland, Douglas, Beechwood and many others. The Croisic, Benedict, and Alpine are exclusively bachelor apartments.
Lodging and Boarding-Houses afford accommodations for living to a considerable per cent, of the community. High rents have much to do with this, as well as the desire to escape housekeeping cares and the necessities of the thousands of young unmarried people who find employment here away from their family homes.
Most persons of moderate means who hire a house find themselves obliged to rent rooms or to take boarders to help pay expenses, and hundreds go into the business of thus catering to the needs of the homeless, purely as a money-making enterprise. These houses are as widely diverse in character as the people whom they serve. A mechanic or laborer can hire a room for $2 a week, and get board for from $3 to $5 a week; the wealthy bachelor may pay $25 or more a week for his suite of rooms and as much more for his board. Every individual caprice and purse can find something to suit. Broadly stated, it is not possible to get board and room in a respectable house in a fairly good locality for less than $7 or $8 a week. For that there will be wholesome food, but the room will be a small side-room, or a “cramped attic- room, under the roof. For comfortable sleeping quarters with good board, $10 a week is about the lowest figure. Of that amount $4 or $5 a week is reckoned for the board, and the balance for the room-rent. The majority of clerks and others on small salaries bring their expenditure below the $10 limit by sacrificing comforts. These figures can be carried to any extreme that individual taste and means shall dictate.
The Tenements display the lowly side and often the dark side of New-York
life. It is not possible to locate the tenement-house population within any closely defined limits. In general, it may be said to hold parts of nearly all the streets below 14th, except a part of the old Ninth Ward, which is distinctively the Native-American section of the city, and in and about Washington Square and lower Fifth Avenue, clinging to the river-front on either side, monopolizing almost entirely the East Side nearly over to Broadway. Above 14th Street on the East Side it is supreme east of Third Avenue as far as the Harlem River, with the exception of a part of lower Second Avenue and a few side-streets here and there. On the West Side it comes from the river-front as far east as Sixth Avenue, with oases of better homes here and there, and this as far north as about 59th Street. The territory above 59th Street to 125th Street has very little of this population.
Tenement-houses are as a rule great towering buildings, many of them squalid and in bad repair, and devoid of any but the rudest arrangements for existence. They are packed with human beings. In a single block between Avenue B and Avenue C and 2d and 3d Streets there are over 3,500 residents, and a smaller block on Houston Street contains 3,000 people, which is at the rate of 1,000,000 to the square mile. That section is altogether populated at the rate of 500,000 to the square mile, which is as if the entire population of the city should be crowded into a space less than two miles square.
The picture of life in these quarters repeats what has been so often written of the misery of the poor in great cities. Frequently half a dozen people eat, sleep, and somehow exist in a single room, and tenants who have two or three rooms generally keep boarders besides their own large families. Monthly rents range from $1 a room upward, and $10 a month will sometimes secure a small stuffy apartment of three or four rooms. The landlords of these rookeries become very rich out of the needs of the poor tenants.
Most of these old tenement-houses are occupied by immigrants just from Europe. When they have been here a short time they are inclined to seek better quarters in new and improved, although still cheap enough, buildings that are being put up in recent years. But the condition of living is not materially changed; it is only different in degree of squalor and unhealthfulness.
Of all grades, good, bad and indifferent there were in 1891, according to the report of the Board of Health, 34,967 front and 2,391 rear tenement-houses, containing 1,064,703 persons above five years of age and 106,708 below that age; about two-thirds of the entire population. In this estimate 150 first-class apartment-houses are not included, but the medium-priced flats and apartments.