Tenement Reality and Tenement Chic

I have seen two tenements in the past two weeks, which is more than I usually see. There was a huge difference between the two, which, as usual, I will try to interpret from my typical bourgeois Marxist perspective. First, last week, we took a trip to the Tenement Museum in New York. This is the site of a formerly low-income apartment building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where, for $15, you could take a 45 minute tour. Once inside, if you are lucky enough to have come without children (the Tenement Museum is extremely delicate and stroller-unfriendly. The walls may not be touched, for example), you find yourself in a decrepit, rotting building with layers of peeling paint and wallpaper, and the former inhabitants’ belongings, which resemble bad shabby-chic antiques. You stand in 3 rooms and hear about the poor worker-immigrant families who lived there.

It is sad to hear the squalid stories, but mostly it is interesting, and dare I say, cozy. Cozy? Yes. The Tenement Museum is a place where you can have a cozy intellectual and historical experience of poverty. You are in standing in the site of human misery, but are 100 years removed from it. There is no danger of being thrown into a vat of hot oil, or riding a dangerous elevator, or freezing or anything. In fact, apartments in the identical “tenement” next door are going for $4 million dollars, and there are “gourmet yarn” and handmade craft shops down the street, for upscale garment workers, presumably. It is so cozy, in fact, that they are planning a pub for the basement of the Tenement Museum, where rich New Yorkers can go and drink microbrew and soak up the tenement atmosphere at their leisure.

I saw the other “tenement” tonight when I went to look at a used futon couch that I am considering buying. This tenement was a modern-day version, the “Blueberry Court” apartments in Edison, NJ. Blueberry Court apartments are one of the most lackluster residences I have ever seen. It is joined to other complexes of crowded, ugly apartments with perversely inappropriate names like “Edison Manor”, etc. Here the streets were badly lit. There were no green spaces, just large parking lots. Many apartments were crammed together and materials looked cheap – wood panels and composite siding. I saw mainly Indian families walking in groups, some with strollers and little children, dodging the heavy traffic despite the dark sidewalks.

Large old cities like New York, London share a similar design concept which was looked down upon at one time, but which is now extremely valuable and desirable – urban density. Someone designed these cities with some thought. Though I’ve seen Jakob Riis photos of flimsey wooden shacks, most builders managed to scrape enough together to build many apartment buildings of brick or stone. But even putting aside the cost of building materials (which were probably skimped on back then too), the older tenement neighborhoods featured something that seems to have been lost – planning and public transportation. Someone thought out the need for walking streets and planned for parks and green spaces. The greatest luxury of older urban areas was of course public transportation, the subways and buses which linked neighborhoods and cities and seems to have become permanently unaffordable for today’s American cities. Shame.

On the other hand, places like “Blueberry Court” or “Edison Manor” can be described as “sprawl”. Streets are windy and impossible to find one’s way around. Buildings are flimsy and look as if they were the result of contractor graft. Huge parking lots stretch endlessly. The car is the only way to get around, because nobody wants to walk through an endless parking lot. Sprawl is the symbol of the energy-greedy, myopic world we live in – no planning, no green space, no foot traffic, no human contact.

We hate sprawl. But they hated tenements and cites 100 years ago, and now we think it’s great. So, in 100 years, our sprawl ought to look pretty good. The scary thing to ask is, compared to what?