For many of the immigrants who flocked to New York City at the turn of the century, their new lives in America began in the four-to-six-story tenements of the Lower East Side. Row houses that had been converted from single-family dwellings to multi-apartment buildings, the units were overcrowded, cramped, poorly lit and ventilated, and usually without indoor plumbing.
In most cases, only the rooms facing the street offered any light from a window, leaving the interior rooms dark and without a source of ventilation. Few apartments had electricity, and gas was used for lighting. Hallway lighting was rare, forcing tenants to walk up the stairs in the dark or climb down unlit stairways to use the outdoor toilets at night.
Lacking indoor plumbing, residents hauled water from outside pumps, and then heated it on wood- or coal-burning stoves to wash their clothes and dishes, or to take a bath. Toilets were located in rows of outhouses. Tenement occupants relied on their stoves for heat in the winter, and escaped to the roof and fire escapes to sleep during the stifling summers.
In Ashes, the Raisky family finds living space in a tenement on Hester Street, joining other immigrants who lived in dark, airless apartments. But, with a water tap in the kitchen and a hallway bathroom they shared with three other families, the Raisky’s fourth-floor, three-room flat was a step above the average tenement dwelling. As Miriam and her parents quickly discovered, however, staying warm in the winter was not going to be easy:
“Their first night in the apartment turned out to be the coldest of the winter. With the stove the only source of heat, they moved Miriam’s bed into the kitchen. Dressed in layers of clothing, they huddled together under the blankets waiting for their bodies to provide some additional warmth. Exhausted, but too cold to fall asleep, they listened to the snow and sleet pelting the window in the front room while every wall seemed to channel cold air into the apartment.”