New Law Tenements
Once part of the densest block in all of New york City, The "Kaplan" tenements on Driggs Avenue sit between South 2nd and South 3rd Streets. Courtesy of Google Earth.
Tenement buildings constitute much of Williamsburg's built fabric and help contribute to the neighborhood's sense of place. The majority of these tenements were built between 1901 and the late 1920s, after the passage of The Tenement House Act of 1901, or as it was commonly called, the “New Law.” Tenement buildings proliferated the area for two main reasons: the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, and the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews to New York City. The new bridge helped facilitate the influx of Lower East Siders into Williamsburg because, for the first time, the poor in the Lower East Side had free (the bridge was pedestrian friendly so it basically cost nothing to relocate a family) and direct access to the wealth in Williamsburg. The neighborhood's prosperity is also what attracted many Eastern European Jewish immigrants directly from their respective countries. At the turn of the century, the dense collection of prosperous industrial factories and commercial enterprises Williamsburg had amassed in the nineteenth century were still prosperous, and a bounty of jobs and business opportunities were available. Williamsburg was so popular that in 1917 the blocks between South Second and South First Streets housed 5,000 people and were considered the most dense blocks in New York City. In order to accommodate the large number of new-comers, several tenement buildings were erected.
The tenements built in South Williamsburg were usually four to six stories tall. Under the “Old Law,” tenements were usually built side by side and shared walls so that most rooms in each building lacked direct sunlight and fresh air. Under the “New Law” all rooms in a tenement were required to receive direct sunlight and air. The most common way to achieve this was to build one tenement on several lots at a time and carve large shafts through the building every twenty-five feet. The standard height of four to six stories, along with the occupation of several lots at a time, give South Williamsburg tenements their expansive feel. The tenements are frequently seen decorated with fruit and floral cement accents, owed to the influence of the Beaux-Arts architectural style that was quite popular at the time of their construction. Several tenements within South Williamsburg, like “The Havemeyer Flats” and “English Court” were given names and bear the title and date of construction above their doorway. Naming tenements was quite common at the time, and was left to the discretion of the developer. Many original South Williamsburg tenements are still used as residences today, despite being almost a century old.