A few weeks ago, my kids and I visited the Tenement Museum on the lower east side of Manhattan. This fascinating tour took us through several apartments in a virtually intact tenement building, providing a glimpse of the gritty difficulties of newly arrived immigrants. As we walked through these cramped and windowless three-room dwellings, lived in from the 1880’s until the 1940’s, we listened to stories of families crowded together in their efforts to establish new lives in America.
What struck me the most was the tenement kitchen — a cramped multi-purpose room, where sinks functioned not just for cooking, but as spots to bathe dirty children and with a board thrown over top, a makeshift place to dine.
The apartments were designed with the kitchen in the center — the heart of the home — with one room on each side. As I stood in this tiny room without a window, I couldn’t help but wonder if these women cooked their briskets or corned beef with friends or family. After all, with several dwellings on each floor of the building, women did help one another, looking after each other’s kids and moving about from one apartment to the next.
I imagined the aromas from one kitchen quickly permeating the whole building, luring neighbors. I thought it impossible for women in such close quarters, in such challenging times, not to bond over the chore of cooking meals for the family.
I did a bit of historical research and realized it wasn’t such a far-fetched idea. Philip Hubert, a well known architect (designer of the Chelsea Hotel) living in NYC at that time, built his career on the idea of families “banding together.” He believed that a group of families (such as those living in tenements) could benefit from individual living spaces that shared common areas, where “residents would grow or buy food together or perhaps share one kitchen.” (The Sky’s the Limit, By Steven S. Gaines)
Although Philip Hubert never executed this idea for the poor, he did successfully introduce the idea to the wealthy, beginning cooperative living as we know it today. Interestingly, his cooperative buildings usually offered residents a large shared kitchen for people to cook together adjacent to a space to entertain.
As Americans struggle with a faltering economy, Hubert’s communal vision is worth revisiting as it may just benefit our society today.