In Defense of the Tenement Housing Stock (Or, Why BuzzFeed is Wrong About Blaming the Bricks)

Posted on: April 2nd, 2015 at 10:00 am by

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Courtesy of Getty Images

Normally I would consider the source, but given the number of readers BuzzFeed has, this article about the buildings destroyed in the East Village Explosion deserves a prompt and unwavering response.

Two young men – Nicholas Figueroa and Moises Ismael Locón Yac – lost their lives. Residents lost their possessions and while there is no comparison, the Lower East Side lost a tremendous piece of history for no reason other than greed and sheer laziness.

Each building was over a century old – 121 Second Avenue was built in 1886, #123 in 1834, and #119 in 1886. Until last Thursday, all three were still standing.

Let’s talk about that.

Given their dates of construction, these tenements withstood major events such as debilitating weather patterns and intrusive constructions events (i.e. the building and dismantling of the 2nd Ave. El). Moreover, during the 19th century this housing stock belonged to one of the most densely populated places in the world – Kleindeustchland (Little Germany). Imagine the wear and tear of thousands of people moving in and out of each.

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So why do brick, terra cotta and stone outlast any glass structure? Despite being porous (to withstand, for instance, tension and torsion) it is solid. Pyramids in Egypt, the Tower of London, and excavated historic sites thousands of years old reveal what? Brick, stone and terra cotta. Just like a tenement.

At the time of the explosion, the century-old structures at the corner of Second Avenue and 7th Street had a total of 37 open violations, at least five of which were considered “hazardous” by the Department of Buildings, records show.

37 violations on record speaks to the landlord responsible for its maintenance, not the architecture itself.

“Buildings of that vintage are quite brittle,” Donald Dusenberry, an engineer who specializes in blast-resistant structures, told National Geographic last year after an explosion destroyed a similar building in East Harlem. “Even a room-size natural gas explosion can trigger the collapse of an older masonry structure.”

If these structures were given the appropriate attention, like re-pointing the mortar, the masonry would not be brittle. Similarly, if greed did not provoke the siphoning of gas, this would not have happened.

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Finally, each of the fallen buildings was landmarked due to its location in the Lower East Side Historic District. For the purposes of illustration, I pulled out sections from the designation report and posted herewith (full report here). For the record, landmarking a building is a rather involved procedure which requires microscopic detail and can take months to complete. Such analysis will always reveal both negative and positive findings, yet no evidence to the contrary was announced that could challenge the structural integrity of each building.

When the city finishes cleaning up the rubble of the explosion, the buildings that will be erected at that corner will likely be much more sturdy and resilient. In doing so, they will also become an emblem of the new New York City: Clean, efficient, safe, and perhaps a little bland.


Time machine is prepped for over a century in the future; I gotta see this for myself. “Sturdy and resilient, efficient, safe and perhaps a little bland” is not an emblem of New York with which the Lower East Side is familiar. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists revel in the assertion that this wasn’t an accident, rather a “burn it down, collect insurance and not worry about having to adhere to landmark codes” situation. Think what you will…

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Our hearts go out to the victims of this completely preventable tragedy and to our community.

G-d Bless the LES.

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