We were sitting in a bar talking about air shafts. My friend Andrea was with her niece, Mia, who was visiting from Florida. Mia had wanted to go to the Tenement Museum, on the Lower East Side, admission $30. Andrea refused to pay $30 to look at a curated slum.
"Give me 30 bucks," I said to Mia. "I'll show you a shabby apartment."
The conversation then turned to defining what, exactly, makes a building a tenement. Andrea suggested a number of features distinctive to certain New York City apartments: rooms without windows, bathtub in kitchen, shared toilet in a water closet in the hallway, and windows looking out on an air shaft, often with garbage piled up at the bottom.
My wife, Mary Lyn, who's from Missouri and has never lived in a tenement, wasn't sure what an air shaft was. So Andrea and I endeavored to explain that in the early 20th century, New York City building codes demanded that apartments have at least one window, and that the solution to building cheap housing that had at least one window in every apartment was to place an air shaft—an empty verticle space—in the middle of the building. That way, interior apartments looked out on an air shaft, the other interior apartments often so close the tenants could reach out the window and shake hands with their neighbors as they inhaled the garbage fumes wafting up from below.
I pointed out that sometime in the 1950s, a builder came up with the insidious idea that kitchens and bathrooms don't need windows; vents would suffice. The idea caught on, and if you've spent any time in New York City, you've probably noticed how common this is, even in modern luxury buildings.
All this talk got me thinking about the apartment I lived in when I was a kid—the one I describe in detail in A Brooklyn Memoir. That building wasn't a tenement, but it was pretty rundown, though it did have a window in every room, including the kitchen and bathroom. What I didn't describe in the book was the way the kitchen and bathroom windows looked out on a space in the middle of the building that was too small to be called a courtyard but was bigger than an air shaft and served the same purpose. Every so often, a man with an accordian wandered into this space to sing Italian songs. People threw money at him, an occasional dollar bill floating down. From our third-floor kitchen window, I'd try to hit him in the head with pennies until my mother walked into the room and screamed, "Stop throwing money out the window!"
Should there be a future edition of A Brooklyn Memoir, I will include this scene.
All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.