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Covering two whole city blocks, Knickerbocker Village is one of the largest middle-income housing complexes in Manhattan. Located in a non-touristy area of Chinatown, this behemoth mass of brick is located on Monroe Street between Catherine and Market Streets, and is made up of two twelve-story buildings each surrounding a well-maintained courtyard.

Tenement slums originally occupied the area upon which Knickerbocker Village stands. Other buildings that once stood here were handsome and fashionable houses, subdivided into smaller units to accommodate the neighborhood’s growing low-income population. 650 mostly-Italian families paid an average of $5 per room.The area became known as “Lung Block” due to its high number of reported tuberculosis cases; most apartments had few windows and inadequate ventilation. In addition to the crowded housing stock, Lung Block also had eight barrooms and five brothel houses and was considered just as notorious as nearby Five Points.

Lung Block, 1933. The street to the right of the island of tenements is Monroe Street. Hamilton Street, now gone, is to the left of the island. From New York Times photo archives.

Map with letters indicating reported cases of TB on Lung Block. a represents a reported case in 1894; b is a case from 1895, etc. Shaded areas are undeveloped land.

Razing entire tenement blocks was the favored method of urban renewal at the time, although current medical science today suggests that a thorough disinfecting and greater access to ventilation could have saved these buildings. In the late 1920s, developer Frederick Fillmore French slowly began buying up individual lots on Lung Block; by the time French was ready to build Knickerbocker Village, he had acquired fourteen and a half acres of real estate in the area. As part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, federal funding became available for private developers to build housing and French’s plans for Knickerbocker Village took advantage of this financing opportunity. As city planners and developers alike began to predict the arrival of the middle class in the Lower East Side, French envisioned Knickerbocker Village as housing for up-and-coming “junior Wall Street executives”. Rent was an average of $12.50 per room, an amount that was out of reach for many former Lung Block residents and resulted in a mass exodus to other slums.

Lung Block razed.

Almost two-thirds of the units in Knickerbocker Village are one-bedrooms with parquet floors, small kitchens, and tiled bathrooms. Many early tenants were socialists and organized clubs centered around hobbies like photography and fencing. The award for Knickerbocker Village’s most infamous residents would probably go to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were executed as spies for the Soviet Union and it is very likely that some of their clandestine activities occurred in their 11th-floor apartment.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, 1951. From the Library of Congress.

In the 1970s, Knickerbocker Village was sold to new owners. The building employs a horticulturalist to maintain the flora in the courtyard gardens and surrounding grounds. Peeking through the security gate, one can catch glimpses of a calm oasis unlike the cacophonous streets of Chinatown. The residents are indeed lucky to have such an affordable sanctuary in an increasingly gentrified neighborhood with rising prices to boot.