Listen closely and you might hear the footsteps of hundreds of mill workers who lived in tenements on the block bounded by Rivet, Potomska, Second, and First Streets. Only two remain, but there once existed a complex of ten six-tenement buildings erected by the Potomska Mills for its workers.
Built in 1871 on South Water Street, Potomska Mills produced shades, umbrellas, jeans, and print cloth, rather than the sheets and shirts produced at Wamsutta. Potomska was the first textile manufactory established after the Wamsutta Mills more than twenty years earlier, but the two companies were not in competition. They produced different goods and shared the same president. Potomska also shared Wamsutta’s need to attract workers by providing suitable rental housing.
Potomska worker housing took cues from the design of Wamsutta tenements on Hazard, State, and Austin Streets. Potomska constructed six “four-tenements” with four-room apartments stacked on two sides of the building and additional sleeping rooms on a smaller third floor. The buildings featured flanking entries surmounted by doorway hoods and modest Italianate-style brackets at the rooflines. As Potomska Mills expanded, its owners added four additional four-tenements to the original six, forming a quadrangle surrounding an unpaved laundry yard.
Diagonally adjacent to the four-tenements, Potomska constructed six three-deckers, with single apartments on each floor and perhaps stacked front porches, which later defined this building form. Built in 1871, these may have been the first corporate-owned three-deckers in New Bedford. Potomska likely reserved them for the families of skilled workers, while unskilled workers lived in the ten four-tenements across the street, and in an additional sixteen Potomska four-tenements scattered throughout the area.
Despite this tenement building-boom, by the 1890s the housing demand from the influx of immigrant mill workers outstripped available supply, and families often took in boarders to earn extra income. Potomska failed to adequately maintain the buildings, and in 1894, the New Bedford Daily Mercury referred to the “squalor” of the Potomska tenements. In 1898, the New York Evening Journal claimed they were "more filthy than any New York tenement."
The Potomska Mills were demolished in 1935, and the area they occupied between Potomska and Blackmer Streets is now largely vacant. The three-deckers built by Potomska for their skilled workers were moved in 1900 to make way for a new public school to serve the children of this largely immigrant neighborhood. The whereabouts of these buildings is unknown. Out of the group of ten four-tenements, only two survive, in differing states of repair. Once surrounded by a dense residential neighborhood, they are now accompanied only by a behavioral health center, parking lots, and a silent vestige of their former courtyard.