"Sometimes I see the City of Tomorrow. . .

I see a City with no slums and little poverty."

-- Mayor Robert La Guardia

The LOWER EAST SIDE was the neighborhood where many immigrants first settled in New York City.  The buildings above on Orchard Street are Federal row houses and the neighborhood’s streets were crowded with pedestrians, street vendors with pushcarts (an estimated 2500 on the Lower East Side in the year 1905) selling and cooking all kinds of food, and horses and carriages, etc.  Imagine the odors to be found in the City’s streets of this time (and to think that New Yorkers today complain about street garbage smells).  A tenement building was defined as a building containing more than three different families and this neighborhood was the most densely populated area of New York City.   By 1910 the Lower East Side with its immigrants and tenement buildings was the most crowded area in the entire world. 

In 1890 there were 523.6 inhabitants per acre and by 1900, 700 persons per acre.  The buildings were overcrowded with little light and poor ventilation.  Because of cramped and poor living conditions and inadequate ventilation, the word “tenement” eventually took on a somewhat negative connotation.  A Tenement House Exhibit of 1899 with photos by Lawrence Veiller brought the public's attention to the poverty and overcrowding and sanitary conditions in the tenement buildings.  Disease was so wide-spread in the buildings and neighborhoods that some gave the City the title of "city of the living dead."  A new Tenement House Law was written by Mr. Veiller and passed by the New York State legislature in April 1900.  Many nationalities of people lived here including Hungarians, Russians, Poles, Rumanians, Levantines, Galician’s, Italians, Irish and a large population of Eastern European Jews.  In one apartment building, families speaking Italian, Irish, different versions of Yiddish and other languages might live (imagine trying to communicate and co-exist).  Sometimes residents lived and worked in their small apartments especially if they were working in the garment industry.  German-Americans made up one-third of the city's population by 1875.  Many of them settled in the neighborhood, known as Kleindeutschland (little Germany -- a 400 block area east of the Bowery, north of Division Street and south of 14th Street along the East River) and later the Upper East Side neighborhood of Yorkville.  

The Lower East Side became the center of the country’s garment industry which produced clothes for slaves who worked on Southern plantations and, uniforms for both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.  Immigrants were cheap labor and were often paid by the number of pieces they make (which meant that speedy work was necessary); they did not need to know how to speak English in order to perform their jobs.  By 1910, 70% of women’s and 40% of men’s clothing in America were produced in New York City.  The white building on the corner is part of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum which is dedicated to telling the story of immigrants living in New York from 1860 to the 1930’s.  The museums gives tours of a tenement building at 97 Orchard Street – just down the street – and a virtual tour of the tenements and stories of the families who lived there can be found online at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s website.  Five different families (German, German Jewish, Irish, Italian, Lithuanian-Russian Jewish) lived at 97 Orchard Street.  An early photojournalist, JACOB RIIS -- a Danish immigrant himself and a New York police reporter, captured the lives of these immigrants in his photo book, How the Other Half Lives, 1890. Another photographer, LEWIS HINE, photographed children of the period and was instrumental in instituting child labor laws.

Part of this neighborhood was named Five Points and notorious for being heavily populated and for the violent gangs who hung out here (scenes in Martin Scorsese's film THE GANGS OF NEW YORK happens here.)

Even as late as 1940, this neighborhood was still very crowded with pushcarts and vendors.  At that time NYC Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia created the Essex Street Market as a place where local merchants could conduct their business.  At that time, the market also become a social environment where its Jewish and Italian residents could meet and converse. 

A young Eleanor Roosevelt would volunteer at the Rivington Sreet Settlement House in this neighborhood where she taught ballroom dancing and calisthenics to young children.  A park here would be named after FDR's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt. 

In May 2008 the National Trust for Historic Preservation  designated the Lower East Side as one of the 11 most endangered areas in America.  Local residents are very concerned that the old neighborhood is disappearing as new buildings and apartment complexes are constructed.

Photos 1 & 2:  Tenement buildings on the lower east side

Photo 3:  the DAILY FORWARD newspaper building on East Broadway where this Yiddish newspaper was published.