The Lower East Side urban experience, while not representative, is facinating and significant because individuals in many of our extended families were introduced to America there and because the historical experience described in this book is germane for a better understanding of urban life in the late twentieth century.
Moses Rischin, a historian of the search for community in the Lower East Side has written,
Let us hope that New York's usable past drawn from an age not unlike our own may offer example, insight, vision, and faith for a truly cosmopolitan America extending to all its inhabitants. Great cities like New York, without equal in the world in opportunities for culture, education, alternative life-styles, recreation and sheer atmosphere continue to provide the critical massed varieties and stir of peoples essential for national renewal and rehumanization. New York's first great encounter with the problems of the city has become that city's and the nation's problem writ large. Its travail has been its glory, an earnest to a tradition of a promised urbane land.(1)The beauty and wonder of the urban human experience that was evident around the turn of the century may still be observed in similar neighborhoods today. At the same time, the exploitation, grinding poverty, dilapidated housing, and corruption exposed in the works of social reformers like Annie Daniels, Mary van Kleeck, and Lilian Brandt, resonate with the work of contemporary social activists like Dorothy Day, Jonathan Kozol, and Michael Harrington.
The Lower East Side is defined as the area of Manhattan bounded by 14th Street on the north, Catherine Street on the south, Broadway on the west and the East River on the east. While the entire area is of significance to the course and is covered in the articles in this book, the focus of the course is on a smaller area within the Lower East Side, the Tenth Ward.
The Tenement House Exhibit of 1899 which concentrated on these neighborhoods exposed the social conditions which characterized the the Tenth Ward.(2) This ward was reported to be the most densely populated place on earth in 1900. The ward contained 109 acres which was bounded by Rivington Street on the north, Division Street on the south, the Bowery on the west, and Norfolk Street on the east. According to a survey of New York's tenement houses in that year, the tenth ward contained 1,179 tenement houses in 1900. These houses were home to 15,132 families, comprising a population of 76,073 (3)
The Tenth Ward, which was known as "New Israel" particularly attracted Russian and other East European Jews. who lived near a large minority of Germans, and smaller numbers of Poles, Irish, and Italians. Roy Lubove describes the neighborhood this way:
In the sweatshops of New Israel the steam irons hissed and the needles swooped
to their targets as the stream of Jewish immigrants scurried into the cheap, ready- made clothing industry. The 10th ward was the setting of the colorful Hester Street, "pig market", where pork was actually scarcer than a native American. On Friday afternoons Hester Street bulged with peddlers, pushcarts, and shoppers anxious to stock up for the Sabbath. Intersecting Hester two blocks west of Essex was Orchard Street. Walhalla Hall, the great civic and fraternal center of the 10th ward, was located here. At Walhalla marriages were celebrated, dances organized, union activities discussed, and revolution plotted by tailor anarchists and peddler socialists.(4)The principal ethnic groups in the Lower East Side are no longer the Germans, Irish, Italians, and Russian Jews. They are now Hispanic, Black, and Oriental. The people, times, and conditions have changed, but the poverty, exploitation, and inequality still remain. Historical reasoning, derived from a study of the lives of ordinary people in an actual urban setting will enable students to confront current social problems and the obstacles to their solution intelligently and realistically. The Lower East Side is a place from which we in the present can certainly hope to learn from the past.
The articles complied in this collection provide valuable sources of information and evidence for studying an urban experience. The value of these articles is enhanced because the authors were all eye-witness observers of life in Lower Manhattan. Moreover, they were all astute and trained observers of human behavior who used their skills of observation and communication to preserve for a later generation the experience of a great people at a remarkable time in our nations history.
Support for the research and development of materials used in this course was provided by Saint Mary's College of Minnesota and the United States Department of Education, Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education which provided a substantial grant for the creation of the Lower Manhattan Project which conducted the research and prepared the materials used in the course. The Project members are: Clarke Chambers, Professor of History, University of Minnesota and Director of the Social Welfare History Archives. Chambers is acknowledged as the leading social welfare historian in the United States. Patrick Costello, Professor of English, Saint Mary's College of Minnesota. Costello is a student of urban literature who has devoted much of his attention to American Jewish literature. Chad Gaffield, Professor of History, University of Ottawa, Canada. Gaffield specializes in social and urban history and is an expert in computer-assisted learning. Beverly Stadum, Associate Professor of Social Work, St. Cloud State University. Stadum's ten years experience as a social worker and her research and writing in social welfare history provide a practical as well as intellectual point of view. William Crozier, Professor of History, Saint Mary's College of Minnesota. Crozier, director of the project, is a social historian who believes that integrating interdisciplinary sources methods with innovative technology will improve the teaching of history.
The project believes that the experience of the people who lived in New York City's Lower East side around the turn of the century which characterized by the people's struggle with economic and social exploitation and their confrontation with a hostile urban environment was significant and merited study. The materials developed by the project provide an urban laboratory through which students can learn how people coped with, and sometimes prevailed over, the forces of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. As work progressed on the project it became more and more evident that the historical experience of urban poverty and exploitation was not resolved by the work of the devoted settlement workers and reformers of the era but has become an even greater affliction in the modern cities of the United States.
The articles included in this collection constitute only a modest fragment of the many useful sources which can be used for a study of the Lower East Side. These neighborhoods were the subject of many historical monographs, journalistic reports, works in social welfare history, and works of urban literature. A sample of the variety of works available that focus on the Lower East Side include: Moses Rischin, The Promised City New York's Jews, 1870-1914, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977); Ronald Sanders, The Downtown Jews Portraits of an Immigrant Generation (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1969; Thomas Kessner, The Golden Door: Italian and Jewish Immigrant Mobility in New York City 1880-1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976); Selma C. Berrol, Immigrants at School: New York City, 1898-1914 (New York: Arno Press, 1978); Hutchins Hapgood, The Spirit of the Ghetto (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1902); Donna Gabaccia, From Sicily to Elizabeth Street (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984); Carol Groneman Pernicone, "The `Bloody Ould Sixth': A Social Analysis of a New York City Working Class Community in the Mid Nineteenth Century" (Ph.D. diss., The University of Rochester, 1973); Richard Lieberman, "Social Change and Political Behavior: The East Village of New York City, 1880-1905" (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1976); Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (New York: Scribner's, 1902); Herman Bernstein, "The Old East Side Gives Way to the New", New York Times, 3 April 1910; Walter E. Lagerquist, "Social Geography of the East Side", New York Times, 3 April 1910; Lillian Wald, The House on Henry Street (New York: Henry Holt, 1915); Robert W. DeForest and Lawrence Veiller, eds., The Tenement House Problem two vols. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903; Michael Gold, Jews Without Money (New York: Horace Liveright, 1930); Anzia Yezierska, The Bread Givers, (New York: Persea Press, 1925); Steven Crane, Maggie a Girl of the Streets (New York: 1893; Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1917; and Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1934; Theodore Dreiser, The Color of a Great City (New York: Boni and Liveright, Inc. 1923).