http://shinyfastandloud.com/?m=201605 By Deborah Wye
The Lower East Side’s iconic status as an immigrant neighborhood derives from the mid-19th to early 20th century when massive waves of Europeans arrived here. This was a pivotal moment, as industrialization continued to develop and urbanization intensified. Certainly, well before that, the area had a rich and complex history extending back to the indigenous Lenape, the Dutch and British colonies, and the early Republic. But the population changes during this classic period of mass immigration were on such a scale that it became a singular historic juncture.
A look back at the struggles and triumphs of the early immigrant period can offer a new understanding of the present. That era tells a quintessential American story of cultural reckoning that still resonates today. The extraordinary influx of new arrivals, particularly to this neighborhood, began what would be a fundamental shift in our sense of national identity, as America’s Anglo-Saxon roots receded in dominance. The Lower East Side was the epicenter of this transformation and a place of ethnic pride within a common citizenry.
Some blocks of the Lower East Side became the most densely populated places on earth. And while many different national groups arrived at that time, it was the Irish, Germans, Italians and Eastern European Jews who represented the greatest numbers, by far. Over the years, the neighborhood would continue to evolve, most particularly with contributions of the growing Chinese, Hispanic and African American communities. Indeed, much has now changed in terms of ethnic make-up and density, but the streetscapes of the neighborhood still recall their vivid, historic past.
In mid-19th to the early 20th century, New York City was the major port of entry for those fleeing hunger, persecution, political turmoil, and economic hardship in Europe, and our country offered few restrictions for entrance during those years. The Lower East Side was relatively close to where immigrants landed, nearby docks and factories offered jobs, and housing was low-cost. It made sense to settle here and join others from their native countries. Moreover, people’s savings were depleted after the Atlantic voyage and further travel was prohibitive.
It is difficult now to fathom the level of density that resulted from this near century of mass immigration. By 1900, on some blocks, an acre could contain 1000 people, compared to approximately 160 per acre today. And 8-10 people might live in a small one-bedroom apartment, which now houses two people, on average.
Immigration to America increased dramatically with the Great Hunger in Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s, the revolutions of 1848 on the continent, and general political turmoil and economic deprivation in Europe. Irish and German immigrants came in multitudes, seeking refuge and opportunity. As these early groups advanced materially, and eventually left for better and less crowded neighborhoods, a huge influx of Italians and Eastern European Jews took their place. This process dwindled during World War I. Then, with a postwar rise in nativism and a quota law in 1924 based on national origin, the flow of immigrants was reduced to a mere trickle.
Supporting the New Arrivals
While immigrant groups certainly brought language and cultural differences with them, as well as antagonisms toward each other, it is noteworthy how many similarities emerged in the ways they settled into their lives in New York.
It was common practice, for example, to find housing on a street and even in a tenement with others from their towns and villages in the “old country.” Upon moving in, families often took in boarders to offset the rent, no matter how tiny the apartment.
All the ethnic groups formed mutual aid associations to help find work, provide for food and health needs, and pay burial costs and spousal benefits under difficult circumstances. Specialized ethnic banks provided economic, travel, and even letter writing services, and the various religious institutions offered much needed charitable and educational support. Social, cultural, and arts groups were formed for entertainment, while foreign language newspapers proliferated to bring news of home and advice columns for navigating life in the new city.
In addition to the mutual support organized by immigrants themselves, there were also privately funded groups, founded by various reformers who were aghast at the conditions in what they called the “slums.” The settlement house movement started in America on the Lower East Side. Such organizations hoped for assimilation as quickly as possible, rather than ethnic pride, and many immigrants considered the programs patronizing. But, without a doubt, settlement houses offered essential services, ranging from English classes, to lending libraries, to day care for working mothers and summer camps for children.
The government eventually also lent a helping hand by building libraries, playgrounds, public baths and many more schools. All of this sounds supportive, which it clearly was, but immigrants also often faced nativist prejudice, poverty, disease due to overcrowding and squalid conditions, crime and prostitution from desperation, and long hours and grueling work for little pay.
The Irish Path
Each immigrant group faced hardship but also found certain success. The Irish were viewed with intense suspicion because of their Roman Catholicism and the widespread fear that the Pope could somehow influence American life. But the Catholic church came to the aid of the Irish, led by the influential and powerful clergyman, John Hughes (1797-1864), first Bishop and then Archbishop, who presided at old St. Patrick’s on Mott Street.
Known as “Dagger Hughes” for his fierce determination, and also for a cross he appended to his signature, the Archbishop was sought after by political elites because of his influence over the Irish vote. He also recruited women from Ireland to join the convent and then come to America to preside over Catholic schools and hospitals.
Other Irish mutual aid groups were also established, most noteworthy among them was the fraternal organization known as the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, founded in 1836. Tammany Hall, as well, would eventually see the benefit of allegiance to the Irish. They established political clubs in the saloons proliferating in the neighborhood, promised jobs for votes, and provided much needed social services, festive picnics, and food at the holidays. They encouraged Irish men to join the early volunteer fire companies and then the municipal fire and police departments. Alfred E. Smith is a prime example of someone who rose up from the Irish neighborhood through St. James Church and school, and then the local Tammany club, to become four-term Governor of New York, and a Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.
Irish women, for their part, dominated domestic service, and were known as “Bridgets.” In so doing, they effectively replaced the African American women who had previously filled these positions. Such displacement of Blacks by newly arrived European immigrants would occur in other working-class jobs, as well.
The neighborhood with the most Irish immigrants was the notorious Five Points, which was also home to a significant native-born population, a small German enclave, and a sizable concentration of African American residents. In fact, a hybrid of Irish and African American dance steps led to the invention of tap dancing, right there in the Five Points.
The warring factions of nativists and the Irish are well-known from the movie “Gangs of New York,” as is the poverty and crime in the neighborhood, and the deplorable housing conditions. But one fact about the Irish here is particularly significant. During recruitment for the Civil War, Irish men stepped up and formed some of the most well-known and bravest infantry brigades of the city, with hopes of proving their worth as loyal Americans. But after years of relentless carnage, the Irish and most others were angry and exhausted. When Lincoln called for forced enlistment, the infamous and murderous Draft Riots broke out in New York. The Irish were identified as the majority of instigators at the time, but historians have since found that most were not from the Five Points.
Building a German Community
German immigrants came to New York around the same time as the Irish, but their primary neighborhood was further east and north, from below Houston Street up to what is now called the East Village. This area was so filled with Germans that it was known as Kleindeutschland (Little Germany). There was a commercial shopping strip along Avenue B, beer halls and saloons along Avenue A, and an entertainment district on the Bowery.
Some German Jews who had arrived earlier and began as peddlers and merchants, eventually rose to be prominent uptown financiers and, later, philanthropists. But Germans, generally, arrived in America with more skills than did the destitute rural Irish, who were generally not equipped for urban life.
German immigrants became well known for numerous vereine, which were organizations devoted to activities from music, gymnastics, and shooting to politics and youth groups. And they were also associated with lager beer, which they introduced to America and served at popular gathering places known as “beer gardens,” frequented by the whole family. Eventually New York Germans would dominate the brewery industry, as well as piano manufacturing.
Politics and unionism were also significant forces in German society, particularly for those who had fled the revolutions of 1848. Socialism and radicalism came to be identified with German intellectuals, but it was the working class that came to the fore to protest the periodic economic downturns that characterize the capitalist system. The Panic of 1873 led to a huge gathering of the unemployed in Tompkins Square Park, in the middle of Little Germany. It was the largest worker rally to date in New York City and was met with brutal push-back by the police.
But perhaps the most tragic event associated with the German immigrant community occurred in 1904. It began with a picnic, an annual and much-anticipated social gathering, organized by a local German Lutheran church.
On the boat trip up the East River to picnic grounds on Long Island, a fire broke out on the General Slocum steamship, which was carrying the passengers. Owners had long ignored safety equipment and procedures and, as a result, 1,021—mostly women and children—died in the incident.
The devasted German community could not bear to remain in Kleindeutschland, with its memories of loss. Many moved uptown to Yorkville, in a migration north that had begun earlier. A small memorial fountain to the children who died that day can be seen in Tompkins Square Park.
Later, as the Irish and Germans rose in material circumstances, and moved away from the Lower East Side, Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants followed in their place.The Italians were unique in the fact that many—mostly men—had no intention of staying in the United States, and often went back and forth according to seasonal labor schedules. This made the Italian population less attractive to Tammany Hall, early on.
While there were only about 850 Italians in New York in 1850, by 1910, there were some 250,000 and, by 1914, Italians and Eastern European Jews dominated the immigrant population of the neighborhood. There were several other Italian enclaves in Manhattan, but Little Italy was the largest and most well-known.
Many Italian men were laborers, working in construction to build subways, or loading and unloading cargo on the waterfront docks. But the trades of barber and shoemaker also came to be associated with the Italian immigrant, as well as the ever-present organ grinder. Italian boys often sold newspapers or shined shoes. Italian women entered the garment industry, in factories or with piecework at home—artificial flowers are a prime example of the kind of product they crafted around the kitchen table with their children.
The Catholic Church was less hospitable to their Italian congregants than one would expect. The Church hierarchy in New York was Irish, and the newly arrived Italians were often relegated to church basements for their services.
Eventually, churches were built specifically for Italians, the first being the Church of the Most Precious Blood on Baxter Street, completed in 1904, and known for its Shrine of San Gennaro and its annual namesake festival. Such celebrations, and all manner of shrines, were integral to Italian neighborhoods in New York, but frowned upon by the established clergy, which saw them as based on mere folklore.
The tenement housing of the Italians on the Lower East Side was certainly crowded and disease-ridden, leading reformer and journalist Jacob Riis to publicize the neighborhood’s squalor through photography and lectures. At one point, the death rate among Italian immigrant children was 50% higher than the rate city-wide. In How the Other Half Lives of 1890, Riis brought particular attention to the area of Mulberry Street known as the “Bend.” His searing images of such places as Bandit’s Roost, Bottle Alley, and Ragpicker’s Row provided stark evidence of the danger and squalor of the neighborhood.
Riis’s exposés eventually led to an early example of “slum clearance,” when tenements on one side of Mulberry Street were demolished and a public park—soon to be named Columbus Park for the Italian neighborhood—took their place.
One element of the Italian culture that remains in the popular imagination today is organized crime. In those early years, workings of the notorious Black Hand especially hit home, since this was a matter of Italians extorting other Italians with threats of dynamiting homes and businesses, and kidnapping children.
New York City’s first Italian police detective, Joseph Petrosino, an immigrant who grew up in the neighborhood, attempted to combat this scourge. He was murdered in Sicily in 1909 on a mission to stop the criminal element before it embarked for America. While the Black Hand eventually petered out, it was supplanted by the Mafia, once Prohibition was enacted.
From “Greenhorn” to Jewish-American
Overlapping the wave of Italian immigration was the massive influx of Eastern European Jews, fleeing persecution and pogroms. Unlike many Italians, Jewish immigrant families came to stay, believing there would never be a place for them in their home countries.
While they did not find the streets of the Lower East Side as welcoming as they might have hoped, the newly arrived Jews steadily rose up from poverty. Like the other ethnic groups, they immediately formed their own mutual aid societies, here called landsmanshaftn and catering to those from the same towns and villages. Many Jews arrived with skills—but not all. A common trade was peddler and, even today, the most typical scene of the historic Lower East Side is Hester Street, crowded with vendors and their carts serving a teeming population.
But it was the garment industry that was most dominated by the new Jewish arrivals. The work was grueling. Early on, sweatshops were set up in tiny tenement apartments; as mechanization advanced, the industry moved into commercial lofts. Jewish women played a key role in the garment industry and eventually were leading organizers of the first massive strike in the shirtwaist industry in 1909, known as “The Uprising of the 20,000.” Yet, only two years later, in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which had not improved workplace conditions, a tragic fire killed many young Jewish women, as well as Italian women. Two thirds of the 146 fatalities that day were among those who lived on the Lower East Side.
Perhaps fueled by such conditions, a rich intellectual and political life arose in cafes and worker organizations, and through some 20 newspapers established here. One section of East Broadway was known as Yiddish Newspaper Row, dominated by a tall, striking building that housed the Socialist Forward, the largest circulation Yiddish newspaper.
The radical Emma Goldman became a riveting public speaker in the neighborhood as well as around the United States. A cadre of poets was bred from the sweatshops and their passionate words were often chanted at strikers’ rallies. Novelists wrote of the despair of tenement life and the complex transition from “greenhorn” to Jewish-American. But perhaps the most celebrated cultural outgrowth of immigrant Jewish life was theater, as Second Avenue became the Yiddish Rialto.
Religion in various forms of orthodoxy was evidenced on nearly every block of the Jewish Lower East Side, in hundreds of tenement synagogues and eventually in elaborate Moorish-styled structures. But as religious roots brought these immigrants together, it also provided schisms. There was a vast divide between the successful “uptown Jews”—often of German descent—who arrived earlier in America and rose to wealth and prosperity, and the newly arrived Eastern Europeans who spoke Yiddish and seemed to resist assimilation.
Those uptown Jews feared a rise in anti-Semitism based on the practices of the new arrivals. Through philanthropy, they established organizations to hasten assimilation. The most prominent among them was the Educational Alliance, which drew huge numbers to its programs. Eventually, success among the Jewish immigrants brought changes of residence, first to newly built, elaborately decorated neighborhood tenements that clearly demonstrated a rise of fortune. But eventually the Jewish population took advantage of the new Williamsburg Bridge and its path to better neighborhoods in Brooklyn, as well as the subway lines leading to the Bronx.
The Community Today
The Chinese population of the Lower East Side now comprises approximately 30% of the neighborhood, but in the period of historic immigration it represented a minuscule number. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the only major immigration restriction before the law of 1924—shut the door to any sizable group forming, and even wives were not allowed to join their husbands. The small Chinese community around Mott Street was basically a bachelor society and would be so until the 1940s when restrictions
eased and the population slowly began to grow.
But it would not be until the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, when the immigrant quota systems of 1924 were lifted, that an Asian influx began in earnest. Now there are some 56,000 Chinese-born immigrants living in the Lower East Side, and the initial enclave has expanded to the north and east. It is difficult to believe that only 38 Chinese were living in the neighborhood in 1855 and grew to just 250 in the later 19th century. Today, the Chinese constitute the second largest immigrant population in New York City, with the greatest concentration not on the Lower East Side but in Queens.
In the mid-20thcentury the Puerto Rican population of the Lower East Side, also began to grow. As American citizens, Puerto Ricans were subject to none of the legal restrictions that had been placed on the historic immigrant groups. In the 1940s and 1950s migration to the mainland increased, the number peaking in 1960, when air travel made the trip relatively easy. By the 1970s, the large contingent of Puerto Ricans on the Lower East Side sometimes referred to themselves as “Nuyorican,” and also dubbed the area “Loisaida.”
Today, while Hispanics in the area have become a mix of different national groups, they remain a dominant force and represent over 20% of the population. African Americans, who once lived side by side with the Irish in the Five Points, today constitute 7.5% of Lower East Side residents. And, as an indication of the dramatic demographic shift from the earlier historic period, none of the original immigrant groups—Irish, Germans, Italians, or Eastern European Jews—are cited as having significant populations in a current statistical analysis of the area.
Today the Lower East Side is an area of vivid contrasts. There are trendy art galleries, shops and restaurants, with high-rise glass apartment buildings interspersed among the historic tenements that still dominate the streetscape. There is a vibrant Off-Broadway scene, a multitude of community gardens and, stretching along the waterfront, a swarth of public housing built in an intense period of urban renewal.
Many historic buildings have been repurposed for changing times: a settlement house is now luxury condominiums, an immigrant bank became a boutique hotel, a synagogue is an artist’s foundation. But when walking around the neighborhood on the narrow, crowded sidewalks, one remains aware that this unusual place had a remarkable and impactful history. It is crucial that this storied New York City neighborhood, which served as a fulcrum for the pluralist notion of who and what we are as a nation, be celebrated and protected through the process of New York City historic district landmarking, particularly as immigration issues are at the forefront of societal debate today.
Anbinder, Tyler. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York. New York: Mariner Books, 2017.
Binder, Frederick M., David M. Reimers, and Robert W. Snyder. All the Nations Under Heaven: Immigrants, Migrants, and the Making of New York. New York, Columbia University Press, 2019 (Revised Edition).
Furman Center, New York University. Core Data: Population Fact Finder. https://coredata.nyc/
Maffi, Mario. Gateway to the Promised Land: Ethnic Cultures in New York’s Lower East Side. New York and London: New York University Press, 1995.
New York City, Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. State of our Immigrant City: Annual Report, 2020.
O’Leary, Amy. ”How Many People Can Manhattan Hold?” In The New York Times, March 1, 2012. Includes a diagram of tenement population at 94 Orchard Street in 1910 and 2012 titled:
“Manhattan’s Population Density, Past and Present.” https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/03/01/realestate/manhattans-population-density-past-and-present
Population Density Map of Lower East Side in 1900. https://buildingtheskyline.org/.