Lower East Side: Progressive Pioneer

By Phyllis Eckhaus

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Seward Park. c. 1905 (Photo-MCNY-Wurts Bros.)

Paris had its Belle Epoque. Harlem had its Renaissance. At the turn of the 20th century, the Lower East Side helped birth a paradigm shift of equal moment—the progressive reworking of the social contract.

Today we take government and civic services almost for granted, but 19th century America was a place where individuals and families were typically expected to fend for themselves.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, famed advocate of “Self-Reliance,” commented after one of the nation’s numerous currency crises that “the land stinks of suicide.”  American individualism blamed the poor for their poverty.  Missionary organizations typically offered salvation for souls but no material support.

But on the Lower East Side poverty and squalor catalyzed social change, thanks to the singularity of New York City.  Indeed, the LES repeatedly jump-started extraordinary reforms and movements encompassing housing regulation; workers’ rights; settlement houses; safely sterilized milk; public parks, playgrounds, and libraries; adult education; public health nursing—and more.

Certainly the crowding was unlike anything ever before.  The Lower East Side was the densest place on earth—more crowded than what was then Calcutta or Bombay—with upwards of 3,000 people crowding a single city block. In the notorious 10th Ward, 335,000 people packed into a square mile.  By contrast, modern Manhattan (pre-pandemic) qualified as America’s most dense spot with a mere 67,000 people per square mile.  

Desperate poverty spawned multitudes of tiny victims, the abused and starving children neglected or put to work by their desperate parents.  And here we see New York City start to make its mark on national attitudes toward the poor.

Among its singularities, New York City was not only America’s immigrant gateway, it was also the national launching pad for the art and science of photography, which New Yorker Samuel F.B. Morse, working from Washington Square, taught to future luminaries such as Matthew Brady.  Lower East Side missionary Reverend Samuel D. Halliday, working to prevent destitute girls and women from becoming prostitutes, took wrenching photographs he included in his groundbreaking 1860 book, The Lost and Found; or Life Among the Poor.  He presented the one copy that survives to future President Lincoln, who visited the Lower East Side’s House of Industry, a precursor to the settlement houses, on the eve of his 1860 Cooper Union speech.

Portraying waifs like “Tattered Maggie,” a barefoot six-year-old orphan whom Halliday had found wandering the streets after the death of her mother, Halliday’s photographs both persuaded judges to award him custody of neglected and abandoned children, and also raised money for his efforts.  

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Childrens Aid Society. Going West from St. Mark’s Place.
c. 1890. (Photo-MCNY)

Other charities took up the then-revolutionary effort to improve children’s material well-being.  Charles Loring Brace—founder of the Children’s Aid Society and its “Orphan Trains” transporting more than 120,000 children to presumably better lives at work on Midwest farms—recounted the widespread resistance to improving the lives of the poor.  “To give a poor man bread before a tract, to clean and feed street-children before you attempt to teach them religiously” all spurred “great opposition” from the many who condemned such tactics as undermining religion and promoting socialism.

Photography continued to play a unique role in successful Lower East Side reform, arresting national attention.  Crusading reporter Jacob Riis, himself a once-homeless immigrant, repeatedly tried to trigger public outrage against LES tenement squalor—and failed until he combined reportage with pioneering flash photos, taken with the same exploding powder today used in fireworks.  His first slideshow of tenement horrors, “Flashes from the Slums,” was presented to the only organization that would sponsor him, the New York Society of Amateur Photographers.


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Jacob Riis Slideshow Poster. 1905. (Photo-MCNY)

Riis’ slideshow was an immediate sensation as was the landmark bestselling book that followed, How the Other Half Lives.   Suddenly reform had new momentum, and a confluence of New York City singularities spurred pivotal change.

The Small Parks Act of 1887—advocated by Riis, the new University Settlement, and the German Jewish philanthropists goaded into action by the plight of their benighted Eastern European coreligionists—helped spur the establishment of pioneering LES parks, among them the marvel that was Seward Park. 

Reflecting the Progressive Era and foreshadowing the New Deal, Seward Park became a public facility par excellence, home to America’s first municipal playground, as well as a running track, a children’s farm garden and a limestone and terra-cotta pavilion with a gym, meeting rooms, and public bathhouse.  The pioneering adjacent Aguilar Free Library—built by German Jewish philanthropy especially for Eastern European Jews, but notably open to all, “Jew and Gentile, black and white”—became a foundation for the New York Public Library, and the Seward Park Library in particular.

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Straus Milk Depot. c. 1915-20. (Photo-Library of Congress)

German Jewish philanthropist Nathan Straus, whose brother Isidor headed the Educational Alliance settlement house, launched a children’s health movement from the Lower East Side that would have done credit to the Gates Foundation.  Recognizing that bad milk was infecting children with tuberculosis and other killer diseases, he funded “milk depots” in Lower Manhattan to make sterilized milk readily available to the poor—and then, in 1894, an Avenue C “milk laboratory” to test and distribute the bottles.  

Within ten years of operation, the city’s child mortality rate was halved.  New York City, with Straus at the head of the Board of Health, was spurred to mandate milk sterilization, a reform Straus spread nationwide and abroad.  (Indeed, in 1912 Straus and family attended the International Tuberculosis Conference in Rome—with brother Isidor and wife dying aboard the Titanic upon their return, after refusing lifeboat seats.)

Housing reform advanced.  A headline-generating tenement house fire killing nine and injuring others, many of whom survived only by jumping 25 feet from the fifth floor to the rooftop next door, spurred the landmark 1860 law mandating fire escapes on new buildings.  Successive laws—culminating in the Tenement House Law of 1901, co-authored by University Settlement architect Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes—sought to regulate tenement construction, remediate existing buildings, and bring air, light, and increased safety and sanitation to buildings formerly notorious for having little to none.  Later, with the New Deal, the LES again pioneered housing reform, when the first government-built public housing project, called First Houses, opened in 1936, on Avenue A and 3rd Street.

For decades, Catholic nuns and working-class Jews had aided their coreligionists without fanfare.  By contrast, the settlement house movement—with affluent reformers living and working among the poor—brought passionate, media-savvy, and well-connected young people into the LES.  Their efforts became the stuff of headlines and lobbying campaigns.

Though Chicago’s Hull House looms large in our collective memory, in fact the Lower East Side was the national epicenter of the settlement house movement.  University Settlement, founded in 1886, was the first in the nation and the second in the world.  Among its firsts, it boasted New York City’s first public baths, serving as many as 800 people a day with its 41 showers and 2 tubs.  An 1895 New York State law subsequently mandated public bath construction.

Settlement houses proliferated on the LES, Christodora House, the Church of All Nations, the Educational Alliance, Grand Street, Hamilton House, Henry Street, Madison House, and Stuyvesant Neighborhood House among them.  By 1908, there were more than 100 settlement houses throughout the country, 19 of them in New York City.

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Library, Educational Alliance. (Photo-NYPL)

The Educational Alliance was founded in 1891, a response to the deluge of poor Eastern European Jews to the Lower East Side, spawning desperation, prejudice, and Christian missionary efforts.  The settlement, forged via an unprecedented alliance of multiple German Jewish philanthropies, coincided with the need for “more day schools downtown, to check the conversionists and save the children from the gutter.”

Time and again, pioneering Educational Alliance programming was replicated and ultimately subsumed by New York City. The reading room at the Alliance, predating the public library system, was “by far the most assiduously used library in the city”, with an annual circulation of 140,000 and an average attendance of 500 people a day in 1894.  By 1904, the collection, the aforementioned Aguilar Free Library, was taken over by the New York Public Library. 

The English classes, in the evening for adults and in the day for children, broke new ground—predating adult education or mandatory public schooling in New York City.  Indeed, English language proficiency was a prerequisite for public school.  By 1897, attendance at the Alliance’s English language classes reached a high of a thousand a day.  By 1900, more than 5,500 children had enrolled in public school directly upon completing English classes at the Alliance.  By 1904, New York City had taken over the English classes and passed a compulsory education law.  

The adult education classes—including lectures cosponsored with University Settlement and the pioneering Breadwinners College—became models, with the Breadwinners’ College providing the direct inspiration for a graduate, Professor Morris Cohen, to establish in 1909 another first, an evening baccalaureate program at City College.  

Henry Street Settlement—founded by the redoubtable Lillian Wald in 1893—became another engine of change, fueled especially by Wald’s boundary-crossing connections and sympathies, which we might today call “intersectional.”  

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Nurses at Henry Street Settlement. (Photo-

Trained as a nurse, Wald’s full engagement in the Lower East Side began when a desperate child interrupted a workshop Wald was teaching to lead her into the sordid tenement apartment where the girl’s mother and newborn sibling lay ill and apparently dying.  Wald’s response was ultimately to establish the “Nurses’ Settlement” (later renamed Henry Street) and the field of “public health nursing,” of which she became the first practitioner and best promoter.  Among Henry Street firsts was the country’s first public school nurse program, launched in 1902. 

Underwritten by the German Jewish philanthropist Jacob Schiff (it did not hurt that Wald was Jewish), Henry Street became a force, advocating not only for neighborhood reforms—parks, playgrounds, better housing, healthcare, educational opportunity and job training—but also for big picture, connect-the-dots change.  Henry Street hosted the 1909 founding conference of the National Association of Colored People.  Wald was an honorary vice chair of the New York State Woman Suffrage Party. A pacifist, she headed the American Union Against Militarism, which opposed entry into WWI.  And she was a persistent advocate for labor, defending her radical immigrant neighbors and clients to her rich benefactors.

Florence Kelley, a former sweatshop inspector trained as a lawyer and social scientist, moved residence from Chicago’s Hull House to Henry Street in 1899, where from her Lower East Side perch she headed the National Consumers League, which pushed consumers to advocate for workers’ rights.  

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Child Labor. Lower East Side. 1913. (Photo-Library of Congress-Lewis Hine)

Kelley and Wald together sought to tackle the enormously complex problem of child labor, encompassing child laborers in the home as well as those in the street, field, or factory.  Building on their local experience, culminating in the passage of a landmark 1903 New York State law, they were among the founders of the National Child Labor Committee—which deployed former New York City school teacher Lewis Hine to photograph child laborers throughout the country.  Wald conceived of a Children’s Bureau within the Department of Labor, and declined the chance to head it when her steadfast advocacy succeeded in 1912.

In the early years of the 20th century, when labor agitation caught fire across the country, again New York City and the Lower East Side made singular contributions to the movement. Landmark strikes by New York City immigrant workers—among them 1909’s “Uprising of the 20,000,” a three-month long walkout by garment workers, the first mass strike led by women—captured the national imagination, and forged alliances across ethnic and class lines.  Suddenly, workers—even women workers—had public agency and presence, as did their upper-class women allies.

And in 1911 when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire immolated garment workers in Greenwich Village, it was nevertheless a Lower East Side tragedy, given that 96 of the 146 victims lived on the LES.  Looking back, Franklin Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins drew a direct line from that disaster, which she personally witnessed, to the pro-worker values of the Progressive Era and later, the New Deal, describing it as “the torch that lit up the industrial scene.”   

It would be reductive—and surely wrong—to attribute the paradigm-shifting Progressive Era to any single factor.  But connecting Progressivism to New York City, and specifically to the ferment of the Lower East Side, is instead an act of reclamation, acknowledging the catalytic importance of that neighborhood to New York City and the nation. 

The distinctiveness of New York City neighborhoods gives them their appeal—and also their power.  Today, the Lower East Side continues to offer immigrant newcomers and working families refuge, community, and support.  If we fail to protect the LES, we bulldoze more than history.  We destroy a naturally occurring innovation lab, one that has uplifted and shaped America. 

Selected References

Anbiner, Tyler.  Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum. New York: The Free Press, 2001.

Bellow, Adam.  The Educational Alliance: A Centennial Celebration.  Arlington, Virginia: Keens Company, 1990.

Berman, Andrew.  How Alphabet City’s ‘Milk Laboratory’ Led to Modern Pasteurization.  6sqft (viewed January 17, 2022).

Fitzgerald, Maureen.  Habits of Compassion: Irish Catholic Nuns and the Origins of New York’s Welfare System, 1830-1920.  Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006. 

Greenhouse, Steven.  New York, Cradle of Labor History.  New York Times, August 30, 1996 (viewed January 17, 2022).

The Jewish Messenger.  Local News.  In Town.  In Brief.  March 6, 1891, page 2.

Jewish Women’s Archive.  Women of Valor:  Lillian Wald (viewed January 17, 2022). 

Kaplan, Paul M.  New York in the Progressive Era: Social Reforms and Cultural Upheaval, 1890-1920. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2021. 

New York Tribune.  A Worthy Gift to Hebrews.  November 9, 1891, page 7.

Rischin, Moses.  The Promised City: New York’s Jews, 1870-1914.  New York, Evanston, and London: Harper Torchbooks, 1970.

Scheuer, Jeffrey.  University Settlement, the Nation’s First Settlement House, Founded 1886 on the Lower East Side of New York City.  Reprinted by the Social Welfare History Project from Legacy of Light: University Settlement’s First Hundred Years, a brochure published in 1985 (viewed January 17, 2022).   

Teicher, Jordan G.  The Hidden History of Photography in New York. New York Times LENS blog, posted February 22, 2017 (viewed January 17, 2022).