EXCERPT FROM BRIEF HISTORY
OF THE LOWER EAST SIDE [ JUNE, 1966]
TRANSITION TO THE GHETTO: 1830-1900
After 1830, the laissez-faire tradition of New York functioned as an open passport for millions of European refugees. The new immigrants arrived by hoards, penniless and hopeful. They came to America as the alternative to starvation and/or persecution. There were refugees from famine; there were peasants abruptly dispossessed of land and thus, of a dependable way of life; there were victims of religious or political harassment and discrimination. These people: Irish, Germans, Chinese, German Jews, Russian Jews, Poles and Italians came by the hundreds of thousands to New York. Although the lasting physical patterns—street and building reflections of poverty—were firmly emerging, the Lower East Side continued to be a turnstile community till approximately 1915; passage to America or departure from the Lower East Side was movement by ethnic group. Successive immigrant groups expected to leave within one or two decades of their arrival; the majority fulfilled this hope. For all of the massively arriving immigrants, “New York” was the Lower East Side.
HOUSING PROBLEMS OF THE GHETTO: SLUM SOLUTION
Close to the point of arrival and to employment opportunities for unskilled, low-wage workers, the Lower East Side was the natural haven for those recently landed. In fact, no alternatives of employment or means of transportation to other areas of employment were available. The immigrants formed a captive population immobilized by poverty almost at dockside. Housing accommodations, albeit wretched, were quickly provided and former mansions became houses of many rooms. Typically, a room 12' by 12' was home for five families (or twenty persons). Commercial structures were converted into multiple dwellings. A notorious example is the “Old Brewery” near the present site of City Hall which housed 200 people.
Tenements proliferated and rear or backyard tenements stifled the remnants of sunlight. As of 1889, there were 2,630 rear tenements in use. Realtor greed produced the most efficient designs of low-rent housing for maximal rents. The grid pattern imposed on the City in 1811 made possible a grim design efficiency. Given the uniform real estate plot, 20' by 25' wide and 100' deep, the prototype “dumbbell” tenement was conceived and constructed with a floor space of 20' by 90' which allowed the creation of four, four-room apartments per floor. Maximum surface was freed for living quarters by squeezing stairs, halls and common water closets into the narrow center of the buildings. For example, bedrooms measured 9' by 6'. Ventilation and light were meagerly provided; only four out of every 14 rooms per floor enjoyed the benefit of direct air and light. The tenement population of New York City rose from 500,000 in 1860 to more than a million by 1888. Construction of these deplorable forms of housing was partly a consequence of the builders’ free hand; there were no restrictive building standards until 1864. The Old Law or Tenement House Law was passed in 1867.
In addition to tenements, nightly lodging was available for $.25 or
$.15 per night. During 1889, more than four million separate lodgings were supplied by dormitories established for this purpose. There were also “Dens of Death”—cellar dwellings which housed as many as 29,000 people.
Every square mile of the Lower East Side was crammed with 290,000 people by 1855. While the density of population per square mile was 73,000 for Manhattan Island in 1890, it was 334,080 in the Tenth Ward of the Lower East Side.
SURVIVAL OF THE SLUM AFTER DISINTEGRATION OF THE GHETTO
Once the Lower East Side became the refuge of the poor, the fearful and the powerless, its destiny as a sector of the City was fixed. Progressive settlement of New York, initiation and expansion of industry, plus the development of cheap transportation by 1895 offered the means to escape from the Lower East Side. By the end of the 19th century, alternative low-rent areas existed and there was an extension of the City’s employment capability. As a result, the multiple ghetto experience of the Lower East Side diminished in numbers and simplified in ethnic composition. But the physical container of this experience, the slum, has never significantly changed. […]