The Lower East Side Today

The Lower East Side Business Improvement District, a nonprofit economic development organization that promotes improvements to the quality of life on the Lower East Side, offers great interactive maps. The organization also provides historical information about the area and walking tours. Visit http://www.lowereastsideny.com/explore/interactive-map/ to view all of their maps.

An example of the cultural and entertainment interactive map at the Lower East Side Business Improvement District's website. Source: http://www.lowereastsideny.com.

VanDam, Inc., http://www.vandam.com, is another great map resource for viewing New York City locations. Below is a sample of one of its isometric pocket maps.

Google Maps is a service that provides map, satellite, and street views of an area. Users can research exact addresses, plot lines and markers, and research buildings and local businesses. You can also customize and save maps for personal use. To see a map that documents my family history, click on this link.

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Cleaning Up the Lower East Side

As part of a city improvement project to eliminate what was known as the “red-light district,” Allen Street was widened in 1932 from its original 50 feet to 138 feet. Tenements were removed on its eastern edge (Mendelsohn 2009, 154-155). There were about 600 people per acre that were displaced, mostly Jewish immigrants. The “cleaning up of the Lower East Side” continued in 1938 when Mayor LaGuardia’s administration banned peddlers from the streets and relocated them to indoor markets. There wasn’t room for everyone in the indoor markets, which put many immigrants out of work. The number of peddlers decreased from 15,000 to 1,200 by 1945 (Dans and Wasserman 2006, 160).

Demolition of a tenement on the Lower East Side. Source: Photograph by © Allan Tannenbaum. Available at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

To see how Allen Street changed over time, go to: http://maps.nypl.org/warper/maps/15574#Preview_Rectified_Map_tab. Use the transparency bar at the bottom of the page to see the differences between the historical map and the current one. Source: NYPL’s Map Division, Map Warper. The historical map is from Maps of the City of New York, Third Edition, by William Perris: 1857.

Other tenement demolition projects took place nearby on Eldridge, Hester, and Pitt Streets. They are easily seen in the G.W. Bromley and NYC Housing Authority maps below.

G.W. Bromley fire insurance map from 1934. Note the tenements between Eldridge and Allen Streets. Source: G.W. Bromley Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan: 1934-Present. Available at NYPL's Map Division.

G.W. Bromley fire insurance map from 1974. Note how the tenements no longer exist between Eldridge and Allen Streets. Source: G.W. Bromley Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan: 1934-Present. Available at NYPL's Map Division.

After the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed, it reopened America’s door to Chinese immigrants. Also, the ending of the Vietnam War in 1975 prompted tens of thousands of immigrants from South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to flee to America. Many of these immigrants settled on the Lower East Side (Cayton and Williams 2001, vol.2, 317). This caused shifts in ethnic groups and an increase in population in the area. To accommodate the needs of the new wave of Asian immigrants, M.S. 131 Dr. Sun Yat-Sen was created. This replaced J.H.S. 65, tenements, and businesses at 100 Hester Street.

This G.W. Bromley fire insurance map from 1974 shows the tenements and J.H.S. 65 before the demolition and reconstruction projects that occurred during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Source: G.W. Bromley Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan: 1934-Present.

Map from the NYC Housing Authority. This map shows the reconstruction of the school at 100 Hester Street (see the lower left hand corner of the map). It also shows a current view of the housing project at 45 Allen Street (with second entrance at 85 Eldridge Street). See the differences between this map and the G.W. Bromley fire insurance maps above. Source: New York City Housing Authority, http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/html/home/home.shtml.

G.W. Bromley fire insurance map of Pitt Street in 1934. Note the number of tenements here and compare this map to the NYC Housing Authority Map below. Source: G.W. Bromley Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan: 1934-Present. Available at NYPL's Map Division.

This map from the New York City Housing Authority shows that the tenements were replaced by the Samuel Gompers Housing project. Source: New York City Housing Authority, http://www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/html/home/home.shtml.

Working, Playing, and Living

Hester Street is named for Hester Leisler, daughter of Jacob Leisler, lieutenant governor of the British provence of New York who was falsely accused of treason and hanged in 1691. However, it is better known for Joan Micklin Silver’s 1975 film, Hester Street (Mendelsohn 2009, 132). During the early 1930s, immigrants filled Hester street to shop and sell. Vendors sold “everything from fruit, vegetables, bread, hot knishes, bagels, hot arbis (boiled chick peas) to tools and used clothing” (Dans and Wasserman 2006, 132). For peddlers, this was the only way to survive in America.

Base map of the Lower East Side, ca.1939. Source: Map created by Matt Knutzen. From Dans, Peter E. and Suzanne Wasserman. Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006.

Peddlers with their pushcarts. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, http://www.loc.gov/pictures.

Local shops were another common way for immigrants to earn income. Often immigrants would know a trade and use these skills to create American businesses.

This is my grandfather in front of his barber shop, Oriental, on 42 Mott Street in Chinatown. Note the signage on the window and Chinese lettering. This shows the diversity of immigrant groups on the Lower East Side. Source: Personal archive of Jeanette LaPlaca, my grandmother.

In an effort to find relief from hot, overcrowded tenement life, residents would sit outside on stoops and fire escapes, go to the movies, and play in fire hydrants.

From the movie Street Scene, 1931. Source: Internet Archive (http://archive.org/movies/thumbnails.php?identifier=StreetScene1931)

Lyric Theatre, Third Avenue, New York, 1936.
Source: Photograph by Berenice Abbott. Available at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Kids playing in fire hydrants was a common street scene on the Lower East Side.
Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.

Tenement Housing

By the early twentieth century, the population continued to grow on the Lower East Side. Tenements were created to house three or more families, but they had poor living conditions and became overcrowded. This caused health and safety problems for many immigrant families. The Lower East Side area eventually became known as a “slum.”

An example of a tenement building in New York City.

Source: New York Public Library (NYPL), Digital Gallery,  http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/index.cfm

Tenement buildings often had both residential apartments and retail stores.

Source: Photograph by Max Yavno. Image available at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Tenement poster from the Tenement House Department of New York City.

Source: Library of Congress, Print and Photograph Online Catalog. 



Introduction

The Lower East Side in New York City is the section of southeast Manhattan (40°43′N 73°59′W). It was a popular place for immigrants to settle during the during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Columbia Gazetteer of the World, http://www.columbiagazetteer.org/main/ViewPlace/0/81511). The map below shows the population density by block in 1910.

The large number of synagogues shown here convey how Jewish immigrants were the predominant group on the Lower East Side during this time.

 

Source: Map and key from Eric Homberger, The Historical Atlas of New York City: A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City’s History, Revised ed. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005), 132.