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.

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3 thoughts on “Working, Playing, and Living

  1. The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited: A History and Guide to a Legendary New York Neighborhood is a guidebook that explores the past and present sites of New York City’s Lower East Side. With five maps of suggested walking tours, Mendelsohn tells the story of changes in real estate, traditions, and the community in this area. In one of her tours (Tour III), the author describes the development of schools, parks, and city planning between Forsyth and Essex Streets. She describes the origin of street names, the changes in laws regarding tenement housing, cultural notes, and costs of living.

  2. The book Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950 is a great resource for learning more about this area of New York City. There are wonderful stories, facts, and images. It is available at NYPL and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

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