Lower East Side – New York’s Tower of Babel

Around the beginning of the 20th century, the Lower East Side could rival the biblical Tower of Babel, accommodating hordes of new immigrants from all over the world. In fact, by 1910, it became the most densely populated place in the world! The statistics are staggering: per 5,000 sq ft, the Lower East Side had 70 people (compared with 16 people today). For reference, Hong Kong in 2001 had 25 people per 5,000 sq ft.

Essex Street, N. Y. City, 1905 postcard via MCNY digital collection

Even before immigration started, New York was a diverse city with many ethnic groups. The Germans, who fought as mercenaries on behalf of the British during the Revolutionary War, stayed on and were joined by families. Some Irish also were already in the country as a part of the labor force that built the Erie Canal (1817 – 1825). The small Jewish community had a foothold in New York since the 17th century. But it’s the mass immigration that started in the mid 19th century that changed the face of New York City and populated the Lower East Side. 

The Germans came after the Central European revolutions in 1848. They were followed by the Irish escaping the potato famines of 1845-1849. The Chinese arrived from California after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1870s. The Italians from the north of Italy were followed by the southern Italians running from natural disasters and economic depression starting in the 1870s. The Russian, Polish and Eastern Europeans, primarily Jewish, came running for their lives from pogroms and rampant discrimination beginning in the 1880s. There were so many of them that the Lower East Side earned a reputation as America’s ultimate Jewish neighborhood – by 1910, more Jews lived in New York City than in any other city in history. 

New York. Essex & Hester Streets. 1905 postcard via MCNY digital collection

It’s hard to believe that this multinational, overpopulated urban area was once bucolic farmland. Before the Revolutionary War, in the 17th and 18th centuries, it belonged to James De Lancey. A loyalist, he ran away after the War. His land was confiscated by New York City and sold to developers, who turned it into an upscale neighborhood. The streets of the Lower East Side were lined by lovely single-family rowhouses inhabited by prosperous upper-middle-class residents. It all changed as the 19th century rolled around.

19th-century New York became a magnet for new immigrants, and the Lower East Side became the prime destination. As the city grew north, the more affluent residents moved further uptown, leaving behind an infrastructure of roads and housing. The single-family dwellings were converted into multiple-apartment tenements by adding extra floors or expanding into rear-yard areas. New five to seven stories tenements were hastily built to accommodate new arrivals. As a result, the dwellings were constructed so densely that almost no light, air, and ventilation were allowed into the interior rooms. The neighborhood descended into overcrowding and poverty. It took years to create some regulations for this uncomfortable and unsafe housing; for example, the Tenement House Act of 1867 introduced the requirement of at least one toilet per 20 people. 

The world was stunned by the terrible living conditions on the Lower East Side when, in 1889, Jacob Riis published ‘How the other half lives’ – a book of photographs depicting this reality. The book turned public attention to tenements where 12 adults often stayed in a 13 feet room and where the infant death rate was as high as 1 in 10. The book prompted reform and in 1901, the city passed the Tenement House Law, which mandated improved sanitary conditions, fire escapes, and access to light. 

By 1900, around  2.3 million (two-thirds of New York City’s 3.4 million population) lived in tenement housing located mostly on the Lower East Side. It’s hard to come up with exact statistics, but according to NYC.gov, this was the population of New York City through the years. (I’m rounding the numbers to make them easier to read.) 

  • 1800 – 60,000
  • 1820 – 120,000
  • 1850 – 500,000
  • 1860 – 800,000
  • 1880 – 1,200,000
  • 1900 – 3,500,000
  • 1910 – 5,500,000

While the biblical Tower of Babel was destroyed, creating confusion and misunderstanding between people speaking different languages, the Lower East Side – New York’s Tower of Babel – is a unique and amazing testament to survival and understanding across cultures.

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