Posts Tagged ‘slums of New York City’

Jerome Myers: the “gentle poet” of the slums

November 12, 2012

In 1882, painter Jerome Myers moved to New York from his native Virgina. Visiting the crowded ethnic slums of the Lower East Side, he found the inspiration for his life’s work.

“‘My song in my work,’ he wrote, ‘is a simple song of the poor far from any annals of the rich,’” states Seeing America: Painting and Sculpture From the Collection of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester.

Myers depicted day-to-day street life and interactions for the next several decades until his death in 1940. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he eschewed grittiness and saw poetic beauty in his subjects.

“His was not a world of sweatshops and street urchins but rather one where people gathered to gossip and barter in the marketplace, rest in city parks or at the end of East River piers, participate in the many religious revival festivals or attend the theater of outdoor concerts,” explains Seeing America.

“Myers cherished, above all, the playful, colorful lives of the children he observed on the Lower East Side. Always clean and well-dressed, they bear no resemblance to the street urchins that haunt the photographs of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis or paintings by George Luks.”

“‘Why catch humanity by the shirttail,’ Myers wrote, ‘when I could . . . see more pleasant things?‘”

[From top: Sunday Morning, 1907; Corner Market; The Mission Tent, 1906; Evening Recreation, 1920]

The lonely vending carts under the elevated

September 8, 2011

Daniel Hauben’s “Mango Sunset” depicts a desolate summer evening under an elevated train and tropical fruit carts lacking customers.

Is it Upper Manhattan? The Bronx? If anyone recognizes the train tracks and the evening sun streaming through them to the street below, I’d love to know where it is.

Manhattan’s two worst blocks in the 1960s

April 20, 2011

Over the years, I’m sure countless New York streets have been worthy of this title.

But in the 1960s, two stretches of Manhattan held the crown.

In 1962, journalists gave it to East 100th Street, between First and Second Avenues.

Called “absolutely rock-bottom” by a city official in The New York Times that year, East 100th Street was further summed up as “overcrowded, notably unsanitary, ridden with crime and narcotics addiction, it is a microcosm of the worst conditions and worst elements of the city.”

A 1968 New York feature reported that residents held a funeral march for the tenements on the block, “so neglected they were virtually uninhabitable.”

Photographer Bruce Davidson shot a series of black and white photos on East 100th Street chronicling the stark poverty (at right, from 1966).

Today, some tenements appear to have been razed, but a row remains, as you can see on Google.

West 84th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam may be a little bit shabby by current standards—but it’s a pretty decent Upper West Side block.

Not so in 1961, when the Times awarded it “worst block” status after a 400-resident riot one summer grabbed the city’s attention.

The Times described West 84th as “the gathering place of drunks, narcotics addicts, and sexual perverts.”

The city’s solution: raze tenements and move residents to new housing projects.

John Podhoretz, who grew up on the Upper West Side in the 1960s, remembers West 84th and recounts the city’s efforts to clean it up here.

West Broadway: once a slum called “Rotten Row”

March 16, 2011

Luxe boutiques and galleries have lined Soho’s West Broadway for decades.

Which is why it’s so hard to imagine that in the 19th century, this stub of a road—then known as Laurens Street—was so wretched, residents dubbed it “Rotten Row.”

The blight started in the 1830s, when expensive brothels moved into former residences, writes Timothy J. Gilfoyle in City of Eros.

Ladies of the night tend to drag a neighborhood down. By the 1850s, the city published a report, saying of Rotten Row:

“It consists of eight houses on either side of the street, fronting each other, with as many more in the rear, containing in all about 250 families. . . . The pestiferous stench and filth of these pent-up tenements exceed description.”

Even social reformer Charles Loring Brace condemned the street, complaining of “the notorious rogues’ den” there “where, it was said, no drove of animals could pass by and keep its numbers intact.”

Hoping to change the street’s rep, officials in the 1870s renamed it “South Fifth Avenue.”

That auspicious name turned into a citywide joke. Mayor William Strong’s administration changed the moniker to West Broadway in 1896, which stuck.

Here’s the corner of Canal and West Broadway in a NYPL photo from 1936, looking much more like the West Broadway we know today.

The East Village, aka “Mackerelville”

May 18, 2010

Mackerelville—isn’t that an illustrious name? Centered at First Avenue and 11th Street, it was the mid–19th century term for today’s East Village.

And you know with a name like that—a mackerel was slang for a procurer or pimp—it had to be an awful place to live.

Second only to the legendary Five Points district in poverty, Mackerelville was a hotbed of gangs, gin mills, and other social ills, as this New York Times letter, from December 17, 1858, explains.

Other articles refer to Mackerelville’s “cholera heaps” and “uneducated denizens.” By the 1870s, it seems, the name was on the outs.

“The locality where the children will be taken from was once well known as Mackerelville, and consists of several squares of tenement buildings, all densely crowded with poor families,” reports an 1873 New York Times article about a charity boat trip.

A snapshot of tenement life

November 18, 2009

An unknown photographer captured this New York mother and her two babies in an old-law tenement apartment in 1916. 

Like most flats in old-law tenements (so named because they predate “new” turn-of-the-century laws mandating better living conditions per apartment), it’s dark, squalid, and unventilated.

That window probably looks out onto a narrow courtyard, if not just another room in the same apartment.

A legendary dancer gains fame in Five Points

August 3, 2009

Lower Manhattan’s Five Points slum, populated mainly by Irish immigrants and African Americans, was the city’s poorest, filthiest, most crime-ridden neighborhood in the 1840s.

MasterjubaBut out of Five Points came a performer who wowed crowds in the U.S. and England and was immortalized by Charles Dickens as “the greatest dancer known.”

Master Juba was his stage name. Born William Henry Lane in 1825 in Rhode Island, he came to Five Points in his teens and began competing against Irish-born dancers in saloons and dance halls, eventually moving on to minstrel shows and, later, touring Great Britain.

His style blended African steps with Irish jig moves. On his trip to New York in 1842, Charles Dickens saw Master Juba perform and was bowled over. Dickens had this to say in American Notes, his account of his trip:

Masterjubadickensbook“Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man’s fingers on the tambourine; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs–all sorts of legs and no legs—what is this to him?”

Above, an engraving of Master Juba dancing, from Dickens’ American Notes

Master Juba is considered the father of tap, jazz, and step dancing. His death in 1852 at age 27 has been attributed to malnutrition and his physically strenuous schedule and style.


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