When the Lower East Side was “Poverty Hollow”

It sounds like a desperately poor place in Appalachia.

But news articles from the early 1900s refer to a pocket of the Lower East Side as Poverty Hollow.

“Poverty Hollow, down by the East River, has a mayor and a cabinet to settle all disputes,” states a New York Times headline from 1910.

The article, about the small-time thugs who appointed themselves in charge of the area, put Poverty Hollow’s boundaries in kind of a triangle formed by Corlears Hook Park, Clinton Street, and Delancey Street.

And in a patronizing 1905 feature from the Times, a writer promised snippets of “life as it is lived by the denizens of one of the most picturesque portions of the lowlier sections of this great city.”

I’m not sure when the Poverty Hollow moniker fell out of use. At the same time the area was also known as “The Ghetto,” thanks to all the Jewish immigrants (in the above 1903 photo, from the NYPL Digital Collection).

But at some point, both names were swallowed up by the all-encompassing Lower East Side.

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3 Responses to “When the Lower East Side was “Poverty Hollow””

  1. Nabe News: February 9 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle Says:

    […] subset of the Lower East Side was known as “Poverty Hollow” in the early 1900s.  This “pocket” was in a triangular space bounded by Corlears Hook […]

  2. T.J. Connick Says:

    Euphemism blended with acid is a cocktail made by many an Irish wit. Early references to the district by the name are usually joined to some colorful political wrangle involving citizens who knew each other well – all Irish. Poverty Hollow is probably a fanciful term originally, and might be used to describe working or living quarters of the “so bad it’s funny” condition.

    Such places sometimes became official names where schools and post offices incorporated the term, and less commonly, earned a place on a map. Oyster Bay on Long Island had such a place; Connecticut, Virginia, and Orange County, NY did, too. An old section near Richmond Hill called Morris Park supposedly had something officially called Poverty Hollow School.

    There are isolated news items in which reporters state that the scene of the action was known locally as Poverty Hollow. New York papers have stories in Inwood, Morrisania, Washington Heights, and W 29 St where it was used. In these accounts, one gets the feeling that it was an epithet.

    The subject of your piece is different. The term was a case of self-branding, a badge sported by the lively go-getters on the margins. Long after the Irish had passed the baton to new occupants, Poverty Hollow retained its clubby, cohesive connotations. District leaders would march under the banner, knowing that their ability to deliver foot soldiers and votes could be exchanged for the prize, the glue, that held things together for those born without property and privilege: jobs.

    The New York Times is a curious source for information along these lines. On occasion a piece would be penned in the 19th century with a deft and knowing touch, and the real color of a time and place shines. The trend, however, was towards the kind of tone-deaf, awkward, clunky treatment that comes down to us today in the Metropolitan Diary. It seems that New York is felt and experienced by the writers of the Times largely through examination of earlier editions. Anything seen, heard or smelled isn’t really happening until the archives are consulted. In the 1970s and 1980s their reporters would have uncorrected errors about places in the unvisited districts — where residents had higher amounts of melanin than the editors — that would make you think they were talking about an obscure and unknowable provincial outpost. In some distant time to come, our own history will be mangled by future generations whose minds are cramped by dedication to the Times.

    The Library of Congress Chronicling America and the Brooklyn Eagle Online (Brooklyn Public Library) are great, effortless sources, and often help when the NY Times has got things “off key”.

    It should be said that your approach is delightful. The open, loose, yet energetic touch works well. Keep up the good work, and thanks for letting us participate.

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