Welcome to Poverty Gap, a 19th century slum

Povertygapwest28thstreetManhattan in the late 19th century had some awful slum districts. Not all of them were downtown.

“The city is full of such above the line of Fourteenth Street, that is erroneously supposed by some to fence off the good from the bad, separate the chaff from the wheat,” wrote journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis in 1890’s How the Other Half Lives.


One small stretch of hardship in the geographical middle of the city was Poverty Gap, a stretch of West 28th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues.

Riis’ image (above) of the inside of a Poverty Gap tenement, “an English Coal-Heaver Home,” reveals just how terrible conditions were.


“The father . . . earned on the average $5 a week ‘when work was fairly brisk,’ at the docks,” wrote Riis, a Danish immigrant. The entire family, including a baby, slept on a pile of rags, he added.

Poverty Gap, home of a group of “roughs” called the Alley Gang, appears to have been one of the city’s few mixed-race neighborhoods.


In 1899, the New York Times reported that a black man who shot and mortally wounded a white burglar was almost lynched.

What became of this hardscrabble enclave? Riis visited again in 1908 and found that the Alley Gang had dispersed and one of the city’s first public playgrounds (above) took the place of a rundown tenement.

Povertygapplayground21890“The toughs were gone, with the old tenements that harbored them,” he wrote in Children of the Poor. “A decent flat had taken the place of the shanty across the street where a ‘longshoreman kicked his wife to death in a drunken rage.”

“And this play-ground, with its swarms of happy children who a year ago would have pelted the stranger with mud from behind the nearest truck—that was the greatest change of all. The retiring toughs have dubbed it ‘Holy Terror Park’ in memory of what it was, not of what it is.”

Far West Chelsea has had a colorful past, its small alleys and enclaves long forgotten, like Franklin Terrace.

[Photos: Jacob Riis]

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4 Responses to “Welcome to Poverty Gap, a 19th century slum”

  1. wack60585 Says:

    Reblogged this on wack60585.

  2. findingnyc Says:

    The Museum of the City of New York has a great exhibition of Jacob Riis’s photographs right now. It’s amazing to see them in person.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes, I forgot to mention that! Here are details. It closes March 20:

  4. Karel van Aggelen Says:

    Jacob Riis has a retrospective at the Museum of the city of New York till early 2016 , March ? You can ” see how the other half lives ”
    and his other pioneering photo projects .

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