Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

The tramp: a new kind of homeless in the 1870s

November 2, 2015

On December 28, 1873, after a terrible economic recession descended on New York—bringing with it unemployment and eviction—the New York Times sounded the alarm on a new urban threat.


“At the present time there is supposed to be at least 3,000 vagrants in this City, while there is a large number who travel from place to place, either begging as they go along, or doing odd jobs for their meals,” warned the front page article.

Trampsfrankleslies1877“These tramps are always pretending to look for work, but it is very rare that they will accept it if offered, unless to get a chance to steal something.”

Tramps had arrived in New York—ragged, disconnected men who appeared on sidewalks and park benches in high numbers, scaring residents who felt they were “an army of the poor threatening respectable society,” states The Poor Among Us.

“The threat created by tramps was certainly exaggerated, but the underlying problem was real.”

Tramp1890snyplTramps “first appeared in the 1870s,” wrote Luc Sante in Low Life. “Many of them were probably Civil War veterans who hadn’t been able to adjust.”

“In the years when Central Park was new, tramps would hide out there, living in its sylvan recesses. They attracted notice as a public nuisance with their penchant for lying prone on the pavement and draining the lees from empty beer kegs set out in front of saloons.”

Tramps lived in 5 cent lodging houses or on police station floors—the  homeless shelters of the Gilded Age for those with absolutely no where else to go.

Trampsongbook1894As the 19th century went on, Tramps became the face of homelessness in the city.

Charities directed their efforts toward decreasing the number of homeless children and women, who the public felt were more deserving of aid.

“By the end of the 19th century, however, the typical homeless person was a tramp,” states The Poor Among Us.

Tramps could be found all over downtown. Flop houses catered to them. City officials built farm colonies where they could be put to work. They became colorful characters in vaudeville and early movies.

Trampsingersargeant1904-1906Though their numbers were reduced during World War I in New York, they never really went away from the city for long, of course.

These were the “forgotten” men living in Central Park Hooverville shanties during the Depression, the Bowery bums drinking and standing around trash can fires through the postwar decades, and the homeless of today, begging on sidewalks and parks or edged into the shadows under bridges and inside subway stations.

[Top image: Jacob Riis, 1890; Harper’s Weekly; NYPL Digital Gallery; NYPL Digital Gallery; John Singer Sargent, 1906]

Back to school on the Lower East Side, 1890

September 7, 2015

Journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis took these photos of Lower East Side kids crammed into a desk-less, crowded, all-boy classroom at the Essex Market School.


This school appears to have been a public school holding classes in the Essex Street jail-court complex, which was slated for demolition in 1905.


“Indeed, the jail filled the title role in the educational cast of that day,” wrote Riis in 1902’s The Battle With the Slum.

“Its inmates were well lodged and cared for, while the sanitary authorities twice condemned the Essex Market school across the way as wholly unfit for children to be in, but failed to catch the ear of the politician who ran things unhindered.”

[Photos: MCNY Collections Portal]

Congratulations to these old New York graduates

June 8, 2015

It’s commencement season, the perfect time to look back at images of long-ago graduates posing in class photos. What in the world became of them?


The suited up boys in this 1915 photo, new graduates of P.S. 64 at 605 East Ninth Street, look like they’re going places in life.

P.S. 64 opened in 1906, not long after the consolidation of the city, a time of huge investment in new school facilities. “Organized around two courtyards, it was the first elementary school to have an auditorium with direct access to the street, allowing this structure to serve an expanded role in the community,” states the Guide to New York City Landmarks.


Brooklyn Friends is a private school in downtown Brooklyn founded in 1867. This is the class of 1943, decked out in graduation suits and gowns.


Elementary and high schools aren’t the only institutions that hold a commencement ceremony. Meet the 1885 nursing school graduates from Broad Street Hospital, formerly at the end of Broad Street.

News photographer George Bain captured this image of the graduates of the “Cripple School” on the Lower East Side’s Henry Street in 1912.


Officially known as the Crippled Children’s East Side Free School, the school intended to “provide the crippled children of the Lower East Side with facilities for securing an education and learning a trade, so that they may become self-supporting,” according to a 1920 guide.

“Workrooms maintained where older cripples fill orders for all kinds of needlework and hand stitching and paper boxes.”

The girls leading New York’s maypole dances

May 4, 2015

Depending on your age and social class, May Day in the New York of a century ago meant either labor demonstrations or maypoles.

For kids, especially little girls, maypoles were the thing. These tall wood poles, symbolic of trees, were decorated with strips of ribbon, which each girl would hold while moving in a circle around the pole.


This rejoicing of the return of spring has its roots in Northern European cultures. Since so many New Yorkers came from this part of the world at the time, the tradition carried over.


Central Park was a popular site for Maypole dances. But the neighborhood parks springing up at the time also hosted them, usually for poorer kids with much less decorative poles.

Their pole isn’t as fancy and instead of ribbon they’re using string, but these girls in Seward Park in 1890 refused to be left out of the tradition.


Maypole processions were a common sight in city neighborhoods, and they were led by girls, as this New York Times article from 1886 explains:

“On the morning of the eventful day the May Queen, decked out in her summer best and her hair garlanded with flowers, leads a procession of her associates to the park,” wrote the Times.

Maypoleeastside1898The May Queen was picked by popular vote in the neighborhood.

“Her especial favorite among the small boys, graciously permitted to accompany the party, carries the May pole.”

“The parents of some of the children accompany the party ostensibly to keep the peace, but in reality because they enjoy themselves fully as much as the children do.”

“Throughout the month of May, these little parties are a familiar sight on the streets.”

[Top image: NYPL; second, Bain Collection, LOC; third and fourth, NYPL]

A thief called the “cleverest woman in America”

April 20, 2015

AnniereillybyrnesbookmugshotWith its growing wealth and a police force more focused on patronage than professionalism, New York in the mid- to late 19th century was a thief’s paradise.

One female Irish immigrant was so successful at robbing the homes of the well off, she earned the nickname “the cleverest woman of her line in America.”

Her name was Anne Reilly. Born in Ireland in 1844, she came to New York and worked as a maid and nanny.

Her job made stealing relatively easy. Bright, charming, and able to speak three languages, “. . . she makes a great fuss over the children, and gains the good-will of the lady of the house,” before stealing all the valuables, wrote Thomas Byrnes, New York’s notorious chief of detectives in his 1886 in his book Professional Criminals of America.

AnniereillypickpocketUnder the alias of Kate Connelly, Kate Manning, or Kate Cooley, “Little” Annie plied her trade in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other Northeastern cities, falling in with a group of professional con women and sneak thieves headed by Marm Mandelbaum, who lived on Clinton Street.

After small stints in prison, in 1880 she was finally sentenced to doing real time—three years—on Blackwell’s Island for robbing a Second Avenue home of a Mrs. Evangeline Swartz.

Anniereillynytimes1879She went back to her old ways upon release, getting a job as a servant at the New York Hotel and stealing thousands of dollars in jewelry from guests’ rooms. She also tried to make off with a watch from a Macon Street, Brooklyn, jeweler named Charles Jennings.

ThomasbyrnesThose crimes scored her time in the Kings County Penitentiary, where the official record of her life and misdeeds appears to end.

“This woman is well worth knowing,” Byrnes (at left) wrote. “She has stolen more property in the last 15 years than any other four women in America.” The four women include her three aliases.

[Article clippings: New York Times]

Glowing beauty of the Brooklyn Bridge at night

April 13, 2015

Now this is enchantment: the globes of light from the bridge deck, the boat lights illuminating the East River, the twinkling skyline of lower Manhattan.


“This view shows the well known Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground, and the most prominent of New York’s skyscrapers in the distance,” reads the back of this postcard.

“This scene is probably more familiar than any other to the multitude of people living in Greater New York.”

What remains of the East River’s long-gone slips

March 16, 2015

 Slipold2015Old maps of Lower Manhattan (like the one below, from 1842) list them: the many slips created along the East River to facilitate ship transportation in a city dependent on maritime trade.

 From Gouverneur Street to Whitehall Street, 12 slips offered “access to the shoreline by small craft such as ferries and farmers’ market boats,” states “There were markets at most of the slips at one time or another.”


Today, some exist in name only. Eleven were gone by the middle of the 19th century, early victims of the city’s valuable real estate. The last one disappeared by 1900.

Slipmarket2015“It was the need for additional land that caused the passing of New York’s historic slips,” states a 1924 New York Times article.

“Those alleyways of water were two blocks long and as many wide, flanked about by rocking wharves at which tied up the small boats belonging to mother vessels further out, or the mother vessels themselves if not too large.”

“And with the passing of these slips passed also the romance of the clippers, our country’s first sailing vessels.”

What wonderful names they had! Some were derived from prominent Dutch-born landowners, like Coenradt and Antjie Ten Eyck (Coentje—later Coenties—Slip).


Others were named for the businesses nearby, like Coffee House Slip, once at the end of Wall Street where several coffee houses had popped up in the late 18th century (above, in a New York Times sketch).


There was also Fly Market Slip, a corruption of the Dutch vly, meaning valley, according to

The rest were Gouverneur, Rutgers, Pike, Market, Catherine, James, Peck, Burling, and finally, Old Slip.

The final days of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

March 2, 2015

On April 5, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to the electric chair for committing espionage for the Soviet Union.

Rosenbergs1951trialFor the next 14 months, a flurry of appeals, pleas, and protests was hatched to try to save the lives of the husband and wife convicted spies, ages 32 and 35, both natives of the Lower East Side.

In March 1952, their lawyers filed an appeal in Federal court, claiming the conduct of the sentencing judge, Irving R. Kaufman, denied them a fair trial.

That appeal was denied, as was an appeal to the Supreme Court claiming the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment.

Rosebergsdailynewsheadline“Doomed couple in Sing Sing for 18 months take news calmly,” a headline read in October 1952.

A stay of execution pushed back their scheduled March 9 date with death. Meanwhile, a clemency plea to the president was dismissed in February 1953.

Eisenhower replied that “their betrayal of United States atomic secrets to Russia could bring to death ‘many, many thousands of innocent citizens,'” wrote The New York Times in May 1953.

In May, the Supreme Court ordered the stay vacated. Electrocution was set for the week of June 15.

Religious leaders around the world cabled President Eisenhower and asked for clemency for the couple. Protesters marched in Boston, Los Angeles, and outside the White House.

Rally For The Rosenbergs

A final Supreme Court ruling, with only Hugo Black and William Douglas dissenting, paved the way for their deaths on June 19.

Rosenbergsdailynewsheadline2In New York that afternoon, 5,000 supporters rallied at the north end of Union Square, spilling onto East 17th Street (above).

But the execution proceeded that evening at about 8 p.m.

Julius went first. “As a clean-shaven Rosenberg neared the brown-stained oak chair he seemed to sway from side to side,” wrote the Times.

Ethel “entered the death chamber a few minutes after the body of her husband had been removed,” said the Times.

Wearing a green polka-dot dress and her hair close cropped, she kissed the cheek of a prison matron and was then strapped into the chair, a leather mask put over her face.

Rosenbergsrallygettyimages2After five shocks, she was pronounced dead.

Whether the death penalty was an appropriate punishment is still a contentious topic. Both admitted no culpability, but Soviet-era files later revealed that Julius was indeed a spy.

Ethel appears to have been implicated by her own brother, who testified against her to spare his own wife from prosecution.

[Top photo: AP; second and fourth images, NY Daily News; third and fifth photos: Getty Images]

Five hero firehouse dogs of old New York City

December 15, 2014

FirehousedogsNew York has had firefighters since Dutch colonial days, first in the form of volunteers and then, beginning in 1865, a professional paid force.

And in the days of horse-drawn engines and a less-sophisticated alarm system, firehouse dogs played an important role.

Often a stray who found his way to the house or an unwanted pup given to the chief, many these canines served their companies heroically, explains 1897 New York Times piece.

FiredogjacknytimesThere was Jack (left), of Hook and Ladder Company 18, on Attorney Street. He’s described as a “large, sober-looking, brown-and-black shaggy full-bred shepherd dog” by the Times.

“When the alarm rings, Jack hurries the horses by biting at their hind legs,” stated the Times.

“He runs with the team, directly in front of the engine, and when the scene of the fire is reached is the first to investigate, dashing recklessly in amid the smoke and flames.”

FiredogbarneynytimesJack reportedly would use his teeth to drag the hose up the stairs of a burning building, and when pleased “will show his teeth and laugh in a perfectly Rooseveltian manner.”

At Engine 25 on Fifth Street, Barney (right) was the resident fire mutt.

“At a fire in Engel & Heller’s wine cellar recently one of the men was overcome by the smoke,” noted the Times.

“Barney saw his comrade’s danger, and, remaining by his side, barked furiously until the others investigated and found the unconscious fireman.”


Spot, of Engine Company 21 on East 40th Street, also earned kudos. “She goes into all the fires, unless too hot, and has distinguished herself for her bravery a number of times,” wrote the Times.

Firedog1920mcny“At command she bounds on the shoulders of a fireman, or on the back of one of the horses. The latter she makes her special charges . . . barking when they chance to gnaw at the pole straps.”

In 1936, on something called Animal Hero Day (sponsored by the New York Anti-Vivisection Society), a 3-year-old dalmatian named Susie, from Engine Company 2 on Lafayette Street, scored top honors.

Susie “was sunning herself in front of the firehouse when she smelled smoke in a paper twine warehouse next door,” stated the Times. “Her frantic barks brought the firemen and the blaze was put out.”

Firedog1905mcnyBut perhaps no dog was honored for bravery more than Chief, a stray who hung around Engine Company 203 in Brooklyn in 1929 and stayed for 10 years.

While helping with firefighting duties, “’Chief’ received numerous injuries, such as: cuts from broken glass and falling debris, burns from scalding water, and bruises from falling off the fire engine,” states the website of the New York City Fire Museum.

“His hallmark rescue was in 1936, for which he won 4 medals of honor. On November 21, a fire broke out in the Bermudez home in Brooklyn.

Firedogchief“Sixteen year-old Johnny Bermudez escorted his family part way downstairs but went back to the fourth floor to get his cat. ‘Chief’ ran into the building and returned carrying the cat, with his teeth.”

After being killed by a car in 1939, firefighters had Chief stuffed and mounted in the firehouse. Today, he belongs to the Fire Museum (above).

[Top and bottom photos: NYC Fire Museum; photos 2 and 3: NYTimes; photos 4,5, and 6: MCNY digital collection]

How Five Points became the city’s worst slum

November 17, 2014

Filling in Collect Pond, once at today’s Centre Street behind City Hall, promised to solve two problems in late 18th century New York.


First, it would do away with the foul body of water that in more bucolic times was used for drinking but in the 1700s had been given over to tanneries, slaughterhouses, and other manufacturers who polluted it (below, in a 1776 British map).

Fivepointscollectpond1776Also, housing could be built on the new land, easing congestion in the crowded, growing young city.

By 1813, the pond was covered over, and development began, stated Tyler Anbinder in his book Five Points.

“Landowners generally filled their lots with two-and-a-half story wooden buildings, the half story an attic with low ceilings and dormer windows suitable for small workshops,” wrote Anbinder.

Fivepoints1851mapResidents who moved in were artisans, bakers, carpenters, and masons, along with merchants, shopkeepers, and businessmen.

Through the 1820s, it was more or less a middle- and working-class area. By the 1830s, it was the city’s center for poverty, vice, gangs, and disease. So what happened?

Part of it had to do with the declining wages of artisans, who were increasingly replaced by mass production, wrote Anbinder.

Also, immigration surged, housing prices rose, and landlords began subdividing buildings meant for one family into quarters for several—introducing a new word to the city, the “tenant house,” soon shortened to tenement.


The land under the houses was a problem as well. Collect Pond no longer existed, but the “ground remained damp and unsettled, causing houses to shift and tilt dramatically just a few years after construction,” wrote Anbinder.

Fivepoints1873“Because so many diseases of the period were attributed to dampness and ‘vapours,’ few New Yorkers wanted to live in such a locale.”

Soon prostitution and rum shops arrived, followed by gang-related crime. Anyone who could move out of what was once called the Collect neighborhood did, and those who remained lived in the newly christened Five Points, a wretched slum that persisted through most of the 19th century.

[Top: Five Points in 1827, by George Catlin; third image: Five Points map in 1851; fourth image: Five Points house in 1852; residents of Five Points illustration in 1873]


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