Posts Tagged ‘Lower East Side 1900’

Thousands of kids mob the city’s first playground

May 12, 2014

SewardparksignGilded Age New York was an era of great wealth. Yet if you were a poor kid living in a hardscrabble tenement district, you still didn’t have a decent place to play.

Sure, you had the traffic-snarled streets, which smelled of manure and trash. Or you could hang out in your tenement’s backyard or on the roof, both dirty and dangerous.

But it wasn’t until 1903 when the first city-run playground at the Lower East Side’s Seward Park—with gym equipment, a concert pavillon, and rows of rocking chairs for mothers with infants—opened to local children who desperately needed a place of their own.


Seward Park playground was the end result of a “playground movement,” a moral push from the progressive reformers of the era, who, with political allies like Theodore Roosevelt and Mayor Seth Low, opened schools and settlement houses.

They formed groups, such as the Outdoor Recreation League and the New York Society for Playgrounds and Parks, to help poor kids gain access to fresh air, trees, and playtime that they believed could prevent “crime and juvenile delinquency,” according to one reformer.


The adults accomplished their goal. By 1905, nine playgrounds had opened, becoming an iconic part of the cityscape.

But what did the kids around Seward Park think? From the beginning, the playground was a huge hit.

Sewardparkboys1903On opening day, October 17, 1903, “the crowd of 20,000 children present took matters into their own hands, mobbed the gates and swarmed into the 5,000 seats which had been reserved for school children and others,” wrote The New York Times the next day.”The programme was supposed to begin at 2 o’clock, but long before that hour all of the great square bounded by Canal, Hester, and Rutgers Street and East Broadway was full of children from one to sixteen years of age.”

In the driving rain, politicians pontificated. Jacob Riis, one of the reformers of the playground movement, took a turn at the podium.


“As anxious as I was to get the children into this park, I am more anxious at this moment to get them out,” reported the New York Herald.

NYCGildedAgecover“I came here to talk to the children, but I will wait until a fair day. I have done all the talking to the administration that I care to, and it is no longer necessary to talk to them, thank God.”

[Second photo: NYC Parks Department, 1908; third photo: NYC Parks Department, 1904; fourth photo: NYPL Digital Collection 1903; fifth photo: NYC Municipal Archives photo 1941]

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]

When the Lower East Side was “Poverty Hollow”

February 9, 2011

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.