Posts Tagged ‘tenement life New York City’

Taking in the view from East River Park in 1902

April 29, 2013

William Glackens contrasts the calm quiet of a lower Manhattan park with the smoke-choked industrial Brooklyn waterfront across the river in his 1902 painting “East River Park.”

Is this the same East River Park that exists today south of East 12th Street? According to the NYC Parks Department, the current park was conceived by Robert Moses in the 1930s.

Glackenseastriverpark

The painting is part of the collection at the Brooklyn Museum. “William Glackens found ample subject matter in the parks of New York and the city dwellers who frequented them,” the museum website explains.

“Here he depicted the natural features of the East River Park, and the pastimes of its inhabitants, in sharp contrast to the bustling industrial setting of Brooklyn’s waterfront visible across the water. For the many immigrants living in small, cramped quarters, the urban parks of Brooklyn and Manhattan served as a refuge from the poor conditions and overcrowding of tenement life.”

What life was like in squalid “Blind Man’s Alley”

June 28, 2012

Of all the wretched courtyards and alleyways of late 19th century Manhattan, few sound as bad as the little nook known as Blind Man’s Alley.

Located at 26 Cherry Street, Blind Man’s Alley was so squalid, it made it into 1890’s How the Other Half Lives, by social reformer Jacob Riis:

“Few glad noises make this old alley ring. Morning and evening it echoes with the gentle, groping tap of the blind man’s staff as he feels his way to the street.

“Blind Man’s Alley bears its name for a reason. Until little more than a year ago its dark burrows harbored a colony of blind beggars, tenants of a blind landlord, old Daniel Murphy….”

Murphy made a fortune off rents, and he battled a health department mandate that he clean things up and make the alley more hygienic. [Above: photo by Riis inside one of the tenements]

“Sunless and joyless though it be, Blind Man’s Alley has that which its compeers of the slums vainly yearn for. It has a pay-day,” continues Riis.

“In June, when the Superintendent of Out-door Poor distributes the twenty thousand dollars annually allowed the poor blind by the city, in half-hearted recognition of its failure to otherwise provide for them, Blindman’s Alley takes a day off and goes to ‘see’ Mr. Blake.

“That night it is noisy with unwonted merriment. There is scraping of squeaky fiddles in the dark rooms, and cracked old voices sing long-for-gotten songs. Even the blind landlord rejoices, for much of the money goes into his coffers.”

[Right: Sketch of Cherry Street, where Blind Man’s Alley is located, from the NYPL Digital Collection]

The “cliff dwellers” of Manhattan’s slums

February 22, 2010

“Cliff Dwellers” is the name Ash Can School painter George Bellows gave his 1913 depiction of lower Manhattan tenement life.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which owns the painting, describes Cliff Dwellers this way: 

“The people are poor, living in cramped apartments, with too many children to feed; the children have the character of untrustworthy street urchins. Yet scenes such as this were not intended to be critical of foreigners of their living conditions; indeed, the activity has a lighthearted, almost circuslike quality.”