The Jews of Brooklyn

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From the New-York Daily Tribune, April 3, 1904.



In crossing the new Williamsburg Bridge one can hardly help noticing the pronounced Oriental cast of features of many of the pedestrians. A remark to this effect made to one of the German workmen employed on the bridge the other day brought out this response: “Yes: this is a Jew bridge, built for them with American money—and the Americans don’t know it.”

photo: Williamsburg Bridge, South Eighth and Berry Streets
Brooklyn, New York.
Courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.


There was a suggestion in this answer and a meaning that aroused curiosity. Investigation showed that the completion of this new bridge opens up some interesting racial questions, and a study of the persons who now use it makes clear what the future of that part of Brooklyn near the new bridge terminus seems bound to be. This spot used to be called “Dutchtown,” from the number of Germans dwelling in it. The new bridge is changing all that. Already “Dutchtown” has been facetiously dubbed “New-Jerusalem.”

While the new bridge affords an outlet and betterment for thousands of poor Hebrew workers of the lower East Side of Manhattan, this is accompanied, on the other hand, in the opinion of the original settlers of “Dutchtown,” with a menace that is not concealed.

The Hebrew sweatshop worker will find in Brooklyn within walking distance of his Manhattan shop, better habitations and more ameliorations of life than he ever expected to enjoy when he entered New York; but for the modest German home owners in the neighborhood of the Brooklyn end of the new bridge there is a feeling that in time they will be driven out by the gradual influx of the Jews.

For a time after the announcement of the location of the bridge to Williamsburg prices of property and rents fell near the Brooklyn terminus, as many expected it would become a warehouse and factory district. At once there was a movement of the Jews in that direction to take advantage of the chance of acquiring real estate or leaseholds at low prices. Later came the announcement that there would be no warehouses or factories about the bridge terminus. At once prices of property tightened and then went up.

Inquiry about the neighborhood of the new bridge at the Brooklyn end among the grocers, butchers, policemen, electric light men, and real estate men shows that they are constantly made aware of the desire of the Jews to come into their neighborhood. Along Wythe-ave., in several instances, Jewish families of good standing have rented property, but have been obliged to give up their leaseholds because their children were nagged and tormented on account of their religion. Hebrew grocers have had their windows broken and have suffered other annoyances. One Dutch grocer’s wife said: “We came here from Hester-st. years ago to get away from dem Jews, and now mit de bridge dey come to steal our pizness.”

If note is taken of the signs in Brooklyn on the streets going up from the new bridge—Broadway, for instance—it is readily seen that the Hebrew is coming to the front fast. There is a great triangle between Broadway and Johnson-ave., and few know how gradually and completely the Jews have occupied the entire district. Here is found a real ghetto, where live thousands who daily walk across the bridge to business in Hester and neighboring streets, and who look forward to the time when people will have a city for themselves within Williamsburg—the bridge connecting their Manhattan places of business with their homes in the blocks from Belmont-ave. to the bridge.

In this densely populated district, some say, twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand Jews are congregated, many of them disdaining English and most rules of hygiene unless enforced by the Board of Health. The frequent visitation of the street cleaners along disturbs the Continental aspect of their environment. Eight or ten years of American life have not been enough to change the habits engrafted by centuries of Europe. The hope for them is in their children, who are growing up Americans in hear and habits. The whole quarter is now as completely Yiddish as the Manhattan end of the bridge. Turning into Seigel-st., the first window reveals the well known sign “New and Second-hand Clothes,” while inspection discovers a prayer-book resting on a Bible, some knives and forks, two gold bracelets and a razor, billiard balls and a carpenter’s level, all resting on a grandma’s patchwork quilt of 1840 and a fine Paisley shawl. Lace curtains and cheap drapery fill up the window.

Next door is a “Regular Dinner for 15c,” with a door frame apparently ready to fall down on the first comer. Disorder and refuse cover the sidewalks. An immense pile of trousers and waistcoats is lying on the sidewalk, regardless of its filthy condition. Small shops now begin to appear with the stock displayed on boxes, rough boards and barrels. One stumbles over a barrel stave to come up against a greasy, bawling man selling cruel smelling fish. A false step and the pedestrian just misses falling down a rickety stairway, covered the orange peel, hair combings and sweepings from the windows of the tenements above. The nose is constantly assailed by the acrid smell of pickled herring, and the ear by a jargon of Yiddish and Dutch, above which can be heard the snarling, drawling, nasal whine of the huckster, haggling for the last penny.

Withal, there is an air of cheerfulness in the crowd. Greetings are cordial and apparently sincere, except where money is involved. Then the features are hard and the fingers twitch. Fat, brown wigged old mothers, wrapped in clumsy shawls, with tiny, moist eyed babies pressed close to their breasts, are everywhere in evidence. Few young men or young women are about. They are across the bridge, in American shops and factories, learning the secrets of trade and bringing home good money for the family hoard. The old woman takes care of the children, for they are numerous in a Jewish home—eight and nine being not unusual. The girls marry young, at fifteen or less; or when they save up $200—either sex. The wife is the saver, and often holds the family possessions in her name. Then no loss from business failure can diminish the family resources.

On the street curb, when the days are cold, some merchant will set a pail of burning coals to warm his fellows, who bless him as they toast their shins beside the welcome blaze, reminding them of the customs of far away Bohemia.

The sidewalks are cluttered up with boxes and barrels for half their width, so that much business is done in the gutter, often partially filled with refuse straw, banana skins and sweepings.

Everybody is buying something, but in such small quantities! One cent each for cups and saucers, nicked beyond endurance for sensitive lips; fruit that dodged the inspector, scraps of half burned muslin from somebody’s wet down stock—all to be had for the smallest piece of money current. And yet the people have money to spare, for when the writer was there a Punch and Judy show actually caught pennies, money that was on its way to the bakeshop or the corner stand.

In the morning the crowd buys bread, cake and vegetables. In the afternoon, herring—two for five cents, large ones for eight cents—and chicken! Not a whole bird, but a chunk—a wing, a leg, the breast or neck, for a nickel to a dime. The skill with which, by a dab into a fish or a pinch of the poultry, the women can pick out the best pieces in sight is marvellous, and makes them either a purchaser or a scoffer.

One of the health inspectors volunteered the remark that the Jewish housewife was a born connoisseur of poultry, and that, in spite of the close buying and economic habits, they always ate well at home.

In their methods of trading, the feature that strikes an outsider most is their utter indifference to appearances in the methods of displaying stock and attracting customers. There is no attempt to fix up counters or booths, to make them presentable. The store front windows have glass cracked and dirty, the clapboards are falling off; shutters a-swing; everything inside awry. Side passages are choked up with old truck, as if a fire had caused a pell-mell precipitation of everything movable from the windows above.

In one areaway, an old gilt chair, three good but rain soaked trunks and a broken keg of nails, all rusty and scattered about, disputed entrance to a shop. All about was that disregard to “keeping things up” that Americans consider indispensable to thrift.

And yet, all these people have money. The Magie-toothed old woman in a doorway who, bundled up in three shawls, sold chickens with a hatchet, and was every ready to hack off a wing for a nickel or browbeat a close customer, in making change pulled out from beneath her spattered skirts a dirty bag with bills enough in sight to send her to Prague and back!

It is difficult to believe the amount of business done in this rude fashion. On the corner of Moore-st. and Manhattan-ave., under the wooden awning of a grocery store, is a conglomeration of small traders in bread, cakes, oranges, vegetables, lace curtains, cloths and notions, and all are doing a rushing business. The prices they pay for the privilege of standing there in the cold to barter are astonishing. The hearty, oily-capped Pole who sells herring from four barrels on the exact corner, on the narrow ledge nearest the store window, pays $25 per month for his stand. No counter, no shelves—just four barrels of pickled herrings and a pile of old newspapers between his legs. There he stands all day, with his fingers diving into the brine for his petty trade—but he owns two houses in the neighborhood. The old woman nearby pays $15, and another $10, and so on—all enough to pay the store rent inside.

The former myriads of pushcarts are now turned off Manhattan-ave. into Cook-st., to its improvement financially, as the stores complained they cut too heavily into their business. When one is in a jam like that always about this corner, thoughts of pestilence and microbes get troublesome and one feels easier to get out into the street, away a bit from contagion.

All kinds of trade are found here in activity, but conducted in such ways that only their own people care to patronize them. A carpenter’s kit is all broken and chipped and tools with handles gone lie about. Furniture is mended with strings, windows patched up with pasteboard or tin, and in one case a stove cover was held in place by the leg of a rocking chair, the back of which had broken through the sash above, shattering two more panes of glass now stuffed with paper.

Squalor and shiftlessness are revealed everywhere. Yet when the rent collector comes the roll of bills is put back into the pocket and the rent paid in silver and pennies. They have money left.

The mixture of trades is somewhat curious. A woman outdoors selling corsets and ribbons had two crates of suspicious-looking eggs to sell. A broken bric-a-brac wagon had stale oranges on the tailboard, and so at once appealed to aesthetic and epicurean tastes.

There was a collection of shirtwaists and men’s trousers, so flimsy that a breath of cold air would almost have shrunk them to fit the baby. Cotton shirts were on sale, that pass in one season from father to son, and the same huckster sold bureau cover for six cents, that seemingly would have made the furniture warp, so violent were the contrasts in colors.

The one inharmonious element in the scene is the constant presence of the “whitewing brigade,” which struggles to keep the streets clean; but it is powerless to keep ahead of the incessant dumpings from yards, doors, cellars, and the windows.

How do they make money in such an environment? They have it. There is no doubt about that. They eat well, but they sleep in crowded rooms, unless watched closely by the Health Department, and they never spend unless it comes back!

In this locality there are 20,000 to 25,000 Jews, and they pay $10 to $12 for a floor of four or five rooms, or $12 to $18 for a flat of four rooms. A family consists of from five to nine persons, with one or two or more boarders, generally some relative, and all sleep somewhere in their confined quarters. The boarder’s money is made to pay for the food for the whole family, with a lift on the rent. One of the children, or the wife, has to stand somewhere, and makes the rest of the rent and the clothes and the “incidentals.” The husband and older children’s wages are put away in the family hoard or invested in land. In a few years they have a shop, and then rent the front steps, the space under the stoop, or the front windows, to pay the rent. All that is made in the store is put away. “Every Jew in ‘Dutchtown’ is a real estate agent,” said a prominent Broadway broker, and the tales told daily carry out this statement. One huckster bought a piece of property in the quarter recently on a Monday for $24,000, and sold it the next Thursday, without seeing it, for $28,000. Another six years ago paid $12,000 for some houses and recently refused $64,000 for the same, and his clothes, hat and boots would not bring $2.30. In foreign countries and in ancient times this disregard of personal appearance concealed riches and protected from oppression and taxes, but here there is no need of this deception, yet Old World habits cling.







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