The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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From The New-York Tribune, September 2, 1900.

"I think," said the East Side boy to his friend, the practical sociologist, "that most people have very queer ideas about the East Side boy." These two were on exceedingly good terms, and it was understood that differences of age, social training, and the like should be forgotten when the East Side boy came up to the sociologist's den and discoursed while that, worthy smoked his pipe. This had been going on for three or four years to the edification of each. The two had met when the boy was just an ordinary, bright East Side youngster, and mutual curiosity mingled with growing affection had done the rest. Now the youth had developed a taste for study, and the pair read Latin together, while the boy and his parents saved up money to send him to college. Yet the boy remained an East Side boy, loyal to his part of the city, even though he knew well the formerly unexplored country above Fourteenth Street. As for the sociologist, he was merely a philosopher who spelled life with a capital L. He was interested in humanity, rich or poor, and reflected with satisfaction that on one occasion he had attended the anarchist ball on one evening and a gorgeous Fifth Avenue function the next ... which shows what manner of man the sociologist was.

"Most of the popular ideas on any subject are queer, my young friend," said he to the boy, yet pleased with the pros­pect of conversation from that sometimes taciturn youth.

"But you'd think," persisted the boy, "that the East· Side children were a special brand. Now, I was an ordinary boy, in all conscience, and I'm sure I wasn't very wicked or very unhappy. I think I was, in the main, remarkably like a West Side boy or any other kind of boy. I don't think the East Side boy has any more temptations to commit a crime than the richer ones, not so many, perhaps. You hear so much about 'gangs' and crap playing and cigarette smoking. Well, we do have all that, but it isn't as bad as it's painted."

"How about the gangs?" inquired the sociologist. "Did you ever belong to one?"

"Did I? Why, of course. But, then, there are at least three kinds of gangs. First, there's the really tough gang. The boys who belong to this kind of gang meet at corners to make trouble. They fight, and sometimes they hold up other boys and make them give up money. There used to be lots of these fellows around Cherry and Water Streets, but they've been suppressed now. Some of the gangs were pretty hard to break up, and there may be a few fellows of this kind still hanging around, but not many. Of course, these were bad boys, and the police used to get after them. But this kind of gang didn't form the majority, by any means, and they were only around the docks and other places that are tough, anyway.

"Then, there was another kind, and I think that most of the gangs they have now belong to this class. These boys hang around a corner and flirt with girls and amuse themselves with people who pass by. I call these the flirty gangs, because that is really what they do. The boys who belong to these gangs may be bad, but most of them are all right, I think. They wouldn't hurt anybody, unless under unusual circumstances. Then, the third kind of gang, the kind I used to belong to, was just a social gang, formed chiefly for the purpose of playing games and especially baseball. We used to joke and have fun, but we never did anything worse than mischief, and we used to let the girls alone. Some of the boys were not as good as they might have been, but most of them were decent enough. Most of them worked, and none of them have turned out badly at all. We didn't have any organization, except that we all looked up to the one who was strongest and who played ball best. This is the only way in which any of the decent gangs have a leader, but the gangs that used to fight had recognized leaders.
"There used to be a good deal of crap playing around Henry Street, where most of the richer boys lived, and part of East Broadway. I don't think the crap playing was any worse among our boys than gambling among uptown boys. Some of our boys who had well-to-do parents, or who had good places, used to lose as much as $2 or $3 on a Sunday, sometimes more. Then, around Essex Street there used to be a crap club of men - expressmen and peddlers who were not good men at all. They used to play on the street or in yards with some one to look out for the policeman. I don't think that there is as much crap playing as there used to be. All these gangs, except the tough gangs, are likely at any time to form a club, and if they get into one of the institutions they may turn into a fine organization. Even outside of institutions, there are clubs which may last a long time.

"The smoking isn't general, except among the tough gangs. There were only three or four in our gang who ever smoked. I don't want to make out the gang to be too good. They used a good deal of bad language, because they think it is smart, but they outgrew this, and I don't think the East Side boys are any worse than others in this respect after they get to be sixteen or so.

"When I belonged to a gang, there was no place for a playground on the East Side. In fact, there isn't really any place now where we can play baseball. There is always Central Park, but a small boy can't afford much carfare. We used to play in the street whenever the policeman wasn't around, and even when he was, we would play prisoner's base and pussy cat. If people don't want gangs they will have to give us something else and make it very attractive, too, for the gangs have a good time. I don't see why the city can't make a place for baseball and that sort of thing.

"Then, when people talk about the East Side boy, they don't speak enough about the studious boy. Although I liked to play ball and go around with the gang, I didn't shirk school, and I tried to read books. It is hard for a boy who has just come over here to start right. I was ten when I came, and I had to sell papers when I didn't know more of English than was enough to call out the name of the paper, and more arithmetic than to make the right change. You'd smile if I told you what a time I had to get hold of the books I wanted. The gang wasn't a literary set, by any means, though. I joined a gang because I was fond of games, and that was my only chance for playing. At first I was the only member of the crowd who belonged to a library, but more joined later on.

I was a poor boy, and hadn't any money to spend, but I don't think any boy was ever happier than I was. I had to stay in the city all summer and run errands for my mother when I wanted to play, and I used even to have to scrub the floor, but I was a very happy boy most of the time."

"I agree with you," observed the sociologist, "that the East Side boy receives a good deal of undeserved pity."

''Well,'' returned the boy, "he doesn't want pity - he wants a place to play and a little sensible companionship. He makes the best of circumstances, but the circumstances could be improved. But nobody will ever do anything for the East Side boy who isn't willing to make a friend and companion of him. People who meet and talk always get on the wrong track. Why, it stands to reason that the small boy on the street can tell them more in three minutes than all their uptown speechmakers."

"Oh," suggested his friend, "some good does come out of the Upper West Side once in a while."

"Yes," wound up the boy, "but if people would spend less money and give more companionship there would be less trouble with the East Side boy. He's all right, if you give him half a chance."

And the sociologist looked at the bright face of one who had had his "half a chance" and decided that the boy was correct.








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