The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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From The New-York Tribune, November 25, 1900.

The letter written by Bishop Potter to Mayor Van Wyck, in which he called attention to the condition which exist in certain parts of the densely populated East Side, awakened the Tammany ruler of New-York in a sense of his responsibility, and caused him to make a show in the direction of reform. It had the effect, also, of directing the attention of many citizens to that part of the city which lies within the boundaries of the VIIIth Assembly District, in which "Charlie" Adler, the Republican candidate, beat "Issy" Cohn for member of Assembly in the last election. "De Ate" is not unknown to the residents of the upper part of Manhattan. its open air pushcart market, where men and women jostle and crowd the pedestrian in their zeal to sell anything from remnants of dress goods to fish of a questionable quality, is a favorite spot with many people who are interested in the slums. Its thickly populated tenement houses, ill-smelling shops and crowded streets; its queer houses of worship and the groups of long-bearded men, and women whose hair is concealed under heavy brown or black wigs, are among the well-known East Side pictures. When these have been seen, and when the visitor has taken a peep into one of the dingy coffee houses where men of all ages congregate to play cards and drink coffee, and has seen one of the wretched buildings where women and children are huddled together in violation of the law for the purpose of working, he goes away with the impression that he has seen and knows the district.

The squalor, the poverty, the hopeless drudgery, and the queer features of this foreign district are evident to the visitor, no matter how hurriedly he goes over the ground, but the crime with which that part of the city is infested has been concealed from the general public until it gained such proportions that men like Bishop Potter were compelled to step in and call a halt. The police say, and the records show, that there is less drunkenness there than in other parts of the East Side tenement house district, that there are not many cases of assault, and that street fights are of rare occurrence. But the big tenement houses in Chrystie, Allen, Stanton, and Forsyth Streets shelter crime in its worst form, and the inmates of these apartments contaminate their neighbors and create an atmosphere in which good morals cannot exist. For years these places have been known by the red lamps which shone in the windows or hallways. These lamps increased in number to such an extent that the district became known as the "red light district," and the degraded men who lived on the vice of the inmates of the houses were known in that section as "lighthouses." The police, the landlord, and the "lighthouse" formed a combination against which the respectable element could make no headway.


A peculiar feature of the situation is the lack of interest displayed on the part of what is known as "the decent" class in the crusade against the dive and red-lamp proprietors. Nearly all the red lamp places are on the first floors of tenement houses, and the buildings with high, old-fashioned stoops are most in favor. For that reason the places are often referred to by the police as "stoops." When an objectionable tenant moves into a "stoop," puts up lace curtains and other decorations too expensive for and not in harmony with the surroundings, a tenant or possibly several tenants usually make objection and protest. But the "stoop" pays at least twice as much rent when occupied by the objectionable people as it would if only respectable people lived there, and the objectors are told to move out if they don't like their neighbors. In a comparatively short time the children in the house, possibly those of the original objectors, become the friends of the degraded inmates, and in return for candy, cast-off clothes, "show" tickets, and other bribes they become the spies, the watchers, and agents of the people in the "stoop" apartment, and are finally engulfed in the sea of vice.

All this has been known to the police for years as well as it has been known to the people who seek the betterment of the district, but the district was too good a source of revenue for some people to be purified. The law which requires the posting of the name of the owner of a tenement house has been evaded, and although owners are responsible, they have not hesitated to let their apartments to any person who would pay a high rental, regardless of the use made of them. The owners of these houses know that it is difficult to procure evidence against tenants, and until the question of purification was brought forward because of the insolence of the police to the rector of the Pro-Cathedral, the Tammany motto, "What are you going to do about it?" stared the good people in the face.


The landlords are for the most part people who made their money in the district. There are some houses whose owners have moved uptown, but the greater number live in the houses which shelter the objectionable tenants. The "housekeeper" is an institution of the district. In other parts of the city he is known as the agent, janitor or superintendent. He usually fixes the rate of rent and collects it, and with him complaints are lodged. He must know the police in order to be a good "housekeeper," and his word "goes" with many tenants as to where coal, wood, groceries, and other necessary articles should be purchased. The "housekeeper" does not hesitate to charge $30 a month for a $15 apartment when the tenant is of a certain character, but his receipt, when he gives one at all, never shows such figures. He has a wholesome fear of documentary evidence, and where he gives a receipt it is for the legitimate amount, and the signature is not often one by which the real owner may be identified. The extra rent, the blackmail which he extorts from the tenants, may be given to the owner, or he may keep it for himself or share it with the owner and others. There is no fixed rule or regulation about that point, and it makes little different to the "stoop" tenant where the money goes or how it is divided -- he or she knows that so long as it is paid promptly the red lamp may burn, and the police will not see it, or seeing it, will not know what it means.

James B. Reynolds, of the University Settlement, said that that he had endeavored for a long time to have red-light places in Rivington Street suppressed, but without success. He said: "It is hard to get sufficient evidence against the landlords, because the very power which should aid us has been on the other side. The law is deficient, and should be amended so that the landlord would become responsible for the tenant. He should be placed on a level with a common carrier, then no bad people could remain in his house, except by the consent or the connivance of the owner or his agent, and the name of the owner being posted, as it should be, it would be an easy matter to put an end to the nuisance."







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