The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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From The New-York Tribune, July 30, 1899.

It was the Tenement House Committee of 1894 and the Small Parks Commission that administered the death blow to some of New York's most sodden slums. These, though only phases of the agitation extending over many years for slum regeneration, proved to be the final weapons for those who would wipe out festering spots. What was sought to be accomplished began after this committee and this commission had handed up their recommendations and had mapped out their work. It is not to be contended, indeed, that all slums have disappeared in New York, though the metropolis shares with nearly every other municipality in this country and in Europe the honor for the fact that there has been a decrease in the number and a contraction in the size of its regions of crime that stalks nakedly and causes extreme suffering. But the worst have gone. Beneath the vigorous strokes of dealers in secondhand building materials, the grimy, ancient, disease-filled structures have vanished. A round half dozen of the localities famed malodorously in police annals and in the records of the Health Board from 1870 on are no more.
If the old slum sites have not become places of beauty, they are at least nowadays spots of comfort. No disease lurks in them; there are no shadowy haunts and recesses for the plotting and committing of crime. The regeneration has been effective and has left little behind it but memories. Memories there will always be. The traditions of the old sites are not likely to be forgotten or lost. Nevertheless, the younger generation of today, visiting these localities, will find it hard to realize what they once were, with the herding together, the noisy revelry, the wickedness, and the dirt of years. Indeed, they will never be able to realize it, for, save on a few occasions, the worst was never told. A tour through some of these slums, a revisiting of the sites of the old plague spots, has deep interest for one who remembers somewhat of their days of crime. What might be called the building regeneration of these localities is now complete. Where slums once stood there is here a park, there an open yard, here a business structure, there a street. Absolutely and definitely the old fester has been cut out of the municipality, making in spots almost a new New York.


With the sunlight shining brightly upon its sweep of green, its well-washed asphalt, and its glistening white pavilion, Mulberry Bend Park, a breathing place these days for thousands of Italians, is a remarkable change from the old "Bend" that was the abode of vileness. Not an iota of picturesqueness has been sacrificed, for the scene now reminds one irresistibly of a bit of an Italian city. The row of dwelling houses and shops in Mulberry Street, east of the park, shows a long range of quaint and foreign fronts. Even the Baxter Street buildings at the west stand out more artistically and seem less commonplace because of their new setting. This "Little Italy" ­ New York has at least three "Italies" ­ has not lost in any manner in the change. It has gained unreservedly, for the crime and dirt of the "Bend" more than counterbalanced all its ancient-quarter charm.

Mulberry Bend Park.

There are many filthy tenements in the adjoining streets, but with the abolition of the real "Bend" the most frightful have disappeared. Here, where the beautiful park now extends, is the exact site where some years ago Lady Henry Somerset, in company with Jacob A. Riis, most expert of slum guides, discovered the first thoroughly drunken and bestial woman in the city.

"The Ben," Mulberry St.

Mr. Riis described this in an article written just at the time the "Bend" was vanishing:

"Into every place made vacant by an Irishman moved an Italian and a tramp, and when the transformation was com­pleted the 'Bend' held two or three times as many tenants as before .... Lady Henry Somerset found some of them burrowing in their underground dens, the stale beer dives, when she went the rounds of the 'Bend' in the small hours of the morning with the writer. She had been congratulating New York upon its freedom from drunken women until she went down there and changed her mind.

"The police sometimes took as many as seventy or one hundred men and women tramps out of the stale beer dives of the 'Bend' alleys at a single raid. On such nights every window in the Elizabeth Street station stood open all night, and the policemen smoked the strongest cigars to be got by way of disinfecting the house."

That was the old Mulberry Bend, of which police tradition recalls that there were nearly six hundred ways, by actual count, by which a desperate criminal or petty thief, pursued by officers, could escape. All the ramshackle, aged buildings communicated with one another, above, below, in cellars, and over roofs. There were scores of grim, underground passages and a dozen or so winding alleys piercing the block. When the Italians came, herding two or three families to a small room, armed with pistol and knife, prepared to settle their difficulties by stealthy stabs in­stead of by application to the courts, it was indescribably bad.


Added to all this there were Jews of the lowest type on the Baxter Street side. Here was "Ragpicker's Row," "Bottle Alley," which held the city's record for fights for many a long year, was one of the chief inlets from Mulberry Street. Another byway led to Bandits' Roost, the refuge of real bandit mountaineers from Italy. Dirty stable lanes hemmed it in, as, indeed they did every spot. What the famous fights were is too long a story to tell here.

"The Bend" went the way of the older Five Points four years ago. Park building is slow work. It was not until last summer that Mulberry Park began to show its real charm and to stamp itself a success. This year the grass has come out velvety, the seats are filled day and evening, and after the colony has finished its supper huge crowds congregate here. Though these Italians are growing gradually Americanized, this is not evident in their costumes. As a military band plays in the pavilion, the scene is deliciously picturesque. Not one single reminder lingers of the old slum. Even the Mulberry Street houses opposite the park, now thrust into the broad light of day, have been forced to be cleaner than before.

From the "Bend" to Cherry Hill is a long walk through Chinatown, the lower end of the Jewish quarters, and the haunts of the few Irish yet left on the far southeast side of New York. Turning down from Roosevelt Street into Cherry Street, one comes across a big yard in the midst of the block. Blocks of sidewalk stones are stored there, huge piles of worm-eaten, dirty lumber wagons stand out in what might be called the roadway. In one corner there is a tottering shed made to serve the purposes of a stable for two old horses.

The yard is certainly not prepossessing. It is utterly uninteresting - a junk shop in the open air. But at least the four winds of heaven can blow over it and purify it, which was not the case until two years ago. Until then the fresh air only filtered in, losing all its purity and becoming vitiated before it had gone a dozen feet. In the old days the air that struck the famous Oak Street Police Station was laden with horrible odors, telling the nose only too plainly that here were crowding people who were little better than brutes, perhaps worse. For this was Double Alley and Single Alley, the Gotham Court of an earlier day, and Mullin's Alley where the "Swamp Angels" of years ago rioted, stole, fought policemen, committed murders, and, when followed, hid in the great sewer beneath Double Alley, crouching on the coping safe in ten cases out of ten from the iron hand of the law.

Where Single and Double Alley Once Stood.

New York never had a worse slum than Double, Single Alley and Mullin's alleys. The overcrowding may be judged from the fact that dwellers on opposite sides of these alleys could, by leaning a little from their windows, shake hands across. Not that they ever wanted to shake hands under any circumstances, for war reigned between all the households. In Single Alley two men could hardly walk abreast comfortably. In Double Alley it was a little better. Heaps of rotting refuse were in every corner of the courts, and the odor of stale beer arose above all.


The story never changes; each filthy slum of New York always comes to Italians for tenants. The last lessee of these alleys bundled out what Irish there were remaining. Why should he not? It meant to him at least 50 per cent more rents. The Italians merely accepted the situation. They were getting their rents close to nothing, for each of the small rooms now came to be occupied by two or three families, where one Irish household had found it a tight squeeze for themselves alone. At a bound the population of this slum came near to doubling. There were fewer fights now that Italy was installed here, the police reserves did not have to tumble out of bed and rush around at the double quick so often, but the filth and immorality increased, and even with the "Swamp Angels" dead and gone, these alleys had dropped a peg lower.

Why they were left standing so long is one of the city's mysteries. The rear tenement agitation waxed and waned, and yet Single Alley and Double Alley remained. Their deathblow came two years ago this spring on an order of the Board of Health. And yet even now the old slum is not entirely demolished. The dirty tenement of Single Alley has been left, though it now faces on the open, broad yard. With nearly every window gone and everything that could be torn away out of it, there is to be seen still an Italian family or two in some of the rooms. But the air can now get a chance at the gloomy, shallow building for the first time in its history.

It is understood that a big warehouse will rise eventually on this site, blotting out finally and thoroughly all traces of one of the vilest of plague spots. Meantime, however, the wood and stone yard does well. It has laid to rest for all time the ghosts of filth and crime.

The Ghetto's First Breathing Spot.

Gone, too, and its site now a playground for children and a breathing place for older people of evenings, is what long was the worst strip of the ghetto. Hester, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Rutgers Streets, poor as they were, did not sink into a helpless, apathetic state until the invasion of the Russian Jews, beginning in 1884, as a result of the exile because of the May Laws. With their coming in masses, shrewd landlords began to put in flimsy rear tenements and, because of the demand, to raise rents until one family had of necessity to huddle in a single room and even to take in boarders. There may have been worse blocks in the ghetto than those bounded by Norfolk, Suffolk, Hester, Jefferson, Rutgers, East Broadway, and Canal, but if there ever were, the writer never knew them.


In truth, these blocks were bad enough. Huge, malodorous "barracks," smelling of fried fish and unclean persons, filled their centers as well as fronted on the streets. In these blocks is said to have been the most overcrowded spot in the world, far surpassing the ill-reputed ghettos of European cities in the number of souls clustered to the square rod. Every room at one time was a workshop as well as a sleeping and living apartment. A series of miniature factories honeycombed them all, and here were indescribable dirt and odors. The people gave no heed to their condition; they were unwilling to change. Over all was the sign of the gabardine, the wig of the matron, the shul on many a tenement floor. The light of day never came to the ghetto; literally, there were many rooms it hardly visited at all.

And now? Where these festering tenements were, a broad field stretches itself, unshaded and blazing hot at noonday, dusty and rough, but still an open place, instead of the many score of tenements. Some day it will be made into a beautiful shady park, with such a greensward as slum dwellers love. That will take a long time, however. Meanwhile, city and educational authorities have thrown open the ground, surrounding it only by a slight fence. to keep some semblance of order.

The Hester Street open-air dry goods market to the west looms out on an altogether unaccustomed sight. It sees in place of a line of scowling tenements an open-air gymnasium, a running track, a basketball field, two covered sand playgrounds for the smaller children, a tented platform on which fifty miniature women of all ages at one time play kindergarten games. And, what is still stranger and more wonderful, it sees croquet actually being taught.

This is the regeneration of the worst corner of the ghetto slum, viewed at its crudest now because, though the old buildings have gone, there is as yet little that is attractive to succeed it. But already it has become a paradise for the children and the perfection of resting places at evening for those older. No slum of the town was ever transformed to better uses.

Jacob A. Riis, for this authority on the New York tenements must be quoted again, has spoken many a time in print of the filth of Cat Alley and its buildings, directly under the nose of Police Headquarters - in front of it, in fact. Cat Alley grew to be a well-known locality among police reporters, who constantly had it before their eyes. There was much to disgust, to horrify, about Cat Alley, for it was always a haunt of lawlessness as well as filth. The knell has sounded over that as well. The widening and extension of Elm Street are what brought about its tearing down.

Cat Alley, Opposite Police Headquarters.

A slice of the block bounded by Mulberry, Houston, Crosby, and Bleecker Streets has been torn away for the Elm Street lengthening. By rare good fortune this demolition took the course of the little slum. Only the extension of the street was being considered, but the work could not have resulted better. It razed every vestige of the slum, leaving only a broad street, with a semi square where Bleecker Street and Mulberry Street meet it, and Cat Alley, with all its turbulence, its crime, its police record, and, it must be confessed, its picturesqueness, is now only a name.

Another "Little Italy," this the one well up toward Harlem, on the East Side, extending from Ninety-seventh to One-hundred-and-sixteen st., and from Second-ave. to the river, has recently felt the broom of a "clean sweep" among one of its dirtiest purlieus. Tenement and little houses up in that region are old, though people generally are not aware of this. Here is the extreme southeast corner of old Harlem, nearly down to Yorkville, and the buildings are so closely packed that were the people not Italians this might well be called a ghetto, and it would deserve the name.

Three blocks of tenement houses, between One-hundred-and-eleventh and One-hundred-and-fourteenth sts., Avenue A and the East River, have met the fate of many other old structures in New York. They are meeting it now, in fact, for the work of demolition, is not nearly completed. This bit of former slum is at present a mass of bricks and beams, of yawning cellars and ground that has been torn up into wild confusion. One of the small parks will eventually be here, though two years and perhaps more must certainly elapse before it is finally completed.

The "Little Italy" on Harlem's southern outskirts is much like the other "Little Italies." It has all the characteristics of these noted slums and does not take second place to any of them. There is the same dirt, herding, immorality and stiletto juggling. The new park sweeps out of existence one of this locality's most crowded parts. But there is needed here much further purification. The slums on the East River bank opposite Ward's Island are not all gone. But a beginning, and an excellent one, has been made.







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