WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.


Travels with the American Guide Series, A WPA Federal Writers’ Project: The Lower East Side

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The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

       The Lower East Side is likely the most colorful and diverse neighborhood in all of Manhattan and it inspired equally colorful descriptive language in the New York City Guide. First home to many immigrant groups “straight off the boat,” this tiny neighboorhood housed thousands of emigrants from Eastern Europe, Ireland, Italy, the Caribbean and elsewhere, all in the space of two square miles. 

         Today the neighborhood combines past and present on each block. Many of the old tenement houses, ethnic food stores, Irish taverns and shops remain but they are now interspersed with modern luxury residences, art galleries, underground music clubs, bars and hip new restaurants and coffee shops. The streets are not as crowded as in earlier days but the diversity remains. People of every age and background mingle and dozens of languages can be heard in passing.The markets vary from Italian to Cantonese to old-fashioned delis even on the same block. 

        Visually, the Lower East Side is gritty but also a feast for the eyes with narrow streets, tiny pocket parks, ebullient graffitti, school playgrounds, outdoor vegetable stands, myriad small storefronts and churches. With the exception of a few new tall apartment buildings, everything is on a human scale. It’s noisy and it’s fun!

    And so it was (even more so) in 1939. Rather than summarize the Guide, I offer it to you directly:

 “The dramatic, intensely human story of the Lower East Side is a familiar chapter in the epic of America…. Here have dwelt the people whose hands built the city’s elevateds, subways, tubes, bridges, and skyscrapers. Its two square miles of tenements 

and crowded streets magnify all the problems and conflicts of big-city life. The inhuman conditions of its slums and sweatshops brought about the first organized social work in America. Crowded, noisy, squalid in many of its aspects, no other section of the city is more typical of New York. 

       The district is best known as a slum, as a community of immigrants, and as a ghetto. From its dark tenements, 

generations of American workers of many different national origins and an amazing number of public figures have emerged; politicians, artists, gangsters, composers, prize fighters, labor leaders. 

        In 1881, the great influx of Italians, Russians, Rumanians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Greeks, Poles, and Turks, into the Lower East Side began. Between 1881 and 1910, 1,562,000 Jews came to America. Most of these new Jewish immigrants worked as peddlers or entered the expanding needle trades. Workshops, established in the tenements, enslaved entire families, and the sweatshop era began, with its disease and egradation. 

     “[G]reenhorns” — new and bewildered immigrants, Jew and Gentile —  continued to augment the population of the East Side until the third decade of this century, when quota laws severely restricted further immigration. During that decade the population remained between five and six hundred thousand. 

        There were almost no play areas. Boys formed themselves into gangs, roamed the streets in search of mischief and money; many became gangsters. One of the toughest thugs in the city’s history, “Monk” Eastman, rose at the turn of the century, commanding hundreds of gunmen. From his headquarters on Chrystie Street came in a later period, Johnny Torrio, “Legs” Diamond, and Jacob (“Little “Augie”) Orgen. 

      During the latter part of the nineteenth century the writings of Jacob Riis and others stimulated the housing reform movement and social-welfare work…[ The newcomers] took an important step toward combating their intolerable living conditions by forming [ trade unions] and such centers as the Educational Alliance and the Henry Street Settlement. 

        Unionism, anarchism, capitalism, socialism, and communism have been thoroughly discussed in the streets and parks of the East Side….Anarchist and Socialist papers and periodicals, … have been issued in many languages. [In]1906, Emma Goldman founded Mother Earth [and] the Jewish Daily Forward, a labor paper in [Yiddish,] has been most influential, and still has a circulation of about 170,000. 

       The intellectuals among the immigrants brought with them their old- world avidity for culture, and their influence on the East Side provided thousands with their first contact with art and literature. A lunch hour at a garment factory would find many of the workers absorbed in Tolstoy,

Kropotkin, or Heine. Maeterlinck, Hauptmann, Sudermann, Gorky, and other European dramatists had their American premiers in the ghetto. While Broadway was receiving Ibsen coldly, the East Side was enthusiastically applauding Nazimova in Ghosts.

       The ghetto has produced a remarkable Jewish literature of its own, much of it mirroring the harsh life of sweatshop and slum. The Yiddish poet, with his relatively small public, ordinarily sells many more copies of his works than a poet who writes in English.

       … Jacob Epstein, sculptor, and Max Weber, the painter, are from the East Side, as are scores of younger artists whose works have gained wide recognition. Jazz owes much to the district where George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin started their careers. The wise-cracking brand of humor, and much of language which has become part of popular speech, have roots in the Lower East Side. Such expressions as gabfest, plunderbund, it listens well, bum, dumb (in the sense of stupid), come from the Germans; the Jews have given words like kibitzer, kosher, mazuma, phooey; and the Irish, shillelagh, smithereens, ballyhoo, and shebang. The district’s environment has influenced Jimmy Durante, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Fannie Brice, George Jessel, Lionel Stander, Milton Berle, and the Marx brothers.

        Throughout most of the section the smothering heat of summer drives East Siders to the windows and fire escapes of their ill-ventilated dwellings, to the docks along the river or to the crowded smelly streets, where half-naked children cool themselves in streams from fire hydrants. In winter, basement merchants sell coal and kindling in minute portions for the stoves of unheated cold-water flats.

      In 1939 a Federal-financed housing project was considered for the Lower East Side. Other changes are in prospect and even the pushcarts may yet be housed in respectable markets. But the tenements that have been home to so many generations will probably be home to many more. Shored up with great beams against their sagging walls or vacant and crumbling, they still seem defiant. Great slums die hard.

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        Among rancid tenements, at Cherry and Catharine Streets, stands the immense KNICKERBOCKER VILLAGE, a housing project completed in 1934 by a limited-dividend corporation with assistance from the Federal Government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Built on the site of a notorious “lung” block, it rents 1,600 apartments for an average of $12.50 a room a month to better-paid white-collar workers. The average rental elsewhere in the district is nearer five dollars and the former occupants of this site have moved to other slums. With a total of twelve floors, the buildings form an overcrowded group whose essential monotony is barely relieved by the sparse planting which differentiates it from hundreds of equally undistinguished apartments farther uptown.

     The famous HENRY STREET SETTLEMENT, at 265 Henry, a block south of East Broadway, still maintains its modest main house. Opened in 1893 by one of the great pioneers in social work, Lillian Wald, the settlement has attracted world-wide attention through its work in nursing the sick, aiding in the solution of domestic and social problems, and striving for better housing, recreation, and education facilities in the slums of the Lower East Side. …During the depression of the early 1930’s, before public relief was taken over by the Federal Government, the settlement issued thousands of food tickets, gave aid, and directed relief.

         Three blocks north, at 466 Grand Street, is the Henry Street Settlement’s Playhouse. Organized in 1915, … it saw the American premieres of The Dybbuk and of James Joyce’s Exiles. Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet; and the Isadora Duncan dancers appeared here. …

       [In the Jewish Quarter] tiny shops huddle between … shoe stores and clothing establishments. Housewives carrying shopping bags walk to the dimly lighted food stores; shriveled old women sit on the steps before the tenements; an occasional elder in beard and yarmalka (skull cap) climbs the steps to a tiny synagogue…; a Jewish passerby may be solicited to come into the synagogue to make up a minyan (quorum of ten) so that the service may start.

        The famous ORCHARD STREET PUSHCART MARKET, which stretches for several blocks above and below Delancey Street, fruits, vegetables, bread, hot knishes (boiled buckwheat groats or mashed potatoes, wrapped in a skin of dough and baked), bagel (doughnut-shaped rolls), and hot arbes (boiled chick-peas) are offered for sale. … The three blocks south on Division Street, from Eldridge Street to the Bowery, are occupied by an unbroken series of women’s apparel shops…. In the doorways schleppers (pullers-in, a recognized profession on the East Side) stand ready to draw prospective customers into the stores

       In Little Italy… according to a 1932 survey, 98 per cent of the heads of households in this area were of Italian birth or parentage, mainly from Sicily and the south of Italy. During church festivals the streets are festooned with colored electric lights, the sidewalks lined with booths selling souvenirs and delicacies, and there is music, along with dancing, and a parade in the streets.

     [O]n Mulberry Street between Bayard and Park, … one of the worst slums in the city, was torn down in 1892 and replaced by Columbus Park, after drawing the fiery criticism of the reformer, Jacob Riis. However, many five-story tenements remain decked with cluttered fire escapes, washlines, and crowded stoops. The pushcarts on Mott Street from Canal to Broome … sell ripe and green olives, artichokes, goats’ cheeses, finochio (sweet fennel), and ready-to-eat pizza, an unsweetened pastry filled with tomatoes and cheese.

        [Running North/South is] the Bowery. Today [it] is chiefly given over to pawnshops  … beer saloons. Flophouses offer a bug-infested bed in an unventilated pigeonhole for twenty-five cents a night. … Thousands of the nation’s unemployed drift to this section and may be seen sleeping in all-night restaurants, in doorways, and on loading platforms, furtively begging, or waiting with hopeless faces for some bread line or free lodging house to open. No agency, at present (1939), provides adequate food, shelter, and clothing for these wanderers. Missions furnish food and lodging for a few, and try by sermon and song to touch the souls of the down- and-outers and the sympathies of generous tourists.”

        [The] FIRST HOUSES …  opened in 1935. Of the old slum tenements which formerly occupied this space, some were torn down and others were completely rebuilt by WPA labor, using the old materials. Unfortunately the attempt to utilize old structures has forced the new ones into a dull scheme. Bathrooms, sound-proofed partitions, gardens, and playgrounds promote the health and comfort of the occupants, who pay five dollars to seven dollars a room a month.” 

NYC Guide  (p. 108 et seq.)

      The Lower East Side still offers an experience of immigrant life, including, now, the Tenement Museum in a classic old tenement building. In addition, there are newer treats. While the  luxury buildings are closed-off and anaomlous in the neighborhood,  the International Center of Photography is open for visitors to its museum as well as for classes for photographers. When it opened on Essex Street a few years ago, several art galleries followed. And, in the grand tradition of the pushcarts of Orchard, Mott and Mulberry Streets, is the new (and stunningly beautiful) Essex market.   

      There are glitzier parts of Manhattan but few as interesting, block for block. Make the trip, guide in hand. You won’t regret it.

 
                                                         Fern L. Nesson
                                                                   May, 2021
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