Searching for new home…
Freedom across the ocean-
Tears flooding the seas
Michael and I visited New York City recently…before the Coronavirus scare exploded…and we spent quite a bit of time exploring the Lower East Side of the city…the area where most immigrants coming to our shores settled, at least, for a time…
Note: Click on each picture to enlarge
In the 19th century, more and more people from across the oceans and seas began piling onto ships, like sardines in a can, only to crowd into American cities… thousands of newly arrived immigrants came to New York City seeking a better life than the one they’d left behind… hoping for a new beginning in their new land. They came from Ireland, Germany and later, Italy, Eastern Europe, Russia and China, among other places…a veritable melting pot of nationalities, races and religions…a fine example of cultural diversity.
The population doubled every decade from 1800-1880 and buildings that were once single-family dwellings were increasingly divided into multiple living spaces to accommodate this growing population. Known as TENEMENTS, these narrow, low-rise apartment buildings, concentrated in the city’s lower east side, were all too often cramped, lacked indoor plumbing, proper ventilation and enough windows to provide needed light. They occupied nearly all of the lots on which they were originally built…usually 25 feet wide and 100 feet long. In 1872, there were about 20,000 tenement houses containing about 160,000 families-about 500,000 people. Some buildings contained as many as 126 families-about 700 inhabitants…in a narrow structure only 5-7 stories high. An individual apartment sometimes housed a family of as many as 10 people.
By 1900, about 2.3 million people, (two-thirds of New York City’s population at the time,) were living in tenement housing, longing for just a GLIMPSE OF SKY from their small rooms. Their only “escape” from the dingy tenements was the streets where they could enjoy the sunshine, fresh air and the other new immigrants with whom they could share common experiences as well as news from back home. In addition, they could shop from the pushcarts of enterprising newcomers who sold goods of all kinds. The streets were their arteries of life.
Many families worked out of their cramped apartments sewing clothes, rolling cigars, fixing shoes, making hats, constructing collars, taking in laundry…they called it “piece work.” The atmosphere was suffocating! These tenements were in multi-use neighborhoods and situated close to factories, docks, slaughterhouses and power stations that provided employment to some of the residents. Convenient to get to work, but it meant living with increased air pollution, loud noise, and putrid smells. There were also issues with rats, mice, and roaches. The occupants of these buildings frequently emptied their filth and refuse into the public streets. HOWEVER, the rent, though a major expense for most residents, was cheaper than they could get anywhere else. In 1892, 2 rooms in an attic cost $3-5 per month; 3 rooms cost $6-12 per month and 4 rooms ran about $12-16 per month. As a family’s financial position improved, they often sought better housing…and as it worsened, they were forced to seek cheaper quarters.
In the early 1900’s, with the help of social reformers who put pressure on the city to pass city housing laws, the lot of the tenement dweller was greatly improved.
Today, in modern times, it’s the Latin American and the Asian communities that continue to experience harsh living conditions in tenement areas of New York City…especially in Chinatown.
Almost all of us have relatives or friends who came from someplace other than the United States. Imagine how hard it was for them to learn English and find a job to support their families or themselves while living in such horrendous conditions…yet they did, building a city known for its cultural diversity- indeed a country built on the strength and hard work of these early immigrants. They came, not only to New York City but to Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and other pockets in the U.S.A. They made their new streets and neighborhoods the very arteries of their new lives and built on each hurdle they overcame. I’m grateful for all the early immigrants built for us…and continue to contribute to each of our lives as new immigrants join us today.