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Lower East Side


LOWER EAST SIDE of Manhattan in New York City lies east of the Bowery and north of Fulton Street. Its northern boundary is less clear. Some commentators draw it at Fourteenth Street. Others set it further south on Houston Street. The latter is more accurate, but many sites associated with eastern European Jews in New York City—the Yiddish theater district; the Hebrew Technical School; Union Square; Cooper Union; and the Asch Building, home of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory—are north of Houston. The name "Lower East Side" was not used regularly before the end of the 1930s. In the 1960s it became fixed with capital letters. Previously it was "downtown, "the east side," "the ghetto," or "the Hebrew quarter."

The Lower East Side is associated primarily with the large wave of eastern European Jewish immigration to the United States starting in the 1880s. The descendants of

those immigrants, few of whom lived there, consider it special and have memorialized it in fiction, film, pageantry, and tours. Before that, however, the area was home first to free black settlers in the seventeenth century. Their small holdings were consolidated into larger ones, the largest owned by James De Lancey, a loyalist who lost his land at the end of the American Revolution. The area then became a magnet for petty artisanal and shopkeeper families. By the 1830s, Irish immigrants settled there. In that decade the first tenement buildings went up to accommodate them.

German immigrants, including Jews, arrived next. The neighborhood, which became known as Klein-deutschland (Little Germany), was a center of Jewish religious and retail life. In 1843 a group of Jewish men who had been rejected for membership by the Masons met on Essex Street and founded a benevolent society, the fore-runner of the B'nai B'rith. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, central European Jews from Hungary, Bohemia, and Posen (a Polish province annexed by Prussia) moved to the Lower East Side. The first Russian Jewish congregation, Beth Hamedrash Hagadal, was established in 1852 on Bayard Street. In 1852, Reb Pesach Rosenthal opened the Downtown Talmud Torah, offering instruction in Yiddish.

The greatest influx of newcomers were Russian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, and Galician Jews. Italians, Greeks, Chinese, and other non-Jews from eastern Europe also arrived in the 1880s. The immigrant Jews, including some from Turkey, Greece, and Syria, made up about half the neighborhood's residents. In 1892 about 75 percent of all New York City Jews lived in the Seventh, Tenth, and Thirteenth Wards, which constituted the Lower East Side. In 1910, the peak of Jewish residence, over 500,000 Jews lived there. Thereafter, new immigrant Jews settled elsewhere in New York City. By 1920 the neighborhood's Jewish population had dipped to 400,000, declining with each decade. Yet even as Jews moved to other neighborhoods, they returned to the Lower East Side for Yiddish plays and films. They also went there to purchase Jewish foods, including bread, pickles, and fish, as well as Jewish books and ritual objects.

Considered one of America's worst slums, the Lower East Side inspired Jacob Riis to write How the Other Half Lives (1890). Reformers initiated projects to help residents. Lower East Side housing conditions improved somewhat with municipal legislation in 1878 and 1901. Settlement houses, like the Education Alliance and the Henry Street Settlement, encouraged painting, theater, and dance. The Jewish immigrant community sponsored artistic, journalistic, literary, dramatic, and political endeavors.

Not all Jews left the neighborhood after the 1930s. The older, poorer, and more religiously observant remained. Other Jews stayed on in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union cooperatives. Some Jewish institutions like the Eldridge Street Synagogue and the Educational Alliance continued to function.

The 1950s brought change. Puerto Ricans moved in, as did immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Korea, the Philippines, India, and China. In the 1980s, young people discovered the Lower East Side's low rents. With this, musicians, painters, clothing designers, and performance artists made the neighborhood a cultural and artistic zone.


Diner, Hasia R. Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Rischin, Moses. The Promised City: New York's Jews, 1870–1914. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.


See alsoJews ; New York City ; Poverty ; Triangle Fire ; Urbanization .

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