Many years ago I was commissioned to do a painting of the Lower East Side. Thus began my love
affair with that part of Manhattan that is—very loosely speaking and depending on who is doing the talking—bounded on the north by Fourteenth Street, on the west by Broadway, extending to the south just beyond the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.
My clients told me they were interested in seeing not just the Jewish landmarks of the Lower East Side, but the rich cultural diversity of the district. My subject, I was told, was not just the Central and Eastern European migration of peoples from the early 1880s to 1925, but also the present migration of peoples from the Far East—Koreans, Thais, Vietnamese, and Chinese. They wanted the painting to be a slice, vertical as well as horizontal.
So how to absorb this slice and put it on canvas? I walked and walked and walked, read and read and read, drew and drew and drew—and, I must admit, tucked in frequently at Ratner’s, a restaurant, alas, now part of history.
Of special interest to me was multicultural layering, the physical evidence of how a place is used and reused by different generations and peoples. Each ethnic group leaves an imprint on one spot that is not totally erased but taken up in a unique way by subsequent immigrants.
Take for instance the Chinese funeral parlor on Mulberry Street facing Columbus Park, the name of which I could not tell you since I do not read Chinese characters. The building is a prime example of multicultural layering with its ornately carved details crafted by immigrant Italian stone masons at the turn of the twentieth century, the original name of the funeral parlor etched above the lintel. Overarching this is a large neon sign in Chinese, presumably the current name of the funeral parlor.
When I began the painting, I had different reasons than I do now for exploring the Lower East Side. There was a commission and with it a reputation and even a little money pushing me to the tip of Manhattan, and I thought that I had better get Lower East Side-ness right. So diptych I did, and the client was happy which is always a good thing because they have to live with the work, and I was happy for the money, but that was then and this is now.
Why does the Lower East Side return to haunt me? I don’t know, but this time it is taking the form of a story growing into a novel, maybe even a saga, a four-generational look at a family who in 1901 comes to America and settles on Elizabeth Street, one story in the teeming migration of the twentieth century that still energizes our country, infusing politics, music, art, cuisine with a uniquely blended taste, folding new flavors into the old with every fresh immigrant group.
In the early 1900s it was relatively easy to find work on the Lower East Side for the unskilled as well as the skilled worker. New York City began building the subway system with the IRT line starting at what is now the City Hall stop, at the southern end of Manhattan so there was an almost unquenchable need for unskilled labor to dig tunnels, haul rock, and lay track.
And there were the needle trades. The garment center began on the Lower East Side, and in 1901 anyone with the necessary skills interested in working as a piece worker or seamstress, presser or finisher could find a job. In season, since the clothing industry provided seasonal work, all he needed to do was stand on the corner of Hester and Ludlow Streets, the “pig market” as it came to be known, where contractors would hire in the morning for the day or for the job.
Had you or I been walking on Elizabeth, Mulberry or Mott, Orchard, Allen, Hester or Ludlow Streets in 1901, the first thing that would strike us would probably be the crowds. On some blocks the population density was greater than the congested areas of New Delhi or Mumbai are today. Both streets and sidewalks were choked with people and with traffic, all transportation being above ground since construction on the IRT line had only just begun, closing off a major north-south thoroughfare to most vehicular and pedestrian traffic. People walking to work, searching for work; women and children shopping, done far more frequently than today since no Lower East Side apartments had ice boxes; people in groups talking to one another, laughing, singing; circus performers and clowns juggling, somersaulting; pushcarts in the streets, and sidewalk vendors, selling fish, meat, clothing, utensils, bread, flowers, vegetables, fruit, rags, old pieces of tin; horse cars carrying people or produce; horse-drawn ambulances; police with keystone-cop hats and billy clubs walking in front of vehicles to move traffic along; milk trucks, ice trucks, coal truck; organ grinders with monkeys; children playing stick ball in the streets or sitting on a curb talking or playing marbles or maybe sitting on a dead horse that had dropped from exhaustion or old age and lay right where it fell before eventually city workers picked up the carcass.
As I walked the streets of the Lower East Side, I imaged the scene in 1901 and what a newcomer must have felt, not speaking the language, conscious of not wearing the right clothes, afraid of not finding work, but at the same time excited by so much abundance and energy, by so much that was strange and new—homesick, intimidated, frightened, and exhilarated.
One day I was walking on Mulberry Street picturing the scene in 1901, when a little girl emerged from the crowd and tugged at my sweater. I turned and bent to face her and noticed she wore a faded green-and-white checkered dress carefully mended in spots with threads that almost matched her outfit, coarse white tights, a white smock pulled over her dress, hand-me-downs but freshly ironed; and a somewhat frayed, maroon hand-knit sweater about three sizes too big. She was a little smudgy in spots, the way children get after playing outside for a while. And she had on a strange pair of ankle boots; an anomaly in this neighborhood and at this time in the world’s turning. They were beautifully made and of very fine highly polished cordovan leather. Someone in her family, I thought, must be a shoemaker. Reddish blonde curls ringed her head and for an instant the light rimmed her hair. She pointed to an old woman selling fruit from a pushcart, her small, pointing forefinger suspended in midair, caught, too, in that late afternoon light, and she whispered, “Don’t buy from her” in broken English. She smiled shyly and looked at the ground, shrugged her shoulders, frowned, then blinked two or three times as if thinking. Turning her face up to mine, she grinned and winked. And vanished. She was about ten years old, I figured.
It was one of my characters, Tessa, the youngest girl in an immigrant family introducing herself to me. Her story grew and changed as I wrote, working out the details of her existence, her family’s story, where they came from, what it was like to live there and then to leave; why and how they decided to come to America, where they settled, what they ate, what they did when they arrived, and most important, what they felt, and how they reacted to the real events of that world—for instance, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that in half an hour killed 146 workers on March 25, 1911. My character, Tessa, I decided would work in that factory but somehow escape the fire. That story has yet to be written.
If you wish to visit the Lower East Side, consider a visit to the Tenement Museum. They offer neighborhood walking tours as well as building tours. The Visitors’ Center is located at 108 Orchard Street (Orchard at Delancey).
To get there, take the F Train to the Delancey Street stop. Walk away from the Williamsburg Bridge for a couple of blocks to Orchard Street. Walk ½ block south to 108 Delancey Street.