An Impoverished Neighborhood with a Rich History

“A map of the city, colored to designate nationalities, would show more stripes than on the skin of a zebra, and more colors than any rainbow.”  

– Jacob Riis

Since the 19th century, the Lower East Side has developed a rich history as a center of immigrant life and cultural diversity. After the first great wave of European Immigration, the Lower East Side became the first non-English-speaking immigrant population in the United States to have retained the language and customs of its homeland.

With 55% of the population originating from Germany in 1870, the neighborhood universally became known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. The remainder of the foreign-born population included immigrants from Ireland, Austria, and Russia. After the second massive wave of immigration, Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews became the largest identifiable group in the neighborhood, along with a significant influx of Polish Roman Catholics, Protestant Hungarians, as well as Italians. With this increase in diversity came an end to “Kleindeutschland” and the beginning of the “Lower East Side.”

Originally built in 1890 as the Allen Street Presbyterian Church and then later converted into the Congregation Poel Zedek Anshe Ileya, the Templo Adventista del Septimo Dia has been decorated with several religious symbols, representing the many cultures that have inhabited the Lower East Side over the last century and a half.


This grocery store was originally established in the 1970s under the management of a Dominican family. It eventually became an extension of Chinatown, prompting its owner to change its name to “Chinese Hispanic Grocery” in order to adapt to the new clientele.

After the implementation of the Immigration Law of 1965, the foreign born population of the Lower East Side ceased to favor those of European descent and instead, began to consist mostly of Asian and Latin American immigrants. By the 1960’s, artists, musicians, and hippies also began to discover the Lower East Side, forming the East Village as an independent neighborhood. The Lower East Side has since become home to a larger white, middle-upper income population, which makes up over 1/3 of the population as of 2009. The rise of gentrification in the Lower East Side has become an increasing concern more now than ever.

Screen Shot 2013-05-13 at 2.36.11 PM

 “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives”

– Jacob Riis

Although the Lower East Side is often celebrated for its history of immigration and cultural diversity, it has also been recognized as one of the most overly populated, poverty-stricken neighborhoods in New York City. In fact, news articles from the early 1900s refer to a pocket of the Lower East Side as “Poverty Hollow.” The New York Times, in particular, wrote in 1910:

“Poverty Hollow, Down by the East River, has a Mayor and Cabinet to Settle All its Disputes…Mayor John Coakley of Poverty Hollow is his official title, and his word makes things happen faster in the stretch of land between Corlears Hook Park, East River, the foot of Delancey Street, East River, and the Clinton Street entrance of the bridge than Theodore Roosevelt’s would” (NYTimes, 2010).

At the same time, the area was also known as “The Ghetto,” most probably because of the high percentage of Jewish immigrants who lived there. With a population of approximately 1.5 times that of Bombay, India, the Lower East Side became the subject of Jacob Riis’ controversial publication, How the Other Half Lives (see “History of Tenements”).

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the median household income in the Lower East Side has increased by 62% from $24,192 to $39,082. Although these statistics indicate a significant influx of people with a higher socioeconomic status, poverty in the Lower East Side is nevertheless a relevant issue today. While the median household income has dramatically increased in the Lower East Side since 2000, it is still roughly $10,000 less than the NYC Median household income. In fact, approximately 1 in 4 residents in the Lower East Side are living below poverty level. Especially in Chinatown, immigrants continue to experience harsh living conditions as many still live in crowded and dirty tenement buildings (See “Modern-Day Tenements”).

Screen Shot 2013-05-13 at 4.20.18 PM


One Response

Leave a Reply