The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
- 1 See Walter E. Lagerquist, “The Old East Side Gives Way to the New”, New York Times, April 3rd, 191 (...)
- 2 Abu-Lughod et al. 32.
1Almost at the lower tip of Manhattan (New York City), lies a region, bounded to the north by long and wide East 14th Street running from Union Square to the East River, to the east by the waterfront overshadowed by the huge ConEd power plant, to the south by the intricate access to the Brooklyn Bridge, and to the west by the curving line of the Bowery elbowing into Third Avenue at Cooper Square (with – south of Delancey Street—a parallelepiped extension beyond, embracing Mulberry Street, Mott Street, and Elizabeth Street, and the intersecting streets). Below East Houston Street, and especially below Canal Street, the regularity of the New York grid (straight lines heading north-south, east-west) is complicated by diagonal lines, and then, between the Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridges, by a maze of short, knotted lanes. An old map, like the one published by The New York Times on April 3rd, 19101, effectively shows the entangled pattern of this urban region (some 1400 acres, with about 450 city blocks); a modern map, like the one contained in Janet Abu-Lughod’s From Urban Village to East Village2, shows how little it has changed in the nine decades that followed.
2This region is called the Lower East Side. I use the word “region” in its many meanings and implications, both physical (geographical) and cultural (metaphorical), because that is precisely what the Lower East Side always was: a fascinatingly complicated neighbourhood, in which past and present, Old Worlds and New World, languages and folkways, continuously overlapped (or, better: came into friction, clashed, influenced each other, in a never-ending dialectics of forces)—a veritable historical and cultural palimpsest, made up of incessant rearrangements of urban spaces under the pressures and dictates of real estate, industrial developments, labour-market needs, immigrant waves, social differentiations.
- 3 On the many implications of a study of American geographies, see Linklater.
- 4 On the concept of “deep traveling” as a prerequisite to a study of cultural geographies, see Least (...)
- 5 On the issue of gentrification, and how it modified (but far from erased) the multi-layered socio- (...)
- 6 See Darwin.
3Charles Olson was effectively evocative, when he wrote: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy. It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning” (11-12)3. His sentence immediately conjures up visions of flat deserts and rolling plains, meandering rivers and massive mountain ranges (as well as of uncurling highways and winding railway tracks) – that is, of open spaces. But it can also apply, and meaningfully so, to the urban Lower East Side, if we conceive this relatively tight, limited, self-contained, closed “space” as a compressed one: one that expands and opens up once it is explored vertically rather than horizontally, in its historical and cultural depth rather than in its ephemeral outward surface—à la William Least Heat-Moon et Jonathan Raban, so to speak4. In fact, as Mike Gold wrote in his memoir of coming of age in the neighbourhood (Jews Without Money, 1930), “The red Indians once inhabited the East Side; then came the Dutch, the English, the Irish, then the German, Italians and Jews. Each group left its deposits, as in geology” (Gold 180). This layered feature continued to characterize the neighbourhood even after 1930, when its new inhabitants increasingly turned out to be communities from Asia and the Caribbean, so much so that walking its streets nowadays still is (gentrification notwithstanding)5 an experience similar to that of Charles Darwin in his South American ramblings, during the famous 1831-1836 H.M.S Beagle voyage: geological stratifications openly telling natural (and, in the case of the Lower East Side, social and cultural) history6.
4A closer look at the above-cited 1910 map reveals in fact an extraordinary aspect of the Lower East Side: the density, not only of human population (which, in those years, was higher than in contemporary Bombay, India)7, but of socio-cultural establishments as well. On the map, different places are indicated with different symbols and form a complicated network of meeting places: saloons, cafés, five-cent vaudevilles, penny arcades, theatres, clubs, Protestant and Catholic churches, synagogues, settlement houses, public schools, kindergartens, hospitals, dispensaries, cheap and institutional lodging houses, missions, charity institutions, Y.M. and Y.W.C.A.’s... the complex, variegated, diversified loci and topoi of the neighbourhood, the dots and signs on a map which is both geographical and cultural, experiential and epistemological.
5For instance: the south-side length of East 4th Street between Third and Second Avenue (i. e., a single block—all in all, a stretch similar to any other in the neighbourhood) is characterised, on the map, by six symbols. From other contemporary sources, we know that the stretch
numbered at least four “highly charged” spots: the building (formerly a German gymnastic club) where the first Yiddish theatre performance was held in the United States in 1882, the headquarters of the New York section of the Industrial Workers of the World in the early years of 1900, a theatre, and a German concert hall dating back from the beginnings of the neighbourhood’s immigrant past. (Maffi 2004, 278)
- 8 The incessant change of the Bowery, epitome of the whole neighbourhood, can be followed in Mendels (...)
6Another interesting example is that of the Bowery, a thoroughfare which, by the time the map was published, had already begun its “transition [...] into a skid row” (Giamo 27): sixty-two symbols (some of them barely detectable) dot the map on the east side of the street, between Chatham Square and Cooper Square—saloons and cheap lodging houses (“flop-houses”), as well as five-cent vaudevilles, theatres, cafés, the remains of a glorious past which saw the triumphs of the Windsor Theatre (the former German Stadt Theater, then the venue for Buffalo Bill’s Western Melodramas, finally a celebrated Yiddish theatre managed by actor and entrepreneur Victor Adler), of the Thalia Theatre (formerly the Old Bowery Theatre) and the National Theatre (formerly the Bowery Gardens, the Oriental, the Teatro Italiano, the Roumanian, and eventually the theatre managed by Jacob Gordin, another protagonist of the Yiddish theatrical scene)8. The exploration could go on and on, the map at hand, in the incredibly thick net of small theatres, synagogues, and cafés in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto, between Chrystie and Clinton streets, south of East Houston Street and north of Grand Street; or among the labyrinthine blocks of Chinatown bordering on Little Italy...
- 9 In the following pages, I have amply extrapolated from my Gateway to the Promised Land.
- 10 “Not far from the East River, a path no longer reflected in any modern road stretched from what is (...)
- 11 On the “Five Points” area, see Anbinder. See Charles Dickens’s shocked reactions to the Five Point (...)
7But, since1910 is quite an advanced date in the history of the Lower East Side, to that past it is necessary to go back, in order to briefly sketch the neighbourhood’s “life cycle” and understand what it implies9. Originally inhabited by Algonquin tribes10, under Dutch rule the neighbourhood developed as a rural area and then as a residential quarter: its core, around Tompkins Square, had been part of the large farm owned by the first Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, and this legacy can still be read in many street names—the Bowery (from Dutch bouwerie, i.e. “farm”), Cherry Street, Orchard Street, Mulberry Street. Decades later, George Washington had lived for some time on Cherry Hill, and James Fenimore Cooper on St. Mark’s Place; and well into the latter part of the 19th century many “old families” (Fish, Stuyvesant, Rutherford, Livingston, Keteltas, Evarts) still lived in its outskirts. Already by the mid-18th, however, things had begun to change: a small group of freed African Americans had settled near Werpoes Hill and Collect Pond, in what would become Chatham Square and the notorious “Five Points” slum area11. At the same time, the harbour on the one hand and the pond on the other had attracted a few industrial establishments (tanning, soap-, tallow-, and candle-making): as a consequence, in a few years pollution had ensued, and by the early 19th century such was the stench from the tanneries that the decision was taken to drain the pond. In 1805, a 20-foot-wide canal connecting it to the Hudson (to the West) was dug, the drainage effected, and the canal finally covered, soon to become Canal Street (the source, even in modern times, of repeated floods). The economic boom which followed the War of 1812 and the transformation of Chatham Square into the main entertainment area of the city led to the removal of the African American settlement further West, to Thompson Street and Sullivan Street (in the heart of the Greenwich Village), and to the transformation of the area into a fashionable quarter. But the buildings erected on the site of former Collect Pond began to sag, and the well-to-do residents moved north.
- 12 Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Colossus.
- 13 United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United Sta (...)
8Thus, for almost half a century, whenever the propertied classes left, new immigrants came, drawn by an area that was rapidly becoming the commercial and manufacturing heart of the big metropolis. As soon as a pocket of immigrants settled in, it was followed by fellow townsmen (and then townswomen), and in time the original enclave attracted new ones, in a process of incessant arrival and of gradual proletarization. In part, these immigrants came from Ireland and Germany—the Irish fleeing crop failure, famine, and hunger, and settling along (and west of) the Bowery, south of Chatham Square, Division Street and Grand Street, and on the waterfront, their main workplace; the Germans escaping political repression, and peopling the irregular quadrangle east of the Bowery and Fourth Avenue, south of East 14th Street and north of the Irish neighbourhood. The Irish were generally peasants, soon to be turned into daily labourers: they took up the most menial jobs, and often lived in conditions of abject poverty; the Germans were mainly craftsmen and skilled workers, at times merchants and educated professionals: as such they soon occupied a higher rung in the social ladder. Then, little by little, the Chinese began to arrive, pressured by the rising tide of “yellow peril” hysteria in the far West: trickling into Mott Street, Pell Street, and Doyers Street, they gave birth to Chinatown, with its peculiar “bachelor society”, laundries, small restaurants, and grocery shops. Finally, in the last decades of the 19th century, great waves of immigrants poured onto the shores of America: Emma Lazarus’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”12—over five million between 1881 and 1890, more than three and a half in the following decade, more than eight and a half from 1901 to 191013.
- 14 See for instance Diner, Shandler, and Wenger.
- 15 See Rosenwaike. Also see Burrows and Wallace.
- 16 Pedro Pietri, “The Broken English Dream” (Pietri 1973, 13). Also see Pedro Pietri, Scarafaggi metr (...)
9Originally the home of the middle and upper classes (as is still shown by an often refined architecture, especially in the blocks nearer to the core of Old New York), the neighbourhood thus became the immigrant quarter par excellence, characterized by a strange, even fanciful urban geography – a sort of mythical place of identity and remembrance, a Proustian madeleine of places and spaces14. Italians (the predominant group from the Mediterranean, followed by Spaniards, Greeks, Turks, and Arabs) settled on Mulberry Street, Mott Street, and Elizabeth Street (“Elisabetta Stretta”, in Italglish jargon), near Chinatown, with another pocket further up north, between First Avenue and Second Avenue and East 7th Street and East 13th Street (Lucky Luciano’s early domain), near to what remained of the German and Irish settlements. But the largest community was made up of Jews (and non-Jews) coming from Eastern Europe—a mass migration, made up of artisans, craftsmen, common labourers, as well as of educated professionals and intellectuals, all of them to be soon transformed into an underpaid, poorly housed labour-force for the benefit of American industry and business in the throes of unprecedented growth and expansion15. Then there were other less defined settlements: the Greeks, the Arabs, the Gypsies, a cosmopolitan microcosm in which it was enough to cross a street (or to walk upstairs or downstairs) to enter a different world. Allen Street, for instance, was “exotic as it was erotic with secrecy, darkness, Arabic, Syrian, Greek music, all of it intermingling with the smell of teas and coffees [...], a Judaic-Arabic Casbah of the senses” (Roskolenko 106). Under the incessant arrival of new waves of immigrants (and until the restricting 1924 Immigration Act), the neighbourhood continued to change: but it kept its boundaries intact—an inner city, always swelling but never reaching the explosion point. And this continued to occur later on, during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, when other immigrants arrived, from Asia and from the Caribbean—primarily from Puerto Rico, the labour-force reservoir so near at hand, just off the U.S. coast: “To the united states we came/ To learn how to misspell our name/ To lose the definition of pride/ To have misfortune on our side/ To live where rats and roaches roam/ in a house that is definitely not a home...”16.
- 17 The dynamics of the immigrant waves (for instance, those that occurred in the post-WWII period) ar (...)
- 18 Quoted in Maffi 1994, 8.
10What thus took place in the Lower East Side of New York was a multi-faceted process, climaxing in the turn-of-the-century decades (roughly speaking: 1880s-1920s), but renovating itself at each new, big immigrant wave, at each new cycle in the history of the United States and the world17. The streets, the buildings, the workplaces, the meeting places of the neighbourhood were turned, by the very presence and activity of such a diversified population, into a huge, ever-functioning, social and cultural laboratory, where languages, folkways, beliefs, habits, attitudes, touched and interacted with each other, clashed and modified, under the daily pressures of survival and in the daily necessity to come to terms with America—and in so doing moulded and remoulded America itself. As Waldo Frank wrote: “We go forth all to seek America. And in the seeking we create her”18.
- 19 On the several social and cultural implications of Zangwill’s play, see Sollors 1986.
11At the very same time when the “melting pot theory” was developed (inspired and popularized by Israel Zangwill’s tremendously popular pièce, The Melting Pot, opening in Washington in October 1909)19, reality as manifested itself in the Lower East Side denied that by now century-old, die-hard concept. Indeed, the common notion of “Americanization” is that of a one-way process by which immigrants from different parts of the world eventually shed their specific traits and, once turned into molten metal, are poured into the new mould to be reborn Americans. An inevitable corollary to this notion is that such quarters as the Lower East Side of New York are but stages of a journey which has basically two stations, that of departure (the Old World) and that of arrival (Americanization): they become no man’s lands, extensions of Ellis Island, the pots where immigrants are melted and cleansed. And, if it is true that such an assimilationist view was then counterbalanced by an opposite (although specular) one, which rediscovers and celebrates ethnicity as a separate, strong identity, and focuses upon continuity and permanence of original traits, however, even in this view, interaction with America (the ever-going clash of fields of forces) is reduced to a secondary phenomenon, which takes place only once immigrants have left their immigrant quarters.
12The Lower East Side experience shows on the contrary that the process is rather more complex than a one-way one and that such neighbourhoods do play a crucial role in it. Both socially and culturally, immigrant communities are living organisms: they are class structured, and gender oriented; they contain the past, while also entertaining a continuous, osmotic relationship with the present; they give birth to new traits, at the same time that they remould old ones; they stimulate creative inner ferments, and exercise a powerful attraction on the outside. And they engender socio-cultural forms often as distant from traditional mores as from mainstream values. The peculiar relationship with the rest of the country (its history, its society, its culture), which the Lower East Side thus entered, was one which, while shaping and reshaping immigrant cultures and experiences, also shaped and reshaped mainstream culture.
13Another aspect must then be taken into account, too often overviewed or simply ignored. At the root of this experience (a tragic one, it must be underlined: one of violent deracination and profound anomie, like all experiences of migration), stood a continuous process of proletarization. Pushed by terrible living conditions in Europe and Asia (and then, Central and Latin America), pulled by the impelling needs of a vigorous capitalism, masses of immigrants of all conditions became cogs in the machine—but in so doing they acquired another strong identity, a class identity. This accounted for the extraordinary cohesion of the neighbourhood, well beyond its ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural segmentations. As is remarked by many literary creations as well as by memoirs, reminiscences, and autobiographies, everyday life in the Lower East Side was in itself an equalizing experience, which brought together different traditions and made them reciprocally interact (and thus, inevitably, modified and changed them):
The tenants in our building were from Palermo, Naples, Minsk, Bucharest, and Warsaw, with a number of unidentifiables thrown in. How did we communicate? In Yiddish, partly. [...] My father, [an Italian] tailor, mastered conversational Yiddish in the needle trades; conversed in Italian with his compatriots; and spoke English at home. My [American] mother spoke enough Italian and Yiddish to shop and communicate with in-laws and neighbors. (Catapano 7)
14The reality of daily exploitation (the horrendous working conditions of the “sweating system”, the plague of “home industry”, and of woman and child labour) was in itself an element of unification:
Take the Second Avenue Elevated Railroad at Chatham Square and ride up half a mile through the sweater’s district. Every open window of the big tenements, that stand like a continuous brick wall on both sides of the way, gives you a glimpse of one of these shops as the train speeds up. Men and women bending on their machines, or ironing clothes at the window, half-naked. [...] The road is like a big gangway through an endless work-room where vast multitudes are forever laboring. Morning, noon, or night, it makes no difference; the scene is always the same. (Riis 100)
- 20 For what follows, once again I have amply extrapolated from my Gateway to the Promised Land.
15Above all, resistance to daily exploitation played a key role in the development of this process, by which a class identity overlapped and overrode ethnic, religious and cultural identities. Given these conditions, in fact, it was inevitable that tensions should arise and conflicts explode. What took place on the Lower East Side at the labour level (and especially—but not solely—in the clothing industry, its key industry) went however well beyond a simple list of episodes. The continuous unrest and the ways in which it manifested itself were part of a series of important developments within the American labour movement: they had to do with the presence of a new mass and unskilled workforce, with the role played within it by women, with the emergence of an immigrant leadership, and with its (often tense) relationships with the labour bureaucracy—all issues that can only be mentioned here20, but once more show the centrality of that experience.
16Seamstress turnouts had taken place in New York in 1831, 1836, and 1845, the real problem always being that of organizing the “outside” workers—i.e., those women who performed their work at home. In January 1865, a meeting of sewing women was called by the Working Women’s Union at the Early Closing Hall, at 267 Bowery (one of the many venues—as we have seen—of the long street); but the first, real “immigrant” strike in the industry took place in July 1883, when 700 men and women turned out demanding $2.50 a day and hours from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M., formed the Cloak and Dress Makers’ Union, affiliated to the Knights of Labor, and won most of their demands.
- 21 Not by chance, Joan Micklin Silver’s interesting 1975 movie adaptation of that key Lower East Side (...)
17The 1885 general strike, which mobilized between 3,000 and 5,000 cloakmakers in New York City (and soon spread to Chicago), then ushered in a period of endemic, although isolated, shop struggles; and it was only in October 1889 that the first attempt was made to unite workers engaged in separate strikes: some 3,000 workers on strike formed the Operators’ and Cloakmakers’ Union No. 1 of New York and Vicinity, with headquarters at 92 Hester Street (another street invested with almost mythical implications)21. In May 1890, it was the turn of 4,000 cutters, trimmers, and operators, who engaged a bitter 15-week struggle in answer to another lock-out: led by the Amalgamated Board of Delegates, with headquarters again at 92 Hester Street, a “triple alliance” was formed against the manufacturers—the situation being of utmost misery and even starvation. A huge hunger demonstration marched through the streets of the Lower East Side, anticipating scenes that would become rather familiar within a few years.
- 22 Delancey Street is another important thoroughfare in the Lower East Side geography, as is shown by (...)
18Another attempt to form a stable, national organisational structure was then made in May 1892, when the International Cloak Makers’ Union of America was organized by representatives of the New York, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia workers. But these were already hard times, further complicated by factional struggles with the labour and radical organisations, and by 1895 the union had disappeared. Meanwhile, the tragic 1893 depression had hit the country: armies of unemployed roamed the nation’s highways and the city streets, and suffering was particularly acute on the Lower East Side. The Labor Lyceum on East 4th Street was busy in dispensing aid, the University Settlement (then on Delancey Street)22 sponsored a huge unemployed conference, a trade union relief committee was organized, meetings and demonstrations took place almost daily. By October 1894, the cloakmakers were again on strike. The situation grew tenser and tenser, and police repeatedly clubbed and dispersed parading strikers: but support was strong in the city and on the Lower East Side in particular, where even peddlers and the unemployed contributed to the strike funds.
- 23 Round the corner of both Hester Street and Delancey Street, Orchard Street was (and still is) the (...)
19In July 1895, the Brotherhood of Tailors, representing workers from some 630 shops, called its members to action: some 13,000 operators, basters, finishers, and pressers (men, women, young girls) stopped working and, to cries of “No task work! Down with the sweating system!”, crowded the streets around the strike headquarters at the Walhalla Hall, at 54 Orchard Street23. Although most of their demands were rejected, the strike was an important one, being one of the first to openly attack the “sweating system” and to propose the “closed shop”—two passwords that, in the following decades, would become more and more widespread. Three years later, it was the turn of the children’s jackets’ makers, a remarkable episode because most of the striking “basting pullers” were teen-age boys and girls, who organized into the Machine Tenders’ Union, with headquarters at 78 Essex Street (another beating heart of the neighbourhood), and were led by a 15-year-old boy.
- 24 Both Rivington Streets and Pitt Streets still hold vivid memories of that past—“not even past”, in (...)
- 25 Abraham Cahan, “Summer Complaint: The Annual Strike”, New York Commercial Advertiser, Aug. 25, 190 (...)
- 26 Abraham Cahan, “The Scholarly Waistmakers”, New York Commercial Advertiser, Aug. 24, 1900, now in (...)
20The end of the century was then stirred by another wave of unrest: the Cloakmakers’ Union, with headquarters at 158 Rivington Street, and the Pantsmakers’ Union, with headquarters at 62 Pitt Street24, repeatedly struck, enthusiastically supported by young members who often had very little in common with the traditional “greenhorn” types, and by walking delegates who toured the neighbourhood organizing the shops and making familiar a figure that would have a great importance in labour’s future history. Once more, the “task” and “sweating” systems were the targets of battles that, victorious or defeated, made the Lower East Side alive with such a continuous turmoil that it was by now possible to speak of “the big annual tailor strike, the strike on the East Side, where hundreds of sweatshops were deserted, the streets of the ghetto were swarming with gesticulating, chattering, groaning men and women, and the newspapers were full of pictures of long-bearded patriarchs”25. The new century then opened with a decisive step forward for the clothing workers: on June 3, 1900, a meeting was called at the Labor Lyceum by the United Brotherhood of Cloakmakers No.1 of New York and Vicinity, out of which came the decision to form the soon-to-be-famous International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). A month later, a two-week strike led by the Shirtwaistmakers Union, with headquarters at 77 Essex Street, made it clear that a new militant subject had appeared in the industry and within the trade unions’ ranks, “the majority of the strikers [being] well-educated immigrant girls come to seek higher education in the American colleges”26.
- 27 See Ippolito 3, 6, 9.
- 28 See Sue A. Clark and Edith Wyatt, “Working Girls’ Budgets”, McClure’s Magazine, November 1910; Pea (...)
21The times were now ripe for a major confrontation, and this would take place in the latter part of 1909. By then, over 600 shirtwaist factories operated in New York City, the larger shops being on the outskirts of the Lower East Side and employing up to 300 power machines in long rooms or lofts. The smaller ones were within the neighbourhood’s boundaries, or generally downtown, and usually had from 20 to 30 foot machines. The total workforce was more than 30,000, three quarters of it made up of 16- to 25-year-old girls, with many helpers and learners between 11 and 13. A good 55 percent were Jewish girls, 35 percent Italian, and 7 percent American27. Wages were between $3-4 per week (the finishers) and $8-13 (the operators), reaching a top of $16-18 for custom-making, a skilled job: but learners and helpers received lower wages, and women were generally paid less than men, who usually held the skilled jobs. The workday was from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M., with a 56-hour week that became a 70-hour one in high season. Working conditions were then made even more intolerable by a strict factory discipline, by a severe system of fines, by the fact that workers had to pay for appliances, and by the continuous harassment and abuse to which helpers and learners, and more generally women and girls, were subjected on the part of the overseers28. So it was that
In the black winter of 1909
When we froze and bled on the picket line
We showed the world that women could fight
And we rose and we won with women’s might29.
- 30 For a more detailed chronicle of the strike, which soon turned into a general strike involving Man (...)
22The strike that followed, after a long summer of unrest, began late in September and lasted two months, climaxing in a famous meeting at the Cooper Union, at the conjunction of the Bowery and Third Avenue. It demanded abolition of “inside contracting”, a 10% wage increase, a 52-hour week with limitation of overwork to three evenings per week for less than two hours, appliances to be paid for by the firm, suppression of the fine system, equal distribution of work during the slack season, and recognition of the ILGWU. It was a real confrontation: picketing girls were assaulted by policemen, hired thugs, and prostitutes, were arrested and sentenced, and could count upon little more than moral support on part of a weak ILGWU and small sums from the United Hebrew Trades. Still, they stubbornly held out, and won30.
23Although strikes in the clothing industry were the most celebrated episodes of social unrest on the Lower East Side of those years, they were far from being the only ones. Other strikes occurred, for instance, among the newspaper-sellers (or newsies: 10-to-15-year-old kids), and soon unrest in the neighbourhood extended to all aspects of daily life: from the “kosher meat boycott” and the “rent strikes” to food riots and to unemployed demonstrations, climaxing with issues of a wider or more political aspect (reactions to the 1903-1905 Kishinev pogroms and to the bloody repression of the 1905 Russian revolution, support to the IWW’s struggles in the West, rage at the 1914 Ludlow massacre, enthusiasm for the Mexican revolution and then for the 1917 February and October revolutions in Russia)... all episodes (small and grand, local and international) which contributed to cement the Lower East Side and to draw a thicker and thicker net of trails on the map of the neighbourhood, and of the city at large.
- 31 See Shell and Sollors, eds. Also see Sollors 2008 and Ickstadt.
- 32 See Von Blum.
- 33 See Sklar.
- 34 See Clurman. For immigrant theatre, see Schwartz Seller, ed.
24In the turn-of-the-century decades, the Lower East Side thus emerged as an ever-functioning forge, whose raw materials were habits, behaviours, folkways, languages, beliefs, social and cultural conceptions, coming from the Old World as well as from the New World—all of them in a constant state of flux. From this forge, came for instance a variegated corpus of literary expressions (from Abraham Cahan’s works to Anzia Yezierska’s, Mike Gold’s and Henry Roth’s, from Luigi Donato Ventura’s Peppino to Pietro Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete), which directly entered the complex process of development of an American fiction: the “alien”, outside point of view inevitably tended to stress and modify accepted literary forms and conventions and offered new life and solutions both to realistic/naturalistic fiction and to modernist experimentation31. The neighbourhood was then the stage of important developments in the artistic field: it was the preferred scenario of the Ash Can School painters (especially John Sloan, George Bellows, George Luks), who—in its streets, tenements, cafés—found new inspiration and a new painting approach: that of a “dirty realism”, aggressive and tough, which—although subsequently overshadowed by abstract expressionism—remained a constant in American art in the following decades (the Soyer brothers, Philip Evergood, Jack Levine, up to, nowadays, Eric Drooker)32. A developing movie industry (linked in more than one way to the immigrant experience) also drew inspiration from the Lower East Side experience: not by chance, street life, everyday’s tragic/comic contingencies and surprises, the necessary rearrangements to new rhythms and scenes, the struggle for survival, the clash of differing ways and customs, were at the core of D. W. Griffiths’s early reels (and especially of that small masterpiece of his, The Musketeers of Pig Alley, shot in 1912), or of Charles Chaplin’s slapsticks33. The street’s central role in an immigrant quarter had deep effects on many other sectors of American culture, and influenced other artistic fields as well: theatre, for instance, as is shown by the experimental theatre of the 1910s and 1920s, or by such 1930s plays as Elmer Rice’s Street Scene, Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End, Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty34. Music was another field, in which the Lower East Side experience played a decisive role, by catalysing different forms and structures – as is shown by the works of the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, who in the streets of the neighbourhood assimilated and fused varied musical experience (from Jewish synagogue airs to Native American rhythms, from African American urban blues to European dance music), giving rise to a distinctive “American” genre, the end result of a complex, dialectic (and open-ended) process of creation through hybridization, fusion, and contamination. Such a process is well summarized (in a subtly metaphorical way) by a significant quotation from a fictional autobiography of the time, which shows how, fascinated by American entertainment as they came to know it along the Bowery, immigrant boys experimented with new songs and steps in the streets of the neighbourhood:
“[...] first an Irish reel, very zippy, see, and when I am good and warmed up in the middle of the Irish jig, giving the regular Irish steps, I wants the music to slip into a Jewish wedding Kazzatzka with a barrel of snap, and that’s when I’m gonna show them a combination step that’s gonna knock them for a good... Get this right, Al, I’m gonna give you the two airs and I’m gonna show you how to join them up. But the hard part is the windup—when you gotta get a medley of the Irish reel and the Russian Kazzatzka”... Sam hums, beats his hands and feet in time and Al follows, lamely, with the harmonica, but they keep it up, patiently, for over an hour until the desired Irish-Russian-Jewish potpourri is accomplished. The tremolo and whining strains of the harmonica have attracted a mixed audience. Mothers with babies in carriages, a mob of kids pushing and shoving, [...] a few pushcart peddlers have moved their vehicles nearer the excitement and the Canal Street horse cars wait while the conductors investigate and report back to the drivers, and the passengers stick their head out of the windows, asking one another what’s the matter... [...] Sam signals, “Let her go—gimme a few bars—to open up, and then start again and go right through”... Sam’s dance begins... and the audience is noisily appreciative... and then came the knock-them-dead climax... it almost made us dizzy. Sam’s feet don’t seem to touch the ground. The windup is acrobatic. He does marvelous bodily contortions on his heel with original, difficult variations of the Kazzatzka whirlgig, and suddenly he leaps into an Irish jig in time with the music and then as suddenly twists himself into wild Russian back-breaking steps that seem impossible to do. (Ornitz 116-118)
- 35 I have elsewhere argued about this phenomenon of reuse and reinvention, which is not limited to th (...)
25Indeed, the street’s central role must be stressed here. What took place in the Lower East Side was in fact a continuous phenomenon of reuse and reinvention of spaces, materials, words, and habits35, and this inevitably was to have deep cultural effects, well beyond the geographical boundaries of the neighbourhood. It is thus time to go back to the 1910 map.
26In his Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900, writes Franco Moretti:
[...] what do literary maps allow us to see? Two things, basically. First, they highlight the ortgebunden, place-bound nature of literary forms: each of them with its peculiar geometry, its boundaries, its spatial taboos and favorite routes. And then, maps bring to light the internal logic of the narrative: the semiotic domain around which a plot coalesces and self-organizes. Literary forms appear thus as the result of conflicting, and equally significant forces: one working from the outside, and one from the inside. It is the usual, and at the bottom the only real issue of literary history: society, rhetoric and their interaction. (Moretti 5)
- 36 Poe 475; Eliot 65.
- 37 Marshall Berman, “Preface to the Penguin Edition: The Broad and Open Way”, in Berman 15.
- 38 Ibidem.
27There is no doubt that the more or less fictionalized accounts of immigrant experiences on the Lower East Side were very much ortgebunden: “geography at bottom”, in Charles Olson’s words. Daily life in the neighbourhood was a continuous struggle to make sense in a seemingly senseless world, and moving around the city maze without losing oneself implied the drawing and re-drawing, the reading and re-reading, of new physical and mental maps, in the hope and belief that this would enable survival. While the dominant cultural attitude towards the modern metropolis was one which stressed unreality and dissolution, alienation and fragmentation, the acute feelings of disorientation, anxiety, loss of identity (from Edgar Allan Poe’s paradigmatic “es lasst sich nicht lesen” to T. S. Eliot’s epitomizing “Unreal City”)36, immigrants in such neighbourhoods as New York’s Lower East Side engaged a dramatic battle for knowledge and identity, for “a unity of disunity”37: spurred by the imperatives of survival, they entered the urban maze (that “maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish”)38 with the purpose of emerging from it—like so many Ariadnes. They tried to solve the enigma, to make real the unreal, and discovered that the labyrinth, the arabesque, still contained the keys to understanding: the map, the portolan. In an interesting essay on the relationship between young Friedrich Engels and the city of Manchester, Stephen Marcus shows how Engels challenged the prevailing perception of a city which was, as contemporary common opinion (“ideology”, in the Marxist sense) would have it, labyrinthine, unknowable, illegible:
This chaos of alleys, courts, hovels, filth—and human beings—is not a chaos at all. Every fragment of disarray, every inconvenience, every scrap of human suffering has a meaning. Each of these is inversely and ineradicably related to the life led by the middle classes, to the work performed in the factories, and to the structure of the city as a whole. (Marcus 272)
28Thus, a different focus—one that does not passively accept the fragmented, alienated vision of the city and tries to superimpose order onto chaos—accounts for the peculiarly ortgebunden quality of immigrant narratives, be they fictional or not, and offers another view of (from?) realism and modernism. It is indeed a question of points of view, as Hana Wirth-Nesher shows, by highlighting the main question which necessarily lies at the core of urban experience in literature: “Where are we situated in the metropolis in order to see what we see?” (Wirth-Nesher 3). Immigrants (and, among them, immigrant writers) were peculiarly situated in the metropolis: their reaction to it, after an initial, inevitable phase of bewilderment, was one which acknowledged the chaotic dimension (physical and metaphorical, individual and collective), but at the same time tried to re-create an order in it—by reorganizing themselves along communal lines, by inventing new modes of association and socio-cultural exchange, by conquering a class identity well beyond ethnic, cultural, religious differentiations, by unfolding a clear net of trails and paths in the maze-like reality of the city. In so doing, immigrant writers, engaged in giving voice to a collective experience, gave birth to a subtly different strand within the dominant literary and cultural rhetoric—be it realist or modernist.
- 39 As with the later Call It Sleep (1934), by Henry Roth, it is still possible to do so today, even a (...)
29Let us, for instance, briefly compare such contemporary literary works as Stephen Crane’s Maggie. A Girl of the Streets (1893, 1896) and George’s Mother (1896), and Abraham Cahan’s Yekl. A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896) and The Imported Bridegroom (1898). What we have here are two different ways of dealing with the same city and, within it, almost the same area – part of the Lower East Side neighbourhood. And what we can literally feel is the difference of attitude: in Crane, a veritable city map does not exist beneath the plot, while it becomes almost tangible in Cahan’s work; the city in Crane is a visionary space, in which almost only “the Bowery” belongs to a recognizable topography, but rather more as a region of the mind and the subconscious than as a physical place, whereas Cahan’s city can be read and explored with a map in hand and the movements of his characters can be closely followed39. The following, significantly different passages, the first from Maggie, the second from The Imported Bridegroom, are exemplary in this respect:
A girl of the painted cohorts of the city went along the street. [...] Crossing glittering avenues, she went into the throng emerging from the places of forgetfulness. [...] The restless doors of saloons, clashing to and fro, disclosed animated rows of men before bars and hurrying barkeepers. A concert hall gave to the street faint sounds of swift, machine-like music, as if a group of phantom musicians were hastening. [...] The girl walked out of the realm of restaurants and saloons. She passed more glittering avenues and went into darker blocks than those where the crowd travelled. [...] The girl went into gloomy districts near the river, where the tall black factories shut in the streets and only occasional broad beams of light fell across the pavements from saloons. [...] She went into the blackness of the final block. The shutters of tall buildings were closed like grim lips. The structures seemed to have eyes that looked over her, beyond her, at other things. Afar off the lights of the avenues glittered as if from an impossible distance. Street car bells jingled with a sound of merriment. [...] the river appeared a deathly black hue. Some hidden factory sent up a yellow glare, that lit for a moment the waters lapping oilily against timbers. The varied sounds of life, made joyous by distance and seeming unapproachableness, came faintly and died away to silence. (Crane 52-53)
- 40 Abraham Cahan, The Imported Bridegroom (1898), in Cahan, Yekl, The Imported Bridegroom, 151-152.
After tracing Shaya to the Clinton Street house Ariel stood waiting around a corner, at a vantage point from which he could see the windows of the two garret rooms one of which was the supposed scene of the young man’s ungodly pursuits. [...] On the following morning he returned to his post. The attic windows drew him like the evil one, as he put it to himself. He had been keeping watch for some minutes when, to his fierce joy, Shaya and his accomplice sallied forth into the street. He dogged their steps to Grand Street, and thence, through the Bowery, to Lafayette Place, where they disappeared behind the massive doors of an imposing structure, apparently neither a dwelling place nor an office building. “Dis a choych?”, Ariel asked a passerby. “A church? No, it’s a library – the Astor library”, the stranger explained. [...] The unaccustomed neighborhood and the novelty of his impressions increased the power of the “evil one” over him. [...] He followed them through Fourth Street back to the Bowery and down the rumbling thoroughfare, till – “a lamentation!”—they entered a Christian restaurant!40
- 41 It is also metaphorically significant that, whereas in Crane’s text walking the city streets leads (...)
30What we read, in the very brief span of time between Crane’s novel and Cahan’s, is an increasing awareness of the city, which slowly becomes both readable map and receivable knowledge, through a narration which unfolds not simply as more realistic, but also as an instrument of understanding and unveiling—a different perception gained through a different point of view. The trope itself of walking the city streets (of Dickensian origins) tends to become style—as would be increasingly made clear by future American modernist fiction, from John Dos Passos to Henry Roth41.
31The Lower East Side experience thus shows how such immigrant neighbourhoods were (and still are, although subject to gentrification) “a terrain of negotiation and confrontation” (Denning 136), where circulation and osmosis were (and remain) atop the daily agenda: sprawling, complex, contradictory and dramatic socio-cultural laboratories at the heart of the urban labyrinth; steeped to such an extent in history and memory, in individual and collective experiences, private and public, in material of a more or less sophisticated nature or raw nature, in “other” points of view, as to constitute further keys of interpretation and to proffer further solutions to the metropolitan mystery—places where the enigma can finally be solved.
- 42 Leo Lionni, “An Irresistible Urge To Make Things”, Commencement Address, Cooper Union, 29/5/1991.
32This is the variety and complexity of the Lower East Side: not simply (or banally) a kaleidoscope, but a space characterised by an incessant dialectic, by the encounter and clash of fields of forces, by the juxtaposition and interaction of energies of different origins, which shape and reshape themselves (and in so doing, American culture as well). As Leo Lionni put it, in his 1991 commencement address at the Cooper Union: “The beauty of the Lower East Side escapes all easy definitions. It is the beauty shaped by the desperate will to survive, a beauty of form and content so tightly interwoven the warp and woof, by now, are one”42.