At the time of the Eastern European migration, the Lower East Side of Manhattan Island was a depressing area. Most of the buildings were in desperate need of repair; the immigrants, often with large families, were forced to occupy small flats in highly-congested tenement buildings. Row upon row of tenement buildings lined the streets of the Lower East Side. Between the rows were alleys and streets, mostly unpaved and in disrepair. Inside, the tenement houses, though built by various contractors, possessed the same squalid features—long narrow halls, poor lighting, broken stairways, and mouldy walls separating one flat from another in a three- or four-story building. The flats, usually unheated in wintertime except by the kitchen stove, had walls and ceilings that also were in disrepair. During the oppressively hot summers, fire escapes doubled as sleeping areas; since there was no refrigeration, they were used to keep perishables cold in winter.
Like other groups before them the East European Jews, by sheer weight of number, overwhelmed the section of New York known as the Tenth Ward. By 1900 over 700 persons were living on one acre of land in areas that “seemed to sweat humanity at every window and door.”
A contemporary journalist describing the tenements observed:
They are great prison-like structures of brick, with narrow doors and windows, cramped passages, and steep rickety stairs. They are built through from one street to the other with a somewhat narrower building connecting them. The narrow courtyard in the middle is a damp, foul-smelling place supposed to do duty as an airshaft; had the foul fiend designed these great barracks they could not have been more villainously arranged to avoid any chance of ventilation. In case of fire they would be perfect death traps. The drainage is horrible, and even the Croton, as it flows from the tap in the noisome court year, seemed to be contaminated by its surroundings and have a fetid smell.
Although the East European Jews were accustomed to poverty and had learned, through the ages, how to subsist on the barest of essentials, the first-generation immigrant was not prepared for America’s way of life. In Europe, especially in the shtetl, the social structure was based on scholarship—how well you knew and were able to interpret the Talmud—but in America the social structure was based on money, not scholarship.
Most of the Russian immigrants were penniless when they arrived in America. They received little, if any, assistance except from relatives. The Jewish immigrants began to fill factories and shops, especially in the clothing trade. The trade rapidly expanded; immigrant workers themselves started “home industries” and finally shops of their own where they employed those who came to America after them.
Weekly earnings were small, but above what a poor person could make in Mother Russia; the standard of living was higher than that of Europe. Soon the immigrants saved enough to bring their families and friends to America. Many of the Jewish immigrants who arrived after 1881 took up peddling and trades.
By 1900 there were more than 25,000 pushcart peddlers tramping the streets. The Lower East Side swarmed with peddlers and market stalls hawking everything from collars and shoestrings to fresh meat and vegetables.
The competition was fierce, the haggling loud and often insulting. No other activity more set the tone of East Side life or impressed outsiders than the squadrons of carts plying the streets and the babble of negotiation that accompanied every transaction. Every street teemed with vitality and exuberance. Some did well as peddlers, but for most it was only a beginning, a transient trade until something better turned up. Yet countless Jewish immigrants got their commercial baptism as peddlers.