Living in America
From the Lower East Side
to Brownsville, Brooklyn


 

Late in the nineteenth century in New York City, a transformation had begun in earnest. No longer would the immigrant have to live in one of the many crowded, dilapidated tenements on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Advances in bridge building and improvements in the transportation system provided the immigrant with options not available to them before. What would occur over the next couple of decades would change the face of Jewish demographics, and at least for a short period of time, give the immigrant a chance to pay a lower rent and live in a more healthy and bucolic environment. Many moved eastward to Brooklyn, which at that time was not very developed. One of the first areas to receive an influx of new residents was what would be called Brownsville.

What of Brownsville, Brooklyn? What was the origin of this fabled area? It seems that it all started back in 1861 when a real estate speculator named Charles S. Brown bought some property in the area that we now know as Brownsville. He had hoped that the 250 small houses he would eventually build in 1865 would serve as a pleasant alternative for those dwelling in New York City who wished to leave their cramped quarters for a weekend of pleasant frolic in the country. In his town, which he originally had called "Brown’s Village," there were cottages, shops, meadows on which cows could graze, and a very big dairy farm. While this was all an admirable venture, it didn’t quite work out as he had planned. At the time this area was difficult to get to; there were no big bridges and it wasn’t generally reachable by sea. So eventually others came to Brownsville with different ideas of how to develop the land.

In 1887, Brownsville (as it was now called) began to evolve in a wholly different direction. There was another real estate developer named Aaron Kaplan who began to buy up multiple tracts of land. Like other developers had already done in Manhattan, he built tenements. His idea was not to use Brownsville as a vacation spot as Charles Brown envisioned, but to bring in businesses from Lower Manhattan, and thus increase Brownsville’s population and his success. After a time, the single-family homes and cottages that were previously there aplenty became scarce, and were replaced by two-family houses and tenement buildings.

How  did this part of Brooklyn now become more accessible and desirable? Due to advances in bridge building, the magnificent Brooklyn Bridge was built in 1883. With this new connection between Manhattan and Brooklyn, the newly-arrived immigrant could now think of moving there directly upon immigration, rather than living on the overcrowded Lower East Side. The area of Brownsville, Brooklyn was much more open than the Lower East Side, and rents were be much cheaper. For some it wasn't a choice, but a necessity. The Fulton Street El (an elevated subway that is no longer there) was extended in 1889, but a "depression" occurred during this period, preventing further expansion in the area for a period of time.

In 1903,  the building of the Williamsburg Bridge displaced many residents who had been living on the Manhattan side by the construction of the bridge’s onramp by Delancy Street. Those displaced often wound up moving to Brooklyn. Then, in 1909, the Manhattan Bridge was built.

 The first sections of Brooklyn that were developed, before the subways came into being, were the areas that were closest to New York City. The IRT subway line was ready to begin service in 1908. This made areas of Brooklyn that were once inaccessible, open for development and growth. Later on, other subway lines would be built, allowing for even further expansion into the outer areas of Brooklyn.

The search for less crowded conditions wasn’t the only reason Brownsville (as well as the rest of Brooklyn) became increasingly populated. In the late 1880s, some garment manufacturers decided it was best for them economically to make their exodus from the Lower East Side, so they took their workshops and their workers with them to the other side of the East River. With the migration of businesses to Brooklyn, the families who worked in these factories (sweatshops) usually followed their employer. Other folks who had jobs in New York City did a reverse commute from their homes in Brooklyn. Even though it would cost them more money to commute, they would ultimately save money by paying a lower rent in Brooklyn. Of course, as the growing population required more living quarters, more and more tenements were built, often stretching once again for blocks and blocks, as it had in a similar way on the Lower East Side. Conditions deteriorated in areas of Brooklyn too, and living conditions became poor. Eventually laws were passed to protect the tenant, mandating an improvement in tenement conditions.

Within a five-year period, between 1899 and 1904, the population of Brownsville increased from ten thousand to sixty thousand. During this boom period, one can imagine that those with enough cash and smarts would have a keen interest in buying up land in areas such as Brownsville. There was a great deal of land speculation during this time, and property values eventually went through the roof. A semi-skilled immigrant who might have eked out a living for a time and perhaps saved enough money to buy a tract of land, might have been able to buy that tract on one day and turn around and sell it for a profit the next. This turned a number of formerly poor shlumps into wealthy landowners. America, what a country!

After a time, formerly pastoral Brownsville became heavily concentrated with people, as did areas such as Williamsburg and the southern part of Brooklyn. Later, Coney Island, an area where many of us loved to play in when we were younger, also became a place that was accessible, and thus this area became developed too. The flow of immigrants could not be slowed, thanks to conditions in places such as Russian Poland and Galicia. At one point, immigrants were settling in Brooklyn at the rate of one thousand per week!

It should be said that not everybody who wanted to escape the awful living conditions on the Lower East Side was able to escape to Brooklyn. In the early years of the 1890s, many Jews fled north. Those that could afford to do so moved to the Upper East Side, where more well-off German Jews (often the owners of the garment factories that had occupied the Lower East Side) lived. One of the neighborhoods on the Upper East Side was named Yorkville and was located east of Lexington Avenue, between 72nd and 100th Streets. At the turn of the century, many Jews had also settled between 97th and 142nd Street in an area that we know as Harlem. In 1905, the first subway to the Bronx was built, running through the Harlem River tunnel. Prior to 1906, the Bronx had been incorporated into the City of New York, but subsequently became an entity of its own accord like Brooklyn. Many people, after first trying out Brownsville, skipped over to the Bronx, where they hoped there was still some unused space and more favorable housing conditions.

At first, living in Brownsville was a much more appealing place to live for the Jew. Perhaps it had the appeal of a shtetl in the countryside and offered the hope that they could once again live a traditional way of life that they longed for. A man (or woman or child) might be able to find a job where they would not have to work on the Sabbath and could go to shul, as was their wont. Brownsville, along with the East New York section of Brooklyn and perhaps New Lots, were the areas that were favored the most by folks moving to Brooklyn from the East Side of Manhattan. Brooklyn then was predominantly Jewish, and as such was dubbed the "Jerusalem of America." In 1925, Brownsville’s population was ninety-five percent Jewish!

One could certainly call Brownsville a working-class community. There was developed a strong religious and cultural foundation along with a strong socialist element. This was a carryover from their time back in Eastern Europe when many joined organizations based on ideology. On many a day, Pitkin Avenue would be the site of strong political debates between socialists of varying opinion. In 1916, a woman named Margaret Sanger opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in a tenement storefront in Brownsville. If a woman had ten cents she could receive a pamphlet entitled "What Every Girl Should Know." She could hear a short lecture on the female reproductive system and learn how to use certain contraceptives. Of course, as fate would have it, the clinic was closed down after only two weeks. The women of Brownsville would have none of it, and due to the notoriety of the Sanger trial, legislation was eventually passed that gave the doctor the right to prescribe contraceptives to women for reasons of health.

Over the years, the Jewish women in both Brooklyn and the Bronx showed their commitment to social justice by speaking out and protesting. They organized a kosher meat strike in 1935 (the prices were much too high). The kosher meat store was, of course, an integral part of Jewish life. Their standing up for their beliefs forced butcher shops to close for a week, eventually forcing prices back down to reasonable levels. Events like this would raise the social and political awareness of many denizens of both Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Most of those who had moved to Brownsville at the beginning of the twentieth century were of a lower socioeconomic status than the people they had left on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Gang violence was common, and there was a certain level of organized crime in the area, most notably a group called "Murder, Inc." This group was most prominent in the 1920s and 1930s. Whether a Brownsville resident was involved with the criminal element or not, it took a certain amount of toughness to survive on the streets of Brownsville. It made sense to learn how to defend oneself during those times. Pity the poor mother that had to drag their son out of a pool hall to save him from getting mixed up with the wrong crowd!

Besides Pitkin Avenue being the site of socialistic debate, it was also the main shopping district in Brownsville. This area even drew customers from as far away as Manhattan, as there were good deals there on furniture, clothing and appliances for the household.

Lastly, let’s not fail to mention how wonderful life could seem for those who were growing up in Brooklyn. Many were poor, but most of their friends were poor too, so it didn’t seem that one had more than the other. The candy store was often the local hangout and an easy way to socialize. How many of us had an ‘egg cream’ in one of these candy stores, or had a cold drink from the soda fountain? The boys would amuse themselves by playing stickball, where they would use a broomstick for a bat and try to hit a rubber ball as far as they could. On Friday nights, the streets of Brownsville would be hushed because of the Sabbath. And how many of our parents or grandparents who, due to a lack of air-conditioning, sat out in front of their apartment until late at night just to cool off? Well, that is all a topic for another time!

 



 

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