Portrait of the Lower East Side – 1955

By Gary Beck

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– From Rude Awakenings

 The Lower East Side is a place of energetic life. It has none of the rigidity of a sterile rich
neighborhood, or the envy of the middle income areas. Poverty and want make all slum
dwellers kin, despite their outward unawareness; for since they are poor in possessions,
they must be rich in dreams. The slums of a great American city are the mixing pots of
humanity. The Lower East Side, Breugal like, is the great canvas of man, showing the
range of human types. There is no fusion here; the Negro, Puerto Rican, Italian, Jew,
Russian, Irishman and Pole are separate and distinct from each other, but alike in
undernourishment and deprivation.

A city is a hive of dreams and in the greatest city in the land, dreams are still being
struggled for. Each day, the streets cascade forth an avalanche of furiously teeming
people rushing to jobs, for jobs, to school, to meet lovers, to broach the fabled doors of
merchants dealing in wares that come from all the far-flung realms that men hunger for;
to rush to museums stuffed with paintings, whales, Neanderthal busts, solar systems,
ghosts of the once great Indians of our land, (now only remembered and much maligned
by movies that nourish the fancies of dream-hungry Americans) of libraries, parks and
zoos, of corner candy stores filled with prurient and resentful youth, of churches, police
stations and hospitals, where daily the faithful are nourished, of stickball games in the
street thwarted by frequent automobiles, of self-conscious and fumbling pickups in
Coney Island and on 42nd street, of lost and sodden men fallen in the gutters of the
Bowery, of ancient and decaying bodies sitting in the sun of parks, waiting….Waiting; of
well-cut suits striding along the forties and fifties of the East Side avenues, of gracious
and elegant women in the East sixties and seventies, the women that fevered and passion-
hungry boys feast upon in tortured dreams.

Is this then the city? Are the automobiles and trucks and buses, honking and roaring,
filled with careless cursing men, crossing bridges, racing through tunnels, on highways,
down congested streets and avenues, the city? Are the raised voices and running bodies
of school children, clamorous, rowdy, awkward and alive, the city? Are the “rush hours”,
hurrying, jostling, pushing, bickering, surges of not yet awakened, not yet fed, not yet
home people, riding subways, buses, cars, but mostly subways, scrambling for seats,
maneuvering for a pole, or a position leaning against a door, to be defended against all
aggressors, sidling against a young, breasted typist, chewing gum and pretending
unawareness of what is occurring, of investigating and ungentle elbows probing ribs and
backs, of struggles against the incoming tide to get out at one’s station. Is this the city?
On the lower East side streets the watching, always watching people, stare from
windows, doorways, stoops, fire escapes at passing persons with avid and curious eyes,
vicariously participating in the passing life. Voices scream from windows, disclosing the
inner frantic and lonely lives, carrying microscopic details to the diversion-seeking
neighbors, who, as if by some regulated system of exchange, reciprocate.

Gary Beck