Ben Shahn (American, b. Lithuania, 1898-1969)
New York, 1947
- Tempera on paper mounted on canvas and panel
- 36 x 48 in. (91.4 x 121.9 cm)
- The Jewish Museum, New York
- Purchase: Oscar and Regina Gruss Charitable and Educational Foundation Fund, 1996-23
- Art © Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Not on view
During the height of Jewish immigration around the turn of the 20th century, a number of American cities became home to distinctly Jewish neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were often crowded, urban districts, where new arrivals could find an inexpensive room and a menial job alongside those who spoke their language and shared their background. Despite the shock of a new world, these newcomers were comforted by the familiar sounds of Yiddish and given practical assistance by more "seasoned" immigrants from their home countries.
New York City’s Lower East Side was the largest of these neighborhoods. Historically, the Lower East Side stretched from the East River west to Broadway, and from Canal Street up to 14th Street. Before the influx of Eastern European Jewry, the area had served earlier immigrants, including many from Ireland and Germany. By 1900, as new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe moved in, most of the earlier inhabitants relocated to other parts of the city. In 1915, an estimated 350,000 Jews (along with about 150,000 non-Jews) lived on the Lower East Side—an area less than two square miles. The neighborhood percolated with a vibrant Yiddish culture.
Most residents of the Lower East Side lived in tenements—apartment buildings five to eight stories high, typically with four three-room apartments on each floor. Usually, only one room in each apartment had windows to the outside, and often a dozen or more people would occupy a single apartment. Some families took in boarders to help cover the cost of rent. Immigrant families who "made it" were often able to leave the Lower East Side for more affluent neighborhoods in other parts of the city.
By the 1930s and ’40s, many of the Lower East Side’s Jewish immigrants (or their children) had relocated to neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Upper Manhattan, and the Bronx. (In fact, many of the photographers working in the Lower East Side at this time tried to capture vestiges of the neighborhood’s disappearing Jewish culture.) But as earlier residents moved away, the Lower East Side remained an important stepping stone for new immigrant populations—in more recent decades, the neighborhood has served as a center for immigrants from Latin American and Asian countries.