NEW YORK CITY GUIDE: 1939’s CHINATOWN and LOWER EAST SIDE

Though the Bowery Mission is still around today, there aren’t too many remnants left of New York’s Depression-era Lower East Side. It was a place full of pawnshops, beer saloons, flophouses and Jesus-saves welfare institutions. Masses of people lived on top of each other in slums. But in the hard times, a unique city culture — made up of small business owners, politicians, artists, gangsters, composers, prize fighters and labor leaders — was created. The neighborhood was the melting pot of the city.

With A/G coming to the Downtown Literary Festival on April 14 at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe — located at 126 Crosby Street — take the WPA time machine to 1939’s Chinatown and Lower East Side and see the neighborhood’s past.

Guide Note: Follow the link to download or print the complete New York City Guide: 1939’s Chinatown and Lower East Side. Right-click or cmd-click the map above for a large version to use as your guide. The following passages are excerpted from the NYC Guide.

- CHINATOWN -

New York’s Chinatown is trying to live down a myth; a myth kept alive by the sight-seeing companies that pile tourists into Chinatown busses, transport them to prepared points of interest, and frequently prime them with tales of mystery and crime. The truth is (and the policemen on the beat will verify it) that no safer district is to be found in New York City. Yet guides have been known to warn tourists to “hold hands while walking through the narrow streets.”

Historians differ as to the identity of the first Chinese resident of New York City. Some say it was Quimbo Appo, who came to San Francisco in 1844 and arrived here a few years later; others state it was Ah Ken, a Cantonese merchant who made his home on Mott Street in 1858. Still others contend it was Lou Hoy Sing, a sailor who shook off his wanderlust and settled in New York in 1862. (He married an Irish lass who bore him two stalwart sons, one of whom became a policeman and the other a truck driver.)

1939 TOUR

SEE MAP INSERT. “Tongs,” the Chinese equivalent of American fraternal societies, ruled the quarter with iron discipline and fought each other with hired gunmen.

The headquarters of the (#79) HIP SING TONG are situated appropriately near the corner of Pell and Doyers Streets, for just beyond is the (#78) BLOODY ANGLE, the bend in Doyers Street where henchmen of this tong fought the powerful (#75) ON LEONG TONG in the early 1900s. The Hip Sings, led by Mock Duck, a gambler, battled the On Leongs, captained by Tom Lee, for control of the lucrative gambling and opium rackets.

- LOWER EAST SIDE and THE BOWERY-

The dramatic, intensely human story of the Lower East Side is a familiar chapter in the epic of America; a host of writers some seeking out the Lower East Side and others originating there have described its people. Here have dwelt the people whose hands built the city’s elevateds, subways, tubes, bridges, and skyscrapers. Its two square miles of tenements and crowded streets magnify all the problems and conflicts of big-city life. Crowded, noisy, squalid in many of its aspects, no other section of the city is more typical of New York.

The Bowery today is chiefly given over to pawnshops, restaurant equipment houses, beer saloons, and miscellaneous small retail shops. Here flophouses offer a bug-infested bed in an unventilated pigeonhole for twenty-five cents a night, restaurants serve ham and eggs for ten cents, and students in barber “colleges” cut hair for fifteen cents. Thousands of the nation’s unemployed drift to this section and may be seen sleeping in all-night restaurants, in doorways, and on loading platforms, furtively begging, or waiting with hopeless faces for some bread line or free lodging house to open. No agency, at present (1939), provides adequate food, shelter, and clothing for these wanderers. Missions furnish food and lodging for a few, and try by sermon and song to touch the souls of the down-and-outers and the sympathies of generous tourists.

1939 TOUR

SEE MAP. In the incongruous setting of the theater and restaurant district is (#31) ST. MARK’S IN-THE-BOUWERIE, Second Avenue and Stuyvesant (East Tenth) Street. Erected in 1660, as a Dutch chapel, on the farm of Governor Peter Stuyvesant, it was rebuilt in 1799. The steeple and portico were added in 1826 and in 1858. Pagan-looking frescoes fill the pediment above the porch. They recall the pastorate of Dr. William Norman Guthrie. In an effort to make the church attractive to progressive parishioners, Dr. Guthrie worked out a ritual based on the theory of the essential unity of all religions, which included Greek folk dancing, American Indian chants, and many other things which the conservative element in the diocese heatedly declared to have no place in an Episcopalian church. A Body and Soul Clinic was attached to the church with the aim of combining physical and spiritual treatment.

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Erin Chapman and Tom McNamara are co-editors of THE AMERICAN GUIDE.

TOMORROWLAND - QUEENS, NEW YORK

In the New York City borough of Queens, the future was once on grand display. In 1939 and 1964, New York hosted the World’s Fairs at Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The events attracted millions of visitors to marvel at the epoch of innovation and industrialization. Today, the site and some structures from the 1964 exposition — dedicated to “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe” — are still easily accessible, though rapidly showing their age.

A few buildings are still in use, such as The New York Hall of Science — a wonderful hands-on science museum with grounds decorated by rockets and quirky, retro, science-related sculptures. Walking through the park you can peek through the chain-link fence into the Queens Zoo and see a large geodesic dome that was built for the fair and now serves as an aviary. But surely the most interesting structures are the Unisphere and the sadly decaying Queens Theatre, which has fallen into disrepair, but still leaves an imposing impression. The park is a reminder of the optimism and excitement of the ’60s — when utopian futures seemed a sure and easy bet — and of how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go.

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New York City Guide LYDIA WHITE was born on the 4th of July and has been an independent spirit ever since. Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she moved to Brooklyn in 2010. When not working as an interactive art director, she spends her free time exploring what NYC and the surrounding areas have to offer. White has been photographing interesting people and unusual landscapes for nearly a decade.

Follow her on Tumblr at lydia makes pictures or on her website, LydiaWhitePhotography.com.