LES History: A Look Back at the Bowery “Blue Book”

Sleeping it off under the El [or whatever] in 1932, photographer Berenice Abbott.

Sleeping it off under the El [or whatever] in 1932, photographer Berenice Abbott.

The following column was written by TLD contributor Eric Ferrara of the Lower East Side History Project:

If you were down and out on the Bowery in the 1940s or 1950s, you wouldn’t want to earn the reputation as a “toes-up mokus” or aggressive “pinker” because you just might “catch some heat” from the “bulls” – or worse – you might be ostracized by your contemporaries and “outed” publicly in the Bowery Blue Book.

The legendary Bowery began hosting a notable homeless population as early as the 1870s. Many struggling Civil War veterans migrated towards major cities like New York in search of occupational prospects, only to find competition in a workforce already saturated with incoming immigrants and thousands of other Americans attracted to urban areas for similar opportunities.

A Look at St. Patrick Day Parade’s Lower East Side Roots

"St. Patrick's Day Parade in Union Square, c. 1874. Source: Library of Congress."

“St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Union Square, c. 1874. Source: Library of Congress.”

Editor’ note: In honor of St. Patrick’s Day on Sunday, TLD columnist Eric Ferrara of the LES History Project takes a look back at the origins of one of New York’s most famous parades:

St. Patrick holds a special place in the hearts of many New Yorkers. Not only is he the primary patron saint of Ireland, he is also the adopted patron saint of the Archdiocese of New York, so it is no surprise that tens of thousands of people show up every year just to participate in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade—while spectators run into the millions.

Though very little documentation exists about the life of St. Patrick, the narrative which has become universally accepted is that the former slave rose to great prominence in the 5th century, bringing Christianity to Ireland. One famous legend states that St. Patrick taught the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) utilizing the symbol of the three-leaf shamrock.

A Brief History of Public Housing on the LES

New York Times, February 1938.

Editor’s note: The New York City Housing Authority’s decision to lease some of its property for luxury development has focused new attention on public housing on the Lower East Side. Eric Ferrara of the LES History project takes a look back at the origins of public housing, which can be traced to our neighborhood.

When the City Planning Commission formed on January 1, 1938, one of its primary initiatives was to revitalize the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods of New York City. After identifying the Lower East Side waterfront as one of the Big Apple’s neediest districts, the commission proposed amending long-standing zoning regulations in order to restore property values, to encourage new construction and to raise the standard of living for thousands of families.

Plans were drawn to rezone a stretch of Manhattan coastline—extending half a mile inland—between the Brooklyn Bridge and East 14th Street. This area served as the city’s primary industrial district for over a century, at various times hosting the largest concentration of stables, factories, warehouses, and coal, lumber and iron yards in the city. However, by the 1930s, these industries had moved on, leaving the long-neglected “Dry Dock District” an unsightly amalgam of abandoned piers and crumbling tenements, where some of the New York’s poorest families lived in hazardous, unsanitary conditions.

LES History: The Food Riots of 1917

da Harris leading protestors at City Hall in February, 1917. Source: International Socialist Review, April 1917/Library of Congress.

Editor’s note: Today we have the second installment of our new LES history series with Eric Ferrara, the founder of the Lower East Side History Project:

It is hard for us to imagine not having a C-Town nearby or a 24-hour bodega on every corner to satisfy our cravings at a moment’s notice. In a world before supermarkets—let alone packaged foods, microwaves and refrigerators—families had to purchase fresh groceries on a near daily basis from separate vendors and regularly prepare meals from raw materials. This responsibility usually fell on the wives and mothers of the house, who spent much of their days planning and preparing family meals based on a nominal budget of a few cents.

Looking at the LES’s Presidential Connections

George and Martha Washington’s mansion at 3 Cherry Street. Source: New York Historical Society.

Editor’s note: Today we’re kicking off a new LES history series with Eric Ferrara, the founder of the Lower East Side History Project.  In honor of President’s Day, Eric looks at the enduring allure of this neighborhood to occupants of the White House from the nation’s earliest days. 

From the ambitious political architects of our fledgling nation to the most powerful heads-of-state of the 21st century, the Lower East Side has hosted some pretty interesting presidential history.

Former Continental Army Commander George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States during a ceremony at Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan on April 30, 1789. After what I’m sure was a night on the town that would make Sean Combs envious, the nation’s earliest Commander-in-Chief retired to his residence at 3 Cherry Street on the Lower East Side.

The elegant, yet publicly accessible mansion was leased by Congress for $845 a year and served as Washington’s home base for the first ten months of his presidential term. With a home office on third floor, Washington soon found it difficult to work with the entire city knocking on his door, so bi-weekly “levees”—or greeting sessions – were established to satisfy public interest.

Tenement Talks – Gangsters, Murderers and Weirdos


Eric Ferrara, author of Gangsters, Murderers and Weirdos of New York City's Lower East Side, will be doing a presentation/book signing at The Tenement Museum as part of their Tenement Talks series this evening at 6:30pm (108 Orchard St. in the museum Shop). Eric is also the Executive Director of the Lower East Side History Project and the East Village Visitor Center.
The book traces the steps of "gangster legends like Charles "Lucky"
Luciano, Mery Lansky and "Bugsy Siegel — who all grew up and earned
their criminal stripes on these streets".  You can also take the
walking tour that inspired the book, this Saturday at 2:00pm. (Meet at
308 Bowery btwn E. Houston & Bleecker).