Communal bathrooms, illegal booze, and more: Learn about 1920s life on the Lower East Side from those who lived it

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The history of the Lower East Side is vibrant and rich, well-mined by the Tenement Museum, which allows visitors to step inside the preserved—and cramped—apartments where immigrant families once resided. But today, many of those families are long gone, their experiences related through documents and artifacts.

So it’s fascinating to hear about life in the neighborhood directly from those who grew up there long ago, giving us a peek at a neighborhood that in many ways, has morphed so much through the years it's nearly unrecognizable from their Lower East Side, but in other ways, still retains its history. In an article for The Forward, Laurie Gwen Shapiro presents an interview with her 95-year-old father, Julius, and his sisters, Peshie (92), and Esther (85), all of whom vividly recall living in a series of drab LES tenements, decades before the area was considered a hip nightlife destination. 

In the 1920s and 30s, the Seward Park library was an oasis for the young siblings, providing a much-needed respite from the chaos of their surroundings. It’s no surprise, given that the elegant Renaissance Revival building, constructed in 1909, is spacious and airy in every way that a tenement isn’t. And it must have been warmer in the winter than their home, which was heated solely by a coal stove.

Of booze and bathrooms

What stands out in Esther’s mind the most, though, is the tenement building’s communal bathroom: She recalls having to venture into the darkened hallway whenever she needed to use the toilet, which was shared with the other tenants. Her sister Chavi was afraid to go alone, she says, “because there were strange men in the hallway, I was scared of what would happen if no one was there and I was alone with a creep.” (In other words, count yourself lucky if you only have to split space with a roommate.)

Turns out, she was right to be nervous: Peshie remembers stumbling upon their upstairs neighbors’ homemade distillery during the Prohibition.

The children’s mother was a dressmaker who later worked on Clinton Street, then a bridal district, so they rarely had to purchase clothes. (In the 1990s, the thoroughfare became notorious as a hangout for heroin dealers, but today you’re likelier to find stores hawking baked goods.) But Peshie and Esther do recall the rare shopping trip to Ohrbach’s, a Union Square department store that shuttered in 1987; much of the downtown retail landscape is likewise transformed.

Hester Street on the Lower East Side, then and now

Where have all the pushcarts gone?

All longtime New Yorkers have their own metrics for determining the death knell of their neighborhoods, whether it’s the closure of a beloved mom-and-pop, or the opening of an chain store. Amid all the disappearances on the LES, though, the real end of the neighborhood for Julius was when the pushcarts disappeared to make way for the Essex Street Market. Ironically, today the market is considered a historic destination, but Julius says, “the minute [the pushcarts] disappeared, as far as I’m concerned, we no longer had the Lower East Side.”

What we do have is this rich discussion, which brings to life a version of the neighborhood that no longer exists. The conversation will be the first of many catalogued for the New York Public Library’s oral history project about the LES; here’s to reading more firsthand accounts about essential city history.


The author of 'St. Marks is Dead' on the $200 apartment she grew up in and what made her move to Brooklyn 

How to survive life in a tenement-sized apartment