A History of the Lower East Side
A History of the Lower East Side

The Lower East Side, one of New York's first neighborhoods, has historically been a site of continual, and often dramatic, change. From its farming roots, the neighborhood’s fluctuating immigrant populations, its role in organized crime and counter-culture, to today's gentrification, the area has a rich and diverse history.

The memory of the notable 'founding families' survives in landmarks such as Delancey Street, Beekman Place, and Corlear's Hook Park. Jacobus van Corlaer settled in the Lower East Side in the 1630s and began farming. Two decades later, Corlaer sold his plantation to Wilhelmus Hendrickse Beekman, who went on to become a particularly affluent and influential resident. In the 1760s James Delancey, a loyalist, had a large farm and orchard, and plans to re-create West London in what is today the land bounded by Broome, Hester, Essex, and Eldridge streets. However, his plan never came to fruition, as his land was seized following the Revolutionary War.

Throughout history Lower Manhattan has been a beacon to immigrants from all over the world. In addition to the original Irish, Italian, Polish, and Ukrainian families, German, African American, Chinese, Jewish, Puertro Rican and Dominican immigrants have all cultivated communities in the Lower East Side. Sites such as the Tenement Museum, The Educational Alliance Settlement House, and many historical churches, synagogues, and landmarks, all serve to protect and highlight the area's roots in immigrant history.

With several modern-day wards once known as Kleindeutschland, or 'Little Germany', the Lower East Side was home to a large German population which began growing rapidly around 1840. Over the next forty years it would evolve into a community boasting the third most German speakers in the world. Particularly detrimental to the German community was the General Slocum disaster of June 15th, 1904. Killing over one thousand people, the General Slocum, a passenger steamship, caught fire in the east river while transporting German church-goers, mainly women and children, to a picnic.

Perhaps best known for its Jewish history, the Lower East Side was an epicenter for Jewish immigrant culture. In the early 1900’s, an influx of Eastern European Jews, many fleeing pogroms, began to overtake the mainly German and Irish population. The newcomers brought their unique creativity with them, and began to create a theater district. The talent and content housed here would heavily influence the Hollywood we know today. Paramount Pictures, MGM, and 20th Century Fox all have roots in the Lower East Side, as do a great many Hollywood actors.

During the first half of the twentieth century, and especially in the years of prohibition, organized crime thrived in Lower Manhattan. The Italian and Jewish mafia became successful economic and political forces. The area is riddled with mafia heritage, including sites of social clubs and mob hits. The style of dress belonging to Jewish mafia kingpin Arnold Rothstein, which he taught to neighborhood thugs, went on to become the quintessential mafia getup made famous in Hollywood.

Historical Lower East Side comprised the neighborhoods known today as East Village, Little Italy, NoLita, Alphabet City, the Bowery, Two Bridges, and Chinatown. During the 1960s The East Village began to draw residents of artists, musicians, and hipsters. By the 1970s the newcomers had changed the culture so dramatically that East Village came to be referred to as its own neighborhood. The gentrification which began continued into the Lower East Side, which has been up-scaled at ever increasing speed since the early 2000s, and is today one of New York's most desirable neighborhoods.

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