How the Other Half Lives

I was just made aware of a marvelous website, It’s not completely up-to-date, some of the image links are broken, but it’s got some amazing stuff to peruse.


This picture, entitled, “Vegetable Stand in The Bend” comes from a seminal work by Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York published in 1890. Complete text and images are available here. I’m certain my New York colleagues will appreciate this; it describes conditions among the tenements of New York ten years before my grandparents arrived here from Italy, and conditions must have been largely the same when they came. It helps me make the history of my own family come just a little closer. The entire web site is a sinkhole for time, but I’m not sorry.

Note the bank behind the vegetable stand; in an article found in The New York Supplement in 1908, one can assume that the bank was at this point in time not long for the world. From Gateway to the Promised Land: Ethnic Cultures on New York’s Lower East Side By Mario Maffi, published in 1994. (Click through for the full text with references and much more intriguing New York history)

Italian banks (the Banca Termini, The Banca Caponigri, the Banca Barsotti, and many others on Mulberry Street) were a focal point for the community. In metropolitan New York alone, there were some 400 of them by 1900, all chartered, and perhaps many without charter. The rule for opening a bank was, ‘the more crowded the street on which the bank is, the better for the banker; better yet, the more crowded is the block where the bank has its habitat; best of all, the more crowded with paesani [townsmen] the tenement in which operates the banker.’ Often ‘attached to a saloon, grocery store, or cigar store – sometimes to a cobbler shop,’ or simply a corner in ‘the general merchandise store, where spaghetti and Italian cheese were on display,’ the bank provided important services to the neighborhood. It kept deposits, sent money home, functioned as an informal post office and travel agency, was a meeting place for friends and unemployed. The business transaction was a friendly affair between fellow countrymen and receipts were rarely used. But unscrupulous “bankers” were many, and not infrequently such “friendly affairs” ended tragically for the immigrant.

It is to be assumed from the address that Banca P. Caponigri was at 55½ Mulberry Street – that side of the block has now been replaced by a park.

Mulberry Street

The images in this treatise are haunting and unsettling. Despite all the things that are still wrong with our nation, it’s obvious that progress in raising the condition of our urban dwellers has made progress,with the obvious understanding that we still have far to go.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

2 responses to “How the Other Half Lives

  1. Pingback: Slum Life in New York City | Playing in the World Game

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