A new book was just delivered to my door, and I am ever so grateful to Princeton Architectural Press, so I’m plugging it here big time!
“Life on The Lower East Side” is a book of photographs taken by Rebecca Lepkoff from the 1930s through the 1950s of the lost neighborhood between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, mostly destroyed to make way for the Alfred A. Smith housing project. A native of the LES, she bought her first camera in 1937 and has been shooting ever since. This collection of absolutely wonderful photographs captures a dignified life despite the obvious poverty and crowding in a neighborhood undergoing radical changes. From the Fulton Fish Market to the infamous Third Avenue El (torn down in 1955) to children playing in the streets to the lively “pushcart market” on Hester, the photographs are a treasure-trove not just because of what they depict — a dynamic community of Italians, Irish, Jews, Greeks, Spaniards, Chinese, Puerto Ricans and African Americans — but the beautiful use of light and shadow. The photos show Ms. Lepkoff to be equally adept at architecture, photo-journalism and portraiture, but most of all, an uncanny ability to capture the symbiotic relationship between a city and its people.
What’s more, there are fun facts sprinkled throughout the monograph: In the 1930s, 15,000 peddlers lined the streets; by 1945 only 1200 remained due to an effort to “clean up” the neighborhood. Knickerbocker Village opened in 1934, replacing the slum on Hamilton Street called the “Lung Block” for having the highest tuberculosis rate in the city. In 1854 at a stop at Park Row, a black woman named Elizabeth Jennings boarded a trolley reserved for whites, which led to her forcible removal. The ensuing uproar led to the desegregation of trolleys — 100 years before Rosa Parks.