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Chapter 1

Arriving in America

Henry Street’s story is set in a time of skyrocketing immigration.

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In a city divided by rich and poor, uptown and downtown, most immigrants settle on the Lower East Side, long a first home for newcomers.

A Vibrant Neighborhood

There’s energy here. Excitement. Hope. Earlier immigrants (mostly Irish and German) are now joined by recent newcomers, mostly Eastern European Jews. Jewish theater, music, synagogues, foods—and more—make the new neighborhood feel familiar.

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Crowds on Hester Street, the center of commerce.

A Place With Challenges

In this vibrant community, the lives of many hopeful newcomers will be shaped by the realities of the impoverished neighborhood. These are just some of the challenges they faced.

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There are jobs to be found; many immigrants go into the needle trades. But hours are long, rights are few, and pay is low.
Some factories subcontract work—like sewing—to do at home. Called “sweating,” it turns homes into cramped workplaces.
“My self is destroyed, I become a machine. I work and work and work endlessly….”
– Morris Rosenfeld, “In Svetshop,” 1898
“I hate the shop, I feel sick, I feel tired, I cannot see any meaning in life.”
– Rose Gollup, a 15-year old sweatshop worker
A 1906/7 tenement survey found that more than 50% of children worked instead of going to school. It was the only way to survive.

Problems Impact Public Health

These problems of everyday life in a poverty-stricken Lower East Side challenge residents’ health and wellbeing.

In crowded tenements, germs spread easily. It’s extremely difficult to quarantine contagious diseases like typhoid and tuberculosis.

Lack of access to clean milk and water are the main cause of infantile diarrhea and death. The infant mortality rate is 1 in 10.

Unsafe work conditions can lead to tragedy—like the 1911 Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, where 146 workers die within minutes, many leaping to their deaths to avoid the flames.

Sickness Has A Cost

There’s no government safety net. No such thing as sick days. No unemployment insurance. No welfare. A sick or injured breadwinner, unable to work, could push a family into homelessness.

Quote Matks

What ails me? I am haggard, anemic, and my face is ashen…I have no way of earning a living. I am a garment worker but I have no strength to work.

a writer to the Jewish Daily Forward’s advice column, 1911

How Does Society Respond?

Conservatives blame the poor, claiming they are poor because of their own moral failings. Leftist radicals call for revolution to overturn class inequities.

Progressive social reformers—among them settlement house workers—blame the physical, economic, social, and moral environment. They seek government help to alleviate poverty.