|Navigating a snowy street c.1860|
When looking at the story of public transportation and immigration there’s no better place to see this story unfold than 97 Orchard Street in the Lower East Side.When families like the Moores and the Gumpertz’s stepped onto the shores of Manhattan, they were forced to quickly adapt to the hustle and bustle of the Lower East Side with its “great conglomeration” of German and Irish immigrants. They also learned to attend to the daily business of home and family by darting through narrow dirt streets packed with horses, stage coaches, omnibuses, and elevated trains. Second only to walking, horses were the city’s main source of transportation. Yet when navigating the streets of the city in those early days, one would have to weave through constant gridlock, with no lanes, police officers or traffic signals to guide the vehicles. Omnibuses--large horse drawn carriages that ran along a fixed route--were overcrowded, bumpy, and slow. Even the advent of streetcars didn’t solve the problem: they were often impossible in inclement weather.
The year before the Levines moved their family of five across the Williamsburg Bridge, they may have experienced one of the greatest novelties of the new century: a ride on New York’s first underground transit system, the subway. For four years, more than 70,000 laborers--many of them immigrants--had been digging and blasting their way through Manhattan to build the city’s first stations and tunnels. Perhaps Harris read Yiddish and English newspapers that depicted the triumphs and tribulations of constructing these tunnels. This city-wide drama featured the extraordinary feats of “sandhogs” (underground construction workers) who dug tunnels underneath the riverbed and constructed the 59th Street Power Station, which fueled the system with thousands of pounds of coal.
|The early days of the New York City subway|
Surely, the subway’s debut was a frequent topic of conversation at the pushcart market. It’s worth wondering if families like the Levines and Rogarshevskys would have ventured into the subway on opening day--October 27th 1904-- braving the dark tunnels on speedy subway cars, not realizing that these machines would change the way they lived, worked, and how they saw themselves as Americans and New Yorkers .
--Posted by Educator Rachel Serkin