Inside Turn-Of-The-Century New York’s Immigrant Slums

Published November 5, 2016
Updated March 14, 2020

These stark, vibrant photos take you inside the impoverished, culturally rich, crime-ridden immigrant slums of turn-of-the-century New York.

Bandit Roost
"Bandit's Roost," a notorious hangout for the criminal element at 59 Mulberry Street in Little Italy, 1888. At the time, the area was among the most impoverished and crime-ridden in the entire city.

This image comes from photographer and journalist Jacob Riis' 1890 work How The Other Half Lives, which helped reveal the blight among New York's immigrant neighborhoods.
Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons

Pike and Henry Streets in the Lower East Side, with the Manhattan Bridge looming in the background, 1936.Berenice Abbott/New York Public Library

Beggar Hand Out
Beggar with his hand out (undated photo, circa 1900-1920).Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Rivington Street
Rivington Street in the Lower East Side, circa 1900-1915.Detroit Publishing Co./Library of Congress

Ice Block
Children lick a massive block of ice to stay cool on July 6, 1912.Library of Congress

Woman Carrying Box
An Italian immigrant carries a dry goods box down Bleecker Street, February 1912.Lewis Wickes Hine/Library of Congress

Injured Beggar
A beggar, perhaps disfigured during World War I, sits on the street (undated photo, early 1900s).Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Huddled Kids
Street children sleeping, circa 1890.Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons

Mott Street
An Italian immigrant's shop on Mott Street circa 1912.Library of Congress

Street Refuse
Refuse piles up at the entrance to the tenements at 53 to 59 MacDougal Street, February 1912.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, New York City's trash problem reached epic proportions. In 1894, newly elected mayor William Strong knew he had to do something, and offered the job of sanitation commissioner to Teddy Roosevelt, who refused, essentially saying that it was an impossible job.
Lewis Wickes Hine/Library of Congress

Garbage Strike Crowd
Things got even worse during the garbage strike of November 8-11, 1908. Pictured: Crowds and police gather in the street during the strike.Bain News Service/Library of Congress

White Wings
The "White Wings" clean the streets, under police protection, during the garbage strike of November 8-11, 1908.

The "White Wings" took to the streets under the orders of pioneering sanitary engineer George Waring, whose efforts ameliorated but didn't totally solve the city's trash problem.
Library of Congress

Dead Horse
Children play near a dead horse left to rot in the street, circa 1905.Wikimedia Commons

Mullen Alley
Children gather in Mullen's Alley in the Cherry Hill area of lower Manhattan, 1888.Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons

Woman Carrying Clothing
A woman carries a bundle of clothing to be sewn at home near Astor Place, February 1912.

Poor immigrant workers often toiled for long hours and took their work home with them.
Lewis Wickes Hine/Library of Congress

Sleeping Peddler
A street peddler who'd slept in a basement at 11 Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side, 1899.Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons

Two women and a man gather in front of outhouses at an unspecified location, circa 1902-1914.

Most turn-of-the-century New York City tenements didn't have indoor plumbing.
New York Tenement House Department/New York Public Library

Pretzel Peddler
A food vendor sells his wares in the streets of the Lower East Side on February 24, 1917.Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Dead bodies lie in an alley off Monroe Street following a nearby fire, December 1913.Library of Congress

Bread Line
Men wait on the bread line in the Bowery on February 7, 1910.Library of Congress

Taking Home Food
Jewish immigrants carry packages of matzo, April 1908.Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Empty Lot
The Municipal Lodging House for the homeless sits across the street from an abandoned lot on 25th Street, circa 1909-1920.

The house opened in February 1909 to help treat a citywide homelessness problem that saw as many as 600 new applicants looking for shelter each day.
Library of Congress

Chinatown Corner
Men stand at a corner on Chinatown's Pell Street, circa 1900.Byron/Library of Congress

Busy Street
Crowds at Pitt and Rivington Streets in the Lower East Side, 1915.Underwood & Underwood/Library of Congress

Street festival in Little Italy, 1908.Library of Congress

Kips Bay
Clothes line the railings of the tenements at 260 to 268 Elizabeth Street, March 1912.Lewis Wickes Hine/Library of Congress

Man With Pipe
Street dweller, circa 1890.Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons

Children wearing signs in English and Yiddish protest child labor conditions on May 1, 1909.

At the turn of the century, just about one-fifth of America's workforce was under the age of 16 -- and New York was no exception.
Library of Congress

Growler Gang
Boys in Hell's Kitchen demonstrate how they rob people who have passed out. Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons

Children Alley
Children behind the tenements at 134 1/2 Thompson Street, February 1912.Lewis Wickes Hine/Library of Congress

Boys Sleeping
Two newspaper boys asleep in the press room of The Sun, 1892.

Working for the newspapers was one dependable way for young boys to earn some extra money for their families. However, their labor was often exploited and undervalued, leading to the infamous newsboys strike of 1899.
Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons

Food Shop
Chinatown storefront, circa 1903.Library of Congress

Dead Man
Man killed by a bomb at an anarchist rally in Union Square on March 28, 1908.

In the face of a depressed economic climate and exploitative labor conditions, among other far-reaching factors, anarchism saw a wave of popularity in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with New York being no exception.
Library of Congress

Third Avenue
107th Street just east of 3rd Avenue, February 1912.Lewis Wickes Hine/Library of Congress

Italian Wares
Street merchants in Little Italy (undated photo, most likely circa 1900-1920).Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Children Bundles
Children prepare to transport a load of kimonos on Thompson Street, February 1912.Lewis Wickes Hine/Library of Congress

Hells Kitchen
Hell's Kitchen, just before 1890.Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons

Sleeping On Porch
Impoverished populations in the Lower East Side, circa late 1800s.Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons

Mulberry Bend
Little Italy's Mulberry Street, circa 1890.Jacob Riis/Wikimedia Commons

Bowery Woman
The Bowery, February 1912.

The Bowery, a street and eponymous neighborhood running through what is now Manhattan's East Village, was a notorious hotbed of crime, poverty, and taboo behaviors (prostitution and homosexuality among them) during the wave of immigration to New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Lewis Wickes Hine/Library of Congress

Street Bend
21-23 Pearl Street (undated photo, circa 1890-1919).Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection/New York Historical Society

Man With Cart
Stevedore working in the fish market of the Lower East Side, May-June 1943.Gordon Parks/Library of Congress

Water Pump
A boy uses the curbside water pump at Trinity Place, just south of Cedar Street, 1902.

Public pumps like these allowed poorer people who didn't have their own taps access to running water.
Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection/New York Historical Society

Cart Big Wheel
Street peddler in the Lower East Side (undated photo, circa late 1800s to early 1900s).New York Public Library

Hester Street, between Allen and Orchard Streets in the Lower East Side, 1938.Berenice Abbott/New York Public Library

Girl On Sidewalk
A girl on the sidewalk in Little Italy, circa 1950s.Walter Silver American/New York Public Library

Women Walking On Street
Orchard Street in the Lower East Side, circa 1902-1914.New York Tenement House Department/New York Public Library

Boy On Corner
Ten-year-old child waits to walk across Broadway at Leroy Street, February 1912.Lewis Wickes Hine/Library of Congress

Rooftop pigeon coop at an unspecified location, circa 1934-1938.New York Tenement House Department/New York Public Library

Little Girl With Cloth
A young girl brings cloth "homework" back to her tenement to be sewn, circa 1912.Lewis Wickes Hine/New York Public Library

Mulberry and Prince Streets, 1935.Berenice Abbott/New York Public Library

On December 17, 1900, the U.S. government opened an immigration processing station on New York's Ellis Island. By that point, the city had already been processing hundreds of thousands of immigrants per year for more than a decade. After that point, those numbers truly exploded.

Between 1900 and 1914, an average of well over half a million immigrants -- largely from central, eastern, and southern Europe -- came through New York each year (that's more than 5,000 per day). Today, nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population can trace at least one of their ancestors back to the immigrants who came through that one station during that short span.

While millions of those immigrants promptly boarded trains for points all across the U.S., hundreds of thousands stayed put in New York City. In 1900, New York already had nearly 1.3 million foreign-born residents. By 1920, that number had reached 2 million, which was more than one-third of the city's total population.

And an enormous number of those immigrants took up residence in just a few of the city's neighborhoods. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, one particular cluster of neighborhoods in lower Manhattan including Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Lower East Side swelled beyond capacity as immigrants came pouring in.

Because these neighborhoods quickly grew so far beyond their limits, the immigrant experience itself pushed its way out of the overcrowded tenements and onto the streets. Indeed, it was out in the streets where so many of New York's turn-of-the-century immigrants lived, worked, and scraped by.

Likewise, it was in the streets that the cultures and identities of these immigrant groups adapted to their new home. From anguished poverty to vibrant culture, the street scenes above capture the full breadth of the immigrant experience in turn-of-the-century New York.

Next, have a look at 35 Ellis Island immigrant portraits that reveal the faces of American diversity. Then, take a photographic journey inside New York's turn-of-the-century tenements.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society of history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.