Here’s another essay based on a photo by Jacob Riis from our New York Rising classes. These were written as part of their Life on the Lower East Side Project, in which students were asked to write a short essay from the viewpoint of someone in the photo.
A NEW IMMIGRAANT
by Vicky Qiu
I am an immigrant from Italy. I came here by ship. Now I live on Bayard Street in the tiny basement of a dirty tenement. Did you know that I live in a room with no windows and insufficient air?
I always wonder why this place is in such bad condition. I make my own bed with two barrels and a long piece of wood. I also have this dirty mattress that looks like it has never been washed, but that’s the best I could find.
Last night, when I was sleeping a few rats climbed into my bed. It was disgusting. When I need to use the toilet, I go outside because there is no toilet in my room. The toilet that I use is also the toilet that everybody in the tenement house uses. There is also no hot water where I live.
I work in a clothing factory. Sometimes I work overtime but the boss of the company doesn’t always pay me the amount that I worked overtime and I wonder why. I don’t want to complain because he might fire me. Though I live in such a bad condition, I know that I live in a condition that is better than some other people in New York City have who sleep in a spot with more than twenty people in a room.
Life on the Lower East Side, 1850-1910
University Settlement’s New York Rising students spent last year learning how to be prepared for emergencies such as hurricanes, power outages, transportation disruptions and severe snowstorms. Now, they are looking back in time and will explore three major disasters that impacted the lives of immigrants living on the Lower East Side of New York City…our very own University Settlement neighborhood. They will learn about the great heat wave of 1896, the sinking of the USS Slocum in the East River, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
While each of these historic events resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives, they also resulted in changes to laws that still impact our lives today at home and in the workplace. However, before we looked at each event, the students began to learn in greater detail what life was like for a newly arrived immigrant…perhaps someone like you…who arrived not knowing how to speak English, not knowing where their family was going to live, and not knowing how they were going to earn a living. Fortunately for us, reformer Jacob Riis was on the scene with his camera, documenting the conditions of those living on the Lower East Side. So today we can see exactly how difficult and challenging their lives were.
University Settlement played a major part in helping new immigrants back in the 1880s and 1900s, just as it does today. You can learn more by clicking here.
The students each chose one of the photos published by Jacob Riis and were asked to write a short essay from the view point of someone in the photo. We hope you enjoy their essays. Read one below and click here or on the link below to read more:
LIFE IS SO HARD
by Ada Huang
From the 1850’s through the early 1900’s, thousands of immigrants arrived in the United States and lived in New York City. I was the one of them.
My name is Nolan and I am 40 years old. I came from Ireland. I am very poor. I live in an old building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where rents for the crowded apartment buildings are low. There are 20 families living in my building, 4 on each floor. I live in a tiny room with 7 unmarried men. The room is dark, dirty and without windows. I only have one desk, one chair and one plank to sleep on. I have to put the plank on the desk and the chair back to make my bed at night and then put the plank away next to the wall during the day. Otherwise, there is no space.
The building is dark and airless because the buildings are packed close together. Some buildings are built in the yard between the front and the back of other buildings. We all sleep on the roof on hot summer nights even though it is dangerous. There is no electric lighting in the building. We only use gas lanterns to light the apartment at night and there is also no running water inside the apartment. We have to get water from an outside pump and everyday we have to share the one indoor toilet in the hallway. You can’t imagine how long we have to wait for the toilet every day, especially in the morning. We have to go to a public bath once a week to take a shower.
I worked for a very small coal company delivering coal. I worked 10 hours a day and 7 days a week. I needed to carry heavy containers of coal to the customers every day. Sadly, I lost my job a few days ago. Now, I only have a few pennies and a loaf of bread left. If I don’t find a new job soon, my landlord will kick me out. What a hard life!
Here’s a video called “Our Family Table,” highlighting how University Settlement helps people in NYC – please share!: