East Williamsburg is a name for the area in the northwestern portion of Brooklyn, New York City. East Williamsburg consists roughly of what was the 3rd District of the Village of Williamsburg and what is now called the East Williamsburg.
A Self-Isolated Community in Which the Bubonic Plague Would Flourish
Were It to Obtain a Foothold in Brooklyn–County Clerk Wuest Makes an
Appeal in Behalf of Neglected People –The Hebrew Educational Society in the Field.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 28, 1899.
There are many sweatshops in the Sixteenth Ward Ghetto which, from time to time, have been inspected by the Health authorities of this borough. The unsanitary condition of several of these shops were shown in a previous letter by an extract from a report made by Dr. Robert A. Black, Assistant Sanitary Superintendent. Great numbers of garments, cheap and costly, such as are worn by men, women and children, are made in these shops, and these goods are sold in every borough of Greater New York. For this reason, my reader, if for no other, you have a personal interest in this Ghetto, as you will see even by even brief reflection. For the germs of deadly disease maybe conveyed long distances in clothing. The makers of these skirts, cloaks, shirts, trousers, overcoats and children’s clothing are, for a great part, Polish and Russian Jews, who toil in such unsanitary shops as Dr. Black has described, and live in miserable little rooms of poorly constructed old wooden tenements. Hundreds of these toilers cannot speak English, are unfamiliar with our laws and customs, have come from lands in which oppression and dire poverty drove them into wretched habitations from which pure air, sunshine and the water necessarily to cleanliness were shut out. And as their present over-crowded quarters are not much superior to their old quarters across the sea, it is not surprising that large numbers of these downtrodden people are unclean.
A few nights ago the writer made a tour of the Sixteen Ward Ghetto, in company with County Clerk Wuest, who is one of the proprietors of a drug store established by his father, Carl, on the corner of Manhattan Avenue and Siegel Street, in 1855.
“I wanted you to come over here in the interest of the poor people of this community, for it is a community in itself, ” said Mr. Wuest. “If the city has any money to spend in paving streets, in putting up public baths, the proper lighting of streets and cleaning out of rookeries here is a good place in which to spend some of that money. Outside of the humanity of such an expenditure it ought to be made in the interest of the borough at large, for the continuance of existing conditions will be a menace to public health. I sympathize with these people, for I come in contact with many in the drug store and learn a great deal about their condition. The health authorities are doing all that they can under the circumstances, but their work would be far more effective if we had streets that could be cleaned. The conditions here are about the same as they were on the East Side in New York when Colonel Waring took hold and redeemed that section of the city.”
I shall refrain from any effort to excite varying emotions by presenting realistic word pictures of the unpleasant sights we saw in the Ghetto, the feather littered and filth lined gutters, the narrow, dark and foul smelling hallways of rickety tenements, the dirty and time worn cobble paved streets abounding in holes and mud, the reeking market place floors from which arose almost unbearable stenches. It will suffice to say that we saw more than enough to warrant the demand that Dr. Block’s work in this quarter of the city should be promptly reinforced by paved streets which can be swept and flushed; that the public bath recommended by Deputy Commissioner Walton for this locality should be established as soon as possible. For here, as in the Brownsville Ghetto, the neglect of the city to provide streets that can be easily cleaned is responsible for dangerous unsanitary conditions.
The bubonic plague is said to have had its origin in uncleanliness. This plague has appeared at Honolulu, on the Pacific side of the United States. Coffee ships have brought to this port two sailors, who were stricken with the plague on the seas. Three cases of the plague have been reported at San Pablo, Brazil. The transport Centennial from Manila, via Honolulu, with officers and sick soldiers, is detained in quarantine at San Francisco for fear that some of the men may develop the plague. While it is true that our health authorities feel confident they will be able to prevent the plague from gaining a foothold here, I have no doubt they would admit that the Sixteenth Ward and Brownsville Ghettos furnish the conditions under which the plague would flourish were there to be an outbreak in Brooklyn. It is no adequate answer to this to say that the plague could not exist in this climate. It might not in winter, but in summer, with the long spells of intense heat to which we are subjected the filthy streets of our Ghettos, the dirty little rooms in which entire families are herded, the 4,000 houses which have no sewer connections in the Twenty-sixth Ward, the reeking market places, all these malodorous things would unquestionably invite plague.
After we had finished our tour, Mr. Wuest said in response to my queries:
“The population is very dense in this quarter of the city. The great bulk of these poor people are industrious, hard working and honest people. They stick to their religion very closely. I think there must be at least a dozen orthodox synagogues in this neighborhood. Many of the men and women do not speak English. They get their news of the outside world from publications in their own tongue. Yes, some of them are very poor. One case out of many will illustrate how the poor stand by the poor here. I knew of a case where a woman was about to be confined. The husband had enough money to pay for a midwife, but not for a doctor. The doctor was a poor man and said he must have some pay. The husband and his children went out and told their story to their poor neighbors. When the husband came home he handed $10 to the doctor; it was all in pennies and 5 and 10 cent pieces, collected from the neighbors. No, drunkenness is not common here; it is unusual. Instead of liquor these people, most of them, drink soda water, for which they pay 1 cent a glass. I have heard it said that these people do not wash themselves. That is not true. They do the best they can in houses that are poorly supplied with water. There is a Russian bath house here, quite unlike the luxurious houses you have seen, and here the men and women, separately, of course, comply with the requirements of the Jewish religious law, at various seasons.”
“They are very orthodox?”
“As much so as were their ancestors hundreds of years ago. They observe their Sabbath rigidly. You couldn’t induce the really orthodox to work on a Saturday or even light a fire in a stove. I know of two or three men who eke out a living by what they get for lighting fires on the Jewish Sabbath, but they are not Hebrews.”
That recalled what Zangwill wrote of London’s Ghetto:
“The Sabbath fire was one of the great difficulties of the Ghetto. The rabbis had modified the Biblical prohibition against having any fire whatever, and allowed it to be kindled by non-Jews. Poor women, frequently Irish and known as Shabbos goyahs or fire goyahs, acted as tokers to the Ghetto at 2 pence a hearth. No Jew ever touched a match or a candle or burnt a piece of paper or even open a letter.”
Mr. Wuest is widely known and esteemed among the inhabitants of he Sixteenth Ward ghetto, because of his sympathy for and his aid to the poor. His object in inviting the writer to visit the Ghetto was to arouse public interest concerning this locality, and I have used his name independently of his desire in this matter. The more of disease there is in the Ghetto the more he will profit in his drug store business, so his pecuniary interests are not to be served by his appeal for the remedying of manifest evils. He will undoubtedly be pleased to cooperate with the Hebrew Educational Society of Brooklyn, which has just been formed with a view to improving conditions of the poor Jewish people of the Sixteenth, Twenty-sixth and other wards. In the articles of incorporation it is declared that the society is formed.
“For the promotion of education and the intellectual and physical advancement of men and women, and also the erection and maintenance of suitable buildings in the Borough of Brooklyn, to contain library, reading and class rooms, gymnasium and lecture rooms.”
The directors are Simon F. Rothschild, Abraham Abrahams, Michael Furst, Frank Pentlarge, Samuel Gatirel, the Rev. Lemuel Nilson, Adolphus S. Solomons, Joacob Brenner, Samuel Goodstein, Moses B. Schmidt, Edward C. Blum, Ira Leo Bamberger, Louis L. Firuski, Mitchell May, David J. Steinhardt, Silas W. Stein, Heyman Meyerson.
This society believes that education will enable the children of our Ghettos to help themselves, to get in touch with the spirit of our institutions. And it will endeavor to secure for the Ghettos that action upon the part of the city authorities which the evils of these localities require, and which public interests demand. So long as the politicians have to do deal solely with the poor, unlettered Polacks of the Sixteen and Twenty-sixth ward, just so long will these helpless men and women be denied paved well lighted and adequately sewered streets. The ward politician will be more attentively when the kind of men who compose the Hebrew Educational Society make their requests, for this is an organization of good citizens, whose undertaking in behalf of the less fortunate members of their race will meet with the general commendation of all good citizens, irrespective of political or religious beliefs.
Zangwill put these words in the mouth of one of his characters:
“Think of the part the Jew has played — Moses giving the world its morality, Jesus its religion, Isaiah its millennial visions, Spinoza its cosmic philosophy, Ricardo its political economy, Karl Marx and Lassalle its socialism, Heine its loveliest poetry, Mendelsohn its most restful music, Rachel its supreme acting — and then think of the stock Jew of the American comic papers.”
The comic paper will find nothing in our Ghettos to provoke mirth. The thoughtful and careful observer will see in these quarters much to arouse sympathy and pity — much that is pathetic. –MUL.
Courtesy of Steven Lasky, museumoffamilyhistory.com