Think about the last time you bought something off the street in New York City. Perhaps it came from a cart, a stall, or even a truck. Perhaps your purchase was a pretzel, a tamale, or a pair of sunglasses. Chances are likely if you started chatting with the person selling to you, you would discover an immigrant backstory and their cart representing their first livelihood in their new country. According to the Street Vendor Project there are an estimated 10,000 street vendors in New York City. They peddle a variety of goods ranging from food, books, to art. Oftentimes these vendors face many challenges which include licensing, discrimination, and the day to day struggles that come with running a business on the move. Yet the story of the pushcart is an integral and timeless part of the immigrant experience. And there is no neighborhood with which the pushcart is more associated than New York’s Lower East Side.
The first pushcarts appeared on Hester Street in 1886. They arrived at a time when the area was about to undergo massive change. In the late nineteenth century, a wave of immigration brought more than 2.5 million Eastern European Jews to the United States. Of that number almost a third settled for some time on the Lower East Side making it not only largest Jewish community in the world but the most crowded place in the world. By 1900 those four carts morphed into over 25,000, creating one of the most iconic shopping districts in America. To those who lived within the confines of the neighborhood, the pushcarts brought the daily necessities right to the front doors of their tenement homes. To outside observers, the crowded streets of the Lower East Side jammed with people and merchandise was a sight unlike anything else.
One such outsider was the muckraking photojournalist Jacob Riis. In the late 1880’s Riis was working as a police reporter for New York City and as part of the job he had learned to use the newest technology; the flash black and white camera. Riis’s camera would become one of the most important tools for documenting the hardships of immigrant life. In 1890 he published his pioneering book How the Other Half Lives. Through his photographs Riis invited upper and middle class people to walk the streets of the city’s immigrant enclaves.
Many of Riis’s shots included views of Ludlow and Hester Street, known to the Jews as the “Chazzer” or “Pig Market.” “There is scarcely anything else that can be hawked from a wagon that is not to be found, and at ridiculously low prices,” Riis described. “Bandanas and tin cups at two cents, peaches at a cent a quart, ‘damaged’ eggs for a song…The crowds that jostle each other at the wagons and about the sidewalk shops, where a gutter plank does the duty for a counter! Pushing, struggling, babbling, and shouting in foreign tongues; a veritable Babel of confusion.”
To many Americans, the pushcart markets were an eyesore and a nuisance. At a time when the proper “American” way to shop involved going into stores where the merchandise was neat and prices were clearly marked, pushcarts were an affront to those rules. Local shopkeepers complained that the carts blocked access to their businesses and turned the streets to mud. Progressive era reformers expressed concern that pushcarts were part of a system of exploitation and were a violation to the health codes. Wealthy New Yorkers and the press made little attempt at concealing their disdain for the immigrant practice. In 1893, the New York Times ran an article about pushcarts and in four short paragraphs disparaged the entire Jewish and immigrant community of the Lower East Side. It inaccurately stated that this “neighborhood peopled almost entirely by the people who claim to have been driven from Poland and Russia is the eyesore of New York and perhaps the filthiest place on the Western Continent.” Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the public and city government would continue to look for ways to limit or completely ban the pushcarts.
For those that lived and toiled in the Lower East Side, the pushcart served as a reminder of home and at the same time it was a stepping stone to prosperity. Back in the shtetls and cities of Old Europe pushcarts were a common sight. Under Tsarist rule Jews could not rent or own land and so the peddling of goods was one of the few ways in which they could earn a living. Upon arrival to the United States, peddling was a job recommended by friends and relatives. In 1880, one could rent a cart for 10 cents and then stock the cart with an assortment of goods ranging from produce, fish, pickles, clothing, to prayer books. For observant Jews peddling was a job that allowed for the continued observance of the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. Instead of toiling away for a boss in a tenement sweatshop peddling made it a possible to be one’s own boss and gradually work up to a more permanent and successful situation.
Visit the Lower East Side today and you’ll find family businesses that are living testimonies to the pushcart. When Hyman Moscot arrived in the neighborhood in 1899, he began by selling ready-made eyewear from a pushcart on Orchard Street. By 1915, he had opened his first store and today Moscot spans across five generations. In 1907 Polish immigrant Joel Russ began by selling Polish mushrooms on his shoulders before earning enough to purchase his own cart. Today Russ & Daughters has expanded to several locations across the city and recently celebrated 100 years in the food business.
By the 1930’s, however, anti-pushcart rhetoric was once again at the forefront and in 1938 Mayor Fiorello La Guardia laid out a case against the pushcarts. In the New York Times he argued that the “open pushcart market is not only antiquated and unnecessary, but also in many instances, unsanitary. In almost every instance these peddlers are a danger to themselves and to others by creating traffic congestion.” Using federal money La Guardia created new indoor markets such as the Essex Street Market, which required peddlers to apply for a limited number of stalls. In the attempt to professionalize and “Americanize” the pushcart vendors, street business drastically declined. By the 1970’s business owners on Orchard Street attempted to revive the open market atmosphere of decades past by instituting street closures on Sundays. This move did attract many New Yorkers back to the Lower East Side as a way to find the best bargains on everything from designer clothes to underwear. And while La Guardia’s Essex Street Market has shrunk in size over the past several decades, their main building now houses a mix of vendors ranging from a botanica, an immigrant multi-generational butcher shop and a gourmet cheese shop.
In many ways there has been a revival of the street vendor. In New York you can take guided tours of food carts and across the country food trucks are a new way to experience global cuisine on a local level. During the holiday season you can find pop up outdoor markets selling artisanal products. While outdoor markets and street food are now considered trendy at the same time government licensing policies makes it extremely difficult for vendors to obtain permits, which forces them into a black-market system. Penalties result in very high fines, even for licensed vendors. Currently New York City only leases 4,200 permits although new legislation recently proposed by the City Council may increase the number of food vendors allowed to peddle. While changes to the street vending policies have yet to remain seen, there is no doubt that peddling is one of the oldest hustles towards the American Dream. Whether you celebrate or bemoan their presence on the street the peddlers and their carts remain a living embodiment of immigrant entrepreneurship and aspiration on the move.
Rachel Serkin is Senior Educator at the Museum at Eldridge Street. Today “The Jewish Ghetto in Postcards: From Eastern Europe to the Lower East Side,” an exhibition of early twentieth century postcards from the Blavatnik Archive now on display at the Museum at Eldridge Street recalls the era of mass Jewish immigration and the crowded market streets of the Jewish Lower East Side.