Playgrounds of Asphalt: Summers on the Lower East Side

By Meredith Carroll, Museum at Eldridge Street summer intern. 

Summer: a season filled with playgrounds, tasting of ice cream and cook-outs, and punctuated by languorous weeks at camp.

But summer looked quite different for  the children of the Eldridge Street Synagogue and their friends on the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side. Uptown, wealthier children played tennis and canoed in Central Park. Many Lower East Side kids, by contrast, could barely afford the fare to Central Park. At home, playgrounds were scarce. Streets were packed. And the heat was oppressive; one New York Times article christened Hester Street the “equator” of the city for its “torrid” temperatures.


Children enjoy a sprinkler in 1923. From

Yet like children anywhere, Lower East Side kids were endlessly inventive. They filled already-crowded streets to the brim, tossing marbles, rolling hoops, and playing games of their own invention. In a variation of baseball known as “one o’ cat,” they even substituted pieces of wood for balls. Teenagers, often at work in factories during the day, played cards in the back rooms of candy stores.

With few alternatives, some of these teenagers turned to less reputable pursuits. Some onlookers fretted that the Lower East Side was overrun with gangs of rowdy youth. One reporter even cautioned against “the preponderating evil that the candy store exerts.” The boy who loiters in candy shops, he warned,soon “commences to frequent poolrooms and other more or less questionable resorts, stays out all night, and in the end makes the beer saloon or the poolroom his nightly headquarters.”

Such moralizing may have arisen from genuine concern for the children of the Lower East Side. But many outsiders failed to acknowledge that Lower East Siders also lacked alternatives. Even the smallest improvements made a difference. Replacing cobblestones with asphalt, for instance, improved drainage and made streets easier to clean. Wide sidewalks allowed adults to sit outside and watch their children.

More crucially, play could be a form of identity, in a way that outsiders often failed to understand. As a reporter observed, passing into the Lower East Side was “like passing into another hemisphere, so far as street games… are concerned. And as one “East Side Boy” proclaimed in a 1900 New York Tribune article: “The [Lower East Side boy] doesn’t want pity — he wants a place to play and a little sensible companionship. He makes the best of [the] circumstances, but the circumstances could be improved. But nobody will ever do anything for the East Side boy who isn’t willing to make a friend and companion of him.”

Children play on Cherry Street in the late 1800s. From

Children play on Cherry Street in the late 1800s. From

Play may have looked different on the Eldridge Street of 100 years ago. But the joy children draw from it — even with the simplest of resources at their disposal — has stayed the same.

What were, or are, your favorite summertime games?

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