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The Lower East Side, 100 Years Later

Why we should pity the poor immigrants

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Wang Jianhua.(NYT)

When reading yesterday’s spectacular profile of Wang Jianhua, a Chinese immigrant who was one of 15 killed earlier this month when a bus from Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun casino crashed in the Bronx, there was one moment during which I particularly seized up. It was not when Wang’s wife, back in a small rural town in China’s Fujian province, is forced to have an abortion when she is pregnant with the couple’s second child; nor when the authorities come to arrest her when she is pregnant with their third. It was not when we learn about Wang’s life in America, which consisted of living in filthy conditions and eking out small wages delivering Japanese food in Kips Bay, and sending all of what he could back home. It was not even the description of his bedside after his death, including the laptop he would use to videochat with his family and $1 gambling chips that indicated that, contrary to what his friends have said, his frequent trips to casinos involved more than just selling complimentary vouchers to make extra cash. To be sure, the entire article produces one throat-lump after another, but none of these were the big one.

What got me was this sentence: “Mr. Wang moved into a tiny apartment on Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side with five other men, including a friend from Fujian.”

Eldridge Street. The Lower East Side. One hundred years ago, that same sentence could have been written (in the context, even, also, of a terrifying tragedy), only substituting “Kaplan” for “Wang” and “Kiev” for “Fujian.” Reading his story, with its horrors of the Old Country and tribulations of the New, and his small hope for a better life, not even for himself but for his kids—and then with the specific, eerily resonant neighborhood details thrown in, the knowledge that this experience exists today on the same square feet where a century ago it belonged to poor Eastern European Jews—provoked in me many things: Gladness, that America is still the place where people come searching for a better life; hope, that, like most of the Jews, many of Wang’s people will find it; and personal sorrow, at the realization that I, in my immense material comfort, am yet somehow not so estranged from it.

Bus Crash in the Bronx Ends a Man’s Fight for His Family [NYT]

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Why sorrow? Awareness of the suffering of previous generations and other places–and of how much of it has been alleviated in our time and place–is not only an important part of understanding our own lives in historical and geographical context, but also the key to truly appreciating our modern comforts. I feel much more sorry for any present-day American who fails to recognize those extraordinary blessings for what they are.

Thanks for a poignant response to the Times profile, Mr. Tracy. Like the previous commenter, however, I don’t believe you should be sorry about your cross-generational empathy. Kol HaKavod!

It is not only 100 years ago. It is now as well.

Having grown up on the lower east side and with family still there, can testify that there is today, 2011, great overlap of Jewish and Chinese communities along East Broadway, Grand, Allen, Essex etc. The two communities share lots of spaces (many former shul are now Buddhist temples).

However, though they share the same spaces, for the Orthodox (my family) there is only the most minimal interaction with Chinese.

Stephen Rosenberg says:

To remember is to keep alive. My father was born and raised on the Lower East Side on Chrystie Street. The neighborhood has been yuppified over the past several years with bars, restaurants, hotels, etc. yet manages to retain some of its 100+ year old flavor and history. We will all be the worse if it all disppears.

I just brought my kids to the Tenement Museum– in an effort to make the lives of those who died in the Triangle Fire real — on the tour with us where a Chinese family from Westchester — looking back at their heritage in some ways, I’m sure. At the end of the day, the Lower East Side was and is a gateway to an America and a dream.

alexis says:

hi, my father was born in 1907, and my mother in 1911…there in the lower eastside. from jewish immigrants. they told stories of hwo they co- resided with those of other origins.. many were oriental, italian and irish et… it is still theplace to go. sacrifices… for the better life. let uus ll remember our humbel origins.

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The Lower East Side, 100 Years Later

Why we should pity the poor immigrants

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