I moved to the Lower East Side in the Spring of 1961 and was immediately struck by the housing conditions. Most of the blocks are covered by narrow five-story tenements, each housing from ten to twenty families. The buildings are smack up against one another and flush to the sidewalk. They are called "old-law tenements" because they were built during the last century before a new housing law laid down specifications regarding air space, ventilation, and plumbing. They are called "walk-ups" because they have no elevators. They were built for inexpensive, crowded living and have served as the starting point for just about very wave of immigrants that hit our Eastern shore. That is the reason the Lower East Side is so cosmopolitan. These immigrant groups huddled in ghettos and went through all the familiar pains of being the outcasts of the land before they made their way successfully into the mainstream of American life. But they always left their traces behind, and the Lower East Side retains a sprinkling of various ethnic groups—Italians, Irish, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, Chinese, Negroes, and the most recent arrivals, Puerto Ricans, our largest single group, who constitute more than one third of the population of Precinct Nine, where I live. This precinct is smaller than one square mile but claims more than a hundred thousand residents.
The streets are busy streets, alive with people when the weather is warm. The streets are also dirty. They always bear the traces of garbage that never quite made it from the battered cans to the sanitation trucks. Sometimes it seems that both the people and the debris on the streets have oozed out of the tenements, and in a sense that is so.