Under The Williamsburg Bridge 1905 – Where New York’s Poor Shopped
In the foreground of the photograph the children are looking directly at the photographer who must have set up his camera at least 10 feet above the crowd to get this extraordinary view.
The Williamsburg Bridge terminus in Manhattan is at Delancey Street, in the heart of the lower east side. As New York’s ever growing immigrant population flooded into the lower east side at the turn of the century, the area was steeped in poverty.
Many vendors sold their wares in the open streets, crammed onto pushcarts overfilled with fish, meat, fruits, vegetables, pots, candles and rags. Everything you could imagine was sold from these pushcarts.
To the residents of the neighborhood the pushcarts offered necessities for a reasonable sum. For the vendors, the pushcarts offered a meager living. For the city the pushcarts represented a nuisance, selling goods of questionable quality and safety, clogging traffic and dirtying the streets.
Before the bridge was officially opened on December 19, 1903, a market was set up under the bridge to move some of the vendors off the crowded streets.
The first group of vendors to set up in the market were the fish dealers who opened for business on March 30, 1903. Dr. John Woodbury, Commissioner of Street Cleaning, believed he could move the remaining pushcart vendors off the streets and place them under the bridge as well. That would have been difficult because at the time there were over 9,000 pushcart vendors in New York City, with an astounding 5,000 of them on the lower east side.
The Williamsburg Bridge market ended up with hundreds of vendors, but the vast majority of pushcart vendors remained along the streets of the lower east side mostly along Hester Street and Orchard Street.
The era of the pushcart came essentially ended on January 1, 1940 when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and William Morgan Jr., Commissioner of Markets banned pushcarts and closed all the other outdoor pushcart markets. By then there were only 600 licensed vendors and 400 unlicensed vendors. Many of the former pushcart vendors moved into the new enclosed Essex Street Retail Market, where stalls could be rented for $4.25 per week.