The Lower East Side as an American Site of Memory

Abigail Lewis

Sara Blair, How the Oth­er Half Looks: The Low­er East Side and the After­lives of Images (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2018), 304 pages, $29.95

In How the Other Half Looks, Sara Blair contends that the Lower East Side of New York represents a kind of American lieu de mémoire--a site of memory--a term she calls “a portal into the past.” 1 1 Sara Blair, How the Other Half Looks, 14. As home to the first free black settlement, scores of immigrants and working-class laborers, and many other “others,” the space has served as a site for reimagining America’s possible futures. Specifically, Blair contends, it exists as a site where technologies of seeing and the visual aesthetics they engender compel viewers to examine the past in order to reconsider their present. The result, argues Blair, is that the Lower East Side serves as a methodological “camera” that allows readers and viewers to experiment with, rethink, and freeze certain images of the past.

Blair begins her study in the late-nineteenth century analyzing the first halftone reproduced photograph and concludes by examining twentieth-century print culture surrounding fears of nuclear warfare. With this historical reach, Blair weaves together a narrative of more than a century of artistic engagement, social observation, mediations, and “remediations” on the Lower East Side. 2 2 Sara Blair, How the Other Half Looks, 184-218. Each chapter closely chronicles social changes in the slums, evolving aesthetic movements, and innovations in the technologies of representation. Over the course of the book, America’s “ur-ghetto” changes beyond recognition, and the slums and tenements become a figment of the past that is still somehow powerful in the present. Blair’s study looks beyond a history of a specific space, real or imagined, to produce a new history of American visual culture, particularly documentary media or aesthetic realism. As Blair demonstrates, photographers, filmmakers, photojournalists, the news media, and writers found their “raw material” on the Lower East Side and used it to shape and modernize their professional fields and aesthetic practices.

Blair’s argument is nuanced and multi-layered. To unpack how she understands the slums and tenements of the Lower East Side as simultaneously an imagined construct, an on-the-ground site of experimentation, and the raw material for representation, it is worth revisiting Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire, which Blair engages with throughout the book. 3 3 Pierre Nora coined lieux de mémoire in his three-volume series on French collective memory and identity Realms of Memory. Realms of Memory: Constructions of the French Past, edited by Pierre Nora and Lawrence Kritzman, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. According to Nora, sites of memory invoke the spaces, cultural practices, and symbols that make up a shared sense of the past and, as such, a collective identity. At the same time as memory functions to reconstruct and organize traces of the past, it also looks for continuity within moments or symbols that appear to exist outside of time, outside of our rapidly changing daily realities.

How then might we understand the Lower East Side and its residents, whom Blair and her historical actors have called the “other half,” as a form of lieu de mémoire? How was New York’s home to the American “other” a device for working out the American and Jewish past and future? Thinking about space as a “camera,” Blair offers a revision to the connection between urban and social space, collective identity, otherness, and aesthetic technology. Blair’s story is not about the making of a static site of memory that is arrested in time; rather, she illuminates how this image evolves as Americans experiment with representing the iconic New York neighborhood. These practitioners, in turn, play a role in producing a shared sense of the past. Blair’s deployment of the idea of lieu de mémoire highlights the paradoxes, fractures, and exclusions that make up a shared sense of the past, and it gives agency to artists, social reformers, and the Lower East Side’s residents in producing these images.

Blair’s title draws directly from Jacob Riis’ 1890 How the Other Half Lives, a photographic exposé on the poor living conditions in the slums and tenements of the Lower East Side. Riis, a Danish immigrant and police reporter, flashed his camera into the proverbial darkest corners of the slums, to argue for social reform. Riis’ photographs were remarkable for what they vividly showed—the squalid living conditions in the Lower East Side—as much as for how they showed it—using a new technology, flash powder, to capture the otherwise invisible subjects on his film. Riis’ photo, “Five Cents a Spot”, for example, exposes how Riis treated the Lower East Side as a site needing social concern. Here, he documents a room as densely crowded, dark, and filthy; each bed contains more than one person, some appearing to sleep upright. His subjects also seem to be stuck in place, perhaps even stuck in time. Blair argues that the image exemplifies a moment of “arrest”: the subjects, awakened by Riis’ camera, are immobilized in in time, space, and on film. In that moment, and on Riis’ film, the figures are rendered icons of urban poverty “entering the image repertoire of the photograph, and of modern times, in America.” 4 4 Blair, 32. Riis is a powerful starting point as his photographs demonstrate the threads of Blair’s argument: his images and engagement with the Lower East Side turned its residents into spectacular, still iconic, subject matter for consumption, shaping perceptions of the Lower East Side and photojournalism as a field.

Although Riis presents Blair’s starting point to her narrative, she shows us that he was neither the first to experiment aesthetically with the Lower East Side’s subjects, nor was he the last. Little would Riis have known, Blair writes, “that his work belonged to a longer history of response to a key space of encounter—or that it would come to inform a remarkable array of events unfolding over the century to follow.” 5 5 Blair, 1. Reflecting the intertwined networks that Blair illuminates, each chapter is arranged chronologically to focus on various artistic, literary, or technological developments and, in turn, on new visualities of the American ghetto. Each chapter builds on the previous one, creating a social, cultural, aesthetic, and professional world in which her artists, writers, and photographers interacted with and drew influence from one another over time: from the reveal that Maggie author, Stephen Crane, “saw the light” at one of Riis’ lantern lectures; to the fact that Abraham Cahan worked as Riis’ assistant; or that moment when Walker Evans, an eventual Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer, stumbled upon Paul Strand’s 1916 Blind Woman while rummaging through the Library of Congress’ Picture Collection. Years later Evans would give advice to aspiring photographer Ben Shahn (also later of the FSA). While Blair hints at the larger impact of these artists, writers, and documentarians—for example, several of the photographers here worked for the FSA Historical Division—I wondered how their experience representing the Lower East Side influenced larger aesthetic movements and developments in documentary photojournalism and the rise of photographic media in the 1930s. 6 6 For work on the Farm Service Administration and the image of American poverty see Cara A. Finnegan, Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs, (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2003).

Like any good lieu de mémoire, the Lower East Side that Blair shows us was also an imagined construct. Drawing examples from modes of visual documentation and visual technologies heralded for their “directness” and “authenticity,” Blair teases out tensions between what she calls the “reality effect” and the mythic construction of the slums and Lower East Side. In her chapter on the American film industry, DW Griffith, and the use of the Lower East Side as shooting location, we see the “reality effect” produced both on site and on film. Blair argues that Griffith’s “ghetto films” were shot on location to create “a new kind of social space and the subjects who would inhabit it,” to heighten their sense that the camera catches daily life as it unfolds and to sell “local color” to bourgeois Americans. 7 7 Blair, 64. Here, Blair treats “space” in three dimensions: a physical location for staging the film, an imagined social space, and the subject matter for commercial exploitation.

Later in the book, Blair introduces the idea of the Lower East Side as a “camera” that emerges as an alternative or updated mode for viewing how space, representation, and identity formation interact. Most of her chosen protagonists were past or present residents of the Lower East Side mostly from Jewish immigrant families. Blair highlights not only how neighborhood “outsiders” like Riis and Griffith (each of whom did have a connection to the slums) exploited the Lower East Side, but also how the so-called “other half” represented their own homes and communities, in her chapter entitled “Looking Back,” describing the literary work of Henry Roth and the photography of Shahn during the interwar period. Roth, author of Call It Sleep, and Shahn, a photojournalist who, as previously alluded to, cut his teeth in the Historical Section of the Farm Security Association, play with temporal displacement in their work, as they represent a now historical image of the ghetto and imagine its (and their) futurity. Both from Jewish immigrant families and with personal histories tied up with the Lower East Side, their literary and visual images play with a dialectic of old and new, arrest and dynamism. By the 1930s, the tenement populations had almost become a figment of the past and decreased by more than half. Image-makers in the 1930s found a tenement landscape emptied and that no longer accorded to its image repertoire. Thus, image-makers like Shahn and Roth engaged with present absence in a place once remembered for its density and experimented with the “afterimage” of the ghetto as a means of mediating their own place within American modernity.

For whom, then, is the Lower East Side a lieu de mémoire and to what ends? Blair deftly illustrates how for its inhabitants, especially Jewish American immigrants, the Lower East Side became a linchpin of collective identity, as writers and artists engaged with the neighborhood’s historical image, their own cultural history, and future. Her work goes further, however. Blair shows how the Lower East Side and the image of the “other” have inspired more than a century of image-makers whose observations about and engagements with space have more broadly shaped narratives of America and its citizens. This includes, for example, Collier’s 1950 collage picturing the Lower East Side as an imagined site of a nuclear explosion, a ground-zero of social, cultural, and nuclear crisis.

Blair employs a multi-layered view of space, visual memory, technologies of documentation, and artistic agency to outline the challenges that have defined American identity. Her subjects are also multi-directional; they are, at times, violently made visible against their will, but they also look back, wielding the tools of representation originally used against them. More complicated than viewing “America’s ur-ghetto” as a lieu de mémoire, Blair spotlights the paradoxes of its dynamic status as site of memory and of artistic experimentation, and she highlights the stories and voices often left out of American collective memory. Representing, consuming, and experimenting with the image of the other-half—by its residents and others—reflected anxieties at the core of American modernity. Further, such images have also engendered a shared (and “successful”) history of American immigration as underscoring a sense of a shared American past. In light of Blair’s work, it is hard not to think about the recent explosion of images of a different site of alterity: the southern American border. As we see the crisis through photographs, we continue to see images of the southern migrants as the unassimilable, “threatening (and most threatened)” other. Blair’s book is a timely analysis of the power of images and of collective narratives of history and how we mobilize the image of the “other” to identify who we are and are not.

Lewis, Abigail. “The Lower East Side as an American Site of Memory.” In geveb, December 2019:
Lewis, Abigail. “The Lower East Side as an American Site of Memory.” In geveb (December 2019): Accessed May 21, 2024.


Abigail Lewis

Abigail Lewis is a PhD candidate in European History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a George L. Mosse Exchange Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.