This woman’s work: Exhausting images of Astor Place and Lafayette Street

Gritty streets, circa 1912. Looking up Lafayette Street, below Astor Place. “The breaking point. A heavy load for an old woman.” The building to the right is the DeVinne Press Building, built in the 1880s, and today home to Astor Center Wine & Spirits. In the distance: the Wanamaker Department Store building, today the home to K-Mart! Look here and turn the angle north for the present view of this street. [Source: LOC]

Lewis Hine hit the streets of New York in 1912 looking for dirt. And he found it. The teacher-turned-social activist and photographer had found the camera a useful tool in illustrating poverty and had already drawn attention to deplorable child labor conditions. In the wake of early social crusaders like Jacob Riis, Hine’s photos helped the poorest New Yorkers by showcasing their daily toil in a landscape of decrepit quality.

Beyond the social commentary, however, these are still fascinating portraits of New York. None are more striking to me personally than his images taken one hundred years ago this month from Astor Place and along Lafayette Street. Many New Yorkers marveled that month at the exploits of daredevil pilot Frank Coffyn over New York harbor, but after the fun was over, many came home to this.

A highly energetic crossroads today, the destination of college students, shoppers, and theater goers, Astor Place has clearly cleaned up its act since Hine sat his tripod here a century ago. With these particular images, Hines was specifically commenting on ‘home-work’, poor women and children taking raw materials or clothing to mend back to their tenements, turning their confined living quarters into personal sweatshops.

They say other things to us today. The street conditions speak for themselves. But see if you can identify some of these street corners!

Caption “Woman crossing Astor Place with home-work”: Looking up Fourth Avenue, with the Wanamaker department store building (designed by the great Daniel Burnham in 1904) to the left.

Two pictures on the same street corner. Notice the condition of the street in the background. The shop sign advertises ‘Choice Fruits, Candies, Cigarettes, Hot Frankfurters’. They also have a public AT&T telephone.

I find this one the most intriguing. “Young girl carrying bundle of coats home to be finished.” She’s clearly walking up (or down?) along the Third Avenue elevated train. Keep in mind, in context to last week’s post on the Coffyn flight, that it’s so cold in New York at this time that the East River has frozen over in many places.

Pictures courtesy of the Library of Congress. You can check out their digital archives for hundreds of other Hine photographs from this era.

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