Fairfield and Livingston

Find this intersection (just south and one block west of the Robert Street bridge), and what do you see? Not much? Well, only because you came several decades too late. Had you had the foresight to visit, say in 1940 or 1950, you would be standing in the middle of a busy residential, industrial, and commercial part of town.

This was what the geographers call a receptor neighborhood -- a place where new arrivals could find shelter. They were normally struggling countrymen, and sometimes domestic workers. The first settlers, in the 1850s, were French-speaking, followed by Germans and Irish, all of whom came in scattered numbers. Then, when St. Paul boomed in the 1880s, came Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish Jews by the hundreds. By the mid-1890s, the neighborhood was predominantly Jewish and remained so almost to the end.

If you had loitered at Fairfield and Livingston in 1930 almost everyone who passed by would have been Jewish. Within walking distance you could have found four synagogues, four petroleum warehouses, four junk dealers, three blacksmiths, two cobblers, a macaroni factory, a pickle works, a fire-fighting equipment plant -- and, yes, one Spanish-language church. Students at nearby Lafayette School, the local elementary, endured the biggest classes (as many as 50 per room) and worst facilities in the city. The housing, almost all built in the 19th century, was also the city’s worst, often lacking modern plumbing. As one resident commented around that time, “the Lower West Side started out as a poor man’s neighborhood and stayed that way.”

Not surprisingly, many of those who could get out, got out. By the 1940s, and especially after World War II, many Jewish West Siders moved to St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. Those who stayed lived through continuing deterioration, made much worse by the floods of 1951 and 1952. In 1957, city leaders decided to turn the Flats into an industrial park, protected by improved levies. The city began buying houses in 1961, and by 1966 the neighborhood was gone. Which is why, if you visit Fairfield and Livingston today, you see no traces of human habitation. The old Lower West Side lives on only in memory.