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Interpreting the Evidence

Young Boy in Cluttered Kitchen, New York City Housing Authority, c. 1960s

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Postwar United States (1945 - 1970)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Lower Elementary
    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:


  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    New York City

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Young Boy in Cluttered Kitchen, New York City Housing Authority, c. 1960s in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
New York City Housing Authority photograph showing living conditions in New York City, c. 1960s.
Historical Context
Many neighborhoods in New York City were at different times considered marginal neighborhoods. During the mid-twentieth century, Hispanics, mostly Puerto Ricans, lived in these “barrios,” or neighborhoods, such as Williamsburg and Canarsie in Brooklyn, the South Bronx, Spanish Harlem, and Alphabet City/Loisaida in Manhattan. Crowded tenement life, crime, drugs, prostitution, and generational poverty were persistent plagues in the lives of many Puerto Ricans for much of the 1940s through the 1980s.

Spanish Harlem is one of the largest Latino communities in New York City. The construction of the elevated subway to Harlem in the 1880s urbanized the area, precipitating the construction of apartment buildings and brownstones. Harlem was first populated by German immigrants, but soon after Irish, Italian, and Russian Jewish immigrants began settling there. In East Harlem, Southern Italians and Sicilians soon predominated, and the neighborhood became known as Italian Harlem. Puerto Rican immigration after the First World War established an enclave at the western portion of Italian Harlem that became known as Spanish Harlem. The area slowly grew to encompass all of Italian Harlem as Italians moved out and Latinos moved in, in another wave of immigration after World War II.

Spanish Harlem was one of the hardest hit areas in the 1960s and 1970s, as New York City struggled with deficits, race riots, urban flight, drug abuse, crime, and poverty. Tenements were crowded, poorly maintained, and frequent targets for arson. The area still has some of the worst problems with poverty, drug abuse, and public health in New York City. However, like the rest of New York, it has enjoyed a resurgence in the past two decades.

With the growth of the Latino population, the neighborhood is expanding. It is also home to one of the few major television studios north of midtown, Metropolis Studios, where shows like BET’s "106 & Park" and "The Chappelle Show" have been produced. The major medical care provider to both East Harlem and the Upper East Side is Mount Sinai Hospital, which has long provided care to the residents of Harlem who battle against asthma, diabetes, unsafe drinking water, lead paint contamination, and infectious diseases.

Despite the moniker of “Spanish Harlem” or “El Barrio,” the region is now home to a new influx of immigrants from around the world. Yemeni merchants, for example, work in bodegas side by side with those from the Dominican Republic. Italians live and prosper next to the influx of Central and South American immigrant populations. Their neighboring businessmen and local neighbors can be Korean, Chinese, or Haitian in origin. The rising cost of living in Manhattan has also caused increasing numbers of whites to move in, taking advantage of the inexpensive rentals. 
Essential Question
Why do immigrants often face harsh conditions in their new country?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain why immigrants often faced these conditions in New York City.
Historical Challenges
Go to Take a virtual tour of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and research living conditions in turn-of-the-century New York City. Emphasize the importance of social activists and muckrakers who helped the people living in these tenements.
Research the history of the New York City Housing Authority. What were the reasons projects were built? What were the costs and benefits? Locate on a map where projects were built.
Interdisciplinary Connections
Science: Investigate why asthma is on the rise throughout the United States, particularly in urban areas. Your report should include a diagnostic explanation of asthma, explain standard procedure in treating asthma, and also explain why the South Bronx has the highest incidence of the disease in the country.
English Language Arts: Write a diary for one week that the boy in the photograph might have written.