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Posts in Poverty & Inequality
The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age

The Decorated Tenement: How Immigrant Builders and Architects Transformed the Slum in the Gilded Age

Reviewed by Paul Ranogajec

Violette’s important book opens a new chapter on urban housing in architectural history and helps the reader understand a whole set of buildings—indeed, whole swathes of the cityscapes of both New York and Boston—that are prominently visible but often overlooked. Amplifying elite architects’ and reformers’ disdain for so-called tenement “skin-builders,” architectural historians have studied in detail bourgeois design but have paid much less attention to buildings built by and for the working class. The Decorated Tenement helps to correct the historical record, treating the immigrant-built tenement commensurate with its prominence in the two cities. It is a timely book for that, even if the author does not explicitly make the connection to today’s immigration debates.

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The Medium and the Message: Sara Blair's How the Other Half Looks

The Medium and the Message: Sara Blair's How the Other Half Looks

Reviewed by Aaron Shkuda

Visitors to Seward Park on Manhattan’s Lower East Side from July 2018 through July 2019 can view “Mom-and-Pops of the L.E.S.,” a project by the photographers James and Karla Murray. The installation is a trompe l'oeil storefront, a cube containing four large-format prints of the couple’s photographs of the vanishing businesses of the Lower East Side. These include a delicatessen modeled on the façade of the still-extant Katz’s, but meant to stand in for any of the shuttered Jewish delis across the city. This project, with its mix of Lower East Side iconography, nostalgia for a lost immigrant New York, and the complicated, multiply-mediated encounters it inspires, is an appropriate companion to Sara Blair’s powerful and compelling new book, How the Other Half Looks: The Lower East Side and the Afterlives of Images.

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Anne Fleming's City of Debtors: A Century of Fringe Finance

Anne Fleming's City of Debtors: A Century of Fringe Finance

Reviewed by Erin Cully

The commercial streets in Flatbush are dotted with storefronts advertising rent-to-own furniture sets and appliances. Pawnbrokers and payday lenders call out to passersby, promising “dollars now” in exchange for gold or a paycheck. Many Americans are accustomed to buying consumer goods by swiping a credit card, but for low-income families in New York and elsewhere, access to credit is limited. Small-sum lenders, pawnbrokers, and furniture stores offering installment plans are often the only recourse for households whose economic circumstances threaten to deny them access to the consumption habits that have defined American freedom for most of the twentieth century. These forms of credit have a high price tag, and goods purchased can end up costing several times more than if bought in cash. Families denied access to conventional forms of credit know all too well how “extremely expensive it is to be poor,” as James Baldwin put it.

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