Public School No. 188
P ublic School No. 188 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was beyond just large.The five-story H-shaped structure, of “bright red brick and limestone amid the gloom of its surroundings,” took up the entire city block bounded by Lewis, East Houston, Manhattan, and East Third streets.
With a 6,000-student capacity, 100 classrooms, four kitchens for cooking instruction, two assembly rooms, two libraries, a carpentry shop, public baths “with hot and cold water” in the basement—since “it has been found by the school authorities that baths in connection with schools are one of the most desirable adjuncts”—two rooftop playgrounds, and two glass-roofed 10,000 square foot courtyard gymnasiums, it was titanic.
The school was designed by the famous urban education architect Charles B. J. Snyder, then Superintendent of School Buildings for the New York City Board of Education, whose many New York City works include Washington Irving High School, DeWitt Clinton High, and Stuyvesant High School. Snyder envisioned schools as urban enclaves and was known for his concern about the health and safety of schoolchildren, expressed through his revolutionary innovations in ventilation, lighting, classroom ergonomics, fireproofing, efficient evacuation, and related areas. His signature H-shaped design plan was inspired by the Hotel de Cluny in Paris, near the Cathedral of Notre Dame.Though hampered by delays and incomplete when it opened on Monday, September 21, 1903, P.S. 188 was dubbed “the largest school in the world” and was immediately embraced by educators around the country as a model for urban school design and the adaptation of education to special city needs. It was such a big deal, that visiting foreign dignitaries were taken there for tours to show off American innovation.
“You will see, side by side, the children of the poor, the well-to-do, the ignorant, the enlightened, the criminal and the law-abiding classes,” the school’s first principal, Edward Mandel, explained. “All are learning out of the same books; all are to be American citizens.” Its students represented “nearly every country of Europe, the children of American-born parents being a small minority,” newspapers reported. “The Russian predominates, closely followed by Hebrews and Hungarians.” In one study of P.S. 188’s girls, it was found that 40% had been born in Europe, 90% had parents who spoke a foreign language, and 70% were studying Hebrew.
After construction was fully completed in 1904, there were reportedly more students registered at P.S. 188—over 5,000 in total, along with over 100 teachers—than there were at Harvard or Yale, and more than the entire public school population of Nevada. Though there were about 45 pupils per classroom, it was even said that each student had their own desk.
This incredible building still stands today, though its surroundings have changed almost completely. To see it by car, get on the FDR Drive in Manhattan and take the E. Houston Street exit, which goes westbound. There, up ahead to your right as you hit the first set of traffic lights, is the big orange-tinted structure, adjacent to a children’s playground.
Oddly, P.S. 188 is barely mentioned, if at all, in the modern day books and articles that have been written about the history of the neighborhood, nor in any of the oral histories that I was able to find. A visit to the awesome Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street in New York City, which has a vast collection of materials about the area in its gift shop as well as expert tour guides, yielded nothing. It appears that historians of Jewish culture—let alone sports historians—have overlooked this important civic monument though it is a sports history gem.
Fortunately, historical newspapers and archives have not forgotten its important social and cultural impact, and the basketball history that took place there.
From The Open Air
The envy of every other school and considered state-of-the-art architectural masterpieces, the glass-roofed gymnasiums and indoor playgrounds of P.S. 188 allowed the lighting of every corner “from the open air” and were “heated in stormy and inclement weather.”
For many residents of the Lower East Side who lived and worked in dark, filthy, stifling, overcrowded tenements buildings, these features were in dramatic contrast to the conditions they faced everyday. In certain ways, for students and their parents alike, this was heaven.“The chief feature is, of course, the open-air gymnasiums, with their equipment and dumbbells, Indian clubs, parallel and horizontal bars, flying rings, and horse, buck, and spring boards,” a reporter explained in 1904.
Among the school’s first appointments, after its teachers and administrators, were the staff who would supervise these progressive recreational spaces, men and women who were known in those days as gymnasts. They were familiar with gymnasiums, their various athletic apparatus, and their uses for physical fitness. They also became coaches for the school’s sports teams.
Gymnasts were considered so essential that, like regular teachers, they were carefully selected and appointed by the Board of Education only after the certification of their eligibility and the granting of their license to teach by a special Board of Examiners.
Shortly after opening, P.S. 188 hired a 22-year-old certified gymnast named Augustus Edward “Jeff” Wetzler as an instructor of physical training and athletics. The son of German immigrants–his father a stonecutter and his mother a janitress–Wetzler was born in New York City around 1882, the year before the Brooklyn Bridge opened. He was well acquainted with the community, having grown up on Sheriff Street—part of a particularly rough section of the Lower East Side—in a tenement just two blocks away, down the street, and around the corner from where P.S. 188 now stood.
Wetzler’s home block, including the section of Sheriff Street where he once lived, had been demolished in 1898 to make room the four-acre Hamilton Fish Park, which opened in 1900 with a play center that included a gymnasium as part of efforts by the Playground Association of America to create open spaces and introduce sports to immigrant youths living in densely populated urban settings.
To understand why certified gymnasts were so crucial to the New York City Department of Education, we have but to look at the school’s surroundings.
A majority of the Lower East Side’s predominantly Jewish labor force worked in the notoriously low paying garment industry, whose factories were mainly Jewish-owned, and which contracted their piece work to supervisors operating crowded workshops in homes, apartments, and tenements. For grossly menial wages they employed workers, sometimes entire families, who were driven to toil for long hours under dreadful and even hazardous conditions. “It is not unusual to find a dozen persons—men, women and children—in a single room,” wrote social reformer Jacob Riis. These spaces—dimly lit and frequently unsanitary with poor or no ventilation, excessive heat, and inadequate or no plumbing—became known as “sweatshops.”
Nevertheless, poor Jewish immigrants—often uneducated, unskilled, and with few other options—found this seemingly inescapable line of work tolerable because it allowed them to learn a new trade, earn desperately needed income, observe the Sabbath, and keep their families intact within the community.That business model didn’t always work out, though, especially for women, who were at the bottom of the meager pay scale. Not surprisingly, “prostitution was a pervasive part of immigrant life on the Lower East Side,” writes Timothy J. Gilfoyle, author of City of Eros, a comprehensive history of sex commercialization in New York City. There was apparently plenty of opportunity. Certain streets in the district were “filled with saloons, missions, gin mills, beer gardens, concert halls, dime museums, cigar stores, lodging hoses, gambling dens, and theaters,” many of which were fronts for the sex trade. While women in sweatshops could earn $6 a week, and teachers no more than $40 a month, prostitutes of that period “admitted to earning $30 a night in concert saloons and $50 a week streetwalking.”
Tempted by this underworld and restless too, crime and delinquency were rampant among males in the neighborhood’s “teeming juvenile population,” many of whom weren’t cut out for the garment trade nor any other legal profession. “Detectives last night rounded up 18 men said to be members of East Side gangs,” the Brooklyn Daily Standard Union reported on the same day that P.S. 188 first opened its doors in September 1903. “Two of the prisoners had revolvers and one had knockout drops.”
Strategically, P.S. 188 was placed directly into the middle of the Lower East Side’s roughest neighborhood, the epicenter of its juvenile misconduct. In her memoir, author and playwright Bella Spewak, whose book Kiss Me, Kate was a Broadway hit, recalled living in that area as a little girl:
I went several times to Goerck Street before we moved, compelled by fear and dread. It was a “tough” block. From there would come every offensive in the bottle fights that would visit Lewis, Cannon, Columbia, and Sheriff streets like some short, nasty pestilence. Bottle fights included every kind of weapon; some of the Goerck Street gangs used to throw rusty blades.
It was no coincidence that these streets—Sheriff Street, where “Jeff” Wetzler grew up, was one block east of Columbia Street—were known for their sweatshops.
Finally, such intense overcrowding of impoverished, under-educated, socially unassimilated, masses within the district also resulted in widespread squalor, infestation, and disease.
All of these factors working together … that was life on the Lower East Side. It had to have been challenging to live there, especially as a school aged child. At the time, progressive educators and community reformers placed a premium on physical fitness and competitive athletics as ways for students to burn off youthful energy, find structure, and keep their minds occupied. They turned to basketball as the natural choice.
 Cortland Evening Standard, 6 May 1902; “New York’s Latest School,” The New York Times, 28 September 1902
 “Streetscapes/Charles B. J. Snyder,” The New York Times, 21 November 1999
 The Brooklyn Daily Standard Union, 22 September 1903
 The New-York Tribune, September 16, 1906.
 The Livonia Gazette, 22 February 1907
 The New York Times, 5 June 1904
 City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 By Timothy J. Gilfoyle. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992)
 The Brooklyn Daily Standard Union, 22 September 1903