The oldest inhabitant cannot remember when Chatham street did not exist. It still contains many half decayed houses which bear witness to its antiquity. It begins at City Hall Place, and ends at Chatham Square. It is not over a quarter of a mile in length, and is narrow and dirty. The inhabitants are principally people of the Jewish faith and low class foreigners. Near the lower end are one or two good restaurants, and several cheap hotels, but the remainder of the street is taken up with establishments into which respectable buyers do not care to venture. Cheap lodging houses abound, pawnbrokers are numerous, several fence stores are to be found here, and some twenty or twenty-five cellars are occupied as dance houses and concert saloons. These are among the lowest and vilest of their kind in New York.
Chatham street is the paradise of dealers in mock jewelry and old clothes. Some of the shops sell new clothing of an inferior quality, but old clothes do most abound. Here you may find the cast-off finery of the wife of a millionaire—the most of it stolen—or the discarded rags of a pauper. It seems as if all New York had placed its cast-off clothing here for sale, and that the stock had accumulated for generations. Who the dealers sell to is a mystery. You see them constantly inviting trade, but you rarely see a customer within their doors.
Honesty is a stranger in Chatham street, and any one making a purchase here must expect to be cheated. The streets running off to the right and left lead to the Five Points and similar sections, and it is this wretched portion of the city that supports trade in Chatham street. The horse car lines of the east side pass through the entire length of the street, and the heaviest portion of the city travel flows through it, but respectable people rarely leave the cars in this dirty thoroughfare, and are heartily glad when they are well out of it. The buildings are generally old and dilapidated. The shops are low and dark. They are rank with foul odors, and are suggestive of disease. The men and women who conduct them look like convicts, and as they sit in their doorways watching for custom, they seem more like wild beasts waiting for their prey, than like human beings. Even the children have a keener, more disreputable appearance here than elsewhere.
The Chatham street merchants are shrewd dealers, and never suffer an opportunity to make a penny to pass by unimproved. They are not particular as to the character of the transaction. They know they are never expected to sell honestly, and they make it a rule not to disappoint their customers. One of their favorite expedients to create trade in dull times is called a “forced sale.” They practise this only on those whom they recognize as strangers, for long experience has enabled them to tell a city man at a glance. A stranger walking along the street will be accosted by the proprietor of a shop and his clerks with offers of “sheap” clothing. If he pauses to listen, he is lost. He is seized by the harpies, who pretend to assist him, and is literally forced into the shop. He may protest that he does not wish to buy anything, but the “merchant” and his clerks will insist that he does, and before he can well help himself, they will haul off his coat, clap one of the store coats on his back, and declare it a “perfect fit.” The new coat will then be removed and replaced by the old one, and the victim will be allowed to leave the shop. As he passes out of the door, the new coat is thrust under his arm, and he is seized by the proprietor and his assistants, who shout “stop thief!” and charge him with stealing the coat. Their noise, and the dread of being arrested upon a charge of theft, will frequently so confuse and frighten the victim that he will comply with their demand, which is that he shall buy the coat. This done he is suffered to depart. A refusal to yield would not injure him, for the scoundrels would seldom dare to call in the police, for fear of getting themselves into trouble with the officials. They have reckoned with certainty, however, upon the stranger’s timidity and bewilderment, and know they are safe.