Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Stories from the Archives - Ethnic Groups on the LES

Education Department Intern Billyskye has been combing through our archives and listening to the oral histories of former 97 Orchard St. tenants. He was particularly focused on finding excerpts that spoke to interethnic experiences on the Lower East Side. From Billyskye:

Many visitors commonly assume that tension existed between the different ethnic groups living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. This belief stems from the logic that these groups, isolated by language and cultural barriers, kept to themselves. However, oral histories of the former residents of 97 Orchard Street shed a different light on the issue of tolerance.

Jacqueline Burnescu-Richter, who lived at 97 Orchard St. from her birth in 1919 until 1928, detailed the philosophy her mother and those around her imbued upon the next generation, saying that she, “learned to judge people by themselves, not what they were… there is good or bad in every race, creed, and color.”

Jacqueline’s oral history goes on to describe her close friendship with a Chinese girl who also lived in the neighborhood – a friendship that she maintained into adulthood. An interesting exchange of cultures took place between these two friends who frequently make expeditions to Chinatown and shared potato pancakes at the Burnescu home.

Sue Lesnick, another resident of 97 Orchard, explained this close camaraderie between the immigrants living in the area, saying, “We all got along very well… everybody was in the same category.”

While ethnic tension and violence swept across the United States, the immigrants on the Lower East Side found something they could use to relate to one another despite their obvious differences in background and culture. Sue describes the situation that all of these men, women and children were forced to confront, stating, “There was no such thing as play… it’s a fight for survival, that’s what it was in those days.”

- Posted by Kate Stober

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