Friday, February 27, 2009

Facts and Findings - "Learn English or Bust"?

A University of Wisconsin study debunks the myth that 19th and early 20th century immigrants picked up English quickly.
Joseph Salmons has always been struck by the pervasiveness of the argument. In his visits across Wisconsin, in many newspaper letters to the editor, and in the national debates raging over modern immigration, he encounters the same refrain:

"My great, great grandparents came to America and quickly learned English to survive. Why can't today's immigrants do the same?"

The look at century-old language patterns seems especially salient in the modern political culture, where "English-only" movements are cropping up everywhere and there is considerable debate about how quickly new Spanish-speaking immigrants should be assimilating a new language.

As a professor of German who has extensively studied European immigrant languages in the Midwest, Salmons discovered there was little direct research available about whether this "learn English or bust" ethic really existed.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Art in the Windows- Markers of Memory

You've probably noticed the art exhibit in 97 Orchard's stoop and street level windows. As part of our Tenement Windows series exploring connections between past and present immigrant experiences, Korean-born artist Sook Jin Jo and a group of students at the Jacob Riis Neighborhood Settlement House fashioned grave markers and memory pieces out of reclaimed wood, fabric, beads, and other materials.

The cross-shaped markers are tributes both to the artists' ancestors (who fared from Korea, Central and South America, and the Caribbean) and to the Moore family's baby daughter, who died of malnutrition while residing in 97 Orchard. (The Moores emigrated from Ireland in 1869.)

In Jo's own words: "After my own experience as an immigrant, and losing friends and family in recent years, I began to contemplate, 'where did we come from and where we are going.'"

See how the display is illuminated eerily at night:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Uptown Tenderloin History Museum

Uptown Tenderloin History Museum: Reclaiming SF’s Forgotten Past
by Randy Shaw‚ Feb. 23‚ 2009

In the wonderful book on San Francisco’s once thriving Fillmore District, co-author Elizabeth Pepin notes that she was surprised that “something so magical could vanish with hardly a trace within just a few decades.” The Uptown Tenderloin has an even bigger problem: much remains unknown about its post-1906 to 1970’s past. But this will soon change. As a result of a generous grant from the Fifth Age of Man Foundation and the donated services of the architectural firm of Perkins + Will, the Uptown Tenderloin History Museum is on track to open by 2011-12. A longterm lease to house the museum under the historic Cadillac Hotel has been secured, and a collection of exhibits is being identified and assembled. The Museum will preserve for posterity the years when the Uptown Tenderloin was a venue for upscale hotels, bars and restaurants, nationally known jazz musicians, and assembled the nation’s largest collection of SROs [single residence occupancy hotels]. The Uptown Tenderloin's cultural resources shaped San Francisco’s history, and their preservation at the Museum enables the community’s rich history to propel a brighter future.

Continue reading... on

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

American Sign Language Tenement Tours

March 1 at 1:00 PM, 108 Orchard Street

Join us this Sunday for an ASL-interpreted Confino Family Living History Tour. You'll visit the apartment of a Sephardic Jewish family and meet a costumed interpreter playing 14-year-old Victoria Confino, who lived in the tenement in 1916. Visitors take on the role of newly arrived immigrants and ask Victoria questions about adjusting to life on the Lower East Side. Designed for families, but enjoyable and educating for everyone, this tour allows visitors to handle household objects. 60 minutes, Ages 5 & up.

The tour will be led by an educator and interpreted by Drew Sachs.

More information is available at

Advance tickets are strongly recommended; please call Sarah at 212-431-0233 ext. 232/ TTY 212-431-0714 or email signlanguage(at)tenement org.

ASL-interpreted tours are usually offered the first Sunday of every month; tours rotate. Our next tour will be April 5 at 1:15 PM. Join us as we explore life among the early Irish immigrants to New York, as well as living conditions in immigrant housing, on The Moores: An Irish Family in America.

Immigration, Then and Now - A History of Housing

Overcrowded, illegally partitioned apartments are as common in New York's immigrant neighborhoods today as they were back in the 19th century. The New York Times made the comparison in an article last week, opening with a description of a Mexican couple's 23 X 11 foot room in Bushwick, one of nine to twelve apartments squeezed into a five-family brownstone.

“Have you ever been to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum?” asked Javier Valdes, who visited Guadalupe’s room recently and who is deputy director of Make the Road New York, a community services group of which Guadalupe is a member. “It’s like a repeat of history. It’s just a different group of people going through it.”

The only difference? When 97 Orchard was built, housing regulations were next to nonexistent. When the first crop of tenements sprang up in the 1860s, landlords tried to cram as many working-class families into the buildings as possible. Beyond these squalid apartments, cheap housing options were limited. Some immigrants squeezed into subdivided one-family houses. Others lived in dark, airless basements, rear tenements (which sat behind streetfront buildings), or shantytowns on the fringes of the city, where Central Park is today.

The residents of 97 Orchard were lucky, because Louis Glockner, their landlord, had an incentive to keep standards high (even before NYC passed the nation's first housing law in 1867): he himself lived in the building. In 1870, 97 Orchard's apartments were relatively bright and spacious, housing, on average, no more than 3-4 people.

Then - Officials investigate a crowded tenement in 1900, several decades after housing codes are passed. Photo courtesy of the History Place.

Now - New York Times photo of an immigrant couple's 11 x 23 ft. room

Monday, February 23, 2009

TM - Sidewalk Sign

Our catchy new sign on the corner of Delancey and Orchard, just outside the museum shop, tells the history of the museum and the neighborhood in general.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Questions for Curatorial - Open Door Policy

Find out which was more receptive to newcomers in the early 20th century - the federal government or 97 Orchard's narrow hallway. Questions answered by Curatorial Director Dave.

Was there a ban on certain immigrant groups moving into 97 Orchard Street at any time in the building’s history?

Legislative acts banning certain immigrant groups from the United States were first instituted during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, though nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment are as old as immigration itself.

Passed in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act represented the first federal law banning a group of immigrants solely on the basis of race or nationality. In 1917, Congressional legislation further restricted immigration by barring the entry of Asian Indians. A prohibition on Japanese and Korean immigration followed in 1922 so that, after 1924, among East Asians only Filipinos were untouched by immigration restriction laws.

Beginning in the 1920s, Congress passed a series of quota laws aimed at stemming the mass immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans that had occurred over the course of the past two decades. Each European nation received a quota based on its proportion to the foreign-born population in the 1910 census, resulting in a drastic reduction in the number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. In 1929, another system, the national origins quotas, was put into effect, giving each European country a proportion equal to its share of the white population according to the 1920 census.

Was the front door of 97 Orchard Street generally locked?

Based upon the available evidence, the front door of 97 Orchard Street was probably not locked. Describing his travels among the tenements of the Lower East Side, turn-of-the-century reformer Jacob Riis found unlocked tenement front doors opening onto a “hall that is a highway for all the world by night and by day is the tenement’s proper badge. The Other Half ever receives with open doors.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Look Back in History - Japanese-American Internment Camps

67 years ago on this day, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into effect a law that was used to justify the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans. East Asian immigrants had faced discrimination since they first began streaming into California in the late 19th century, but in the wake of Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment skyrocketed. People of Japanese descent were excluded entirely from the West Coast, and were forced into "War Relocation Camps."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has preserved a number of sites connected to this period, including abandoned Japanese homes and stores, as well as the internment camps themselves. Read more here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Immigrant Stories - Sephardic Jews in New York

Joseph Coen, a barber from Kastoria, in present-day Greece, was a hero to New York's growing Sephardic population at the turn of the 20th century. He vouched for the Greek, Spanish, Turkish, and other Sephardic Jews who stepped off the boat at Ellis island, sometimes offering them temporary lodging. Isolated from their Ashkenazi neighbors by language and cultural barriers, these immigrants benefited enormously from Coen's efforts to help them find family and friends.

Want to learn more? Judaic and Near Eastern scholar Aviva Ben-Ur will be giving a Tenement Talk tomorrow night on the Sephardic immigrant experience, drawing on primary sources like oral histories and the Ladino press. RSVP here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tenement Talks - Who Will Write Our History?

A few weeks ago Samuel Kassow shared the remarkable history of the Oyneg Shabes, who secretly recorded Jewish life in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 to 1943, with our Tenement Talks audience.

His talk will appear on Book TV this Saturday and Sunday, February 21 and 22. Check your local listings and see the Book TV website for more details.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Artifacts - A Valentine's Day Mystery

Of the 2,892 artifacts we have found in 97 Orchard Street, few are as evocative as this amorous letter. Undated and torn at the edges, it's also a mystery. We don't know who wrote it, who it was sent it to and even what part of the letter says. All we know is that researchers discovered it inside our tenement in 1993.

Here's what we could decipher:
________The seat of my pants________hot from where your lovely papa left________of his brogans but love laughs________. Nobody can keep us apart, for________(n)ever dies--does it dear? Saturday I'll give the usual whistle--pack________suitcase and we'll elope and________married. The Rolls-Rough will be (?)ined up for the occasion, and we'll________bully time. Your own only-est.

What do you think the letter says? Who might have written it? Did they really run away with each other? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Facts and Findings - St. Mark's Church

Our staff recently visited St. Mark's Church In-the-Bowery, the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in the city and a registered New York City Landmark. It was built by Peter Stuyvesant's great-grandson in 1799 on the plantation (or bouwerie) where Peter Stuyvesant's private chapel once stood, back when much of lower Manhattan was still farmland. The church is the burial site for a number of famous New Yorkers, including two mayors, members of the Beekman and Tompkins families, and, of course, Peter Stuyvesant.

Photos courtesy of

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Immigration Today - Flocking to the Bronx

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Lower East Side was a mecca for immigrants. Today, that role is served by areas like Queens and, more recently, the Bronx, a borough once dominated by Puerto Ricans and African Americans.

We've pulled a couple of interesting statistics from the New York Daily News on the Bronx's changing demographics:

  • 31% of the borough's 1.4 million residents were born overseas
  • 55% of residents speak a language other than English at home
  • Hispanics and Latinos make up 51% of the borough's population
  • 8,749 Albanians live in the Bronx
  • The West Indian (primarily Jamaican) population has doubled since 1990
  • The number of Italian and Irish immigrants has decreased over the last decade
  • Wednesday, February 11, 2009

    Tenement Talks - Chinatown Noir

    New York's Chinatown comes alive in the work of authors S.J. Rozan and Henry Chang, who read and discussed their respective novels, the Lydia Chin mysteries and the Chinatown Beat trilogy, at the museum yesterday.

    A brief history of Chinatown: Around the time 97 Orchard Street was built, Chinese immigrants formed an insular community in the Five Points slum to shield themselves from rising discrimination. Chinatown's population continued to expand even after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in the late 19th century, limiting naturalization and barring the entry of worker's families. Shops and restaurants serving the needs of Chinatown's residents flourished.

    Questions for Curatorial - Speaking of Rent...

    Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

    When did rent-control begin?

    Rent regulation in New York City, meaning apartments that fall under either rent-control or rent-stabilization laws, dates to the early 20th century. During the Second World War, New York emerged as a crucial center both for the production and shipping of war materials, as well as for the mobilization of troops overseas. After a decade of depression, war industry jobs and the services that supported war industry workers attracted unemployed Americans to New York. But little new housing had been constructed during the Great Depression. This resultant demand for housing also drove rents to exorbitant levels. Indeed, in August 1943, soaring rents sparked a riot in Harlem.

    In this context, legislated rent-control emerged as a war measure when the federal Office of Price Administration (OPA) declared the city a “defense rental area” with the aim of landlords to maintain fair rents. At the same time, tenant organizations agitated for a “freeze” on rent increases. On November 1, 1943, the OPA froze the rents of 1.4 million dwellings at the level of March 1, 1943.

    When the war came to an end in 1945, tenant groups organized to defend themselves against unaffordable increases. While the OPA maintained rent-control until 1947, these tenant groups persuaded then Governor Thomas Dewey and Mayor William O’Dwyer to impose a system of rent-control on buildings built before 1947. This system mandated vacancy rates to be measured at 3-year intervals—a vacancy rate below 5 percent constituted a housing emergency that could justify a renewal of rent controls by the state legislature. Also under this system, landlords could be granted occasional rent increases of as much as 15 percent.

    New York City resumed the administration of rent control in 1962. In 1967 and 1969, the city lifted rent controls on some high-rent apartments and instituted a new system entitled “rent stabilization” on apartment buildings with six or more dwelling units. Under rent stabilization, rent increases were left to self enforcement by landlords belonging to the Rent Stabilization Association.

    Widespread fears of chronic housing abandonment led the legislature to weaken rent controls, allowing an increase of 15 percent and liking stabilized rents to a “maximum base” calculated according to a “reasonable” return on investment.

    According to a 2003 article in the Gotham Gazette, there are approximately 1 million rent-regulated apartments in New York City today—about half of city’s total rental units.

    Tuesday, February 10, 2009

    Facts and Findings - A Free Month's Rent

    According to the New York Times, today's economic climate is forcing some New York landlords to offer incentives like a month of free rent - a tradition the tenants of 97 Orchard Street would have been familiar with.

    For much of the 19th century, May 1st was moving day for thousands of New Yorkers. Yearly leases expired on May 1, sending tenants all over the city in search of cheaper rents and more commodious dwellings. Business came to a halt as legions of New Yorkers emptied into the streets with carts jammed full of their worldly possessions. In what contemporary observers remarked was an unrivaled scene of chaos and disorder, liquor flowed freely, streets and sidewalks became impassible, and tensions rose to the point of an occasional brawl.

    As an incentive, many landlords offered the first month free of charge. But the annual practice of moving on May 1st also allowed landlords to set rents at whatever price the market could bear.
    New York's immigrant residents likewise took the opportunity May 1st offered to look for better accommodations.

    When the Irish immigrant Moore family moved into 97 Orchard Street in 1869, it was their third home in four years. But they weren't there for long; the Moores were on the move again in 1870, this time to 224 Elizabeth Street.

    Monday, February 9, 2009

    5 Things You Didn’t Know About 97 Orchard Street

    1. 7,000 people from 20 countries lived at 97 Orchard Street from 1863-1935.
    2. The Museum has identified over 1,900 by name.
    3. 97 Orchard Street is a pre-Old Law tenement.
    4. The German immigrant who built it lived there from 1863-1868.
    5. The first tenants were mainly from Bavaria, Prussia, Saxony, and Hanover.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009

    Tenement Talks - Samuel Kassow Interviewed on NPR

    Only hours before speaking at the museum, Trinity College history professor Samuel Kassow discussed his latest book, Who Will Write Our History, on the Leonard Lopate show. The book chronicles a group of Jewish scholars' efforts to record life in Nazi-occupied Poland by burying thousands of artifacts in boxes and cans. Check out the interview below.

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009

    Facts and Findings - Scourges of the 19th Century

    In their January/February issue Ancestry Magazine had a interesting piece on 19th century diseases. Although sickness can strike anyone, those living in overcrowded conditions, where disease can more easily spread, often bear the brunt:

    In the crowded tenements in U.S. cities, poor sanitation helped disease thrive. The late 19th century saw epidemics of typhoid, typhus, smallpox, influenza, and bubonic plague, among others. A lack of understanding of the cause and means of prevention helped two epidemics—cholera and yellow fever—become particularly difficult and persistent.

    Cholera reached the United States in the 1830s, as steamship travel and immigration increased. Public sentiment on the diseases, wrote historian Charles Rosenberg in The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866, was that cholera “was a scourge not of mankind but of the sinner” and that the disease would target people who engaged in what was considered morally reprehensible activity. “Most Americans did not doubt that cholera was a divine imposition,” said Rosenberg.

    Read the full article...

    The New York Historical Society recently had an exhibit on New York's cholera outbreaks, which shaped the city that we know today. Here's the New York Times review, and here's the NY Historical's blog on the exhibit, where among other things you can find an 1832 letter from printer William S. Bayley:

    On Sunday (yesterday) the Park [City Hall Park] was black with persons anxiously waiting for the day’s report…. It [cholera] has been at No. 5 Walker Street, yesterday No. 9, and there was a case in our block in Church Street. The report to day shows five cases in Walker Street on the other or farther side of the Bowery. In a word, the disease is so completely spread that we were counting yesterday and could not recollect a street in which it had not been with the single exception of Park Place.

    Of course, cholera is all too well known in the modern world. Last fall the disease struck more than 16,000 people and killed 780 in Zimbabwe, where clean drinking water is recently hard to come by and some sewer lines have burst. More at the Times.

    Monday, February 2, 2009

    Facts and Findings - Small apartments are universal...

    Many of our visitors wonder how so many people (up to 10 or 12 in some families) could live in such tiny apartments (some as small as 325 square feet). They find it difficult to visualize how such living would take place - the logistics of where people sleep, how they do laundry, how they cook their meals when there is barely room to turn around. We answer by saying that they found a way... just as many people still do today. Here's a visitor's impression of apartment living in Ho Chi Minh City:

    You can click on the photos for a larger version.