Friday, February 24, 2012

Finding Unexpected Common Ground with 97 Orchard: Unearthing My Family’s New York Tenement Roots

After relocating to New York last year, I was thrilled to be hired by the Tenement Museum as an educator. I grew up in a New Jersey suburb of New York in a family with Italian, Irish, Hungarian and German roots, but my family moved to the Deep South when I was in high school. I lived in Atlanta for many years, teaching English as a second language and working as an immigrant advocate, so the Tenement Museum seemed like a natural next step.

Tenement Museum Educator Laureen Fredella

I always knew that some of my immigrant ancestors started out here in New York, but it was only after I started to work at the Tenement Museum that I began to wonder in earnest where my grandparents and great grandparents lived, what their lives were like, and how they ended up in Bayonne, New Jersey. I knew that my father’s mother was born in New York City, and the image in my head was always of a beautiful brownstone on a quiet tree lined street in Brooklyn. But after starting to work at the Tenement Museum, I wasn’t so sure anymore. I decided to embark on a research project to get answers to my questions. And wow, did I get answers!

I started out by opening the photo albums and shoe boxes stuffed with documents that my mother passed on to me. I had many discussions with my aunt, now 90, who has an excellent memory. And I reluctantly signed up for (I say “reluctantly” because it’s expensive and I’m kind of cheap, at least with things like that).

Fortunately, the surnames in my family—Fredella, Bevilacqua and Killoran--are not overly common, so it wasn’t too hard to find the records that matched my ancestors. Through census records, I was able to locate was an address for my grandmother’s family—the Bevilacquas--in New York in 1900. I was right; it was in Brooklyn. But it wasn’t a brownstone--it was a tenement in Vinegar Hill, right outside the Brooklyn Navy Yard. A bit of research into the neighborhood at the time revealed that it was a hardscrabble place, with brothels, tattoo parlors, and flop houses. It was where Al Capone was born and supposedly contracted the syphilis that would kill him later in life. I also discovered that my uncle had a bakery not far away, and after the Capones moved from Vinegar Hill, Al Capone’s father opened a barber shop less than a block from the bakery. So it’s possible that my ancestors and the Capones patronized each other’s businesses.

I decided to dig a little deeper to find out about my grandmother’s parents, Nicola and Rosa Bevilacqua. I found out that they were married in Manhattan, which seemed unusual, since they were living in Brooklyn. It turns out that before they married, they lived on Mott Street in Little Italy on the Lower East Side, just a few blocks from the Tenement Museum--and the building they lived in is still standing.

 The author's Great Grandfather, Nicola Bevilacqua,
 lived in this Mott Street Tenement in 1895

My great grandfather lived in the same neighborhood in 1888, right in the Mulberry Street bend, a notorious stretch that was the target of reformers like Jacob Riis. The rough living conditions explain why they left for Brooklyn, just as the the conditions in Brooklyn explain why they went to New Jersey.

Next, I turned my attention to my Irish ancestors, the Killorans. According to city directory records, they lived in different locations in Kleindeutschland (or little Germany, as the Lower East Side was once known). My great great great grandfather, Michael Killoran, who was listed in the 1870 census as a laborer living in Kleindeutschland at the age of 70, was admitted to the Alms House on Blackwell’s Island (today Roosevelt Island) in 1878 for destitution. His poverty would undoubtedly have been a result of the Panic of 1873, which prompted a devastating depression. The panic also impacted residents of 97 Orchard, most notably Natalie Gumpertz and her family, who we learn about on the Hard Times tour. The Alms House was a horrible place, and I found no records of Michael Killoran beyond his admittance to the poor house, so I assume he died there alone, destitute, and in misery.

Sleeping quarters at Blackwell's Island c.1899;
Image Courtesy the New York Public Library

I still have questions, but my discoveries have enriched my experience as an educator and connected me with the building in a way I never could have anticipated. Likewise, my knowledge of how people lived at 97 Orchard has enriched my genealogy, inspiring me to go beyond merely filling in a family tree with names and dates to discover not only where and how my immigrant ancestors lived, but also the sacrifices they made for my family’s betterment.

And it turns out that the investment in was a good one.

-- Posted by Educator Laureen Fredella


  1. What a wonderful story to read! I visited the Tenement Museum in '09
    and loved that this important history of NYC and America was being honored and appreciate that the museum exists due to the dedication and hard work of many people. Your story really brings this to life and how wonderful that it comes full circle for you to work with something that helps honor your families lives directly.


  2. Excellent post! Isn't it interesting how history can truly come alive for us when we look at it in the context of our own family story?

  3. Laureen, what a wonderfully told story. I am so glad you decided to research your roots, and what a wonderful thing that it came about as part of your work. My sister travelled to Germany last summer and met lots of relatives on my mother's side. I felt so enriched by their stories - we knew very little about our heritage. Made me hungry for more. Thanks for posting this!


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