Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An Update on "Shop Life" Construction at 97 Orchard Street

We've been talking about our upcoming exhibit "Shop Life" for months now, so it was exciting for all of us when construction finally began earlier this month. As you may have heard, "Shop Life" will span more than 100 years, exploring the histories of the many businesses once housed at 97 Orchard. The exhibit will include a re-created 19th century German beer saloon, and will also tell the stories of Israel Lustgarten’s 1890's kosher butcher store, Max Marcus’ 1930's auction house and Sidney Meda’s 1970's undergarment store.

Here are a few snapshots of the construction in progress on the ground floor and in the basement at 97 Orchard Street.

Our intrepid construction team is hard at work on the ground floor. In a few months, this will be the front room of the re-created Schneider's saloon.

In a former bathroom, we've peeled away the walls to find decades-old graffiti. These are construction measurements pencilled onto the walls by past builders.

Here's a cross-section view of the ground floor and basement. A staircase will eventually connect the two floors.

Here's one of the building's original ground floor fireplaces, now uncovered from behind a plaster wall. We'll re-construct the stove that Caroline Schneider would have used here to prepare meals for saloon patrons (this is where you'll see our meticulously crafted faux feast). As was the case with others in the building, this fireplace is crammed full of old "stuff"--discarded bottles, children's toys, and other refuse. At this stage we can only get a glimpse of the aging trash/treasures behind the boards covering the fireplace opening.

Check back for updates as this project progresses. You never know what we'll find next!

-- Posted by Kira Garcia

Friday, February 24, 2012

Images by Riis and Gericault Reveal Visual Clues to the Past

The Tenement Museum derives much of its information from sources that might seem less than glamorous--census data, public records and aging household objects, for example--but visual art also plays a critical role in our research. Here, Development Associate Hilary Whitham explores some images that are relevant to the Museum's work.

Writing about the subjects of photographer and activist Jacob Riis (1849-1914), Ansel Adams once said, “Their comrades in poverty and suppression live here today, in this city – in all the cities of the world." Riis’s pivotal 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives paired documentary photographs with text in an attempt to reveal the living conditions of working class immigrants residing in the tenements of the Lower East Side.  For more than a century, Riis’s images have been a rich source of information for historians, sociologists and anthropologists.

Of course, the Tenement Museum believes that images, objects, and literature can tell us a great deal about the past —so it’s not surprising that our educators regularly employ photographs from Riis’s book in tours of our landmark tenement building at 97 Orchard Street. (For more information about material culture theories and studies, please see Jules Prown’s essay, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method” in Winterthur Portfolio.)

Bandits' Roost, Jacob A. Riis, 1888

Although they weren’t originally intended to be aesthetically pleasing, Riis’s photographs have also been studied by art historians. As eminent art historian Linda Nochlin has observed, a comparison of one of Riis’s documentary photographs with a print by the French artist Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) reveals how both commercial and fine art were used in the service of public education in the 19th century.  Géricault, like Riis, was astounded at the poverty and degradation of industrializing cities in Britain in the 19th century. Both men drew on shared visual culture to educate the middle and upper classes about the plight of the poor.

 Pity the Sorrows of a Poor Old Man, Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Géricault, 1821

Géricault's Pity the Sorrows of a Poor Old Man from 1821 is a print from the artist’s series of lithographs "Various Subjects Drawn from Life and On Stone", created during his time in London. (For more information on the series and Géricault, see Suzanne Lodge’s essay, “Gericault in England” in The Burlington Magazine.)

Géricault’s images in the series can be characterized as recreations of everyday life, simply because of the process of their creation. Lithographs are printed artworks made by using a press to transfer an image from a stone or metal plate to paper. Similarly, Riis’s photograph entitled Street Arabs in Night Quarters is a recreation of nocturnal activities of tenement residents. Scholars have shown that Riis staged some of the scenes during the day because of the limitations of flash technology at that time. (Bonnie Yochelson discusses 19th century flash technology in the book Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-century New York.)

Street Arabs in Night Quarters, Jacob A. Riis, c. 1880's

In both images, the old man and the young children are positioned outside of buildings and away from other figures, indicating how the city's everyday life goes on without regard to their plight. The slumped or horizontal postures of the children and the old man are associated with abjection and dejection. For Nochlin, the image of the kneeling or leaning figure has antecedents in religious imagery beginning in the Renaissance, such as Filippo Lippi’s Madonna of Humility (1420s). While the figure of the Virgin Mary or Madonna low to the ground suggests humility and piety, the image of the slumped man and boys suggests degradation and poverty. Both images draw on an iconography meant to elicit an emotional reaction, specifically pity.

Madonna of Humility, Filippo Lippi, c.1420

Another recurring theme in both Riis’ photographs and Géricault's lithographs is the brick of the cobblestoned streets and new multi-family buildings. In this instance, brick serves as a visual signifier for the urban environment and specifically the tenements which housed the urban poor and recent immigrants. While these sights would have been part of everyday life for the residents of 97 Orchard Street, these images were intended for a more affluent audience that lived further uptown, far away from the tenements.

Drawing on popular knowledge as well as artistic traditions, Riis and Géricault utilized print media to disseminate images meant to educate the 19th century public. More than a century later, their work continues to yield new insights for historians of art and others. Here at the Tenement Museum, we still refer to the rich catalogue of images created by fine and commercial artists to tell the stories of the immigrants who made their lives on the Lower East Side.

--Development Associate Hilary Whitham

More reading on this subject:

Adams, Ansel. Preface in Jacob Riis: Photographer and Citizen. New York: Aperture Foundation, Inc., 1993.

Alland, Alexander ed. Jacob A. Riis: Photographer & Citizen. New York: Aperture Foundation Inc., 1993.

Lodge, Suzanne. “Géricault in England” in The Burlington Magazine Vol. 107, No. 753 (Dec., 1965), pp. 616-627

Nochlin, Linda. “Géricault, Goya and Misery” lecture given at the School of Visual Arts. 8 December 2011.

Prown, Jules David. Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method. Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), pp. 1-19

Riis, Jacob.  How The Other Half Lives. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1971.

Yochelson, Bonnie. “Jacob A. Riis, Photographer ‘After a Fashion’” in Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-century New York. New York: The New Press, 2007.

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

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Community Eating via Buca di Beppo

Tenement Museum Educator Sarah Lohman is a Historic Gastronomist who chronicles her explorations of culinary history on her blog "Four Pounds Flour", where this article originally appeared.

One of my colleagues at the Tenement Museum is collecting oral histories from Chinatown. This excerpt about eating caught my attention:

Interviewer: I remembered when I came to this country, one day I was dining out in a restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown. I saw lots of people ate with a fork on a plate. I wasn’t very used to it. In Taiwan, we only used plates to collect bones we didn’t want.

Interviewee A: Ah…..that’s right.

I: In Taiwan, we ate from small bowls with chopsticks, not from plates with forks. (A & I laughed)

A: Yes, that’s a big difference.

Interviewee B: In Chinese culture, we share dishes with everyone sitting at the table. The Westerners prefer to have their own dishes.

Chinese Food, Served Family-Style

A: They prefer that everyone orders their own dishes and eats it separately.

B: It is individualistic. Sharing a dish with someone else is not something that would come to their mind first…… this is a cultural..uh..uh..

I: Cultural difference.

A & B: That’s right.

This conversation immediately reminded me of my experience with the opposite circumstance: seeing communal eating for the first time. Sometime in the mid to late ’90s, a Midwestern chain restaurant called Buca di Beppo opened in the mall near my home town. Offering “Italian Immigrant Cuisine,” the restaurant served family-style meals: large dishes were brought to the table for everyone to share. I remember my friends patiently explaining to me that I could not order my own, personal dish of cavatelli, that the table had to work as a whole to decide on several dishes everyone might enjoy. As silly as it feels to me now, I know that night was the first time I had eaten out at a restaurant where the table ordered together and shared the food, as opposed to every individual ordering their own plate. The concept was completely new to me.

From Buca di Beppo's Facebook Page

Being young, I picked up on the method after the first time, and thereafter could laugh along with my friends when we told exasperated stories of how our parents and grandparents just didn’t get it. I remember family members getting truly irritated: “But I want stuffed shells!” “Grandma, you’re going to get stuffed shells, but it’s too much for one person. You share it with everyone.” Many of my relations vowed never to return to that terrible restaurant, where they couldn’t order their own food.

Culinary historian Hasia Diner remarks on American eating habits in her book Hungering for America, a look at immigrant foodways in the United States. Diner attributes the habit of eating individually to the bounty on food available in the US as compared to the relatively poor fare of the Italians. She quotes the oral history of an Italian immigrant from the 1920s who said ” (back home) The meal was one dish, from which the entire family ate; here there is a variety of food and each person has his own plate and eating utensils.”

I believe that Buca di Beppo was the first chain restaurant to introduce communal eating to a main-stream audience. It’s a way of dining that I still see as relatively uncommon in midwestern restaurants. Since my teenage experience there, I’ve eaten Chinese, Indian, Greek and Ethiopian food; styles that culturally require you to share dishes with the whole table. Buca is not the perfect restaurant, but I do believe it gave me my training wheels to understand how other cultures eat communally.

-- Posted by Educator Sarah Lohman

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Who Moved My Cheese?" Queso Fresco Goes from Niche to Mass Market

This is the third in a series of 6 articles by Educator Judy Levin, originally written as research for our “Foods of the Lower East Side" tasting tour. During the coldest months of January and February, we're offering a modified indoor version of the tour.

Some people on our “Foods of the Lower East Side” tours are familiar with queso blanco and queso fresco. Others are a bit confused: we’re talking about things that translate to “white cheese” and “fresh cheese,” and they are both fresh white cheeses. One distinction between the two is that most of the cheeses referred to as queso blanco do not melt when heated but rather soften and hold their shape, making them ideal for fried cheese or bits of hot cheese in things, while queso fresco is more likely to be eaten with fruit or crumbled, cold.

Homemade Queso Fresco with Chiles

As my colleague Renzo Ortega has said, very firmly, it is not a good idea to put all Spanish-speaking peoples into “the same box” just because they speak Spanish—or to over-generalize about their foods. So it’s important to remember that queso blanco and queso fresco are loose categories that refer to different varieties of cheese in different regions.

Of course, fresh white cheeses aren’t proprietary to Spanish-speaking nations. They’re traditionally made in regions that form a belt around Earth’s equator—historically, where it’s too hot to age cheese. In this category are the aforementioned quesos; also Indian panir, Syrian halloumi (a white goat and sheep milk cheese that can be grilled), Italian mozzarella and ricotta, quark, fromage blanc, a variety of fresh goat and sheep cheeses, kefir cheese, and many others.

Grilled Corn with Queso Blanco

Spanish-speaking people who came to the U.S. and the Lower East Side were accustomed to having cheap, fresh, white cheeses, but could not easily bring these cheeses with them. Fresh cheeses, especially those traditionally made of raw milk, are not cheap (or necessarily legal) to import: An imported raw milk cheese must be aged for at least 60 days. Having noted that the white cheeses of Batista in the Essex Street Market are all American-made, I googled “imported Dominican cheese” and found numerous articles about smuggling and mass outbreaks of tuberculosis and listeriosis.

So immigrants used what was available--Monterey jack is a common stand-in. But the availability of more authentic cheeses is changing. Currently, the push for more authentic quesos comes both from consumers—not all of them immigrants or children of immigrants—who want access to these cheeses and from companies that would like to sell more of them.

Tom Shore, a Pine Hill, North Carolina, Anglo dairy farmer, learned from Hispanic neighbors to make queso blanco when he could no longer support his farm selling his milk. In the early 2000s, some of his neighbors were buying raw milk (illegal in North Carolina) and making their own cheeses, rather than pay $8/lb for the imported (pasteurized) stuff. Outbreaks of listeriosis resulted in miscarriages. When this story was originally reported in 2004, there were more than 350,000 Latinos, mostly Mexican, in North Carolina, but no reliable access to their fresh cheeses. By the time a business site called “Hispanic Trending” picked up this story, they called it “Queso Cash-Cow”. It ain’t subtle, but is indeed relevant to the story of how the foods of immigrants do or do not become available in the U.S.

Maria Castro, Founder of Castro Cheese, in the mid-1960's

Other companies making or distributing American-made quesos began with Latino immigrants. The Castro Cheese Company of Houston, which sells “La Vaquita” products, was begun in 1971 by Mexican immigrant Maria Castro. She said their customers “find the flavors, the tastes, the smells, the memories that take us back to our roots. Back to our mother’s kitchens. That’s why they love ‘La Vaquita’". At the end of 2010, Castro sold the business to a national consortium. It was a family company, but you can’t make enough cheese in mama’s kitchen to supply Wal-Mart.

One of the biggest of the “Hispanic” cheese producers in the U.S., Tropical Cheese Industries of New Jersey, was also started by an immigrant, Rafael Mendez from Cuba, in the early 1960s. He began by making feta cheese with some Greek immigrants and then expanded into Caribbean, Mexican, and Central American varieties as demand increased.

My inclination (as a middle-class foodie) is to be sarcastic about the mass-market brands that replace regionally specific originals. Kroger’s Supermarket sells store-brand “Nice’n Cheesy Queso Blanco with Jalapenos,” for instance. Yet these are likely to be the cheeses that are readily available and affordable to people who are not middle-class foodies.
Kroger's Queso Blanco

As we look at how immigrants adopt “American” cheeses, it’s also interesting to note that many recipes for “American” foods now call for previously unavailable Latin American cheeses. For example, a recent press release for El Mexicano brand Queso Fresco Casero suggested it “as an alternative for feta, mozzarella, or Monterey Jack” and for use in “all kinds of soups, salads, and casseroles.” On a more daring note, Tropical Cheese Industries offers recipes for “Tropical Cheese Asian Noodle Salad” and “Chocolate and Queso Blanco Fondue”.

Fusion, here we come….

--Posted by Tenement Museum Educator Judy Levin

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Reading the Walls at 97 Orchard: Q & A With Historian David Favaloro

After listening to all the stories we share on our tours, visitors often ask, "How do you know what you know?" It's a great question! The answer is: lots and lots of work. Years of research have gone into each of our tours, and we continue to revise our programs as we learn more. The Tenement Museum's Director of Curatorial Affairs, David Favaloro, plays a central role in our research. Here, he talks about his professional background and favorite parts of the Museum.

Director of Curatorial Affairs and HTI Fellow, David Favaloro

What's your role at the Tenement Museum? What does your job entail?
I am the Museum’s Director of Curatorial Affairs; I supervise the Curatorial Department. Much of what I do involves research, interpretation, and exhibit development centered on our tenements at 97 and 103 Orchard Streets, in collaboration with the Education Department. I also work with the museum’s Collections Manager, Kathleen O’Hara, to ensure the ongoing preservation of the tenement at 97 Orchard Street as well as the Museum’s object collections and archives.

On a fundamental level, I see the Curatorial Department as the collecting arm of the Museum. We take the lead in acquiring the kinds of things that serve as the raw material for The Tenement Museum. However, we collect a bit differently than other museums, in that we're gathering stories linked to the tenements at 97 Orchard and 103 Orchard Street and their former residents, shopkeepers, and owners, as well as the objects associated with those stories.

What did you do before you came to the Museum?

I led historic walking tours of New York City neighborhoods for Big Onion Walking Tours, including the Lower East Side. I earned a Master's Degree in Public History from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst about a year before that. Much of my studies there were focused on American urban history.

How did that prepare you for your work here?

Graduate school gave me both the knowledge and tools to successfully grapple with the complexity of researching and interpreting the past at 97 Orchard Street.  I was also conducting historic walking tours of the Lower East Side and had conducted research on the history of New York as a graduate research assistant.

What is your favorite part of 97 Orchard Street?

I love all of the graffiti that we’ve found throughout 97 Orchard Street, the places ìn the building where former residents have “left their mark.” I think my favorite might be the “Nuts to You” written on the pressed metal in the third floor hallway.

History with a Bad Attitude: the Hallway at 97 Orchard Street

What is your favorite tour moment?

Even after hearing it thousands of times over the years, I still love visitors’ reactions to Josephine Baldizzi’s oral history that we share on the Hard Times tour. I also love the first floor hallway of 97 Orchard - the way that this space challenges visitors’ pre-conceived notions of what tenement life was like continues to be incredibly profound for me.

What are you most looking forward to over the next year, here at the Museum?

I’m looking forward to our next exhibit, Shop Life, opening later this year in 97 Orchard’s commercial basement. This new exhibit will, for the first time, tell the stories of some of the building’s shops, including John and Caroline Schneider’s German lager beer saloon, the Lustgarten family’s kosher butcher shop, Max Marcus’s Auction House, and Sidney Undergarments.

I’m also excited to begin work on creating a Preservation Action Plan for 97 Orchard Street, a project which is being funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This will implement a holistic approach to addressing the complex and inter-related conservation and preservation needs of 97 Orchard Street and its contents over the next 15 years.

-- Posted by Institutional Giving Manager Dana Friedman and Tenement Talks Manager Alana Rosen

Friday, February 10, 2012

Teaching the History of Immigrants and Discrimination

Immigrants are remarkably varied, but most have one thing in common: they face discrimination as new Americans. This experience resonates with elementary school children, who understand the challenge of being the “new kid.” Similarly, teenagers easily relate to being judged and judging others.

Recently, New York City teachers gathered at the Museum to explore the topic of discrimination. Together, we considered the pervasive language of “othering” and its curricular connections. We began by reflecting on ethnic stereotypes, both good and bad and went on to examine political cartoons and music from the past and the present.

John Bull and Uncle Sam--popular 19th c. symbols of England and the U.S.--
debate about the Irish. The Irishman is depicted with a pronounced
lower jaw and mouth, a flat, short nose, and the sloping forehead--stereotypes of a "racial inferior".
By exploring the lives of three immigrant families that lived in 97 Orchard Street, we gained insight into the history of racial prejudice. Questions guided our visits to their recreated homes. What was it like to be one of the only Irish families in the 1860s “Little Germany” of the Lower East Side? How did Natalie Gumpertz get by when her husband disappeared and gender discrimination prevailed in the 1870s? What options did Adlofo and Rosario Baldizzi have as Italian immigrants in the face of the discriminatory quotas passed in 1924? These questions, along with music and political cartoons, shaped our experience and our understanding of the role that popular culture plays in advancing and negating stereotypes.

In this  1871 cartoon, Catholic bishops drawn to look like threatening alligators play on the religious superstition Americans felt towards the Catholic Church. A father tries to protect his family. On the left stands St. Peter's cathedral, the center of the Roman Catholic Church,
now re-labeled "Tammany Hall."
This workshop helped me remember the power of a simple drawing and the magic that happens when a group of dedicated teachers gather around a table. An old cartoon still communicates prejudice over 100 years after its publication. It resonates. One glance makes you curious to learn more, to understand its place within history and our culture. I wish I could visit each of their classrooms and hear the conversation it inspires in today's students.

--Posted by Director of Education Miriam Bader

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Winter Version of Our "Foods" Tour Comes in From the Cold!

“I never much liked fried okra. But the moment I learned that my mother had had a stroke, I thought, ‘I never got her recipe for fried okra.’ It made me so sad.”

A group of visitors were gathered around a table above our new Visitors Center at 103 Orchard Street, sharing stories about their favorite childhood memories. It’s how we start every Foods of the Lower East Side program, and I never cease to marvel at the stories I hear. But this story about fried okra seemed to sum up so much of what this program is all about.

We began offering the Foods of the Lower East Side walking tour this summer, but as winter approached, we realized that it’s no fun trying to snack in sub-freezing weather. So we designed an indoor version of this program: all the same foods served in the comfort of our brand-new classroom with sweeping views of Delancey Street.

What could be better than dumplings on a cold winter day?

Something about moving the tour indoors changes the program. With more time to relax, nibble, and chat, visitors share more of themselves than they do on the walking tour. And with less time spent walking between stops, we have more time to discuss the history of immigrant cuisine and how it shapes so much of what we eat today.

But food, as the “fried okra” story reminded me, is as much about loss as discovery. So often, the foods we remember most are lost to us. Our grandmother has passed away, and somehow her recipe for fried chicken or brisket just doesn’t taste the same when we make it. Or we’ve moved to the big city, and the apples here just aren’t as crisp and fresh as the ones our father used to make apple cobbler.

These feelings of loss are compounded if you’re an immigrant. U.S.-born citizens can usually re-create their favorite foods with some success. But an immigrant can’t just walk down to the corner market and find the same ingredients their mothers used back in China or Mexico. And immigrants often work long hours, making it hard to find the time to cook for themselves anyhow. Leaving your mother is bad enough;leaving your motherland can be doubly heartbreaking. And if you’re an immigrant, the foods you eat are a constant reminder of both leave-takings.

Fresh bialys from Kossar's on their way to the Museum
Bialys, salami sandwiches, pork dumplings, gumbo, shepherd’s pie – no matter what we eat, there’s a story to be told. I’m so glad that we offer a program where everyone gets to hear and share those stories. It’s just one of the many ways we break down the cultural barriers that too often separate us from our fellow Americans, no matter where they were born or what immigration status they must bear.

--Posted by Education Coordinator Adam Steinberg

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

If Bridget took the Omnibus and Harris Rode the Subway: Public Transportation on the Lower East Side

I first became involved in learning the story of New York City’s public transportation because I’m one of the five million commuters who ride the city’s subway every single day. Second, I’m an educator at the New York Transit Museum, the largest museum in the United States devoted to the story of urban transportation. At the Transit Museum I lead students through the turnstiles of transit history, from the birth of the subway in 1904 to the evolution of subways and buses both past and present. Without them, it’s fair to say that the United States would not be the great melting pot that it is today.

Navigating a snowy street c.1860

When looking at the story of public transportation and immigration there’s no better place to see this story unfold than 97 Orchard Street in the Lower East Side.When families like the Moores and the Gumpertz’s stepped onto the shores of Manhattan, they were forced to quickly adapt to the hustle and bustle of the Lower East Side with its “great conglomeration” of German and Irish immigrants. They also learned to attend to the daily business of home and family by darting through narrow dirt streets packed with horses, stage coaches, omnibuses, and elevated trains. Second only to walking, horses were the city’s main source of transportation. Yet when navigating the streets of the city in those early days, one would have to weave through constant gridlock, with no lanes, police officers or traffic signals to guide the vehicles. Omnibuses--large horse drawn carriages that ran along a fixed route--were overcrowded, bumpy, and slow. Even the advent of streetcars didn’t solve the problem: they were often impossible in inclement weather.                       

Lady: "For Pity's sake, how often do these cars run? I've been waiting here a week."
Satirical Conductor: "Have you ma'am? That's strange; I was by here three days ago and never noticed you!"
Streetcar humor, c.1874; Image Courtesy New York Public Library

The year before the Levines moved their family of five across the Williamsburg Bridge, they may have experienced one of the greatest novelties of the new century: a ride on New York’s first underground transit system, the subway. For four years, more than 70,000 laborers--many of them immigrants--had been digging and blasting their way through Manhattan to build the city’s first stations and tunnels. Perhaps Harris read Yiddish and English newspapers that depicted the triumphs and tribulations of constructing these tunnels. This city-wide drama featured the extraordinary feats of “sandhogs” (underground construction workers) who dug tunnels underneath the riverbed and constructed the 59th Street Power Station, which fueled the system with thousands of pounds of coal.
The early days of the New York City subway

Surely, the subway’s debut was a frequent topic of conversation at the pushcart market. It’s worth wondering if families like the Levines and Rogarshevskys would have ventured into the subway on opening day--October 27th 1904-- braving the dark tunnels on speedy subway cars, not realizing that these machines would change the way they lived, worked, and how they saw themselves as Americans and New Yorkers .

--Posted by Educator Rachel Serkin

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Great Reads: "Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels"

In a fit of book straightening fury last week I happened across Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston in the Tenement Museum’s Jewish interest section. Though intrigued by the content and title whenever the book caught my eye, it was not until a slow afternoon that I finally had the opportunity to open the book’s cover. I’m glad that I did.

The Tenement Museum  engenders critical thinking about issues faced by current immigrant communities by exploring their historical antecedents. In large part, this is done by immersing visitors in the stories of specific families. Sociologist Hella Winston takes a similar approach, delving into the complicated lives of individuals struggling with their Hasidic faith, family, and community in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood through a series of vignettes. As a trained anthropologist, I was particularly curious about this subject.

Unchosen is a quick, accessible read, but it’s by no means pedestrian. The people and Hasidic culture that she describes are compelling and the historical detail is illuminating. Twelve hours and two subway rides after I purchased the book, I had read it cover to cover.

Living in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood, I come into occasional contact with the Hasidim of nearby Williamsburg and Crown Heights. These encounters are mainly experienced through a car or bus window and leave me wondering about who these people are and what their lives are like. Maintaining exceptionally strict community and cultural identity in the face of numerous social, technological, and cultural intrusions seems impossible or untenable. Yet, despite the odds (at least from external appearances) Brooklyn’s Hasidim appear to have discovered the formula.

While readingWinston’s book, I had the feeling that I have been asking the wrong questions, or at least framing them incorrectly. Guided by Winston’s insights, I realized that the more important question is not how Hasidic communities preserve traditions, but why--and if--they are ultimately successful. 

Not surprisingly, reading Unchosen piqued my interest in this visible and often misunderstood community. Thankfully we have three other equally intriguing books on the Hasidim: Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls by Stephanie Wellen Levine, Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family by Lis Harris, and Boychiks in the Hood: Travels in the Hasidic Underground by Robert Eisenberg.

--Posted By Shop Associate Leah Mollin-Kling