Thursday, April 30, 2009

Other Museums - 19 Princelet Street

This week, we're taking a look at immigration museums off the beaten path. Today, our membership coordinator and resident museum expert Pamela Mattera guest blogs.

Waves of immigrants passed through 97 Orchard Street and the Lower East Side before moving on to destinations like Brooklyn, Queens and the Upper East Side. 19 Princelet Street, a Georgian home in the Spitalfields section of East London, served as a similar gateway for immigrants to the Big Smoke (aka London). Built in 1719, 19 Princelet Street was home to the Ogiers, a Huguenot family escaping religious persecution in France. The Ogier family entered the silk weaving industry, which became a major industry in East London. Most Huguenot immigrants moved on and were followed by the arrival of Irish immigrants and later, Eastern European Jews. By the late nineteenth century, 19 Princelet Street housed a synagogue and served as a community center (where strategies to combat intolerance and fascism would be discussed years later). Today, the neighborhood is home to a vibrant Bangladeshi community. 19 Princelet Street, however, is now in great disrepair, and is thus only open to the public a handful of times each year. A local charity and volunteers manage the site’s preservation and plan to create a London immigration museum.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Other Museums - German Emigration Museum

This week, we're taking a look at immigration museums off the beaten path.

Bremerhaven, a small port city in northern Germany, is the exact inverse of New York: it's where millions (7.2 to be exact) set sail for Ellis Island over a century ago, when a population boom and rocky transition from agriculture to industry rendered jobs and land scarce. So rather than documenting immigrant life, the Emigration Musem recreates conditions on a departing steamship and in the waiting areas where family members said their goodbyes. The museum has some quirky touches: lifesize mannequins dressed in 19th century garb are stationed in the main building, which fittingly evokes a boat, and in addition to learning about the lives of millions of emigrants and their descendants (chances are, some of them wound up near 97 Orchard), visitors can trace their own family history using an extensive database. Click here for a more detailed overview.

Few historic buildings remain in one of Germany's most important port cities

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Other Museums - Angel Island Immigration Station

This week, we're taking a look at immigration museums off the beaten path.

Recently re-opened to the public after three years of renovation, San Francisco's Angel Island Immigration Station was once known as the "Ellis Island of the West" by locals, and the somewhat grander "Guardian of the Western Gate" by Immigration Services. Unlike the Ellis Island of the East, Angel Island was used to enforce the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and detain hundreds of thousands of Asian immigrants, who were held on the island for anywhere from two weeks to two years. Also unlike its cousin in New York, the Angel Island museum doesn't doesn't give access to immigration records. Instead, it recreates the experience of living in the complex's barracks, and preserves fascinating details like poems carved on the walls by Chinese detainees. If you happen to be going to San Francisco soon, the museum can be visited by guided tour.

Angel Island barracks, then and now

Monday, April 27, 2009

Other Museums - Hull House

This week, we're taking a look at immigration museums off the beaten path.

Immigrant families in New York visited the Jacob Riis Neighborhood Settlement House for programs like sewing classes and health care. Working class newcomers to Chicago turned to the Hull House for social enrichment. Founded by Jane Addams in 1889, Chicago's first settlement house offered free concerts, art galleries, lectures, daycare, and English classes. Rather than housing immigrants themselves, settlements were populated by middle classs volunteers (often women) wishing to living among and assist the poor. The Hull House was located in Chicago's Near West Side, a vibrant melting-pot community of Jews, Italians, Germans, and Greeks. Today, it's a museum run by the University of Illinois Chicago with a collection of 0ver 1,000 artifacts and 100 oral histories documenting life in the neighborhood.

Children gather in the Hull House complex, which grew to 13 buildings by the early 20th century, and included a summer camp.

Series: Other Museums

For every city with a rich immigration history, it seems like there's at least one museum to document it. The Tenement Museum aside, think Ellis Island or Los Angeles' Musem of Tolerance. This week, we'll highlight some lesser-known but equally fascinating ones, from San Francisco's equivalent of Ellis Island to a German museum dedicated to emigration.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Swiss Settlements

Earlier this year, film producer Philipp Kunzli set out to photograph Swiss descendants in small towns across the U.S. Before heading to places with large Swiss populations like New Bern, North Carolina (named after the capital of Switzerland) and Tell City, Indiana (home of the Swiss Fest, one of Indiana's longest-running community fairs) he stopped at the Tenement Museum to learn about life in America's most crowded immigrant center. Follow Kunzli's progress on his blog, and check out samples from his photo gallery below.

Helvetia, West Virgina - an isolated mountain town settled by Swiss immigrants in 1869

Traditional Swiss food is served at Helvetia's Hutte restaurant

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Facts & Findings - In the Closet Behind the Wall

Check out this interesting NY Times article about a bunch of artifacts uncovered in an old house upstate:

When Carmen Artache and her husband, Balmes Rosa, bought a 200-year-old house in Bloomville, N.Y., in the Catskills, they set about erasing the many renovations of previous owners. In the process of revealing the original structure, they discovered a closet hidden behind a wall, and a cache of old papers inside.

The papers, more than 200 letters, notices, articles and other documents, belonged to S. B. Champion, the founder and editor of The Bloomville Mirror, a weekly newspaper published from 1851 to 1871. Almost all the documents, which were in a canvas bag, were from the Civil War years, and included everything from a local boy’s Army enlistment paper (Champion notarized it), to a love poem written by a soldier to his Mary back home. Read more.

97 Orchard - Stabilizing the Stairs

Entryway staircase in 1988, and about 20 years later, with much more wear

At first, we weren't sure what was causing 97 Orchard's hallway staircase to show visible signs of wear: visitors' toes striking the risers on the way up, or their heels bumping against them on the way down. Turns out it was the latter. To prevent further damage, we hired a local construction company to repair the risers and treads. In January 2006, after studying how the staircase was originally constructed (it was made of douglas fir and fitted with dados, or grooves, among a number of other features), the contractors went to work sealing cracks, adding wedges and strips of wood to help stabilize the structure, and installing wooden screws to anchor it to the wall. All of this helped preserve the historic fabric of the staircase without changing its appearance. Only the handrail, made of either mahogany or walnut, required no repair.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

2009 Gala - Bowery Savings Bank

At our 21st anniversery gala last night, we honored architects Gary E. Handel, Enrique Norton, and Bradford Perkins. Fittingly, the space where we held the dinner was architectually exquisite - and as historically significant as 97 Orchard Street itself. For years, the Capitale event hall on Bowery and Grand Street housed the Bowery Savings Bank, built by the prominent architect Stanford White in 1834 to resemble a Romanesque church. It was popular with the Lower East Side's immigrant families, who needed a convenient place to store their savings. By 1980, the bank expanded to 35 branches across the New York metro area, but ran out of cash two years later (as a result of bank deregulation, which sent savings account interest rates skyrocketing) and was sold five times over the next two decades. Check out the gorgeous Corinthian columns, domed ceiling, and stained-glass windows in the ballroom, where guests dined and virtuoso fiddler Eileen Ivers performed (photos of the event are coming soon!):

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Around the Globe: Cambodia

New York's immigrants have roots in over 185 countries. Every once in a while, we'll post something of interest about one of those places.

Check out this NPR report on a creative new method for warning Cambodian villagers about the bacteria, parasites, and chemicals tainting their water supply: karaoke videos.

Poll: What Direction Should We Take the Blog?

The blog's been around for six months now, and we've covered everything from tainted milk to Tenement Talks. We'd like to know what you're interested in reading. Give your responses on our poll to the right. If you have any specific suggestions, please leave a comment!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Current Immigration - International Schools

Last week, NPR documented a Brooklyn high school's efforts to introduce recent immigrants (from places as diverse as Yemen, Bangladesh, and China) to American culture and help them learn more about one another. The International High School at Prospect Heights is one of nine programs in the city dedicated to easing newcomers' culture shock and teaching them English.

Friday, April 17, 2009

From The Archives - Peeling Back the Layers

This week, we're taking a look at the artifacts in our permanent collection.

The first staff members to set foot in 97 Orchard were shocked to find wallpaper covering the living room walls of each apartment. They'd assumed that tenements were drab places of squalor, where saving money to move out took priority over investing in home decoration. Luckily for residents, their landlord took charge of the building's aesthetics, hiring contractors to paper the walls with attractive prints every 2 to 3 years (most likely when new tenants were about to move in) and raising rents to cover the cost. We don't know exactly how much he spent, but invoices for a contractor working in the East Village at the end of the 19th century show that entire apartments could be papered for $24 to $32. According to other records, a decorator charged $1 to complete a parlor in Alphabet City. Wallpaper was difficult to remove, so contractors simply added new patterns over previous layers. Using water and a paint knife to scrape off samples, a paper conservator we hired in 1990 discovered a total of 18 - 22 layers in each apartment. Scraps, like those below, were added to our permanent collection.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

From the Archives - Writing on the Wall

This week, we're taking a look at the artifacts in our permanent collection.

A visitor once asked about the meaning of the following insult scrawled in pencil on the hallway wall outside the Levine apartment. Whether or not graffiti counts as an artifact, we thought this was too amusing not to mention.

Here's what Curitorial Director Dave had to say:

In 1940, the linguist Thomas Pyles wrote that usage of the word “nuts” had become an acknowledged and widely used “exclamation of disgust or disparagement,” especially when incorporated in the phrase “nuts to you.”

Likely written during the early twentieth century, the expression “nuts to you,” as it appears on the hallway wall outside the recreated Levine apartment, appears to have emerged as a socially-acceptable version of the more taboo but equivalent British phrase “balls to you.” Indeed, Pyle noted that, while using “balls” was considered “distinctly ‘low’ on either side of the Atlantic… the American coed, or even her maiden Aunt, may unblushingly hiss, ‘Nuts to you!’” Cheeky!

Come Away, You Bummers!

The Tenement Museum is currently working on an exhibit to reconstruct 97 Orchard Street’s rear yard.

For the first 42 years of the building’s existence, the rear yard was where residents of 97 Orchard Street‘s twenty apartments used toilets in outhouses and retrieved water from a hydrant. In its purest form, the rear yard served as an extension of the tenement household, providing access to essential water for cooking, cleaning, and bathing; a space to wash laundry; and a facility for the disposal of human waste. Yet, when indoor toilets, or water closets, were added to 97 Orchard in 1905, it did not spell the end of the building’s rear yard.

According to Irving Cohen the wooden outhouse structure or shed may have been present in the rear yard long after 1905. Born in 1913, Cohen, whose grandmother Fanny Rogarshevsky (pictured on the left) served as the building’s janitress from 1918 - 1941, remembers that, when visiting his grandmother as a young child, she would yell at the “bummers” who snuck into the outhouses to sleep to “come away.”

A Place to Socialize

In addition to being the site of the building’s outdoor toilets, 97 Orchard Street’s rear yard played an important role in residents' everyday lives. Before water was brought into the building sometime between 1895 and 1905, female tenents typically washed laundry in wooden tubs outside by the water hydrant in order to save the labor of hauling it up or down dark tenement stairways. Serving simultaneously as a social space, the rear yard was a place where the diverse women of 97 Orchard often met and interacted with each other. Once women had access to water in their apartments, and no longer needed to do laundry in the rear yard, opportunities to socialize decreased.

The rear yard also served as a gathering place for children. With few parks and playgrounds in Lower Manhattan, young tenents frequently found a place to play under clotheslines strung up by their mothers. When nearby Seward Park was completed in 1903, however, many of the neighborhood’s children used its state-of-the art playground facilities for recreation.

The Reconstruction Process

With a wooden privy shed and water hydrant, the recreated rear yard will look as it might have shortly after 97 Orchard was constructed in 1863. We're covering the floor with paving stones, and enclosing the area with a wood-plank fence. Clothes will be hung on lines above the yard, and a wooden wash tub and water buckets will sit on the ground near the hydrant. Visiters will be able to explore the space on their own, after browsing the Schneider’s Saloon exhibit or as part of a tenement tour.

Weaving the stories of 97 Orchard Street’s former residents throughout, the exhibit will cover the history of the building’s rear yard from a number of angles, such as public health, gender roles, the experiences of immigrant children, and notions of privacy. In keeping with the museum's interpretive approach, the exhibit will communicate the process of researching and recreating the rear yard.

Above: Irving Cohen visits 97 Orchard decades after his grandmother served as the building's janitress

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

From the Archives - Propaganda Pin

This week, we're taking a look at the artifacts in our permanent collection.

This 1917 pin urging citizens to "get behind the government" is a lot less subtle than modern propaganda. But then again, the push to popularize war bonds during World War I was one of the White House's largest mass persuasion campaigns. (And one of the most successful - the government raised $17 billion.) Celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Al Jolson were called on to design posters and stage rallies, and Boy and Girl Scouts sold bonds in their communities. Clearly, someone living in 97 Orchard got caught up in all the fervor. We found this pin in on the fifth floor of the building, in the floorboards outside Apartment # 16. It wasn't until the 9/11 attacks that the government started issuing liberty bonds again, in order to revitalize the Financial District. This time, it didn't hand out pins and posters on the streets.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

From the Archives - Moore Family Apartment

This week, we're taking a look at the artifacts in our permanent collection.

Last January, we scrambled to collect items on 97 Orchard's 4th and 5th floors before contractors went to work stabilizing an apartment once occupied by an Irish immigrant family (the Moore family, for those who have taken the tour). We found a bunch of small trinkets: buttons, newspaper scraps, batteries, beads, and a lice comb, to name a few. The strangest of all? Chicken bones and a pigeon skeleton!

We also found scraps of a swimsuit (including the label), and an advertisement showing what the outfit may have looked like intact:

One last random finding - a doodled-over newspaper image of Woodrow Wilson (president from 1913 to 1921)

Monday, April 13, 2009

From the Archives Series

You wouldn't know it from a tour of 97 Orchard, but over the last 20 years we've maintained a collection of hundreds of artifacts discovered in the building. They range from clothing to keys to coins to chicken bones (as you may recall from our March food series), and help us piece together turn-of-the-century tenement life in the Lower East Side. Since we don't put the items on display for public viewing - they're used for research and loaned to other museums - we thought we'd feature some of the most interesting objects on the blog this week.

To get a sense of the variety of artifacts in the collection, check out this collage of random items:

Friday, April 10, 2009

Facts & Findings - East Village History Project

Last week, preservationist Rob Hollander told NPR that he wants the East Village History Project he co-founded "to be the defining institution of the East Village the way the Tenement Museum is the defining institution of the Lower East Side." In conjunction with a new visitor's center, the project offers public tours, exhibits, and performances - as well as loads of online information about a neighborhood with a very colorful history. Case in point? In his NPR interview, Hollander went on to describe the Bowery's past as a playground for the working-class, comparing the theater scene there to a "riot."

An 1871 illustration of Bowery nightlife from the Project's online gallery.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Museum's Spring Gala - Eileen Ivers

Virtuoso fiddler Eileen Ivers and her band Immigrant Soul will be playing on April 21st at the Museum's 21st anniverary gala. The daughter of Irish immigrants, Ivers blends traditional Celtic rhythms with the African and Latin percussion beats she heard growing up in the Bronx. Check out one of the band's live performances below. And if you're interested in buying tickets to the gala (which is being held at the Capitale) contact the Development Department at 212-431-0233 x228 or click here for more info. The Tenement Museum needs your support!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Last Night's Tenement Talk

Our third annual Poetry evening with Stephen Wolf was a tremendous success. Many thanks to Stephen and to his co-performers: Kevin Coval, (who read one of his own poems featured in the collection) and Christopher Hurt. It was a perfect tribute to the city and a great way to usher in Poetry Month. These talented readers treated the audience to samples from several poets including Derek Walcott, Diane Ackerman and E. E. Cummings.

At the end of the night, Stephen shared one of Tenement Talks Director Amanda's favorite poems by the founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café.

And in case you've gotten too nostalgic about the New York of bygone eras, we thought we'd wrap up our poetry series with a piece by a contemporary author. This excerpt from Kevin Coval's Lured Beneath Your Golden, Calling Lights captures the city's frenetic and ever-changing nature, while showing that some things (like New York's role as a melting pot) have stayed the same.

The all night diner
Where you ordered rice pudding
In Union Square, is a Sports Club
For people who can afford one.

You have changed,
Always been changing.
Damn! You look good,
new york
You court me,
(again?, new york)

At 3rd and Mercer
We felt like tea, and I knew you
Would suggest Café Reggio,
Though I had not been there
Since ’94 and couldn’t remember
Its location or name but felt its windows
Would open to the street and be perfect
After-dinner in spring, sitting
In metal-wire chairs, blackberry supreme
Pot steeping on the two-top wooden table,
I knew I could love you again, (though I know you are not
Mine alone & chicago would not want to hear this, but…)

Your civilized all-hour tomatoes!
Your fresh flower fields littering the fronts of bodegas!
Your subway lines: vast and democratic!
Your bootlegs sleeping on blankets like dominoes!
Your two model per train car city ordinance!
All those mixed babies blurring neighborhood lines!
Your gold space pharaohs slanging veg patties on 125th St.!
Your corner kids up late blaring Biggie out 6th floor apartment
My grandfather’s anglicized name tucked in a book on your
Ellis Island!
Your Grandmaster Flash mash-ups! Your Grandwizrad Theodore
Scratch bombs!
Your afro-diasporic puerto rican borough global exports!
Your shtick, new york, each one of you sounds like a jew
And even italians know how to make good bagels!
You are the ultimate reality / check! The last bastion
Of schmer and empire. The american ideal gone
And perfect

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Charnel Ground

In honor of National Poetry Month, and in anticipation of tonight's Tenement Talk with poet Stephen Wolf, we're posting some of our favorite poems from his New York-centric collection I Speak of the City.

By Allen Ginsberg (1926 - 1997)

...Rugged and raw situations, and having accepted them as part of your
home ground, then some spark of sympathy or compassion could take place.
You are not in a hurry to leave such a place immediately. You would like to
face the facts, realities of that particular world...

Upstairs Jenny crashed her car & became a living corpse, Jake
sold grass, the white-bearded potbelly leprechaun silent
climbed their staircase
Ex-janitor John from Poland averted his eyes, cheeks flushed with
vodka, wine who knew what
as he left his groundfloor flat, refusing to speak to the inhabitant
of Apt. 24
who'd put his boyfriend in Bellevue, calling the police, while the
artistic Buddhist composer
on sixth floor lay spaced out feet swollen with water, dying slowly
of aids over a year -
The Chinese teacher cleaned & cooked in Apt. 23 for the
homosexual poet who pined for his gymnast
thighs & buttocks - downstairs th' old hippie flower girl gell
drunk over the banister, smashed her jaw -
her son despite moderate fame cheated rocknroll money,
twenty thousand people in stadiums
cheering his tattoed skinhead murderous Hare Krishna
vegetarian drum lyrics -
Mary born in the building rested on her cane, heavy legged with
heart failure on the second landin, no more able
to vacation in Caracas & Dublin - the Russian landlady's
husband from concentration camp disappeared again -
nobody mentioned he'd died -
tenants took over her building for hot water, she couldn't add
rent & pay taxes, wore a long coat hot days
alone & thin on the street carrying groceries to her crooked
apartment silent-
One poet highschool teacher fell dead mysterious heart
dysrhythmia, konked over
in his mother's Brooklyn apartment, his first baby girl a year old,
wife stoical a few days -
their growling noisy little dog had to go, the baby cried -
Meanwhile the upstairs apartment meth head shot cocaine &
yowled up and down
East 12th Street, kicked out of Christine's Eatery till police
cornered him, 'top a hot iron steamhole
near Stuyvesant Town Avenue A telephone booth calling his deaf
mother - sirens speed the way to Bellevue-
past whispering grass crack salesmen jittering in circles on East
10th Street's
southwest corner where art yuppies come out of the overpriced
Japanese Sushi Bar - & they poured salt into potato soup
heart failure vats at KK's Polish restaurant
-Garbage piled up, nonbiodegradable plastic bags emptied by
diabetic sidewalk homeless
looking for returnable bottles recycled dolls radios half-eaten
hamburgers - thrown away Danish -
On 13th Street the notary public sat in his dingy storefront,
driver's lessons & tax returns prepared on old metal desks -
Sunnysides crisped in butter, fries & sugary donuts passed over
the luncheonette counter next door -
The Hispanic lady yelled at the rude African-American behind
the Post Office window
"I waited all week my welfare check you sent me notice I was
here yesterday
I want to see the supervisor bitch do't insult me refusing to
look in -"
Closed eyes of Puerto Rican wino lips cracked skin red
stretched out
on the pavement, naphtha backdoor open for the Korean family
dry cleaners at the 14th Street corner -
Con Ed workmen drilled all year to bust electric pipes 6 feet deep
in brown dirt
so cars bottlenecked wait minutes to pass the M14 bus stopped
midroad, heavy dressed senior citizens step down in
red rubble
with Reduced Fare Program cards got from grey city Aging
Department officers downtown up the second flight by
elevators don't work -
News comes on the radio, they bombed Baghdad and the Garden
of Eden again?
A million starve in Sudan, mountains of eats stacked on docks,
local hangs & U.N.'s trembling bureaucratic officers sweat
near the equator arguing over
wheat piles shoved by bulldozers - Swedish doctors ran out of
medicine - The Pakistani taxi driver
says Salman Rushdie must die, insulting the Prophet in fictions -
"No that wasn't my opinion, just a character talking like in a
poem no judgement -"
"Not till the sun rejects you do I," so give you a quarter by the
Catholic church 14th St. you stand half drunk
waving a plastic glass, flush-faced, live with your mother a
wounded look on your lips, eyes squinting,
receding lower jaw sometimes you dry out in Bellevue, most days
cadging dollars for sweet wine
by the corner where Plump Blindman shifts from foot to foot
showing his white cane, rattling coins in a white paper cup
some weeks
where girding the subway entrance construction saw-horses
painted orange guard steps underground - And across the
street the NYCE bank machine cubicle door sign reads
Not in Operation as taxis bump on potholes asphalt mounded at
the cross road when red lights change green
& I'm on my way uptown to get a CAT scan liver biopsy, visit the
account for high blood pressure, kidneystones, diabtes, misty
eyes & dysesthesia -
feeling lack in feet soles, inside ankles, small of back, phallus
head, anus -
Old age sickness death again come round in the wink of an eye -
High school youth the inside skin of my thighs was silken smooth
tho nobody touched me there back then -
Across town the velvet poet takes Darvon N, Valium nightly
sleeps all day kicking methadone
between brick walls sixth floor in a room cluttered with collages
& gold dot paper scraps covered
with words: "The whole point seems to be the idea of giving
away the giver."

Monday, April 6, 2009

Valentine For New York

In honor of National Poetry Month, and in anticipation of the April 7 Tenement Talk with poet Stephen Wolf, we're posting some of our favorite poems from his New York-centric collection I Speak of the City.
By Phyllis McGinley (1905 -1978)

Moscow is Red, Pittsburgh is gritty
I know a nicer kind of city.
It's on the Hudson, not the Rhine.
Manhattan, be my valentine.

Tumultuous town, absurd and thunderful,
I think you're wonderful-
Sleeping or walking, frivolous or stable,
Down at the heel, or opulent in sable,
I like your voices, single or together.
I even like your weather
(Your rains, your wind that down the river blows,
Your heat, your fogs, your perishable snows).
I like your pomp and civic ceremony.
I like you real. I love you when you're phony.
In other words, no matter where I gad about,
You're what I'm mad about.

Then stay with me and be my dear,
Accept this honest flattery,
And I will sing your praises, clear
From Harlem to the Battery.

I sing the Empire State that magnates dwell in.
I sing Sixth Avenue without the "L" in,
Bedraggled square and screaming boulevard,
And Mr. Morgan's elegant back yard.
I sing St. Thomas's, which sponsors marriages.
I sing your parks equipped with lads and wenches,
With dogs on leashes, and with tots in carraiges
And men on wooden benches.
I sing the penthouse, harboring your elite,
And four-flight walkups snug on Barrow street;
Your native cops, more virile than the Bobby,
And Powers models and the Astor lobby.
I sing your Automats,
Your gentle tearooms, wary of the scallion;
The colony, where wend the risible hats,
And tables d'hote excessively Italian;
And ferryboats and boogie-woogie bands
And Nedick Orange stands.

Metropolis, aloud I praise
Your febrile night, your clamorous days.
Not even the sales tax, trying hard,
Can cut in two my deep regard.

Be mine, be mine:
Shop, subway, danceteria, picket line;
The Planetarium, replete with stars;
Buses and banks and debutante bazaars;
And traffic lights reflected, when it rains,
In all the pavemenets; and the skiing trains;
Orchids by Schling and men in areaways
Selling bouquets;
The show that sells out and the one that closes;
Auctions, and all the deeds of Mr. Moses,
And Sunday bells, and pretty secretaries
Eating their lunches at soda stands or dairies;
Progressive schools that cope with Freudian symbols,
And monastaries selling at Gimbels;
Jaywalkers, and St. Patrick's Day parades;
And part-time maids,
And art museums, where I take my aunts;
And Mott Street, and Ballroom Renaissance,
Where sound the brasses that the dancers spin to;
And El Morocco, which I've never been to;
And kitchenettes and pubs,
And Kansas clubs;
The elms at Radio City, spreading tall;
Foghorns, and pigeons - yes, and Tammany Hall.
Let others, finding flaw or pointing fault,
Accept you with their cautious grains of salt.
Egregious city, facing towards the sea,
Abide with me.

Boston's well bred, and Philadelphia's Blue.
Borough of Manhattan, I love you.

Above: A 1945 snapshot of traffic lights reflected in the rain by Arthur Leipzig, a Brooklyn-born photographer known for capturing New York's streets during the 1940s and 50s.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Photographs of Old New York

In honor of National Poetry Month, and in anticipation of the April 7 Tenement Talk with poet Stephen Wolf, we're posting some of our favorite poems from his New York-centric collection I Speak of the City.

By Alfred Corn (1943 - )

They stare back into an increate future,
Dead stars, burning still. Air how choked with soot
One breathed then, the smudged grays and blacks impressed
In circles around East European eyes,
Top hats, a brougham, the laundry that hung
Like crowds of ghosts over common courtyards.
Dignity still knew how to thrust its hand
Into a waistcoat, bread plaited into shapes
How to dress a window, light under the El
Fall as negative to cast-iron shadows.
Assemble Liberty plate by plate - so
This giant dismembered arm still emerges
From folds of bronze and floats over the heads
Of bearded workmen riveted in place
By an explosion of magnetism they've learned
To endure. Then, Union. Rally. March. Strike.

And still the wretched refugees swarming
Out from Ellis Island, the glittering door,
To prosper or perish. Or both...The men
Don't see the women; or see how deftly hems
Can be lifted at curbs - well, any eye would
Be caught by that tilt of hat, profile, bearing.
Others strive to have mattered, too, stolid
Forms that blush and crouch over sewing machines,
Haunt the libraries, speak on platforms.
Did they? And did this woman, who clearly still
Speaks no English, her head scarf, say, Russian?
A son stands at her side, crop-haired, in clumpy
Shoes. She stares straight forward, reserved, aware,
Embattled. The deep-set eyes say something
About the emptiness of most wishes; and
About her hopes. She knows the odds are poor.
Or, the odds are zero, counted from here.
That past survives its population
And is unkind. Triumph no more than failure
In the longest run ever fails to fail.
Is that the argument against shuffling,
Dealing, and reshuffling these photographs?
They are not mementos of death alone,
But of life lived variously, avatars
Energy, insight, cruelty took - and love.
Variousness: the great kaleidoscope
Of time, its snowflake pictures, form after
Form, collapsing into the future, hours,
Days, seasons, generations that rise up
And fall like leaves, each one a hand inscribed
With fragile calligraphy of selfhood;
The human fate given a human face.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Step Away From Them

In honor of National Poetry Month, and in anticipation of the April 7 Tenement Talk with poet Stephen Wolf, we're posting some of our favorite poems from his New York-centric collection I Speak of the City.

By Frank O'Hara (1926 - 1966)

It's my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flapping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.

to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a toothpick, langorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girls clicks he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everthing
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
a Thursday.

Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET'S
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, e bell' attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.

There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollack. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten, and one walks,
past the magazines and nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse.
which they'll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
Show there.

A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems of Pierre Reverdy.

Frank O'Hara

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Poems Out Loud

If you're a fan of early poets like Anne Bradstreet (often considered America's first), check out this virtual poetry reading by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. The site was inspired by Pinsky's latest anthology, which explores the practice of listening to poems being read out loud, and will be updated throughout Poetry Month.

Pinsky is the author of several poetry collections and is poetry editor of Slate magazine.

I Speak of the City: Poems of New York

Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is now held every April, when publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools and poets around the country band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.

To celebrate here at the Museum, next Tuesday's Tenement Talk will feature readings from Stephen Wolf's I Speak of the City, a collection of odes to the Big Apple by Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, and over a hundred others.

This week we'll post some of our favorite pieces from Wolf's anothology, starting with a poem by William Carlos Williams (1883 - 1963), a pediatrician who penned poems between appointments in his Hell's Kitchen office (hey, note that alliteration! looks like we're poets, too). It's one of the shortest in the book and inspired a Charles Demuth painting on display at the Met.

The Great Figure

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

"I saw the figure five in gold" by Charles Deluth