Monday, August 31, 2009

A New Oral History of Life at 97 Orchard Street

Derya and Dave in the Curatorial Department give an update on their recent research:

Last Friday we trekked to Vorhees, New Jersey to interview Jaqueline Burinescu Richter, who was born in 97 Orchard Street in 1919. Ms. Richter remembered many things about her days as a girl at 97 Orchard Street, including stories about the Katz sisters and Mrs. Rosenthal, who cleaned the building.

Visitors might remember that Ruth Katz's name is scrawled on a fourth-floor apartment wall and that Fannie was in charge of 97 Orchard Street from 1918 to 1941. The family changed their name from Rogarshevsky to Rosenthal, and while we use the former name on the tour, Ms. Richter would have remembered her as Mrs. Rosenthal.

Ms. Richter also told a story about going to the bath houses on Allen Street as a girl and hiding behind a wall when people came to check the tickets because she wanted to stay there longer than her ticket permitted.

Ms. Richter’s father died during the 1918 flu pandemic. Here is a photo of him that was made into cufflinks!

Ms. Richter was a very friendly girl and knew everyone who lived in the building. She introduced her mother to John Fiorentino, an immigrant from Malta who lived on the fifth floor. Eventually her mother and John were married in 1929.

The family also has a trunk that was used by Ms. Richter’s mother or father when they immigrated to America. She is interested in donating to the museum. We will keep you updated as we learn more.

- Posted by Derya Golpinar and Dave Favaloro

Friday, August 28, 2009

This Week's Immigration News

Answers About Immigrants & Housing (New York Times City Room blog)
Emily Rosenbaum, professor of sociology at Fordham University and co-author of The Housing Divide: How Generations of Immigrants Fare in New York’s Housing Market, responds to readers’ questions about how race influences immigrants’ housing options, and what this may mean for the future prospects of some immigrant groups.

Hurdles Shown in Detention Reform (New York Times)
The case of Felix Franklin Rodriguez-Torres, an unauthorized immigrant from Ecuador who died in a immigration detention center in early 2007, illustrates some of the challenges of detention reform. Mr. Rodriguez was detained in a private immigration jail, a part of the Corrections Corporation of America, where he failed to receive adequate treatment for testicular cancer. Though the Obama administration wants to increase oversight of these prisons, some have said that legal consequences - not just oversight - are necessary to improve prison conditions. Mr. Rodriguez was among several detainees whose deaths spurred inquiries about detainee welfare.

Immigration Judge Clears Egyptian Student Previously Acquitted in Terrorism Case (New York Times)
Youssef Megahed, a former engineering student from Egypt and a legal resident of the United States, was acquitted on terrorism-related charges by a federal immigration judge last Friday. The government intends to appeal the decision. Mr. Megahed was scrutinized for his relationship with Ahmed Mohamed, who pleaded guilty to providing support for terrorists by posting a YouTube video showing how to convert a remote-controlled toy into a bomb. The two were arrested on explosives charges on a road trip in 2007 after the police found model rocket propellants in the car’s trunk. However, Mr. Megahed's lawyer argued that the case was an effort to prove guilt by association.

Stranded vagabond from U.S. can't prove citizenship (Seattle Times)
Michael Koch is not what most people think of as a typical undocumented immigrant. Born in the United States, he lived illegally in Canada for 20 years, before being deported in fall 2008 for an old DUI conviction. Now, Koch finds himself unable to prove that he is an American because he has no identification. Koch, who is described as an eccentric hippie, says, "I'm what you might call an undocumented American...Or maybe you can call me a CanAmerican. Whatever."

-Posted by Penny King

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tenement Talks - Lower East Side Stories

Tonight, join us for Lower East Side Stories: The Melting Pot, hosted by H.R. Britton. This event will be open-captioned in real time - a first for us - meaning no one should miss a word from our hilarious storytellers. Lower East Side Stories is also now brought to you by Brooklyn Brewery, which makes us very happy - what better way to enjoy a story than with a cold beer in hand?

Performers, including Michele Carlo and LES Stories curator H.R. Britton, share their tales of the city as melting pot – that "great conglomeration of men from every nation," as a 19th-century chantey put it. Still true today - Queens is “one of the most diverse places on Earth,” according to the Daily News, and the Lower East Side is a mix of people from Bangladesh, China, Puerto Rico and beyond. Following our storytellers, guests are invited to contribute their own three-minute story.

Thursday, August 27 at 6:30 PM
Tenement Museum Shop, 108 Orchard at Delancey

Lower East Side Stories storytellers from a past event.

- Posted by Kate Stober

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

George Bellows' Cliff Dwellers

In 1913 George Bellows painted a work titled "Cliff Dwellers." Bellows was part of the Ash Can School, a group of artists who were influenced by every-day life and often depicted scenes in urban centers.

On October 12 the Met Museum will open a show called "American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915," and Annie Polland, from our education department, has been asked to talk about "Cliff Dwellers" for the exhibit's audio tour.

Annie will give her thoughts on the painting's content based on what she knows about Lower East Side social and cultural history. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the painting is housed, says, "A large part of the work’s attraction to students of American history has been the fact that it appears to stand out among Ash Can school paintings as a statement of strong social criticism."

What do you think about this painting?

From the Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
- Posted by Kate Stober

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Questions for Curatorial - Keeping Things Clean

We saw last week that it was difficult to keep the streets and stoops in tenement neighborhoods clean due to the near-constant pile-up of trash, manure, ashes, and other kinds of waste. What about inside the home? Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

How did the residents of 97 Orchard Street wash their dishes before running water was available in the building?
Although substantial evidence is lacking, several sources help paint a picture of how this necessary household task was carried out. For example, in 1894, a New York Times article describing the “Evils of Tenement Houses” took care to mention that the author found relative cleanliness in one Lower East Side tenement. The author noted, “Most of the women were neat in attire and person, and a pretty, rosy-cheeked girl of sixteen who was washing dishes in the yard [emphasis added], had her charms enhanced by a dainty waste and gown…” One might suspect other things besides washing had taken his attention.

In addition, according to historian Suellen Hoy, “most immigrant women found housework in America more difficult ‘with the cleaning of woodwork, washing windows, care of curtains, carpets, and dishes, and more elaborate cooking.’”

Source: Hoy, Suellen, Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness (Oxford University Press, 1996).

Where did the water at 97 Orchard Street come from? Where did the sewage go?
In 1864, as the first residents of 97 Orchard Street moved in, the water retrieved from the backyard spigot and used to flush the school sinks under the privy was delivered from the Croton Reservoir in Westchester County via the Croton Aqueduct.

Beginning in 1842, the Croton Aqueduct served as the main source of water for residents of Manhattan. By the time the Aqueduct was completed, however, the city had already outgrown it. Not only had the city’s population grown exponentially, by 1898 New York had annexed all of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. As a result, construction of the Catskill Watershed in upstate New York began in 1907 and, by 1917, was delivering water to all five boroughs.

The same water carried into Manhattan first by the Croton Aqueduct and later from the Catskill watershed also flushed the city’s wastes from sewer-connected outhouses and indoor toilets through underground pipes. Partly in response to a devastating cholera epidemic, the Croton Aqueduct Department was charged with building a comprehensive sewer system.

While over seventy miles of sewers were constructed between 1850 and 1855, one was not laid on the Orchard Street block between Broome and Delancey Streets until 1863.

Laundry day, once running water was available inside.

- Posted by Kate Stober

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Mysterious History of the Ridley Department Store

The Inside the Apple blog has a fascinating history of the former E. Ridley & Sons department store at the corner of Orchard and Grand.

Apparently the building is up for sale and can be yours for a mere $25 mil! Let's hope the purchaser keeps this historic building intact.

Read the history - full of eccentrics, fraud, and murder - here. Then come back October 5 when we host the authors of the Inside the Apple book for a Tenement Talk.

- Posted by Kate Stober

Friday, August 21, 2009

This Week's Immigration News

How migration transformed Martha’s Vineyard (Financial Times)
This article provides a case study of Brazilian immigration to Martha's Vineyard, an island south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts and the upcoming holiday destination of President Barack Obama. Today there are approximately 3,000 Brazilians living in Martha’s Vineyard, which is significant given that the island’s winter population is only 15,000. There are many indicators of the Brazilian presence, from the grocery stores that offer Amazonian fruit juices to the Brazilian evangelical churches. Like many communities adjusting to the arrival of new immigrants, native-born Americans and foreign-born Brazilians sometimes clash, and relations remain tense at times.

Hospital homeland comforts (New York Daily News)
At the Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, there is a 16-bed wing called the Chinese Unit that offers bilingual staff, Chinese food, and Chinese d├ęcor. While the unit is open to patients of all ethnic backgrounds, its existence is an indicator of the growing Chinese immigrant population in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Some Lawyers Said to Prey on Illegal Immigrants (New York Times)
James Hector Alcala, a well-known immigration lawyer from Utah, was recently indicted for running a large immigration fraud operation. Alcala promised temporary work documents called H-2B visas to American businesses for workers not eligible for the visas and mishandled immigration cases for individuals. Apparently, Alcala is not alone in such activities. Since 2000, the U.S. Justice Department has suspended or expelled more than 300 lawyers from practicing in immigration courts.

-Posted by Penny King

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Bit of East Village History

Like the Tenement Museum, the East Village History Project, a nonprofit affiliated with the East Village Visitor's Center, charts how lower Manhattan's social and physical fabric evolved since the 19th century. I browsed the organization's blog the other day, and came across some interesting historical tidbits:

In 1805, when development was still concentrated on the city's southern tip, a garden sat just south of Astor Place, covering four blocks between Bowery and Broadway. It was owned by John Jacob Astor himself, and designed with Manhattan's wealthy in mind. "Gravel walks wound through the garden's finely landscaped lawns and flowerbeds; marble statues stood in shady alcoves; an outdoor theater offered bland entertainments, and farmland stretched off to the north as far as the eye could see."

East Village Cinemas on Second Avenue is one of the only former Yiddish theaters still standing on Second Avenue

One avenue to the east and about a century later, Eastern European Jewish culture flourished along what was known as "Yiddish Broadway." Few traces remain of the ornate theaters that lined Second Avenue, including the 2,000-seat National Theater - but 50 plaques inscribed with famous Yiddish actors' names still grace the sidewalk outside the former Second Avenue Deli (now a Chase Bank.)

-posted by Liana Grey

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Of Trash and Tenements

Curatorial Director Dave Favaloro on the history of garbage collection on the Lower East Side

Residents of working-class neighborhoods like the Lower East Side were supposed to place their garbage in garbage-boxes set in front of the tenement building, but these boxes were "not at all sufficient for the people disposed to be cleanly." Even when they were available, and they were often not, they frequently proved to be less than ideal. In 1863, the New York Tribune reported that garbage boxes were little more than receptacles of "heterogeneous filth…forming one festering, rotting, loathsome, hellish mass of air poisoning, death-breeding filth, reeking on the fierce sunshine."

For much of the 19th century, street cleaning in New York was conducted by private carting operations who were awarded contracts by the municipal government. Not surprisingly, such a system encouraged political patronage and ultimately proved ineffective. For decades, household refuse and rotting animal carcasses remained piled in the streets of the city.

Garbage on Ludlow Street in the late 19th Century

Beginning in 1866, the Metropolitan Board of Health assumed authority over street cleaning. This power was transferred to the Metropolitan Board of Police in 1872. In 1881, the Department of Street Cleaning was created.

Effective street-cleaning, however, did not arrive until the appointment of George Waring to direct the department in 1895. In that year, Waring “reorganized the department along military lines, minimized political influence in employing workers, stressed sweeping by hand rather than with machines, and dressed street sweepers in white duck uniforms, earning them the nickname of “white wings.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Historic Preservation Update- Syrian Church Granted Landmark Designation

The Landmark's Commission calls St. George's Syrian Catholic Church on Washington Street, which it designated as a historic landmark last month, "the most significant remnant of the Lower Manhattan immigrant enclave known as 'the Syrian Quarter,' the 'Mother Colony' of Syrians and Lebanese in New York." About half of Manhattan's Middle Eastern community, which began settling on the lower west side in the late 1800s, were Melkite Greek Catholics. The church was built in 1812 and served as an immigrant boarding house until the mid 1920s, when it was purchased by a wealthy linen merchant. It was given a stunning neo-Gothic makeover, and served as a center of Melkite worship until the end of World War II, when the neighborhood's Middle Eastern population dwindled. The church currently houses Moran's Restaurant and Bar, whose owners took care to preserve the building's historical facade.

St. George's Church, left, and New York's Syrian Quarter - now TriBeCa and the western half of the Financial District- in the first half of the 20th century.

posted by Liana Grey

Monday, August 17, 2009

What the Building Next Door Tells Us About Schneider's Saloon

An update from Project Manager Chris Schneider on our effort to recreate 97 Orchard's basement.

On-site work for the architectural probes has winded down, but the conservators at Jablonski Building Conservation are already hard at work at the lab analyzing the data they’ve been collecting (material samples, paint-layer stratigraphy, molding profiles, etc). We won’t know their conclusions until next month, but we’re hoping for a lot of new information about how the basement spaces have been configured (andre-configured) over time.

In the meantime, research intern Aimee VonBokel has been able to dig up some very useful information to help connect the architectural changes in the basement at 97 to patterns of commercial use in the neighborhood. There are relatively few historical architectural records for 97 Orchard itself, but Aimee has been analyzing Tenement House Department records covering a sample of analogous buildings in the area. Like 97, these are all pre-old-law tenements, five stories tall, with raised central stoops flanked by basement storefronts. (You’ll see them in your travels around the neighborhood, usually with a lot of modern metal storefront infill on their basement and first floor levels.)With the same configuration as 97 Orchard, and with generally similar kinds of use over the years, these buildings have turned out to be useful in reconstructing how the lower floors of 97 may have arrived at their current state, and what they may have been like originally.

Here is the “B-card” sketch for 99 Orchard, the sister building to 97 (built at the same time in 1863). The oldest layer of information in the sketch shows the floorplan as of 1904, in black ink. This includes the two storefronts at the front (left), and two former apartments at the rear (right), and turns out to have been the typical layout for basements of these buildings. Later inspectors updated this sketch through the early 1920s, in red pencil. Their annotations show three major kinds of changes: Conversion of the residential space to commercial use (with the removal of many of the old partitions); removal of the stair hall (merged with the north storefront); and construction of the airshaft and hall toilets (at the top, near the center).

Friday, August 14, 2009

This Week's Immigration News

As the United States' Mexican-born population grows, Mexico's most popular sports franchise - the Chivas de Guadalajara soccer team - has attained a large following in the United States. Chivas, an all-American team, is a symbol of Mexican identity for immigrants. These Chivas fans may have lost some ties to Mexico, but the passion for Chivas de Guadalajara is not one of them.

Iraqi Immigrants Face Lonely Struggle in U.S. (New York Times)
Over 30,000 Iraqis have been resettled in the United States as refugees since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but some are discovering that life in the United States is harder than they expected. Many of these Iraqi immigrants have suffered the physical and emotional traumas of war. They are typically well educated, but find that their overseas qualifications do not apply in the United States, forcing them to take lower-skill jobs. Furthermore, the Iraqi population, especially in New York City, is scattered, leaving immigrants isolated.

Obama Sets Immigration Changes for 2010 (New York Times)
At a meeting with his counterparts from Mexico and Canada, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to immigration reform. Given the current legislative challenges of health care, energy and financial regulation, Mr. Obama expects to focus on immigration reform in 2010. However, Congress likely to start drafting immigration bills later this year. Immigration is an issue that has strained relations with Canada and Mexico.

-Posted by Penny King

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Opening&Closing - 92 Orchard

The shutters are down at Old New York Cigar Co. and Gallery (which I believe refers to the Mark Miller Gallery) across the street from 97 Orchard, but the businesses may not be gone for good. Work permits are taped to the facade rather than realtor's signs, so renovations are probably in store. Both companies' histories are hard to trace- their online presence is limited to a couple of Flickr photos and brief mentions on art websites.

But the building's past is something the museum is familiar with. An artifact in our collection advertises a butcher shop that operated out of 92 Orchard in the late 19th century, selling beef, pork, mutton, veal, sausages and ham. Perhaps in recognition of the building's historic ties to the city, the gallery hosted an exhibit two years ago on Joyva, a halvah factory in Brooklyn founded by a Ukranian immigrant in 1907.

-posted by Liana Grey

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tenement Talks on YouTube

It's still a work in progress, but we finally have a place to share Tenement Talks footage. So far, content includes Jeffrey Ruhalter's lecture about his butcher shop at Essex Street Market, and book talks by authors Colum McCann and Erin Einhorn. Feel free to post suggestions in the comment section below.

-Posted by Liana Grey

What Should We Research Next?

You may have read our "How to Research a Building Series" over the last two months. We've looked at several spaces in the neighborhood, including a building on Houston that once housed Tesla's laboratory.

Now we want to hear from you. Any buildings about which you're curious? Any spaces you'd like to know the history of?

Please leave Liana a message in the comments, and she'll follow your leads.

And speaking of building research, a big thanks to everyone who came out for last night's Tenement Talk with Dave Freeland. Over 100 of you squeezed into our tiny visitors center to hear about the cultural history of the first Horne & Hardart automat in Times Square (the building still stands, it's now an NYC gift shop) and the Atlantic Beer Garden on the Bowery (the shell of which still stands, although we learned from a Tenement Talks regular that the owner has recently applied for a demolition permit).

Dave's research directly relates to what we do here -- uncovering the history of every-day spaces and their importance to every-day people -- and I would unequivocally recommend his book to you. If you would like to buy the book, it's for sale in our online shop. You'd be supporting a really great writer and researcher and, of course, the Tenement Museum.

- Posted by Kate Stober

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Schneider's Saloon Update - Horse Hair

Paint and wallpaper samples are still in the lab, and a search beneath the linoleum floors turned up nothing. So the mystery remains: what did Schneider's Saloon, the pub in 97 Orchard's basement, once look like? We do know that a staircase once abutted a portion of the north side of the center partition, and that the other section may have been constructed at a different time. To learn more, project manager Chris Neville pulled back a strip of pressed metal wall covering (installed before the museum was established; we're still trying to figure out when), revealing scorched dry wall and plaster studded with horse hair. A fire had burned in the room at some point, damaging the material, and as for the hair - it was mixed in to prevent the plaster from cracking. When we were restoring an apartment once occupied by the Moores, a family of Irish immigrants, our conservationist made sure to follow this traditional practice, using hair from his daughter's horse.

A bag of horse hair was mixed into the Moore apartment's plaster

-posted by Liana Grey

Monday, August 10, 2009

In the News 100 Years Ago

Every morning, Times Traveler, a New York Times blog, pulls historic headlines and article excerpts from the paper's archive. The August 10th, 1909 issue reports (among other things):

Heat is Deadly; Ouge-Moujis Are in Vogue

Five deaths due to the heat wave were reported yesterday, while some sought relief with air-cooled hats from Java. “The air yesterday in the narrow streets downtown, which were shut in by the high buildings, hung like a dense pall apparently about twenty feet from the ground. The Captain of the Shimosa, which arrived in port from the Far East, reported sighting a small iceberg 300 miles east of Sandy Hook, and the Dock Superintendent asked him why he did not tow it in.… Four peddlers, near the Post Office, attracted attention yesterday offering a new style of Summer hat for sale. It was made of palm leaves like an inverted calabash and lined with green linen. It was raised clear up from the head and supported by tiny pieces of bamboo that were set in a stiff band covered with light leather that fitted firmly to the forehead. This left a space of fully three inches between the hat and the head for the breeze to play through and keep the brain cool. Fifty cents was the price demanded for them, and the attention the purchasers acquired when they put the combined hat-sunshades on was fully worth the money. It was understood that the new headgear was brought by the steamships trading between the port and Sourabaya Java. The peddlers said the “Ouge-Mouji,” as the hats were denominated in Javanese, were equally useful and attractive for women as well as men, but with the exception of a woman who sold newspapers outside one of the Subway stations, the fair sex held aloof.”

Questions for Curatorial - New York's Lack of Alleyways

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

Why are there no alleys in New York as there are in other American and European cities?

The almost complete lack of alleys in Manhattan above Chambers Street is partly the result of the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan (pictured left), which created the grid-based street pattern seen in New York today. Intended to rationalize the future development of the city, the 1811 Plan called for twelve avenues running north and south to be crossed at right angles by streets running east and west, with standardized lots 20 to 25 by 100 feet stretching unbroken on each block. This overwhelming rectangularity was intended to achieve the plan’s stated goals, which included “a free and abundant circulation of air” and the construction of “straight-sided and right-angled houses [that] are the most cheap to build.”

Sections of Manhattan laid out prior to 1811, including areas of lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village, today feature alleys as artifacts of a pre-planned city. The elite and influential New Yorkers charged in 1807 with establishing a comprehensive street plan for Manhattan viewed alleyways as dangerous to the health and well-being of the city and its inhabitants. Indeed, the plan they conceived appears to have been intended to discourage alleys in the city’s future development. John Randel Jr., who mapped the plan, wrote that the grid was created in part out of a concern for “avoiding the frequent error of laying out short, narrow, and crooked streets, with alleys and courts, endangering extensive conflagrations, confined air, and unclean streets…”

According to historical geographer Reuben Skye Rose-Redwood, “One of the most fundamental, yet unstated, presumptions of the grid plan was that it would literally obliterate nearly everything that stood in its path—clearing away the ‘disorder’ of the past to make way for an ‘improved’ future.” Above all, the commissioners sought to level Manhattan’s natural landscape and bring every inch of the city into productive use by facilitating the sale and distribution of land through a systematic standardization. Rectangular, uniform lots eliminated waste by reducing the number of oddly shaped pieces of land, which in other urban areas sometimes result in alleys. In contrast, the 1811 grid plan helped commodify the Manhattan landscape, dividing all available land into easily measurable, conveniently saleable units. With few exceptions, the plan did not designate land to be set aside for public parks and squares.

Friday, August 7, 2009

This Week's Current Immigration News

Moira Herbst – July 26, 2009 (Business Week)
A long wait for a green card, coupled with the soft U.S. economy, is prompting an exodus of some of the best and brightest.
August 4, 2009 (North County Gazette)
QUEENS—A Queens man has pleaded guilty to defrauding five members of the Trinidad community in the South Ozone Park and Richmond Hill sections of Queens by promising to expedite and produce legitimate green cards and other U.S. documents after collecting a total of nearly $100,000 from them.
Obama Aims to Overhaul Immigration Jail System
Anna Gorman - August 5, 2009 (Los Angeles Times)
The Obama administration announced an ambitious plan on Thursday to overhaul the much-criticized way the nation detains immigration violators, trying to transform it from a patchwork of jail and prison cells to what its new chief called a “truly civil detention system.”

August 5, 2009 (NPR)
President Obama is taking heat from a growing number of critics on several issues. Among them are Latino leaders who say Obama has not only continued, but expanded many Bush-era immigration policies and tactics — such as home raids — which some see as discriminatory.
By ANABELLE GARAY– August 6, 2009 (AP)
DALLAS — The number of petitions from employers trying to bring foreigners to work permanently in the U.S. has declined dramatically over the last two years, an Associated Press review of government data has found.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Rear Yard Update - Paving Stones To Be Installed

In order to recreate the yard behind 97 Orchard, we've had to import some items - like the water hydrant staff member Melissa Cabarcas began installing last week. But other elements were part of the privy and laundry area's original fabric. While excavating the yard in the early 1990s, archeologist Joan Geismar dug up some historic paving stones (among a number of interesting trinkets, like shards of ceramic place settings and containers). We're laying them out in the yard to get a sense of how much space they cover, and how much new stone will be needed to fill any gaps.

-posted by Liana Grey

The Battle to Save Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side

If Robert Moses had gotten his way, an extension of 5th Avenue would cut Washington Square Park in half, a whole swath of historic Greenwich Village would be gone, and an elevated expressway would be running through the Lower East Side (perhaps within view of the museum - assuming 97 Orchard wouldn't have been demolished to make way for the highway.)

Luckily, preservationist Jane Jacobs, author of the classic Death and Life of Great American Cities, fought tirelessly against the "power broker's" proposals. (His successful projects included the Triborough Bridge and the Cross-Bronx Expressway.)

A new book about the two adversaries - the David and Goliath, as the New York Times calls them, of lower Manhattan - was reviewed in today's paper; author Andrew Flint will be on hand for an October 8 Tenement Talk.

Moses' plans for a 10-lane highway through lower Manhattan

-posted by Liana G

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Questions for Curatorial - History of Homelessness

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

Was there a real problem with homelessness in the 1900s?

Homelessness has been a presence in New York since shortly after Peter Minuit completed his celebrated “purchase” of Manhattan Island from the Native Americans in 1626. During the ensuing three and a half centuries, a variety of approaches have been taken by churches, municipal government, and countless private charities in an effort to address a problem of ever changing nature and dimensions.

Historians have long debated the nature of poverty in American history, but most agree that no clear line separated ordinary working people from those in need of help because of periodic destitution. The result of great social and economic transformations in American life, poor and homeless families were most often those caught in the throes of a society experiencing unprecedented changes in the nature of work. As a result, homelessness was often temporary or intermittent. Nevertheless, between 1865 and the 1930s, as American made the difficult transition from a primarily agrarian society to an urban and industrial one, a much enlarged homeless populated emerged

The urban origins of a vagrant, homeless population are significant. The new homelessness of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was an indigenous aspect of a country in rapid transition from an agricultural and small town society to one centered in great cities. At the time, a study found that two-thirds of New York’s homeless men were born in cities, and most of the remainder had grown up in towns, not farming communities.

For many workers, employment was sporadic regardless of the general health of the economy. In 1900, about one-fifth of all workers in the United States were out of work from one to twelve months. In an era that predates unemployment insurance and/or workers compensation, periodic employment often equaled periodic homelessness. Even if workers had been completely willing to adapt themselves to changing industrial conditions (and often they were not), a certain number would have become vagrants because of the surplus labor created by these conditions. Seasonal labor, the introduction of new machinery, and the replacement of adult workers by child labor all created unemployment. The resulting demoralization undoubtedly led many men and their families into homelessness.

Fluctuations in the business cycle of the new industrial economy, which periodically resulted in sharp increases in unemployment, invariably led to an upsurge in the number of homeless. This was undoubtedly the case in the 1870s, 1890s, and the 1930s, when economic crises befell the American people.

No longer confined to the city’s “skid rows,” the contemporary homeless population has not only grown, but has taken on new dimensions. It contains a much greater number of mentally-ill individuals than ever before. Entire families lose their homes as their breadwinners face long-term unemployment and as the low-income housing in the marginal areas of the city that once provided them with a safety net is lost or destroyed by gentrification and development.