Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Questions for Curatorial: Do You Speak Irish?

What percentage of Irish immigrants to New York in the mid-19th century spoke Irish or Gaelic?

During the mid-19th century, immigrants from the Irish-speaking west of Ireland were less likely to have the resources needed to cross the Atlantic than those from other parts of the island. Nevertheless, according to historian Kevin Kenny, “it is estimated that somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of America-bound emigrants during the famine were Irish speakers. Half of all the famine emigrants came from two provinces of Connacht and Munster, where at least half the population still spoke Irish as late as 1851.”

Figures gathered by historian Kenneth Nilsen suggest that approximately 28% (73,000 out of a total of 259,000) of the Irish living in New York in 1860 were Irish speakers.

Sources: Kevin Kenny, The American Irish: A History (London: Longman, 2000); Kenneth Nilsen, “The Irish Language in New York, 1850-1900,” in Ronald Bayor and Timothy Meagher, eds., The New York Irish (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Buried paving stones on the Lower East Side

 Read out post about these paving stones peeking through the asphalt of Broome Street. It's over on Bowery Boogie.

Questions for Curatorial - Paving Stones on Orchard Street

When was Orchard Street paved? Were street lamps added?

Although there appears to be no exact date recorded for the paving of the Orchard Street block bounded by Delancey and Broome, paving stones likely replaced dirt sometime in the 1850s or 1860s. During the mid-19th century, experiments were undertaken with different paving materials, including macadam, woodblocks, and cut stone blocks. Rectangular, granite paving stones called Belgian blocks (made of trap stone) became widespread in some areas of the city in 1852, replacing common round cobblestones. According to extant prints from the period, gas–fired street lamps could be seen on street corners by the 1860s as well.

Monday, September 28, 2009

(Belated) Weekly Immigration News

Immigrants embrace Southern living
(Charlotte Observer, 9/20/09)
Carola Cárdenas left her native Venezuela twice to live in the United States. Both times she moved to cities that have long attracted large numbers of immigrants, first to Los Angeles, then New York. But after four years living in the shadow of Manhattan in nearby New Jersey, Cárdenas, 36, and her husband decided to plant some roots elsewhere. They chose Charlotte - far away from any traditional immigrant gateway.

Bhutan Refugees Find a Toehold in the Bronx
(New York Times, 9/24/09)
Nearly every immigrant group in New York City has a neighborhood, or at least a street, to call its own. But for refugees from the tiny South Asian nation of Bhutan, the closest thing to a home base is a single building in the Bronx — a red-brick five-story walk-up, with a weed-choked front courtyard and grimy staircases.

Constitution center sponsors teen video debate on immigration
(Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/26/09)
Alternating between giddiness and focused attention, a cross-section of American youth debated immigration reform yesterday in an innovative videoconference centered in Philadelphia and sponsored by the National Constitution Center. Challenged by the prompt, "Should the United States reduce immigration?" the selected students from several high schools in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, New York, and California were linked via closed-circuit TV and watched one another on large, subdivided video monitors.

Latinos bank on bilingual census form to aid count
(Assocaited Press, 9/28/09)
For the first time, the decennial census will be distributed in the two languages to 13.5 million households in predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. Latino advocates hope the forms will lead to a more accurate count by winning over the trust of immigrants who are often wary of government and may be even more fearful after the recent surge in immigration raids and deportations.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Could Brandeis be Appointed Today?

On Wednesday, September 30, Professor Melvin Urofsky joins us for a Tenement Talk about Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, his biography of the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, who sat on the Court during an electrifying time in US history (1916-39). Professor Urofsky will be guest-blogging the next two days to give us a little bit of insight into Justice Brandeis.

Several reviewers of my book ventured the thought that not only would a president not name Brandeis today, but he might not be confirmed, and while I am not completely sure they are right, there is more than a kernel of truth in that observation. One should keep in mind that the 1916 nomination touched off a four-month confirmation battle, and in the end Brandeis received Senate approval because Wilson invoked party discipline and the Democratic majority voted aye.

By the standards of the time, in terms of the type of person normally appointed to the Court, Brandeis was a radical who believed that law should serve not the interests of property but human needs. He was considered a champion of labor.

The last person overtly supportive of labor to be named to the Court was Arthur Goldberg by John F. Kennedy in 1962. More recent Democratic nominees such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor are sympathetic to labor but have no record of being champions of the working person. As for party discipline, that disappeared several presidents ago. Even with sixty votes in the Senate, it is hard to believe that President Obama could get all Democrats to support a controversial nominee.

And, alas, even if the President were willing to make such an appointment and could get Senate Democrats to flex their muscles, who would he name? There is no Louis Brandeis on the American scene today.

Portrait of Louis D. Brandeis by painter Joseph Tepper. Photoengraving on paper. 1939. Harvard Law School Library.

- Posted by Melvin Urofsky. Special thanks to Pantheon Books,

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis on Labor Issues

On Wednesday, September 30, Professor Melvin Urofsky joins us for a Tenement Talk about Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice and a passionate, outspoken man who sat on the Court during an electrifying time in US history (1916-39). Professor Urofsky will be guest-blogging the next two days to give us a little bit of insight into Justice Brandeis.

History records Brandeis as a friend of labor—the man who devised the Brandeis brief to win Court approval of wages and hours laws, the lawyer that both sides trusted in the great New York garment strike of 1910, and who in 1916 received the full-hearted support of labor leaders like Samuel Gompers when Woodrow Wilson nominated him to the Supreme Court.

Yet there is another side of Brandeis as well. As the attorney for the Typothetae, the association of Boston printers, he broke a strike by going to court to get an injunction, the very judicial tool hated and feared by organized labor in the early twentieth century. He debated Samuel Gompers over whether labor unions should be incorporated. Brandeis believed they should be, so they would be both responsible in court for ill-advised actions and also be able to sue when wronged.

Although some of my fellow historians paint Brandeis as a great liberal friend of organized labor, I think they are mistaken. He believed in the right to organize and bargain collectively, but he would have been just as appalled by the excesses of Big Labor after World War II as he was by the actions of Big Business in the progressive period.

- Posted by Melvin Urofsky. Special thanks to Pantheon Books,

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

American Sign Language tour - This Sunday!

Join us this Sunday for:

American Sign Language (ASL) interpreted tour,
Getting By: Immigrants Weathering Hard Times

Sunday, September 27 at 1:00 PM

Discover how immigrants survived economic depressions at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. Visit the restored homes of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family, whose patriarch disappeared during the Panic of 1873, and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family, who lived through the Great Depression. This tour lasts 60 minutes. Recommended for ages 8 & up.

Tickets: or call 212-431-0233 ext. 232 or TTY 212-431-0714. ADVANCE TICKETS RECOMMENDED – tour size is limited. Program starts at the Museum Visitor Center, 108 Orchard Street at Delancey. Subway: F/J/M to Delancey/Essex. Bus: M15 to Delancey.

More ASL programs to come in October and November.

Questions for Curatorial - Rugs in Tenement Apartments

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

Would the residents of 97 Orchard Street have had rugs? How much would a rug have cost, and was it something that the landlord provided?

During the building’s early history, some of the families who lived at 97 Orchard Street appear to have had rugs in their apartments. For new immigrants, rugs were among the range of amenities available for the first time in the American commercial marketplace.

Historian Richard Stott has written, “Most amazing to immigrants was the presence of rugs in workingman’s apartments… Rugs, in act, were more than just furnishings; to many of the city’s workers, they were a symbolic representation, an icon, of the high standard of living.”

Several of 97 Orchard Street’s front room floors feature extant paint around the perimeter of the room. The front room floor of apartment 8 (the Rogarshevsky apartment), for example, shows evidence of paint around the perimeter of the room, and a bare section in the center, as if there had once been carpet.

Interestingly, in apartment 8, the paint also appears inside the parlor closet, indicating that the floor was painted prior its installation, a change that may have occurred circa 1895. In addition, tacks are visible in the surviving wood floors.

It is possible, however, that elsewhere in the building, paint around the front room perimeter and tacks left in the floor may date from a later period in its history, when linoleum became more common. It also appears that many of the floorboards were replaced over time, suggesting that they too may date from a later period in the building’s history.

While there is little evidence to suggest who was responsible for providing rugs, the landlord or the tenant, it seems likely that tenants brought their own floor rugs with them when they moved. Just as each tenant was responsible for bringing and installing their own cast-iron stove, they may have been expected to carry floor coverings from residence to residence.

During the 1870s, carpets and rugs could be purchased nearby at Lord & Taylor department store on the corner of Grand and Chrystie Streets, where “tenement houses could be fitted up in twenty four hours.” Although figures are difficult to obtain for the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, the 1890s Sears & Roebuck Catalogue offered carpets that ranged in price from 35 cents per yard to $1.25 per yard.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Questions for Curatorial - Fireplaces in 97 Orchard Street

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

I heard that all of the fireplaces at 97 Orchard Street are boarded up. When and why did this happen?

Paint analysis suggests the fireplaces at 97 Orchard Street were covered up when the building was built in 1863 or shortly thereafter. Whoever designed the apartments may have never intended the parlor fireplaces to operate but installed them because Victorian-era “parlor making,” even in working-class homes, required a hearth in the parlor.

The fireplace enclosures vary in style and suggest alteration over time. By the late 1860s, the openings were simply enclosed with shutters. Later in the 19th century, the fireplace mantels were removed and either the entire wall was replastered or the fireplace opening was enclosed with bead board.

A shuttered fireplace in the parlor of a second-floor apartment at 97 Orchard Street.

An unrestored apartment, which shows a plastered-in fireplace in the kitchen. The large hole is where the coal stove pipe would have been inserted, using the chimney for ventilation. Photo by Keiko Niwa.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Back to School Special, Part II

Exhaulted literary critic Alfred Kazin grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn in the 1910s and 20s. The neighborhood then was a working-class, mostly Jewish place, full of row houses and tenement buildings. Kazin documents his early life in A Walker in the City, published in 1951.

Brownsville, Brooklyn: A general view across the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. About 1920. Eugene L. Armbruster Collection, NYPL.

Of special interest to us are his ruminations on how education was tied to success and Americanization. The son of immigrants, Kazin felt, even as a child, the pressure to represent his parents in this strange new world.

Here's an excerpt from A Walker in the City:

When I passed the school, I went sick with all my old fear of it. ...I felt as if I had been mustered back into the service of those Friday morning "tests" that were the terror of my childhood.

It was never learning I associated with that school: only the necessity to succeed, to get ahead of the others in the daily struggle to "make a good impression" on our teachers, who grimly, wearily, and often with ill-concealed distaste watched against our relapsing into the natural savagery they expected of Brownsville boys...

It was not just our quickness and memory that were always being tested. Above all, was our character. I always felt anxious, when I heard the word pronounced. ...Character was never something you had; it had to be trained in you, like a technique. I was never very clear about it. On our side character meant demonstrative obedience.

I was awed by this system, I believed in it, I respected its force...

I worked on a hairline between triumph and catastrophe. Why the odds should always have felt so narrow I understood only when I realized how little my parents thought of their own lives.

It was not for myself alone that I was expected to shine, but for them - to redeem the constant anxiety of their existence. I was the first American child, their offering to the strange new God; I was to be the monument of their liberation from the shame of being — what they were. And that there was shame in this was a fact that everyone seemed to believe as a matter of course...

It was in the sickening invocation of “Americanization,” the word itself accusing us of everything we apparently were not.

- Posted by Kate Stober

Friday, September 18, 2009

Weekly Immigration News

New S.F. high school nurtures immigrant youth
(San Francisco Chronicle, September 14, 2009)
Educating recent immigrants is one of the hardest jobs in the public school system. They often lag academically behind their American peers and don't have a grasp of English. "These kids have a triple job: They have to learn English; they have to learn (high school) content; they have to learn a new culture," said the network's executive director, Claire Sylvan. The success "comes from very hard work," she said.

Ask About the Gentrification of Chinatown
(New York Times "City Room" blog, September 14, 2009)
This week, Peter Kwong, a Hunter College professor and author of several books on Chinatown, is responding to readers’ questions about the decline of New York’s Chinatown as a viable living, working and shopping area for new immigrants because of job loss and gentrification since the late 1990s.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A world before New York City...

New Amsterdam, courtesy New Amsterdam History Center. Compare this painting to the maps below.

Check out this cool map of lower Manhattan when it was New Amsterdam (circa 1660). The site's authors have "vectorized and georeferenced" an original map drawn by Jacques Cortelyou. You can find out who owned different plots of land and what type of buildings or businesses sat on them.

There's the brewery of Oloff Stevensen van Cortladt on today's Broad Street (he lived next door); the storehouses of the West India Company on Winckle Street; and even the wall that later became Wall Street.

The New York Public Library, genius institution, has the original map in its archives, a copy of which is online. New Amsterdam is a very small place - only about eight streets - with lots of open orchards and yards.

If you go back further, there's an even more unfamiliar Manhattan waiting. The Mannahatta Project has mapped what our island looked like circa 1609, before Europeans settled here. You can navigate around their map as well.

I looked up 97 Orchard Street. In 1900 our block (Orchard between Delancey and Broome) was perhaps the most densely populated place in the world. In 1609 it seems to have been covered in a forest of maple, greenbrier, and black cherry trees. Chesnuts and chokeberries dotted the underbrush, food for the occasional black bear or wild turkey flock who wandered through. At least the familiar passenger pigeon seems to have made a home on our block even then.

One of the brains behind this cool project, Eric Sanderson, will be at Tenement Talks tonight to discuss New York before it was New York, New York; The Big Apple; Gotham; or anything but a place to hunt, gather, and grow. He's joined by Douglas Hunter, author of Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage That Redrew the Map of The New World, who will discuss the New Amsterdam part of the story. Robert Sullivan, journalist and author of the best book on rats ever, leads the discussion.

Join us, won't you? 6:30 PM, 108 Orchard Street at Delancey.

UPDATE - National Geographic had the project on their September cover. Check out the maps, story, and interactive on their site. Or just buy a magazine!

- Posted by Kate Stober

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Art in the Essex Market Building

Essex Street Market, 1939. Corner of Delancey and Essex, looking NE.

The Essex Street Market building between Delancey and Broome once held various kinds of merchants, forced indoors in the 1930s by Mayor LaGuardia's new restrictions on street vending. The Markets were never as successful as outdoor stalls, and two of the three buildings closed down. Today only the building between Delancey and Rivington is operational, a spot for local residents to pick up produce, meat, cheese, fish, chocolates, or sandwiches.

But the building between Delancey and Broome is seeing some action once again. Over the last few years, the space has been taken over by various artists and art collectives to stage performance art, theater, and installations.

A new project from the Fragmental Museum opens Friday. Their own website ( isn't terribly up to date, but you can read more here. The Museum's mission is "to provide public access to cultural projects by creating interactions between fragments of time, space, and culture."

FEED, the exhibit opening Friday, explores the market as a site of various kinds of exchange - commercial, social, and cultural. Video screenings, performance pieces, and interactive walking tours will all be on offer. Check it out.

September 18 - 26, 9am to 7pm, closed Sundays.

- Posted by Kate Stober

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

We're on TV!

We often get requests to film at the Tenement Museum. Usually we host news or documentary shows that want to feature the Museum or discuss life for immigrant and working-class people around the turn of the century.

For instance, the History Detectives filmed an interview with historian Daniel Sawyer in 97 Orchard Street's first floor parlor for a show dealing with Jewish immigration. A pending program about water and sanitation for the History Channel used our rear yard to illustrate conditions for the average urban resident in 1870.

My favorite pieces, of course, are those that deal with the Museum's history and mission. Here's a segment that aired recently (Provided by Time Warner Cable Staten Island):

Here's another one that I particularly like (and not because I'm in it!). We filmed this early on a winter morning last year and were able to get some beautiful shots. The host was so engaged with the stories that we tell and clearly loved being at the Museum (there are also segments on Lower East Side standbys Katz's, Russ & Daughters, and Economy Candy on YouTube).

Sometimes a production company will use our space as representative of someone else's life entirely. Earlier this year a British crew came to the Museum for a documentary about Jack the Ripper. After they filmed a series of interviews in the apartments and hallways, we had to turn off all the lights so the "investigator" (actual former cold-case cop Ed Norris) could shine his flashlight around an eerily-dark 97 Orchard.

Last night we used the Baldizzi apartment as a stand-in for where Andy Warhol lived in Pittsburgh. He was the son of Slovak immigrants and grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the 1930s & 40s. Although we carefully create our exhibit spaces to represent the world of one particular family, to a production crew, we're a ready-made set that can be adapted to their needs. This particular group even wanted to bring acting cats in (apparently the Warholas had a lot and they inspired Andy's cat artwork) but that fell through (apparently acting cats are expensive!).

- Posted by Kate Stober

Monday, September 14, 2009

Questions for Curatorial - Back to School Special

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions... this time, about going to school in turn-of-the-century New York.

Did the Gumpertz, Levine, Rogarshevsky, and Baldizzi children have to attend school and, if so, did they attend public school or private school?

In 1874, New York State passed a compulsory school law requiring children between the ages of 8 and 14 to attend some public or private day school at least 14 weeks each year. Twenty years later, the Compulsory Education Law of 1894 required full-time attendance from 8 to 12 years of age. Children older than 14 were not required to go to school. The Gumpertz, Levine, Rogarshevsky, and Baldizzi children were therefore required by state law to attend school until the age of 14.

As working-class immigrants, the families of 97 Orchard Street would not have had the necessary resources to send their children to private school. Although New York City’s public facilities remained inadequate to serve a growing population of children, many of who were immigrants, the children of 97 Orchard Street could have attended school at one of several public institutions.

One of those is P. S. 42, which has been educating children from immigrant families for over one hundred and ten years. When the school opened in 1898, students were mainly Italian and Jewish. The Greater City of New York had half-a-million students by 1898, and by 1914 would have 900,000. Today, the student body is primarily Chinese and Hispanic immigrants or the children of immigrants.

When the first citywide curriculum was adopted in 1903, 70% of public school students in the city were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Thirty years later, in 1933, the student population remained heavily immigrant. After graduating from the eighth grade, the majority went to work during the day, many returning to night school for advanced classes.

At the turn of the century, Americanization was the focus of the curriculum – forging a common identity among children from different cultures. In 1898, the Superintendent of Schools, William Maxwell, believed that the role of the school was to do more than merely instruct: “It accustoms people of different creeds and different national traditions to live together on terms of peace and mutual good will. It is the melting pot which converts the children of immigrants of all races and languages into sturdy, independent American citizens.”

Nationalities of students who attended P.S. 42 in 1933. The card shows over 600 students with Italian-born fathers, over 300 with Russian-born fathers, and 160 with American-born fathers. 56 are listed as "indefinite."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Weekly Immigration News

Undocumented Immigrants and the Health Care Debate
(New York Times "Perscriptions" blog, September 10, 2009)
The health care legislation is still being developed, and many of the details could change, so it is impossible to know at this point exactly how immigrants (both those here legally and those without papers) will fare if a health care overhaul is achieved.

As detention center shuts down in Texas, advocates worry about future for immigrant families
(Associated Press, September 9, 2009)
While advocates hail the Obama administration's announcement this month to stop sending men, women and children to the much disparaged Hutto facility, they also wonder how the government will decide which families to detain, when to release them, how they will be transported and whether they'll fare better elsewhere.

Literacy tutor of the year can empathize with her students
(The Island Packet / Beaufort Gazette, September 8, 2009)
When Susan Boyd began looking for place where volunteering would make the biggest difference, she chose Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry, an organization that works to teach Beaufort County, South Carolina adults how to read, write, speak English. Boyd was recently recognized as Tutor of the Year, and she thinks her status as daughter of immigrants helps her understand her students and be a better teacher. "My parents met in a class learning how to speak English," Boyd said. "My father did not speak French and my mother did not speak German, so their only common language was English." Boyd said she empathizes with those learning a new language because she's tried to learn Latin, French, German and Spanish and can't speak any of them.

Indian Americans Thriving In Connecticut
(Chicago Tribune via Hartford Courant, August 22, 2009)
The typical immigrant story in Connecticut starts with empty pockets and high hopes, segues into years on a factory floor, a rise to the propertied class and a better life for the second generation. Indian Americans, among the state's latest arrivals, have changed that story. Starting in the 1960s, they came already equipped with college degrees and the ability to speak English. In a relatively short time, these South Asians leap-frogged the struggles of their European counterparts, establishing themselves in the middle and upper reaches of the socioeconomic spectrum.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum takes no opinion on these articles but rather encourages open dialogue on topics surrounding immigration.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Building Research Part 3 - A School for Immigrant Children Sponsored by the Astor Family

Now an apartment complex, once a school for underprivilged immigrant children

A reader suggested that I look into the history of the Fourteenth Ward Industrial School on Mott Street between Houston and Prince, founded in 1889 by the local nonprofit Children's Aid Society. Designed by architect Calvert Vaux (whose resume also includes Central Park), it's surprisingly opulent for a charity-run school, with bay windows, terracotta panels, and a jagged gable roof. And no wonder: it was funded by John Jacob Astor, whose wife, Charlotte, had supported a similar program in the neighborhood for over 25 years. (Children's Aid managed several schools throughout the city, predominantly serving the immigrant community.)
An original architectural drawing of another Children's Aid Society school, built in 1875 on East Broadway.
"For thousands of children the school has given an opportunity to obtain the training needed to make them self-supporting," the New York Times wrote in a piece on the school's innauguration. "A great deal of work has been done among the Italians, who have proved to be among the best students the school has ever had."

When Mrs. Astor died, her husband bought a lot at 256 Mott Street for $21,000 (previously the site of a frame house and a wooden cottage, and a stable where a brawl between Greek and Italian immigrants took place) and shelled out another $42,000 for a new schoolhouse's construction. The finished structure was dedicated to Charlotte.

A kitchen and dining hall occupied its "roomy basement," and the four above-ground floors housed classrooms, teachers' lounges, and workshops. "The building is heated by steam and well supplied with fire escapes," The Times made sure to note. "There is a small playground on the south side of the building, reached by a flight of steps from the basement." Which is long gone, now that the building's been divided into apartments.
-posted by Liana Grey

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Farewell, Liana!

Today blog writer, intern, and all around awesome person Liana Grey had her last afternoon at the Museum. If you've enjoyed the blog over the last eight months it's because of Liana's enthusiasm and curiosity about all things Tenement Museum. A huge thanks to this talentened woman, and it goes without saying that we'll miss you tremendously!

If you'd like to come and fill Liana's shoes, send me an email. We're looking for a new intern researcher and writer to work with us about 6-8 hours per week, a minimum of one semester. Journalism or communications students are strongly encouraged to apply. Please send me your resume and a writing sample and let me know why you're interested in working for the Museum.

Getting the scoop on the Tea Cart Stories exhibit by artist Michele Brody.

- Posted by Kate Stober

A Hair-Raising Story

I thought you readers would be interested in this fun article about a woman in the UK who is about as devoted as we are to recreating authentic plastering techniques in her historic home.

As some of you might know, horse hair was mixed into the plaster used on the walls of 97 Orchard Street. A little scientific research tells us more. Not only do we know that the hair was from a horse, but we also know where the hairs came from - the body and the mane of the horse.

Below are two photographs that show some of the hairs at 200x magnification. The courser hair in the top photo is from the mane. Neat!

- Posted by Derya Golpinar, Collections Manager / Registrar

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Exploring Manhattan's Early Years at Tonight's Tenement Talk

Russell Shorto is the author of Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, which is one of the core books at the Tenement Museum Shop. This readable, comprehensive history tells of the early days of New Amsterdam.

Since Island at the Center of the World is a few years old (Shorto's newest book is Descartes Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reson), the author doesn't make too many appearances supporting it. But as this month marks 400 years since Henry Hudson sailed into New York harbor, we thought it would be a perfect time to revisit the island's early days, and luckily Shorto agreed.

Funnily enough, he spent a while living in Holland recently, an experience he chronicled for the New York Times Magazine. You only have to read the beginning to fall in love with this man's writing:

PICTURE ME, IF YOU WILL, as I settle at my desk to begin my workday, and feel free to use a Vermeer image as your template. The pale-yellow light that gives Dutch paintings their special glow suffuses the room. The interior is simple, with high walls and beams across the ceiling. The view through the windows of the 17th-century house in which I have my apartment is of similarly gabled buildings lining the other side of one of Amsterdam’s oldest canals. Only instead of a plump maid or a raffish soldier at the center of the canvas, you should substitute a sleep-rumpled writer squinting at a laptop.

Hope you will all join us tonight at 6:30 PM at the Museum Shop, 108 Orchard Street.

- Posted by Kate Stober

Friday, September 4, 2009

This Week's Immigration News

American Apparel to dismiss 1,500 factory workers
(Los Angeles Times, September 3, 2009)
The employees couldn't prove their immigration status or had problems with their employment records, says the Los Angeles clothing manufacturer and retailer.

Report: Anti-Immigrant Climate Fueling Violence Against Latinos in N.Y. County
(Southern Poverty Law Center, September 2, 2009)
A new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center — Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y. — documents racially motivated violence against Latinos in the community. SPLC researchers spent months interviewing Latino immigrants, local religious leaders and small business owners for the report.

LoHud Malayalees celebrate the harvest festival, Onam
(, September 2, 2009)
Malayalees in India celebrate Onam over 10 days with family gatherings, traditional dances, new clothes, processions, games, feasts, and colorful snake boat races. The Malayalee diaspora, which includes several thousand living in the Lower Hudson Valley, celebrate it with just as much enthusiasm.

Massachusetts Cuts Back Immigrants’ Health Care
(New York Times, August 31, 2009)
State-subsidized health insurance for 31,000 legal immigrants here will no longer cover dental, hospice or skilled-nursing care under a scaled-back plan that Gov. Deval Patrick announced Monday.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum takes no opinion on these articles but rather encourages open dialogue on topics surrounding immigration.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Ruins of Ellis Island

On the south side of Ellis Island, a non-profit organization called Save Ellis Island is working to recover a little-known part of immigration history.

Most people know that between 1892 and 1954, the Ellis Island Immigration Station was the primary immigration center for the United States. Over twelve million people arrived here after arduous journeys, seeking better lives and more opportunities in America.

Many people also know that before new arrivals (primarily those traveling in steerage) could disembark, they had to submit to a health and legal inspection. Approximately 90 percent of immigrants passed the "six second" health inspections, but those who did not were held for further inspections, treatments, and sometimes quarantine on the island’s south side.

Many people are unaware that an entire hospital ward exists here, taking up about half of the island's total land space. Twenty-nine structures, including a 750-bed hospital complex, measles ward, hospital director's house, and mortuary were once in active use.

An amazing number of medical conditions were seen by Ellis Island's doctors. According to the historic site's home page, "by 1916, it was said that a doctor could identify numerous medical conditions (ranging from anemia to goiters to varicose veins) just by glancing at an immigrant." Most of those quaranteened for contageous diseases like scarlet fever, thyphoid, or pink eye were eventually allowed into the country if cured of their afflictions. Only about 2% of immigrants were denied entry during the station's history.

Most of the buildings on the south side have been left to ruin. Although a fundraising campaign successfully renovated the entry hall and other buildings on the north side, which now house the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the island's medical center sits abandoned.

Abandoned, but not neglected. For the past decade, Save Ellis Island has led the charge to stabalize and rehabilitate these structures.

In 2007, the south side’s Ferry Building, an Art Deco structure built by the Works Progress Administration in 1934, reopened. Here visitors can see an exhibit on the island's medical history or take a guided tour with one of Save Ellis's volunteer educators. Future plans include renovating the laundry, hospital outbuilding, and hospital lawn, among other spaces. The goal is to provide visitors with a full understanding of how Ellis Island operated.

Recently, some of our education staff were lucky enough to take a guided tour of the island's south side (one of the perks of working for a history museum). Here are their photos from the trip:

Building on the south side

Interior of an admin building

Laundry Facilities

- Posted by Penny King

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Stories from the Archives - Ethnic Groups on the LES

Education Department Intern Billyskye has been combing through our archives and listening to the oral histories of former 97 Orchard St. tenants. He was particularly focused on finding excerpts that spoke to interethnic experiences on the Lower East Side. From Billyskye:

Many visitors commonly assume that tension existed between the different ethnic groups living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. This belief stems from the logic that these groups, isolated by language and cultural barriers, kept to themselves. However, oral histories of the former residents of 97 Orchard Street shed a different light on the issue of tolerance.

Jacqueline Burnescu-Richter, who lived at 97 Orchard St. from her birth in 1919 until 1928, detailed the philosophy her mother and those around her imbued upon the next generation, saying that she, “learned to judge people by themselves, not what they were… there is good or bad in every race, creed, and color.”

Jacqueline’s oral history goes on to describe her close friendship with a Chinese girl who also lived in the neighborhood – a friendship that she maintained into adulthood. An interesting exchange of cultures took place between these two friends who frequently make expeditions to Chinatown and shared potato pancakes at the Burnescu home.

Sue Lesnick, another resident of 97 Orchard, explained this close camaraderie between the immigrants living in the area, saying, “We all got along very well… everybody was in the same category.”

While ethnic tension and violence swept across the United States, the immigrants on the Lower East Side found something they could use to relate to one another despite their obvious differences in background and culture. Sue describes the situation that all of these men, women and children were forced to confront, stating, “There was no such thing as play… it’s a fight for survival, that’s what it was in those days.”

- Posted by Kate Stober