Thursday, December 31, 2009

Weekly Immigration News

Relatives Say Photos Depict Ellis Island’s First Immigrant
(New York Times, December 28, 2009)
For more than a century, she was lost to history. Three years ago, she was rediscovered. As it turned out, the first immigrant to set foot on Ellis Island when it opened on Jan. 1, 1892, an Irish girl named Annie Moore, did not go west and die in Texas, as had long been believed, but spent her days as a poor immigrant on the Lower East Side, dying in 1924. Now, relatives have found two photographs of the woman they believe is the real Annie Moore.

Repeal of Nebraska Tuition Bill Draws Support
(ABC News, December 28, 2009)
Nebraska lawmakers are set to again consider repealing a law that offers tuition breaks to some illegal immigrants, and the looming debate is already drawing support. A majority of lawmakers participating in an Associated Press pre-session survey say they support rescinding the offer made after lawmakers fought to override Gov. Dave Heineman's veto to pass the law in 2006.

Book review of From Every End of This Earth by Steven Roberts
(Washington Post, December 27, 2009)
Steven V. Roberts begins his new book, From Every End of This Earth, by describing Bao and Tuyen Pham's escape from Vietnam following the fall of Saigon. The Phams are one of 13 families Roberts profiles in this homage to the "sacrifice generation" and the children for which they make that sacrifice. His goal, he says, is not to "capture the entirety" of the immigrant experience, but to write a book that explores the parts and "resembles the mosaics I used to see in the ruins of ancient Greece," where he was based for a time as a reporter for the New York Times.

Decision to let ferry widow stay a 'Christmas blessing,' McMahon says
(Staten Island Advance, December 23, 2009)
Hailing it as a “Christmas blessing,” Rep. Michael McMahon today applauded the government’s decision to grant permanent residency to a Jamaican immigrant whose husband died in the 2003 Staten Island Ferry crash. The government yesterday overturned the deportation of former Elm Park resident Osserritta Robinson. Mrs. Robinson and Louis Robinson had been married for eight months when he was killed in the crash of the ferryboat Andrew J. Barberi.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rear Yard Now Open!

This week the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is proud to announce the opening of “The Rear Yard at 97 Orchard Street,” a permanent exhibit that immerses visitors in a mid-19th century tenement yard. The exhibit – the first re-creating an urban American privy yard – explores important aspects of daily life in 19th-century urban America and sanitation reform efforts in the tenements.

The yard is finally complete! Above: recreated privy shed, or outhouse.

As part of the Tenement Museum’s tour The Moores: An Irish Family in America, the “Rear Yard of 97 Orchard Street” is recreated to depict 1869, six years after the building welcomed its first residents. The space includes a wooden privy shed (outhouse) with four individual stalls; a cast-iron water hydrant; original paving stones; a wood plank fence; and reproduction period laundry hanging from lines overhead.

 Workers install paving stones, artifacts that were excavated from 97 Orchard's rear yard in 1991.

From 1863 until 1905, when indoor plumping was installed at 97 Orchard Street, the yard was an extension of the tenement household, a space for residents to use the toilet, pump water for cooking and bathing, and wash laundry. The yard also served a social function as a space for women to socialize with one another and for children to play.

The recreation of the yard was completed with the help of period photographs, many taken by the Tenement House Department in around the turn of the 20th century. In addition, the Museum used research from urban archeologist Joan Geismar, whose team excavated 97 Orchard Street’s rear yard between 1991 and 1993.

Expecting to find the “ubiquitous, round, deep, dry-laid, stone-privy pit documented through archaeology in other 19th century urban rear yards,” the team was surprised to instead find the remnants of a water-cleansed brick privy vault believed to date from the building’s construction. The building’s financer and first owner, Lucas Glockner, was “a man ahead of his time when it came to backyard toilet facilities,” according to Geismar. (There were no laws governing outhouse construction in New York until the 1867 Tenement House Act.)

This physical investigation suggests that for 97 Orchard Street’s early residents, conditions were probably much more pleasant than the stereotype of tenement life might suggest. But, by 1900, 97 Orchard Street’s privies were shared by 105 tenants, living in eighteen apartments. Around 17 people shared each toilet. All of the building’s residents also shared a single water hydrant.

Beginning in the mid-19th century, tenement rear yards became the subject of an intense public debate about the relationship between sanitary technology, immigrant hygiene, and the public health. For middle-class reformers, the rear yard was ground zero for the linked threats of epidemic disease, social disorder, and moral degradation.

Visitors to the Tenement Museum’s The Moores: An Irish Family in America tour will explore both the yard’s role in the city-wide housing reform efforts and its practical importance in the private lives of working-class New Yorkers.

Public tours are offered daily, 10:45 am – 4:45 pm. Tickets are available at the Visitor Center, 108 Orchard Street; online at; or by phone at 866-606-7232.

We hope you will come for a visit and learn about this important space in person. And some day soon we will add it to our virtual tour!

- Posted by Kate

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Questions for Curatorial - Yiddish on the LES

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

Were the dialects of Yiddish spoken on the Lower East Side during the turn of the last century mutually intelligible? For example, if they have lived at 97 Orchard Street at the same time, could the Polish Levine and Lithuanian Rogarshevsky families have understood one another?

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants to the Lower East Side hailed from a number of different regions, among them Hungary, Galicia, Rumania, and Russia. Although the "eastern Yiddish" dialect spoken by people from each of these regions evinced a shared linguistic heritage, their “Lithuanian,” “Polish,” and “Ukrainian” sub-dialects differed substantially from one another in vocabulary and grammar, as well as in the pronunciation of certain vowels.

A language “always in a rapid process of growth and dissolution,” the Yiddish spoken by Eastern European Jewish immigrants was further transformed by the encounter with America. The historian Irving Howe writes, “A whole sublanguage or patois grew up in the immigrant districts, neither quite English nor quite Yiddish, in which the vocabulary of the former was twisted to the syntax of the latter.”

It is possible, therefore, that while Yiddish-speaking immigrants from modern Poland (like the Levines) may have experienced some immediate difficulty in communicating with Yiddish-speaking immigrants from modern Lithuania, a shared linguistic heritage and an increasing overlap between Yiddish and American English appears to have narrowed this linguistic divide.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas from the Tenement Museum

Merry Christmas to all our readers!

 Read a history of the Volunteers of America sidewalk Santas. They've been around for over 100 years with their distinctive chimneys. Apparently the New York chapter even created a "Santa School" in the 1950s.

And here's a bit about how cartoonist Thomas Nast invented the Santa that's familiar to so many Americans - today a personification of Christmas, but not always so.

We're also carrying this book, The Battle for Christmas, at the Museum Shop for the holidays. Author Stephen Nissenbaum "rediscovers Christmas's carnival origins and shows how it was transformed, during the nineteenth century, into a festival of domesticity and consumerism." Apparently New Yorkers played a prominent role (mais oui).

Warm wishes to all!

The Tenement Museum blog will return on December 29.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Questions for Curatorial - Pets in the tenements

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

Did any 97 Orchard Street residents keep pets?

According to Josephine Baldizzi, who lived in the building in the late 1920s and 30s, their family owned a canary while living at 97 Orchard Street. Her father Adolfo was extremely fond of all the animals. After a busy day at work, he would walk into the apartment and immediately get a piece of lettuce to feed the bird in its cage. His wife Rosaria, however, hated all of the animals because they tracked dirt and bugs into the apartment. Josephine remembers her having a particularly hard time with Adolfo’s bird because the fluttering of its wings would send birdseed flying.

In her oral history, Josephine also mentions that the family had a cat, as well as a black and white dog, but it is unclear if this was at 97 Orchard Street or a subsequent residence.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Mystery Object Revealed

Yesterday we posted a mysterious pink lumpy object and asked you to guess what it was. Well, drumroll, please...

It's a challah!

Curatorial and education department staff are busy updating elements of the Piecing it Together tour. Right now the Rogarshevsky family apartment depicts the Shiva of Abraham Rogarshevky in 1918, but next year, the museum will change the exhibit so that it depicts a typical Sabbath day in 1916.

The Sabbath table at that time would have include two loaves of challah bread. As food and drink are not permitted inside the museum (yay integrated pest management!), Collections Manager Derya turned to Iwasaki Images of America, which makes reproduction foods for restaurants, supermarkets, and - museums!

To make a bread, we had to send a sample to the company. Annie, our VP of Education, picked one up on Grand Street  and took it home for a week to harden. (The bread had to be dried out before a mold could be cast.) After a week, the challah bread was mailed from the Lower East Side to Iwasaki Images’ California studio, where they coated it pink putty and made a mold!

We were lucky enough that the excellent Ron documented the process and sent us some photos. Behold - how a reproduction challah is born:

First, you make a mold out of a real challah bread.

Then you pour in the plastic molding agent and let it harden. The breads fresh out of their little mold "oven" are surprisingly life like.

They get a layer of shiny gloss and then a layer of light yellow that looks rather like an egg wash.

Next, they are spray painted.

And voila - we have bread!

You can see the new bread on the Piecing it Together tour sometime in the near future. (The bread will not be available to sign autographs.)

Thanks to Iwasaki Images for all the photos.

- Posted by Kate & Derya

Mystery Object - Keep Guessing!

We'll reveal what our mystery object is around noon today... in the meantime, keep your guests coming! Hint: it's definitely food-related.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mystery Object

Can you guess what this is?

(Photo Iwasaki Images of America)

Hint: it's for the Rogarshevsky apartment.

More details tomorrow...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Rear Yard is almost complete...

The rear yard of 97 Orchard Street is coming along nicely. Over the weekend the wooden fence went up, and now there are doors on the privy shed as well.



In this last photo, you can see the wooden laundry pole on the left hand side as well as the slate / concrete flooring. Residents would have strung their laundry lines from this pole to the fire escapes at the rear of the building. In fact, the Curatorial Department's next task is to dress the exhibit with clothing hanging to dry.

We're pretty excited to see the exhibit almost finished. Hopefully by this weekend visitors will be able to experience it in person. If you'd like to learn more about the rear yard - how residents over the years used the space and why housing reformers paid it special attention - stop by for The Moores: An Irish Family in America. Tours leave daily, 11:15 - 4:45.

-- posted by Kate

Friday, December 11, 2009

Tenement Talks Staff Favorite Books of the Year

We chose our favorite books from this year’s Tenement Talks. A Herculean feat! Each of us who work closely on the Talks chose our Top 5, but it could easily have been Top 10. We loved each of the 75 events we hosted this year, but these were the books that touched us the most personally. Needless to say, they'd all make great gifts, too.

Amanda, Tenement Talk Curator:
-          When Everything Changed, Gail Collins
-          Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
-          The Snakehead, Patrick Radden Keefe
-          Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
-          Chinatown Noir, Henry Chang

Helene, Museum Shop:
-          Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, David von Drehle
-          Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, Melvin Urofsky
-          Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
-          Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

Kate, Outreach:
-          Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville, David Freeland    
-          Storefront: The Disappearing Face of New York, Karla and James Murray
-          Appetite City, William Grimes

-          On the Irish Waterfront, James T. Fisher

      -          My Red Blood, Alix Dobkin

Don't forget, you can listen to podcasts of some of these talks on the Tenement Museum website.  And 2010 is shaping up to be another great season! Sign up to be on the Tenement Talks list - email us at events [at] tenement [dot] org.

Weekly Immigration News

African immigrant seeks alliance with Chicago's Mexicans
(Chicago Tribune, 12/6/09)
A few months after arriving from Sierra Leone, Alie Kabba learned the dynamics of Chicago immigrant life when he found a pickup soccer game near his Rogers Park apartment. All of the players were Mexicans.

"I didn't have enough for my own team," he recalled. "They had the numbers."

Now head of the United African Organization, Kabba is pursuing an intriguing and complicated experiment: to see whether Africans can forge a political alliance with the Mexicans, who make up the largest share of immigrants in Chicago.

Census Finds Rise in Foreign Workers
(New York Times, 12/7/09)
Nearly one in six American workers is foreign-born, the highest proportion since the 1920s, according to a census analysis released Monday.

Because of government barriers to immigration, the share of foreign-born workers dipped from a 20th-century high of 21 percent in 1910 to barely 5 percent in 1970, but has been rising since then, to the current 16 percent.

Population shifts could boost Calif, NY in census
(Associated Press, 12/9/09)
A steady flow of new immigrants is providing a late-decade population boost to major metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Miami, New York and Los Angeles, whose states are seeking to stem declines before the 2010 census.

Even with a recent dip in immigration, the addition of foreign migrants into those major cities most attractive to them has cushioned substantial population losses from native-born Americans who had migrated to interior parts of the U.S. in search of jobs, wider spaces and affordable housing before the recession.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

New Sign!

Today we installed some new signage on the from door of the Visitor Center & Museum Shop. Now you can clearly see what hours we're open. Woo! Hopefully this extra bright signage will make us a little easier to find, too.

- Posted by Kate

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Questions for Curatorial: 19th Century Bilingualism

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

Were any of 97 Orchard Street’s residents bilingual? Natalie Gumpertz—could she speak German and English?

According to US Census records, many of 97 Orchard Street’s foreign-born residents appear to have been able to read and write English, suggesting a fair degree of bilingualism among these immigrant tenement dwellers.

Although category was phrased in the negative (i.e., “cannot read,” and “cannot write”), the 1870 U.S. Census for 97 Orchard Street records that the overwhelming majority of German-born residents were able to read and write English. The census enumerator recorded both Natalie and Julius Gumpertz as able to read and write English.

The 1900 U.S. Census specifically asked if residents could “speak English.” Once again, the overwhelming majority of foreign-born residents answered yes and were recorded as being able to speak English. Included in this number were “Russian”-born Harris and Jennie Levine (they actually came from the city of Plonsk, in what is now Poland) who told the enumerator that they were able to speak English.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tenement Talks Review: Becoming Americans

Last Thursday, the Orchard Street Contemporaries sponsored Becoming Americans, a Tenement Talk featuring Ilan Stavans, editor of the new book, and Pete Hamill, one of the many contributing writers.  We were thrilled to receive a packed house at 108 Orchard and our guests had the opportunity to enjoy food and beverages from our generous donors, the Infamous Yellow House, Sierra Mist, and Russ & Daughters. 

Mr. Stavans and Mr. Hamill spoke eloquently about the immigrant experience and what it means to be American, a question that is central to the museum’s mission.  Mr. Hamill, the son of Irish immigrants, proclaimed New York the “capital of cities for people not like you” and talked about the different things—from food to language to music—that immigrants have contributed to this country. 

Mr. Stavans, an immigrant himself who came to New York from Mexico in the 1980s, shared that sentiment, referring to America as a mosaic of immigrant cultures. With larger immigrant communities today than ever before, the story of immigration continues to unfold, changing what it means to be American. In Mr. Stavans words, America is always in the process of “becoming.” 

So who tells the stories of these many immigrants and new Americans?  As our guest speakers both pointed out, that is a task often left to the younger generations. 

This idea struck a chord with many members of the Orchard Street Contemporaries.  Our mission is to engage young people in the preservation of the Lower East Side’s immigrant history by connecting it with the vibrancy of the neighborhood today, as well as contemporary issues related to immigration. 

We are currently looking for more young professionals to join us in fulfilling our mission by organizing future events and programs.  If you’re interested, contact us at

Becoming Americans features four centuries of immigrant writing and is available online or at the Museum Shop at 108 Orchard Street.

-- Posted by Kristin Shiller, a volunteer for the Tenement Museum’s young professionals group the Orchard Street Contemporaries.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rear Yard Update - Privy Shed is Here

On Friday the privy shed was delivered!


Restoration contractor Kevin Groves, who has spearheaded many preservation and recreation projects for the Museum, built the shed at his workshop in Montgomery, N.Y. He'd hoped to create the structure out of salvaged wood, but it didn't prove possible.

Instead, the shed is made of new wood and several of the stalls will be roughed up and dirtied to make them look as they might have in the early 20th century. One of the stalls will be left clean to represent the era when the building, and the privy shed, were new. Over time, the rain, sun, and wind will also take their toll, weathering the structure naturally.

Next up: doors and decoration.

(Photos by Tenement Museum)

-- Posted by Kate

Friday, December 4, 2009

Weekly Immigration News

Visit to Ellis, Liberty islands brings immigration experience to life
(Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, 12/3/09)
More than a decade ago, I began tracing my family roots, a pastime that has grown so popular in the United States that the country now has more than 250,000 genealogical societies. After years of poring over vital records, collecting family photos and documenting relatives’ stories, I knew it wasn’t enough. I still felt disconnected.
That’s what makes the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island so invaluable as historical monuments. They stand not only as testaments to the country’s past but also as a piece of family history for millions of Americans. They offer us a chance to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors.

Immigrant Detention Doubles Since 1999
(The Washington Independent, 12/2/09)

The number of immigrants in detention in the United States has more than doubled since 1999, according to a new report from a government data research organization released Wednesday. The report, based primarily on information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, also finds that ICE has increasingly transferred detainees more often and to facilities farther from where they were apprehended, disrupting contact with family members and attorneys attempting to represent them in their deportation cases.

Editorial: The boon of immigration: Newcomers to America more than pull their economic weight

(New York Daily News, 11/30/09)
The need for combining secure borders with a rational policy for admitting newcomers is as pressing today as it was when the last attempted remake went down in flames under President George W. Bush, victim largely of the myth that immigration is a drain on the economy and a threat to native-born workers.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Personal Connection to 97 Orchard Street...

Read this thoughtful commentary piece from a decedent of the Rogarshevksy family, published in the East Hampton Star...

Other Lives
Last month, after years of thinking about it, my husband and I toured the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan — a building where my Aunt Miriam lived once and apparently had hated every minute of it.

[Continue Reading]

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Rear Yard Update

Work is coming along on the rear yard exhibit... only a few weeks now until it's complete.

We have installed new plumbing to make the drainage better. Never again will educators stand in murky rain-waters up to their knees while expounding about life in the rear yards!

The middle section has been leveled and sand and gravel laid down as the base for the old bluestone which will cover most of the yard. This is the original flooring - it was buried under about two feet of dirt - and will pave the space once again. We'll also install colored concrete which looks like the real thing but provides a smoother surface for visitors traveling between the rear door and the stairs.

The end of the week will see the delivery of the privy shed itself, which will arrive in installments and actually put together in situ, along with the woodplank fence to the north and west. At the top of the photo below you can see the space where the shed will sit. This was its original location, 1863 to at least the 1920s.

After construction is complete, the Curatorial Department will “decorate” the rear yard – dirtying two stalls of the privy shed, hanging period laundry on the lines, and installing a reproduction wooden wash tub. This will give you a sense of how the space was used and how it would have looked at both the beginning of the building's life as a residence and the end.

In a previous post I wrote about some of the historical photos taken by the Tenement House Department. Check them out for a sense of where we're going with this exhibit.

- posted by Kate, special thanks to Arnhild Buckhurst

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tenement Talks Links from around the Web

In The Neighborhood: Becoming Americans
(Lox Populi, Nov. 30, 2009)

One of the things that I love most about Russ & Daughters is that our food, besides being delicious, is a conduit of memory and a catalyst for storytelling.

Every day I get to talk to people – some are new customers, many are regulars, and still others have been coming to the shop for twice the number of years I’ve been alive. The conversations take place over or in front of the counter, in the course of slicing lox, filleting a herring, sharing a piece of babka, or talking on the phone. Frequently the stories revolve around family histories and immigrant journeys; it is not uncommon for a tear to be shed in the shop.

As the immigrant experience is central to the existence of Russ & Daughters, I enjoy listening to these stories as much as I do sharing our own.

[Read more from Niki Russ Federman about Thursday's Tenement Talk, Becoming Americans, which is co-sponsored by the Museum's young professional's group Orchard Street Contemporaries]

NY Landmarks Conservancy Co-sponsors Paul Goldberger Book Talk on Architecture; Peg Breen Gives Introduction (New York Landmarks Conservancy, Nov. 30, 2009)

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum Book Shop was packed with people eager to hear Paul Goldberger, America’s foremost interpreter of public architecture, present his two new books, Why Architecture Matters and Building Up and Tearing Down: Reflections on the Age of Architecture.

The Conservancy co-sponsored the event and Peg Breen, Conservancy President, gave the introduction.

The prolific author offered his own way of seeing and experiencing the built world and how it impacts our lives.

“Architecture is the making of place. Architecture is the making of memory,” he said.

[Continue Reading]

-- posted by Kate