Friday, October 29, 2010

Can You Guess the Artifact?

We've got another artifact from our forthcoming exhibit for you to think about this weekend!

Shaped like a paddle and adorned with small curved prongs, this thing would be pretty intimidating if it didn't measure in at only a few inches.

Back scratcher? Fly swatter? Letter opener?

It's got me perplexed. What do you think?

Tell us over the weekend and find out Monday!

- Posted by Joe Klarl

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Questions for Curatorial: Manure, Rubish, Slops and Waste

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

What did the residents of 97 Orchard Street do with their garbage?

Ludlow and Houston Streets. Photo: VNY

To most of us living in the United States today, the filth of 19th century New York City is almost unimaginable. The ordinary conditions of urban life included accumulating piles of manure, rubbish, slops and waste dumped directly into the street. Filth and garbage, and the consequent odors, created a social dividing line between the relatively clean, respectable classes and the stinking, dank tenements and dirty bodies of the immigrant poor.

Street sweepings ; Domestic re... Digital ID: 809487. New York Public Library
Cleaning up the streets, 1884. Photo NYPL.

Throughout the 19th century, health agencies and reformers were sporadically moved to action by the threat of great epidemics. These sudden, catastrophic events compelled even politicians and businessmen to make sanitary improvements to the urban environment. A central historical and political debate throughout the 19th century was whether garbage collection and street cleaning were best left to private enterprise, with city contracts let to private companies, or whether they should be viewed as a public responsibility, under public control and employing municipal workers.

Before 1872, responsibility for street cleaning and waste collection was assumed by a succession of public and private ventures. Political ties figured strongly in the awarding of contracts to carting operations, and the city often took over for contractors who performed inadequately. Waste collection and street cleaning were handled by the Metropolitan Board of Police from 1872 until the Department of Street Cleaning was formed in 1881. Political patronage and corruption, however, remained an obstacle to effective service until 1895, when George Waring Jr. was appointed commissioner. He 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 “whitewings.”

Taking up and bagging street s... Digital ID: 809486. New York Public Library
"White Wings" at work, July 1897. Photo NYPL.
For most of the 19th century, waste collected from the streets of New York City was dumped into the ocean. Waring also revolutionized waste disposal and temporarily suspended ocean dumping. Although experiments with incineration and the landfilling of garbage had been conducted as early as 1870, only in 1896 did Waring implement a system of salvaging solid waste: garbage was boiled down for greases and fertilizers by a private firm on Barren Island, ash and street sweepings were used as infill in dumps and low-lying areas, and rubbish (wood, paper, rags, bottles, and metals) was reclaimed by scavengers for a fee paid to the city.
Sanitation - Final disposition... Digital ID: 732899F. New York Public Library
Trash barges head to the ocean, 1899. Photo NYPL.

After World War I, however, recycling efforts collapsed and the city returned to large-scale ocean dumping —- by the early 1930s, the city was throwing more than 2 million cubic yards of waste overboard each year. In 1934, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the practice.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tenement Talks: Chinatown Noir with Henry Chang and Ed Lin

Courtesy of
If you've ever read hard-edged detective stories, it's difficult to imagine a better setting for them than the gritty, bustling streets of modern-day Chinatown. That's why authors Henry Chang and Ed Lin knew the perfect home in which to set their wonderfully compelling noir sagas.

Join us for tonight's Tenement Talks with Chang, author of Red Jade, and Lin, author of Snakes Can't Run, as they discuss their neighborhood's dark side.

In Red Jade, Chinatown native Chang continues his Detective Jack Yu series. This time, Yu tries to solve the grisly murder of a crime boss. As the details of the case unravel, the personal stakes build to a dangerous climax.

Last year, the author was kind enough to sign my worn-out copy of his debut, Chinatown Beat, and if Jade is even half as entertaining as the first, you won’t want to miss his appearance here.

Courtesy of
Lin’s Snakes Can’t Run follows his own detective protagonist, Robert Chow, as he navigates the mean streets of 1970s Chinatown during the sweltering summer. Chow must solve his newest case while confronting snakeheads, Chinatown’s murderous gang of human smugglers. The results are revelatory and the mysterious Snakes is a worthy successor to 2007’s brilliant This Is a Bust.

RSVP here to let us know you're coming; seating is first come, first serve. Anyone who'd like to buy a book from us in advance will get a reserved seat up front - call 212-431-0233 x259. Either way you're guaranteed to love these two speakers (we loved Henry Chang's 2009 Talk so much that we brought him back!)

 The discussion begins at 6:30 pm at the Museum Shop, 108 Orchard Street.

- Posted by Joe Klarl

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

All Eyes (and Hands) On Our New Exhibit

We've got plenty of cool stuff planned for our new tour about 97 Orchard Street's businesses, but one especially exciting component allows curious visitors to get handsy with the past. Typically, we have to be pretty strict about guests touching museum artifacts since many of them are rare or fragile. But for this exhibit, we've brought in a number of historic artifacts that visitors will be allowed to touch.

Sarah Litvin, our education coordinator for living history and access, is helping curate these handling objects for the exhibit. Recently, she asked some of us at the Tenement Museum to choose the objects we personally found most alluring. We didn't get any info on what these objects are or what kind of stories might be connected to them - we were just asked to pick those that spoke to us.

Here's what I liked:

Keys follow a person everywhere and are a direct link to every important place in his or her life. So what better way is there to acquaint yourself with someone than to look at their keys? These feel just like they look: a great jumbled, jangling mess.

As a former trumpet player, this one is personal. I have to hear this thing! It's a light, little instrument and its finish is very worn. I can only imagine the music and stories behind it.

I was immediately drawn to this postcard, dated October 24, 1911 and delivered to Mr. Waldo Little at 31 Mulberry Street. I like any primary historical document that you can see and read, so I loved this. With its visible horse drawn carriage in the background and its old ink, it's in surprisingly good shape too.

I chose this wallet because I could feel the old leather, snoop around inside, and take a look at the person who owned it. Mrs. Helen Lee's wallet felt very similarly to my own nearly a century later.

Sarah's curatorial work is based on personal experiences and preferences, but it doesn't end with us. You'll be able handle artifacts the same way we did, toying around with whatever your eye catches. And you'll learn something too!

So what will you choose? Decide for yourself when our new exhibit opens next year.

- Posted by Joe Klarl

Monday, October 25, 2010

And the artifact is...

On Friday we posted a photo of this:

Commenter Patrick guessed correctly - it's a stove pipe damper!

The damper sits in the stove pipe and is opened when lighting a fire. It lets the smoke out and also allows for updraft, which helps feed the flame.

Essentially all of 97 Orchard Street's residents would have had coal stoves in their apartments. These stoves were used for heat as well as cooking and boiling water. They did not come with the apartment but had to be purchased. The residents themselves would have been responsible for carrying the stoves upstairs to their respective apartments. The heavy, cumbersome stoves were comprised of interlocking pieces that could be disassembled for easy transport and later put back together.

One of the business that operated out of 97 Orchard is the twentieth century was the stove and range repair shop of Morris and Irving Claman.

Stay tuned for another edition of "Guess the Artifact" next Friday!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Can You Guess the Artifact?

We keep finding fascinating artifacts for visitors to handle when they stop by our next exhibit about the businesses that occupied 97 Orchard Street.

This is the strangest and scariest among them. A loose, sharpened spike inside of a metal disk, we approached this one with caution.

Here's a few hints:

It's pretty heavy for it's small size.

The spike can rotate and be pulled out of the casing surrounding it.

And the disk reads "Griswold American 6 in."

So what is this mysterious object?

Take a guess and find out on Monday!

- Posted by Joe Klarl

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Knish Speaks

Today, our guestblogger, journalist Laura Silver, shares her recent adventures with knishes.

In 1908 when Abraham Goldfaden, the father of Yiddish theater, died, The New York Times reported a funeral procession of 75,000. In 1926 two thousand mourners crowded Kessler’s Second Avenue Theater to pay respects to Jacob P. Adler, a great of the Yiddish stage.

On Sunday, October 10, 2010, there were 10 of us: Jews, Catholics, New Yorkers, Canadians, a friend from Boston, a Yiddish enthusiast from the Bronx and two women from St. Marks Place. All gathered for a solemn processional on Second Avenue to call attention for the oft-overlooked landmarks of the Yiddish Theater.

Knish Alley Revival, part of the Conflux Festival, stepped off a few minutes after 4:00 p.m. from Abe Lebewohl Park, on the northwest corner of East 10th Street and Second Avenue.

Clad in a foam knish costume (yours truly), a yellow raincoat and headband of “Caution" tape (the Bronx Yiddishist), transparent yellow raincoats, sun-colored hair clips, scarves and bracelets, we marched northward, past the historical signs on the church fence to the Village East Cineplex. We entered and bowed to the plaque honoring Jewish actors who graced the building’s stage from 1926 to the 1940s, when the strip from 14th Street to Houston was known as the Yiddish Rialto, or Knish Alley, thanks to then-ubiquitous dairy restaurants.

We crossed Second Avenue, proceeded downtown to the Yiddish Walk of Fame in front of the Chase Bank that was the 2nd Avenue Deli until early 2006, and stopped to read names like Molly Picon, Abraham Goldfaden, Jacob P. Adler, and Fyvush Finkel, whose eponymous show at the Folksbiene National Yiddish Theater just opened on Thursday, October 17 on Lexington Avenue.

For me the next act is continuing work on The Book of Knish: Loss, Longing and the Search for a Humble Hunk of Dough and a Kickstarter campaign that continues through November 1.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Model Visitor

Over the summer, a crew shooting photos for the Bloomingdale's fall catalog came through the Lower East Side. One of their stops was the Tenement Museum Shop and Visitor Center at 108 Orchard. This very tall model made like she was browsing books and postcards. It was pretty impressive - they managed to get their shots in about 30 minutes, all while regular Museum visitors were buying tickets and doing their own book browsing. She actually looks like the sort of Lower East Side girl who would be into our Joli jewelry or the photography art books.

See more of their Lower East Side adventures in the catalog, which I'm sure you can pick up at Bloomingdale's.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Who Has the Right to Vote?

You may have read a recent New York Times article discussing permanent US residents who are being deported for fraudulent voting. The reporter points out that many of these people, including Joseph E. Joseph, who's profiled in the article,weren't aware that they couldn't vote. As a greencard holder, Mr. Joseph saw it as his civic duty to participate in the electoral process. He was registered to vote in Brooklyn, where no one asked him for proof of citizenship or told him it was required. He's voted in every presidential election since 1992.

You may be surprised to know that you didn't always have to be a US citizen in order to vote in the nation's elections. It was not until 1804 that New York required residents to be citizens in order to vote. And from 1776 to 1920, non-citizens voted in local, state, and even national elections in 22 states and federal territories, and held public offices, such as alderman, coroner, and school board member.

New York State’s original constitution of 1777 conferred suffrage rights on “every male inhabitant of full age” who met property qualifications. Between 1700 and 1804, debates over suffrage centered on contentious issues of property and race, not citizenship. The principles embodied by Revolution-era mottos like “no taxation without representation” made non-citizen voting a democratic practice tied to notions of residency.

Why did non-citizens lose the right to vote?

Many citizens came to believe that property-less non-citizens would vote irresponsibly, electing substandard governments that destabilized property rights. The massive influx of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century triggered a wave of nativist sentiment that bolstered the movement to strip non-citizens of voting rights. New York and other States gradually passed laws that required citizenship as a prerequisite for voting.

Today, some immigrant community groups are attempting to obtain the right to vote in local elections for New York City. These groups argue that, although they are not citizens, immigrants pay taxes, send their children to public schools and contribute to society in many other ways. They should therefore be able to take part in governing their own communities.

What do you think? Should non-citizens be granted the right to vote or should citizenship remain a requirement for voting?

Monday, October 18, 2010

And Friday's Artifact is...

For those of you who guessed mousetrap - ding ding ding! You're absolutely right.

This odd-looking contraption is used to catch mice. The bait goes in the bottom, underneath the black box. Mice can go in any of the four doors that lead to the interior. Once they start to walk inside, they trigger the mechanism, which snaps upwards, killing the poor mouse but keeping the tenement housewife's kasha and bread from unauthorized nibbles. This one still works - the trap can still be set - but for now it's a just collection object.

Come back on Friday for another round of Guess that Artifact...

Looking Back at the Forward Building

During the early part of the twentieth century, many of the Yiddish-speaking immigrants who flooded the Lower East Side looked to famed newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward, or Forverts, for news and a gateway to American culture. First published on April 22, 1897, the socialist newspaper greatly influenced the political leanings of early Jewish immigrants and, by 1912, as readership exploded, The Forward became a leading national newspaper. Under the outspoken leadership of Abraham Cahan, a member of the Social Democratic Party of America, the paper continued to gain readers with its politics and increasing focus on issues close to the hearts and minds of workers, such as the crusade for labor unions.

It was during this era, amidst a frenzied competition with Russian-Jewish bank owner Sender Jarmulowsky to build the tallest structure on the Lower East Side, that the newspaper erected its headquarters at 175 East Broadway. Though falling short of the Jarmulowsky Bank's twelve story limestone and terracotta giant, architect George Boehm's Forward Building was nevertheless an impressive feat and cemented the paper's importance to the predominantly Jewish neighborhood. For a time, East Broadway even became known as "Yiddish newspaper row."

Readership waned in the decades after the 1920s, despite steps to modernize the paper. With the Red Scare, the paper pulled back on socialist politics in favor of a less radical liberal bent. Immigration from Yiddish-speaking countries was also on the decline, meaning fewer Jewish Lower East Siders and fewer readers. During the 1960s The Forward launched an English-language version to reach new audiences, and by the mid-70s, there was little reason for the paper to remain on East Broadway. The Forward left its original home, moving to midtown. The building's new tenants opened a church and community center for the growing Chinese population of the Lower East Side.

Taken in the seventies, in the wake of the newspaper's departure, the following photograph provides a closer look at the building's ornate facade, which retained its original marble and stained glass flourishes. You can also see the carved portraits of socialist heroes Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, and Ferdinand Lasalle on either side of the "Forward Building" sign above the entryway.

Collection of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (c) 2010
And in this picture from 1980, you can see that The Forward maintained its imposing ten-story presence over the comparatively humble Lower East Side, even as new waves of immigrants arrived. Chinese characters were added to its side wall:

Collection of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (c) 2010.
Today, the interior of the Forward Building houses condominiums rather than radical politics, and its exterior has been restored to more closely resemble its beautiful original appearance, as you can see in this photograph, taken last Thursday:

The Forward, now a weekly magazine, was located at East 33rd Street until recent years when that building too was sold to developers looking to build luxury condos. Currently housed at 125 Maiden Lane in New York's Financial District, The Forward is still an influential news source, particularly for Jewish Americans, though its circulation is only about a quarter of what it was during the paper's glory days.

To see the historic Forward Building for yourself, make sure to take Immigrant Soles: A Neighborhood Walking Tour. Educators can tell you more about the paper's importance for the Lower East Side's early Jewish residents. The tour is offered daily. Get your tickets today!

- Posted by Joe Klarl

Friday, October 15, 2010

Can You Guess the Artifact?

We've prepared a lot of nifty artifacts for you to touch and discover once "Minding the Store" is open to the public. A lot of our collection isn't even recognizable to people today.

But you have to know what the artifact is before you can learn the story behind it.

Can you guess what this strange contraption is?

Tell us what you think and find out the answer on Monday!

-Posted by Joe Klarl

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Don't Block the Box

We at the Tenement Museum have come across a lot of cool artifacts while building our new Visitors & Education Center at 103 Orchard Street. Recently, we found this intimidating relic of old New York:

A probable orphan of Delancey Street directly next to our construction site, the "Gridlock Busters" warning sign carries a cautionary message most of us still have memorized. Still, you'd be hardpressed to find a sign like this on our busy streets today. Perhaps unfortunate, considering how often our intersection at Orchard and Delancey is clogged with cars - maybe we're in need of a mean mascot!

Likely from the late '70s or early '80s when the citywide "Don't Block the Box" program was first implemented, the warning sign was designed to stop drivers from blocking interesections during a red light, just as similar (less menacing) signs do today. Stylized and scary, we can only wonder what motorists feared more: the fine of two points on their licenses or the jagged teeth threatening to chomp down on them.

As the construction process continues, you never know what great, strange time capsules we'll discover next. Make sure to check back to find out!

-Posted by Joe Klarl

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Photo of the Day

Tenament 39

Levine apartment, sewing station. Photo by DreamscapeVisions.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Questions for Curatorial: Sending Money Home

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

How was money, in the form of a remittance or an inheritance, sent between Europe and America during the late 19th century?

Immigrants in 19th and early 20th century New York frequently sent remittances to their home countries. Between 1848 and 1900, for example, the Irish in North America sent home over $260 million; a yearly average of $5 million, 90 percent of which came from the United States. In 1850, the Emigrant Savings Bank was established to help Irish immigrants save money and remit a portion to family in Ireland. When Joseph Moore opened an account at the Emigrant Savings Bank in 1873, he may have deposited money ultimately intended for relatives remaining in Ireland.

While a considerable amount of these remittances were sent in the form of prepaid passage on ships bound for America, quite a bit of money was sent home to help support family left behind in Ireland. According to the historian Kerby Miller, this money was often used to help aging parents pay rent on the land they leased from large landowners.

How was this money sent? During the mid-to-late 19th century, transferring money between Europe and the United States was both efficient and secure. In 1871, for example, the Western Union Co. began its money transfer service. In addition, money was often sent in the form of bank notes placed in the mail. Occasionally, remittances were entrusted to an acquaintance making the trip overseas, and many immigrants appear to have sent money through informal channels such as this. Both shipping companies and mail companies likewise established businesses that helped transfer money from the United States to Europe.

After 1890, immigrants were able to send remittances via US Postal money orders. In addition, as immigrants tended trust their own countrymen, ethnically oriented banks and financial institutions established to assist in the remittance of savings to family in Europe.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Meet the Educators: Justin Gilman and Rachel Serkin

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with two of the Tenement Museum's educators, Justin Gilman and Rachel Serkin. They told me about their jobs, inside and outside of 97 Orchard.

How long have you been working at the Tenement Museum?

JG: I've been working here for a month a half.

RS: I've been working here for four years now.

JG: Pretty different.

RS: For your fifth year, you get a chamber pot.

JG: I can't wait!

Can you tell me about your day-to-day schedule?

JG: Basically, I give tours here. I mostly do the Moore family tour, the Irish immigrant family. I'm learning the Piecing It Together tour starting today. I'm learning it because I took Rachel's tour and she was really great.

On a typical day, I get here about fifteen minutes before the tour and hang out with the other awesome educators. There's so many new people to meet every day. The tours last about an hour, and each and every tour is completely different. So every day is a totally different experience with student groups or families that came from Ireland or people who have no idea of Irish culture at all. I work twice a week: Thursdays and Saturdays for about five or six hours a day.

RS: When I started out at the museum, I was an access intern four summers ago in the office [editor's note: "access" involves working to make the museum accessible to people with disabilities]. So part of my training experience was to give tours, and I loved it so much that I asked them, "Can I come back next summer?" I've stuck around ever since.

I've succeeded in doing all the building tours so I've got all the family stories. I just passed the test to do the Immigrant Soles walking tour, and in addition, I do the Shared Journeys program with ESL classes. I'm a teacher by profession so, for me, it's a combination of teaching/storytelling/performance art.

I typically work three days a week. My day starts at ten or eleven o'clock but I usually end up coming an hour early because I like everyone here so much. It's really fun to schmooze in our break room. It's like our warm-up for the day and then, typically, I'm doing anywhere from three to five tours a day.

I had my first school group of the year yesterday... eighth graders. I just finished graduate school and the tenement building is my unorthodox classroom.

Justin, what other experience do you bring to the Tenement Museum? Do you have another outside job?

JG: Yeah, I got a couple of jobs. I'm an actor by trade. I just graduated from Columbia in May with a master's in acting. I don't have a teaching credential so I end up teaching acting because you don't always need a credential for that in university situations. They're just like, "Aw if you can do it, come on in." That's really fun and I love it. I'm also a nanny for a five month old baby boy, a four year old, and a six year old boy and an usher in an interactive bus tour that goes through Times Square called "The Ride."

When did you start doing that?

JG: I started doing that a week ago. I had a teaching job over the summer at Columbia where I taught high school kids acting, directing, and playwriting. Then I thought, I'm out of grad school and I have no job experience in New York City at all except for teaching. So I spent all of  September trying to find work and now finally, as of five days ago, can pay my rent.

RS: Mazel tov!

So being a tour guide is brand new to you.

JG: Yeah. Everything that's happening to me right now is new but I think that all of my acting training comes into it, like breathing so you can be relaxed. I'm more of a storyteller so my tours are very, very story heavy. They're about being as dramatic as possible.

What do you each find most rewarding about being educators here?

RS: I love my job. This is the coolest job that I've ever had. And the building itself is cool, too. As Justin said, we're really storytellers. I'm from Brooklyn, born and raised, so this is my history and my family's history. I love interacting with people from all over the world. Sometimes you touch people. I've had grown men get teary-eyed on my tours. And people share their stories. These families came to this country a hundred years ago and I try to get people to realize you have more in common with them than you might think.

JG: For me, it's the people as well. Teaching people is huge for me. And since I'm doing the Irish tour mostly, seeing people share what their ancestors had to deal with when they came to New York, it's really striking to me how that affects people. It gets me thinking too, because I'm half Irish, about my family, and thinking about what they had to deal with when they came to New York. I'm so lucky and so grateful that they dealt with that so we don't have to.

But the most rewarding thing is this job makes me feel like more of an activist because there's a lot we still have to do, especially in the Lower East Side, revving people up and saying, "we're not done yet." It's what helps me wake up in the morning.

RS: A lot of people sometimes come in with the mindset that their family was the only demographic to come through, and I love talking about Kleindeutschland (Little Germany) or the Five Points or Chinatown. This neighborhood is still a living, breathing thing. This community is still a living organism, still here.

What's most difficult about your job?

RS: Oh boy.

JG: I'm new to this, so I don't have a lot of difficulties right now. It's the simple things like remembering the dates, the names, the information, and being okay with not knowing the answers to everything. I'd like to be a know-it-all and make something up while saying it passionately but I can't do that because the visitors might know more than me. It's the idea of humbly giving a tour. I am not the end-all, be-all of this information. You clearly might know more than me and I'd love to hear your experience. The other thing is that people come in with their story and their family and sometimes it's difficult to open up their minds and say, "that's your experience, but we're talking about the Moore family. It's a different experience, but there may be correlations." It can be difficult, but when it happens, it's really rewarding.

RS: And if you work at a job like this, you learn a lot about human behavior and people. When there's fifteen, sixteen of us and 325 square feet, a lot of stuff can go down on a hot summer day, and sometimes people don't necessarily want to hear what you want to say. But we like to be challenged, and we like when people challenge each other. The majority of the time, the discussions are wonderful, but sometimes people just come in with a certain mindset and they aren't willing to change. They might not see any value in the history of the building, which is unfortunate.

One of the most challenging things for me is that I talk so much. We talk for a living, and it can be emotionally exhausting sometimes. When I was learning these tours, like the Moores tour, I started having dreams that I was giving the tour in my sleep.

Doing every tour here, you must be juggling a lot of information.

RS: It's amazing. I've learned that you can just turn it on for each tour. Sometimes you feel like you're telling the same tour but in the end, you can still bring it back to suit the individual theme or topic of the tour.

Do you ever confuse one tour for another?

RS: Oh yeah. One time I was doing a Getting By tour and I forgot Julius Gumpertz's name. I just drew a blank.

JG: That's something that I'm nervous about now that I'm learning my second tour. I've just been giving this one tour every day, and suddenly there's a lot of new information.

How do you prepare for all the question that you're asked?

RS: I'm used to some of them. "Is this the fireplace? Where's the toilet?" We get a lot of some of the same questions but I love it when visitors ask questions. I don't feel that I've done my job right when they're quiet. This is your tour. I like to talk, but I don't like to lecture. I want you to share. Open it up, ask anything you want.

JG: And we have tour content for every tour, and it's so much information that you couldn't possibly get out in an hour. So sometimes it's good for me to go back and reread the tour content because there's so much info that answers questions I have for myself. We have to study a lot because we're students at the same time as we're educators.

RS: We're always observing each other. They put us on observations because it's the same content, but every educator has a different way of spinning the same story. It refreshes your tour content.

JG: I observed somebody else today on the Moore family tour, and she does a tour that is 180 degrees from what I do, but in the end, there's the same result, and it's beautiful to see that.

How do you react when you don't know something? Do you admit that you just don't know it and need to study?

JG: I have to because I feel like otherwise I'm not doing my job. I always say "please go to the Visitor's Center where we have so many books and online access for further research." If I honestly just don't the information, it's always better for me to say that than lie to you.

RS: Absolutely. There's some things I just don't know and I'll say "Sorry, but I'm going to be sure to get that information."

Do people typically react well when that happens?

RS: Yeah. Overall, people are very understanding. We don't know everything and that's okay.

JG: I think that's how I feel a leader should work. It's like I know something up to a point and then I may need your help. Because I think when we lie and give the wrong information, then we're sending them the wrong message about our position. And I'd rather just say, "if you know more than me, you might want to talk about this because I want to hear." It's not like I'm the dictator and they're my minions. We're all in this together and I just happen to know more about this particular family.

RS: I've had visitors step in and save me because they knew an answer I didn't. Thank you!

JG: When there's somebody who has come straight from Ireland because they've heard about this museum and they want to take this tour, I'll always look to them and ask if they want to elaborate on anything. I don't want to feel like I know more than them because if his or her family dealt directly with these issues, then technically I don't.

Are there any particularly odd or unique questions that you recall getting?

RS: I've had visitors obsess with the families about birth control and things like that. I have people all the time asking, about the Baldizzis, "So they're Italian Catholics and they really only had two kids? Can you explain that?"

JG: I got asked the question, "Why are you talking about the Irish people so much? When are you going to talk about the Jews?" and I had to say "I'm sorry ma'am, I think you're on the wrong tour?" I can't give all of the tours at once. It's impossible.

I also get a little political with my tour, and we talk about the "No Irish Need Apply" policy, when many people didn't want the Irish to hold jobs. I relate that to modern times, trying to understand who might be in the position of the Irish today. I mention the Arizona immigration law, and sometimes I'll encounter people from Arizona. One woman stood up and gave a speech about why the law was fantastic, but I loved it. I love that stuff because I'd never heard someone vocalize that side of the issue before. People can get super passionate and they've experienced things that I'll never know.

Have you been in situations where you've applied the experience you've gained here?

RS: I come from the belief that history and literature really compliment each other. You look at our bookshop and you've got some of the greatest works of literature. I'd want to teach my kids Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives, excerpts from Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, the work of Abraham Cahan, the editor of The Forward, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Some of the greatest works of literature come out of this time, so I love when I get school kids and tell them it's not just for your history class. Literature is a product of a time period and a historical event. That's exciting for me.

I was doing my student teaching last year, and I was a little nervous because the kids who come to this museum are kind of my guinea pigs. We had a workshop last week about classroom management and the school kids who are coming back. Essentially, we are playing the roles of teachers. We don't see these kids after two hours but we want them to have a positive educational experience. I'm applying for a teaching job right now so I love that I can still apply these skills I've learned and use them somewhere. And I feel so gratified when I get through to a group of kids.

Justin, has it helped you as a performer?

JG: Yeah, for sure. It's taught me more clearly how to read a room. Just like with an audience on stage, when you're giving a tour, sometimes you'll see that there's a gloomy atmosphere going on, and the tour that I give is already specifically gloomy so I can make the decision to put more jokes in, to have a better time. We don't need to be miserable while dealing with sad subject matter.

I use that at my usher job in Times Square job as well, thinking about what these people need and how I can help them. How can I play with a person for an hour and be okay with things changing so that they can have a good experience? I don't have to force gloom and doom on them if I can tell they already feel that way.

And It's the same way on stage. If the audience isn't feeling it, okay, let's do it funny.

RS: You've got to improvise. For me, with school kids, eighth through twelfth graders are the toughest sell because they're at that age where it's hardest to engage and motivate them. They come and pretend they don't care about history but they really do. And I have so much fun really trying to challenge them. I've also become a much better listener as a result of working here, hearing so many other people. It's not all about us talking. Even the questions I ask are a skill. We have some great facilitators that really know how to challenge visitors and ask these open-ended questions. It's a difficult skill and a great skill to have.

JG: It's taught me to be more open and inviting. I want you to be able to open up to me. It's the same on stage, where even if I'm playing a villain, I have to play an inviting villain because I want you to come on the journey with me. I don't want to keep you at bay. The greatest villain performances are when you want to be that guy's friend even though he's a maniac.

Do you think that willingness to learn is contagious with the visitors to the museum?

JG: Absolutely.

RS: We're accessible. We're the face of the museum. We're approachable. I love talking about how I'm the girl from Brooklyn. My mom's from Brooklyn, my dad's from the Bronx, and people can relate to those kind of stories. We're all the children of immigrants.

- Posted by Joe Klarl

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What Makes a Historic House Great?

This weekend I visited two historic houses up the Hudson River: Kykuit and Sunnyside.

Kykuit is the Rockefeller estate overlooking the Hudson (“kykuit” is Dutch for “high place”). The house was built in the first decade of the 20th century and expanded over the years. The space houses the family’s amazing art collection – Ming pottery, Wharhols, Calder mobiles, Sargent paintings, and more.

Sunnyside is writer Washington Irving’s “bachelor pad” – which he ended up sharing with his brother and five nieces. It’s designed as a Romantic retreat, full of winding paths and crawling ivy. The house has been restored to how it might have looked towards the end of Irving’s life, in the 1850s. Many of the family’s furnishings are in place.

Both sites are accessible only by guided tour, which of course leads to a comparison of what we do here at the Tenement Museum.

In this case, both tours were informative, but I found myself thinking of what I really love about ours. We rely heavily on storytelling, and we have a goal with our programs: to promote tolerance and historical perspective on a variety of immigrant experiences.

Many historic homes focus solely on preservation and conservation of buildings, grounds, and artifacts. These museums tend to offer object-based tours – you learn about the antiques that the family collected, how the architecture changed over time, which firm landscaped the grounds. For art history lovers, this can be really enjoyable. But for those of us who aim to experience history – how people lived, how world events impacted individuals – we often find something missing.

I think the greatest historic house tours are those that incorporate storytelling and use objects to further our understanding of history. One of my favorites is the Seward House in Auburn, NY. This is the home of William Seward, the secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln most famous for later buying Alaska for the United States (“Seward’s Folly”). He was also New York’s governor and a US senator. We on the Lower East Side remember him as the namesake for our local Seward Park, the first municipal playground in the country. His life and times are incredibly exciting – an assassination attempt, travels around the world, working with the Underground Railroad – and the tour brings all those moments alive for you.

It helps that the house is filled with things that Seward and his family used. Everything there, with the exception of some carpets and curtains, actually belonged to the Sewards. This is so rare for a house museum portraying this era (mid/late 19th century). You can stand in front of his writing desk as a guide describes Seward’s important correspondence back to Washington. You can stand in Seward’s bedroom and hear about the assassin who came up the stairs and stabbed him in that very bed.

It’s an incredibly vivid way to bring history to life and reminds me of the best of the Tenement Museum – looking at a sewing machine and imagining Harris Levine sitting there stitching all those dresses, seeing the dim light in the kitchen and imagining a child bent over a slate practicing Hebrew letters. For us imaginative types, it’s an amazing way to connect to the past.

Have you visited a historic house that you love?

- Posted by Kate

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Photo of the Day


Baldizzi family dresser, July 20, 2010. By ejswoo.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Questions for Curatorial: When Did Kids Start to Go to School?

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions.

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. Josephine and Johnny Baldizzi attended PS 42 on Hester Street.

PS 42
PS 42 by diane_rooney

Friday, October 1, 2010

Attention Photo Junkies!

Photo by Amy Neiman, 7/2010
Photo by Amy Neiman

Thanks to your requests, Snapshot! A Tenement Museum Photo Event is back. The museum, usually off-limits to photographers, will be yours to capture in the beautiful morning light.

We had so much fun doing this program back in July. It was great to watch people explore the Museum in a new way and to see the care and attention they put into making their art.

If you've always wanted to take photographs inside 97 Orchard Street, this is your chance to do so, in the company of other like-minded folks.

First join us for doughnuts, cider and a short history of 97 Orchard Street's architecture and inhabitants.

Then explore the building's many apartments, stairwells, nooks and crannies. Educators will be on hand to answer questions, offer explanations, and make sure you have ample space to frame your shots.

After the program, upload your photos to our Flickr pool. They may end up on here on the blog (see Amy's winning shot from July's online contest)! Click here to view more photos from our inaugural event.

Here are the nitty gritty details:

Saturday, November 6, 2010

9:00 AM - Doughnuts, cider and introduction
9:30 -10:30 AM - Photography tour

Tenement Museum
97 Orchard Street

$15 / members
$25 / general public

Members: call 212-431-0233 x225 to reserve your tickets or to join the Museum and receive the discounted ticket price.

General Public: Purchase tickets online or by calling 866-606-7232.

Space is limited, so reserve early!

Problems or questions? Contact Visitor Services at 212-431-0233 x249.

Hope to see you there!