Friday, April 29, 2011

Can You Guess the Artifact?

Next week's mystery artifact is a black-handled object with sharp razor like edges on a small wheel. It's placed next to scissors and a large circular contraption, popular within this era.

Can you guess what it is? Check back on Monday for the answer!

Goodbye Mr. Ball Goodbye!: A Tribute Song to Hank Greenberg

On April 27, 2011, Mark Kurlansky and Kevin Baker joined Tenement Talks to discuss the life and times of Hank Greenberg, an Jewish-American professional baseball player from the 1930s and 1940s.  Greenberg is best known for his refusal to play baseball on Yom Kippur in 1934.  Audience member, David Bellel from the Lower East Side History Project, brought a special treat for the audience, a song written by Bill Coryn and Harold Smith about Greenberg's ability as a power hitter.  Listen to the song here and follow along with the lyrics!

Goodbye Mr. Ball Goodbye
Written by Bill Coryn & Harold Smith
Performed by Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby & Hank Greenberg
Courtesy of the Philco Radio Show

We’ve heard about those old time dangerous pirates
of Captain Kidd and Silver John the Long
but we prefer those modern dangerous Pirates
as our victims walk the plank we sing this song

Oh, goodbye, Mr Ball, goodbye

You are going to see an awful lot of sky
don’t hang around for Richard to open up that door
when Hankus Pankus hits you where you’ve never been hit before

Oh, goodbye, Mr Ball, goodbye
You had better kiss your relatives good bye
when Hank comes to the plate, Ball,
you’re gonna to be out late so

Oh, goodbye, Mr Ball, goodbye
Oh, goodbye, Mr Ball, goodbye

Say hello there to the sun up in the sky
a plate is mighty handy to eat the lean and fat
but not when Hank the Greenberg serves it up with his big bat

Oh, goodbye, Mr Ball, goodbye

Go fly ‘til the blue has met the dawn up in the sky
when Hank gets home run itch, Ball,
you’re going to drop a stitch
so goodbye Mr ball, goodbye

Oh nothing could be finer
than a partner like Ralph Kiner
in the outfield
and I am confirmin’ that I’ll work for Billy Herman
in the infield

Oh goodbye, Mr Ball, goodbye
you had better kiss your relatives goodbye

Wait a minute, when the count is 2-0 and I let that third one go,
what happens then?
You’re out

Oh Goodbye Mr Hank goodbye
And furthermore,
when I think I've got a hit and it winds up in Slaughter's mitt
How about that?

Too bad
Oh goodbye Mr. Hank Goodbye
Oh, Mr. Greenberg
Goodbye Mr. Hank Goodbye

Lyrics courtesy of

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Conversation with Mark Kurlansky on Hank Greenberg

Mark Kurlansky, the author of Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn't Want to Be One, explores the legendary life of Hank Greenberg, the famous first baseman and power hitter for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s.

Why does Hank Greenberg remain so important in American Jewish history?
In the 1930s, at a time when there was so much anti-Semitism in America that Jews hesitated to be too conspicuous, here was a Jewish superstar who seemed fearless, who faced relentless anti-Semitism and never backed away.  But in the longer view of history, Hank Greenberg was a man who stood against not only anti-Semitism but racism and bigotry in general, and did so with remarkable grace.  His refusal to ever use prejudice as an excuse and his ability to always keep his dignity stand as an important chapter in the history of the fight against bigotry in America, one that can inspire not only Jews but all victims of hatred and discrimination.

How much of his decision not to play ball on Yom Kippur, 1934, was informed by his religious faith? 
He had no religious faith, was completely secular.  When his team needed him in a tight pennant race, on Rosh Hashanah, he played.  But by Yom Kippur the pennant was secure, and since many Jews had been upset about Rosh Hashanah and it was an embarrassment for his family, he decided not to play.  The following year on Yom Kippur he was in a World Series and his team needed him, and he agreed to play without hesitation.  But a wrist injury the day before prevented him from participating, thereby securing the myth that "Hank Greenberg won't play on the High Holidays."  It never came up again.

Was Hank Greenberg always uncomfortable with the idea of being a hero to American Jews?
Yes, he was very uncomfortable about it.  Jews were constantly trying to honor him at banquets and give him gifts, and he turned both down, saying he just wanted to be a ballplayer.  He never wanted to deny being Jewish but did not believe that it should give him a special standing.

How much did Detroit figure into his experience and his legend?
Had he played in New York his story might have been different.  But he was in Detroit, a city with a small tightly knit Jewish community and a general public with a great deal of anti-Semitic feeling.  In the years he was playing, two of the most notorious anti-Semites in the country, Father Coughlin and Henry Ford, were both spewing hate in Detroit.  

What qualities defined him as an athlete?
Though his swing was unbelievably graceful, he was never considered a natural athlete.  He was large, a bit awkward, and flat-footed.  But he was also extremely powerful and the most hardworking player in the history of professional baseball.  He spent hours before and after games practicing his swing and his fielding moves.  Whenever his performance was lacking he worked on that particular move until he had it down.  And in an age when other players such as Babe Ruth were out carousing, he kept himself in top physical condition year round.

What qualities most defined him as a man?
His humility, without a doubt.

This interview was conducted and published by the Yale University Press

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Accessibility at the Tenement Museum

We love a good conversation here at the Tenement Museum. In fact, we learn something new every time a visitor shares their own family story. To keep the dialogue going strong, we want to make the museum accessible to as many people as possible. This spring, we’re announcing two new initiatives which will go a long way toward this goal.

Starting in May, we’ll be launching a series of Tenement Talks with Open Captioning—a service that provides real-time captions displayed on a large screen in conjunction with the spoken presentation. These captions are great for audience members with any degree of hearing impairment.

Later this year, we’ll also be launching our new Shop Life exhibition, which explores the history of the retail spaces on the street level of 97 Orchard Street. Though the upper floors of the historic tenement will remain inaccessible to wheel chairs and folks who don’t climb stairs, we’ll be able to install a lift for access to the new exhibit—making it the first accessible building tour at 97 Orchard!

These programs and others are coordinated by the Museum’s Education Associate for Program Development, Sarah Litvin. Sarah also oversees the series of ASL tours given by Educator Alexandria Wailes and Touch Tours lead by educators trained in verbal description for visitors who are blind or have low vision. She also coordinates walking and virtual tours for those who use wheelchairs, and she’s currently working on making our school group programming suitable and adaptable for students on the autism spectrum.

Click here for a short video introduction to our ASL Tours with Alexandria.

“Working to create accessible programming in a building that’s dim, cramped, and noisy is certainly a challenge.” says Sarah. “We’re always learning from visitors, advisors, and colleagues and we’ve applied what we’ve learned to improve the museum experience for all visitors.”

For example, our educators now pass around handling objects and offer large-scale images to illustrate tours. They’re also trained not to speak with the lights out. These changes are applied to all tours, not just those with visitors who have told us they’re blind or hard of hearing.

If you have any questions or suggestions about accessibility at the Tenement Museum, post your comment here or send Sarah a note at

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Archaeology of Home with Katharine Greider

Next Thursday, April 28th, Tenement Talks will welcome Katharine Greider, who'll discuss her book The Archeology of Home: An Epic Set on a Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side. One of our stellar interns, Patricia Pforte, recently interviewed the author by phone.

Tenement Museum: Your story starts when you were told to leave your house [on East 7th Street in Manhattan] or risk it falling down. Do you remember that day?

Katharine Greider: It was a surreal experience. There were darkening clouds for a few years and they burst one evening. There had been troubling signs along the way - the roof would leak, there were sinking places in the basement, and cracks in and outside the building. Bad things were happening. We and our co-owners hired an architect and he was going to tell us how to fix it. Instead he called and said we needed to get out ASAP. Although we knew there were problems we never thought it would be that bad. And we had no idea if we were going to come back or how long we would be away. Our kids were small; it was a time in our lives when we were focused on establishing a home.

As part owner of a building that's in a state of decay, of course, you're responsible. The Red Cross doesn't show up with coffee and sandwiches. Instead a buildings inspector comes and gives you a ticket.

Tenement Museum: Have you always wanted to write a book like this?

Katharine Greider: I was actually sort of reluctant to write my own story. But I was fascinated with the history and ideas of home and I knew I would need to bring in my own voice and share the experience or the rest of the story would seem disembodied. It is not traditional history, it is about ordinary people chosen by a kind of lottery--people who happened to have lived at this spot. It actually exalts ordinary people, which we all are. In any memoir I think the writer hopes that people will recognize their own humanity in the writing. That's true of most literature.

Tenement Museum: Your story is sort of like the private home version of what the Tenement Museum is about. We all uncover the layers of stories, histories, lives beneath the surface to gain insights to the ways things were and how they are now. Do you agree?

Katharine Greider: I think it comes from a similar impulse as the Tenement Museum. There's a place in the book when I talk about the museum and the feeling in those rooms that the walls are closing in. You wonder how people found a sanctuary for the body there or space for the self.

The other message that comes out of the Tenement Museum is about being a newcomer, especially a poor newcomer. That may be a hardship, but it is not a disgrace. That's a key lesson of New York City's history. It teaches that of course a Bronx housing project can produce a Sonia Sotomayor. New York and the Lower East Side in particular represent that idea for America.

Tenement Museum: Your discussions of home are deeply moving. Do you have a different sense of home now, and how do you feel about the fact that a new apartment building now exists where yours did?

Katharine Greider: The building on 7th Street was the first ever built on that spot. But I know that spot has to be used by people, and the building as it was just couldn't serve that purpose any longer. It was at the end of its useful life. As I started to see some of the stories that unwound there, I felt that so much was passing away with the building. I wanted to make a vessel that could hold some of those memories.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Passover with the Confinos at 97 Orchard

This week many families are celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover, or Pesach. During this holiday, traditional foods take on important symbolism during a ritual meal called a Seder. While the core elements of this holiday are universal, the observation of Passover varies between nationalities, cities and even families.

In 1916, the Confinos were one of three Sephardic Jewish families living at 97 Orchard St. Coming from Kastoria, in modern day Greece, the Confinos celebrated Passover slightly differently than their Eastern European neighbors.

The Confino Family c. 1911-1917

Since food is such an important part of Passover, some of the most noticeable differences between the Confinos' traditions and those of their neighbors had to do with the dishes they prepared and ate. Many of these foods reflected their Spanish ancestry. For example, rather than eating gefilte fish, the Confinos served "peshi di vinagre": chilled baked carp with a tomato and vinegar sauce.

Before the advent of refrigeration, the easiest way to keep the carp fresh was to keep it alive until the last possible moment. One descendant of the Confino family remembers going to her grandmother's house in the 1930's, saying, "My nona Rachel had a big humongous carp her bathtub swimming back and forth. I'd say to her, how are we going to eat this? And she'd say, 'I gotta hit it on the kavesa'. In other words--boom--on the head. But I never saw her do it."

The matzoh balls the Confinos prepared also looked slightly different from those of their Eastern European neighbors. These "albondegas" (very close to "albondigas", the Spanish word for meatballs), were small--a little big bigger than marbles--and very dense. One Confino descendant says that "people either love them or think they taste like lead pellets."

For dessert, the Confinos ate bumuelos (also known as buñuelos), matzoh meal dumplings fried in oil in a special pot, then cooked in a boiling sugar and honey syrup. These were served cold and topped with ground walnuts. After dinner, the adults would have enjoyed turkish coffee made in a long-handled pot called a finjan. This thick, sweetened coffee is known for being especially strong.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Notes from My Breakfast with Bloomberg

Last Thursday morning I made a trip to Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side for a breakfast reception attended by immigrant advocacy groups from all over the city. The event was hosted by Mayor Bloomberg to celebrate the city’s 8th Annual Immigrant Heritage Week. It was a long way from Orchard Street, but the topics we discussed were very familiar.

It was great to hear from Mayor Bloomberg and Fatima Shama, the city’s Immigrant Affairs Commissioner. Immigrant Heritage Week was launched by the Mayor, who frequently talks about the importance of immigrants to New York City. Bloomberg spoke about efforts his office is making to work together with other cities around the U.S., and emphasized New York’s responsibility to lead the way for immigration reform—something I found especially important. He spoke about how the country cannot wait for Washington to pass legislation; rather, we should start the work together at the grass roots level. The Mayor also discussed the important roles that immigrants have always played in building our society, and the great economic benefits immigrants bring to major cities, which are particularly important in hard times.

The Mayor and the Commissioner honored several people working to help immigrants in the city. One of the honorees was the founder of Reportorio Espanol, a little theater in Manhattan that has been showcasing amazing plays from Spanish speaking writers and authors. Just last month I actually visited this theater and enjoyed a play about Dominicans who suffered during the regime of Trujillo in the 1940s.

Many organizations throughout the city are celebrating this week. For example, the Mayor’s office has been working with StoryCorps to record the stories of immigrant New Yorkers and their families. This project is open to the public, and the mayor encouraged all of us to participate.

Here at the Tenement Museum, we focus on immigrant histories, but we also discuss contemporary issues and make connections between the two. The Mayor seems very supportive of this, and very much aligned with our mission to promote tolerance and historical perspective. It was exciting to be among so many people that care for immigrants today and the many that have come before us.

--Pedro Garcia, Tenement Museum Education Associate

Friday, April 15, 2011

How a Mongol Became a Jew Became Irish

While I am Italian on my mom’s side, the stories of my paternal grandfather Adolf Berkowitz are the most well known in my family. Adolf was born in the Austro-Hungarian village of Essen. His father, Max, was part of the Honor Guard for Franz Josef and was armed with a sword. According to family lore an anti-Semite in the town began to harass Max’s father, tugging at his long beard. Fueled by an infamous temper, which has been diluted in recent Berke generations, Max struck the man with his sword. More outlaw than immigrant, he then fled the country leaving his family behind. In 1917 he was able to send money to my great-grandmother Bertha and my 7 year old grandfather Adolf and they crossed the sea to join him in Pittsburgh.

Thirty years later, my grandfather had grown up to be the only Jewish doctor in Antioch, Illinois, and had shortened his name from Berkowitz to Berke. Safe under the guise of an Irish name, Adolf made frequent house calls, carrying with him a large alligator skin bag full of vials of brightly colored pills. When my father Jerry Berke was a child he would sometimes ride this bag like a cowboy patrolling the desert, or perhaps like a nomad on the steppes of Eurasia.

Genghis Khan -- A distant relation?                                                    Jerry Burke, the Author's Father

Berkowitz means “son of Berke.” I’ve been told that the first Berke—from whom all Berkowitzes are descended—was the grandson of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire. So somewhere back there we were Mongols, and perhaps it was the blood of a warrior that caused my great-granddaddy Max to lose his temper that day and strike out for a new life in America. And perhaps it is the ambition of a Mongol horde that drives me to pursue a career in show biz. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, thank you Genghis Khan.

Elly Berke is an educator and costumed interpreter at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. She joined the museum in 2009 to play Victoria Confino, thus fulfilling a dream of combining her degrees in American Studies, Theatre, and Museum Studies. Elly acts professionally and studies at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Remembering Roosevelt

When I was very young in Vienna, my nanny took me to see the triumphant entrance of Adolph Hitler into the city where he once led an impoverished life. The crowds were huge and hysterical with joy. I was too young to understand that he was a threat to my life, but my mother, knowing better, escaped to New York with me.

Six years later,  in 1944 I stood in the rain on Broadway along with a sparse crowd. President Roosevelt was running for a fourth term. As he drove by in an open car we let out a cheer for the President who, looking quite ill, would die just months later.

Tenement Museum Educator Dorothea Scher

Whenever I bring a group of visitors to the Baldizzi apartment at 97 Orchard Street, I see Roosevelt’s photograph on the wall and am reminded of the heroic status he achieved by carrying this nation through the great depression. As a new American, Roosevelt represented the best of this country to me, so I know why Sadie and Al hung his photograph on their wall.

Dorothea Scher arrived in New York as an immigrant, so she is naturally very attached to the Tenement. She experienced some of the things we talk about on our tours and so she enjoys sharing. She has much more fun being retired than being an agent for commercial photographers, something she did for quarter of a century. Dorothea has also volunteered at the Morgan Library, among other institutions, which is a very different venue from 97 Orchard.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

America's Child

I guess I never felt like I fit in anywhere, but public school was the worst. On the days I felt like running away, my dad would offer comfort by telling me that he felt the same as a kid. Though this was meant to make me feel better, instead it made me even more melancholy.

He would begin by remembering a question posed by his first grade teacher:

“Who would like to tell the class what they ate for breakfast this morning? OK, George, you had your hand up first. Go ahead.”

“I had fross-ted, fluck-us!”

“I don’t know what that is George. Can you explain it?”

“Fross-ted Fluck-us! You know… Tony the Tiger… They’re GRRR-ATE!!”

The whole suburban first grade class burst out laughing once they understood. Even the teacher laughed. My dad, an immigrant from Germany, flushed red and sat down. But he found a language to recount the story years later and could even laugh at himself about it.

Tenement Museum Educator Jason Eisner with a photograph of his father as a child in Germany

I grew up listening to this kind of English when we would travel on weekends or for holidays or birthdays to my grandparent’s house. Their accent was thick, but I understood them… the thing is I don’t remember now what they said.

Instead, I remember heavy food smells, and running down the hill on the side of their house. And I remember a densely packed basement full of boxes and treasures and laundry drying on a line. I remember sneaking into my grandparents' bedroom where I was surprised by how cool it felt, always, and by the rose smell that made me think of grandma. There was a picture on their wall from another time and place, with grandpa in a uniform fighting for the wrong army.

There were times I didn’t understand what they said because they spoke in German or Czech. My dad didn’t understand either, but we both knew we were being talked about.

The language of my grandparents was a private code. A secret. It was their intimacy and their history. It died with them. I am the son of an immigrant who has lost his tongue and his history. I am the ideal lost American son.

Jason Eisner is an activist visual artist who migrated to New York from the suburbs of Chicago a decade and a half ago. When he is not working full time on his art production he works as an Educator at the Tenement Museum, where he is committed (though story telling) to changing the world, one visitor at a time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

New to New York

People come to the United States for various reasons; freedom, economic stability, a better life for their children. I came for love. My wife brought me here. At the age of 30 I found myself an immigrant in an amazing, bewildering city.

I work at the Tenement Museum, delving deep into the experiences of immigrants who arrived over a hundred years before me, and their stories have grounded me in this new place. By exploring their trials and tribulations I have been gifted with perspective of my own.

It is true that those who came before us were just people like ourselves, living in a different time, doing the best they could with what they had available. I remember walking down Broadway near Lincoln Center and feeling utterly lost and aimless in New York, no job, still waiting on my work permit, terrified at starting my life over again. Thinking about my friends and family that I had left behind in New Zealand. Frightened to jay walk, paranoid that some cop would arrest me for doing it. I also felt so challenged. At times I would want to curl up into a ball and just disappear. I didn’t want to start my life over again. I had to find the drive to start over.

Tenement Museum Educator Raj Varma

Even language was different for me in America. I grew up speaking not American English, but the Queen’s English (Like Colin Firth). For me, a “torch” is an instrument that you put batteries into that creates light. However, it caused a huge laugh at a Tenement Museum educator meeting when I mentioned that object; my colleagues pointed out that here they call it a flashlight. I think they envisioned me as a New Zealand version of Indiana Jones, wandering through the building with an ignited rag wrapped around a human femur. In New Zealand a “bench” is what Americans call a “countertop”. Biscuits vs. cookies, zebra crossings vs. crosswalks, entrees vs. appetizers vs. mains vs. entrees. I could go on. And on. And on.

On a more serious level, it took me years to be able to use the term “black” without feeling like I was going to offend somebody, and terms that are loaded here, like the “N” word, I used flippantly in New Zealand as a teenager. We never had a civil rights movement in New Zealand. The “N” word was more of a joke than a racial slur.

On my honeymoon, my wife and I went to the Finger Lakes district in Western New York and we hired a car. I ended up driving into incoming traffic on the highway. It was instinctual for me, I had to undo what I knew and adapt to the new way.

And when I think of immigrants at the Tenement each day, I can imagine how they would have felt upon their arrival in Manhattan. It’s conjecture that those feelings may have mirrored my own. Nobody will know how Bridget Moore felt in 1863 when she arrived in this new world. But I take heart in the belief that emotions are divine. We have felt them since before the ages and they make us human.

To know the struggles of those who have come before is a gift indeed. To feel emotionally connected with these souls is a validation for me. I share in their triumph and quietly gain confidence from the knowledge that if they did it, so can I. And for those who failed, those that died with dreams unfulfilled, I am reminded everyday of how lucky I am to enjoy the benefits of a nation made rich through the waves of immigrants that created it.

Rajeev Varma is a New Zealand-born Rajasthani/Punjabi actor who has worked extensively in theatre, film and television. He starred in New Zealand's prime time comedy, The Millen Baird Show and New Zealand's first Indo-Asian sketch comedy show, 1000 Apologies. He is one half of the comedy duo Those Indian Guys, with comedian Tarun Mohanbhai. His one-man show D’Arranged Marriage has been playing in Manhattan for almost two years. Rajeev currently lives in Brooklyn, New York with his amazing and patient wife.

Monday, April 11, 2011

My Mother's Gift

In 1990, I was one year old and on my way to America. My father had begged my mother to let me stay with him in the Philippines, so a compromise was struck—I would move between worlds and cultures for the first few years of my life. Soon, it was my mother’s turn to say goodbye to me at the gate and fly back to America alone, leaving my father to care for me with the help of my army of Titas (aunties).

When she returned home to the U.S., my mom packed away my things and spent that year avoiding birthday parties for her friends’ children. It was too much, she would later tell me -- “But I did what I had to do.”

My mother’s life is defined by this phrase. Her courage was rooted in her responsibility to sustain the future of her family with each paycheck she sent home.

Tenement Museum Intern Marianne De Padua and her Family

In 1986, my mother was a frail and naïve 26-year-old woman who came to America for the first time seeking a better life. She worked long hours as a nurse between two hospitals and lived in a small apartment on the outskirts of Atlantic City, New Jersey.

For years I never understood her absence. She was still a stranger to me even after my father’s visa was approved and we moved to America to live with her and my new baby sister. Through my young eyes, mom worked from dawn until well into the night. When she was home, she was tired and always cooking a week’s worth of food. My mother always seemed angry.

At 22 years old, I am in awe of the strength it must have taken for my mother to leave her country and her family. My resentment towards her has turned into immense gratitude for giving me a life of limitless opportunities. Like most immigrant family stories, ours is one of sacrifice and unwavering faith in the American dream. Because of my mother, we are all living her dream.

Marianne De Padua is an intern with the Public Affairs Department at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. She is currently a senior majoring in Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. Marianne hopes to pursue a career in public relations, working for non-profit organizations or museums in New York City.

Celebrating Immigrant Heritage Week

This Monday marks the start of Immigrant Heritage Week here in New York City--a time to celebrate the rich contributions that immigrants make to our city and our nation. It’s especially meaningful for us at the Tenement Museum, where we discuss both immigrant history and contemporary issues with thousands of visitors from around the world each week.

The United States has been a nation of immigrants from the start. Our culture reflects this in the foods we eat, the music we hear and the holidays we celebrate; our economy is fueled by the labor and innovation of immigrant workers and entrepreneurs.

Chinese Schoolchildren c.1910

Here at the Tenement Museum, we celebrate the strength and variety of our immigrant experiences every day. Often, visitors find that the stories we tell mirror those of their own families. Whether our roots are in South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, or right here in New York, we can all find commonalities with the people who started new lives at 97 Orchard Street.

This week is a perfect time to support immigrant heritage and the Tenement Museum by paying us a visit or joining us as a museum member. We are a community organization in the truest sense, and we hope you’ll contribute to our ongoing conversation.

In an effort to share some of our own personal histories, and in celebration of this important week, we’re excited to present a series of stories from our museum staff members here on our blog. I hope you’ll check back to read each of these uniquely powerful contributions. Today you’ll find the first of five installments.

--Morris J. Vogel, Tenement Museum President

Friday, April 8, 2011

Why Architecture Matters with Paul Goldberger

“Like the best art criticism, the education of Goldberger's eye explains much of what one feels but had not fully understood in looking at them.” -- John Berridge

We all need a place to sleep; it seems like one of the most basic needs—shelter.

Paul Goldberger discusses the places in which we shelter, work and play. He discusses when architecture is necessary and aesthetic, and goes beyond necessity to architechture’s function, sustainability, beauty and effect on our emotions. So we all need, want and like architecture—but do we need criticism?

Right before the Tenement Talk with Paul Goldberger, and as guests streamed in and took their seats Paul looked carefully at the Tenement Museum’s books, toys and cultural objects. He stood in front of the shelves, diving into the details and continued that scrutiny until right before the Talk began. Mr Goldberger is known for this detailed observation as a writer and architecture critic, from his work at the New York Times to his “Skyline” column in The New Yorker. The Talk began. There was laughter and detailed answers to complex questions related to his work as a critic. As he spoke, the detail and description he provided about buildings like those at Astor Place or Columbus Circle displayed a never-ending search for the specific ideas embedded in architecture and which his criticism aims to illuminate.

Architecture matters for a variety of reasons: because of need, function, beauty and even emotion. The discerning and critical eye of writers like Goldberg bring those reasons to the forefront and draw our attention inward to the ways architecture makes us feel and upward to the buildings themselves.

Criticism comes in many forms, including humor. In the clip below from The Colbert Report, Paul Goldberger and Stephen Colbert trade criticisms, and jokes about Why Architecture Matters.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Paul Goldberger
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

Posted by Patricia Pforte

Monday, April 4, 2011

Guess the Artifact: And the Object is...

On Friday, we asked readers to try their hand at identifying this mystery item.

It’s called a “stove top lifter” and dates back to 1870. The device, which rests on the Gumpertz family stove, is used to lift up the circular shaped covers on the stove top.

Several readers guessed this right away! We'll try to stump you next time...

Friday, April 1, 2011

Can You Guess the Artifact?

Our next mystery object is made of metal. It's small, slender and designed with coils around the top, and it can be found in the kitchen. Can anyone guess what it was used for?

Check back on Monday for the answer!

Guess the Artifact: And the object is...

The answer to Monday's Guess the Artifact quiz is....

This is known as a “blackjack” and dates back to 1860. It is a small, easily-concealable club made of a leather-wrapped lead weight, attached to the end of a leather-wrapped coil spring. Joseph Moore would have used a blackjack like this one to protect himself while walking home from a long night of working at the pub.

Make sure to look for the blackjack while touring the Moore’s family apartment!

Congratulations to those of you who guessed correctly!

Questions for Curatorial - Keening

Is keening a mourning ritual practiced only by Irish Catholics?

Traditionally performed at Irish wakes and funerals during the 19th century and centuries before, keening consisted of high pitched, discordant songs sung in Irish, which eulogized the dead. While the practice appears to have been more common in Ireland, it was also performed in Scotland. Keening was usually performed by mna caoine [“na keen” or keening woman], old women either related to the deceased or specially hired to keen.

Keening seems to have predated the introduction of Catholicism to Ireland. Indeed, keening and drinking at the wake were rituals that the Catholic Church tried to forbid, since Catholic officials felt that they cast Irish Catholic immigrants in a negative light (and because the rituals themselves were holdovers from pagan practices).

What is more, keening was one of the Irish rituals that native-born Americans pointed to as an example of Irish racial.  George Templeton Strong[1], the prominent nativist New Yorker and member of the Union Club, kept a meticulous diary during the 19th century.  In an entry dated July 7, 1857, he describes coming upon a construction accident on
Fourth Avenue
in which the earth has caved in on a number of Irish laborers.  In typical nativist fashion, rather then commiserating with the plight of the deceased laborers and commenting upon the working conditions that might have led to such an accident, Strong focuses instead on the reaction of the Irish women on hand, and its reflection on the “Irish” character.  He wrote:

Seeing a crowd on the corner, I stopped and made my way to a front place. The earth had caved in a few minutes before and crushed the breath out of a pair of ill-starred Celtic laborers. They had just been dragged, or dug, out, and lay white and stark on the ground where they had been working, ten or twelve feet below the level of the street. Around them were a few men who had got them out, I suppose, and fifteen or twenty Irish women, wives, kinfolk or friends, who had got down there in some inexplicable way. The men were listless and inert enough, but not so the women. I suppose they were “keening”; all together were raising a wild, unearthly cry, half shriek and half song, wailing as a score of daylight Banshees, clapping their hands and gesticulating passionately. Now and then one of them would throw herself down on one of the corpses, or wipe some trace of defilement from the face of the dead man with her apron, slowly and carefully, and then resume her lament. It was an uncanny sound to hear. . . .Our Celtic fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese.
[1] George Templeton Strong also famously commented after the draft riots, that “I would like to see war made on Irish scum as in 1688,” a specific reference to William of Orange’s campaign against the Catholic James II in Ireland, which culminated in the defeat of James’s Irish and French troops at the Battle of the Boyne.