Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Meet the Neighbors: Landmark's Sunshine Cinema

Our "Meet the Neighbors" series continues this week with an introduction to Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema, which has a surprising history.

The Sunshine Theater c.1930
Image Courtesy the NY Public Library

Located at East Houston and Forsyth Streets, Sunshine Cinema has been a much-loved venue for independent and foreign films for ten years. What's surprising is that the building itself has actually been a neighborhood gathering place since before the advent of cinema.

Originally built as a Dutch Reformed church in the 19th century, the building at 143 East Houston Street has had many lives. In 1908 it began a career in show biz when it was transformed into the Houston Hippodrome, a neighborhood vaudeville house featuring three-act plays, costume operettas and variety acts for local Yiddish-speaking audiences. Patrons purchased knishes from Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery down the block to snack on during a performance.
For Lower East Siders, Yiddish Theater was a cornerstone of neighborhood life.  Jewish American singers like Sophie Tucker and Belle Baker were known as vaudeville's "Red Hot Mamas". They rose to stardom singing ragtime and torch songs like "My Yiddishe Mama" and Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies"--but it wasn't all 'schmaltz'. The red hot mamas also delivered risque and humorous numbers like "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love," and "Last of the Red Hot Mamas".

Sophie Tucker c.1913

Belle Baker c.1916



Time marched on and vaudeville's heyday ended. For nearly half a century, the auditorium was used as warehouse space for Semel Goldman Hardware. For a time in the mid-1990s, it was rented out for sporadic independent rock concerts, before Landmark Theatres bought and renovated the building. On December 21, 2001, Landmark opened its modern, five-screen art house behind the Sunshine's classic fa├žade.

Sunshine Cinema today
But the more things change, the more they stay the same: with the return of theater audiences, the Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery is once again selling their famous knishes to moviegoers. Pick one up the next time you head to the movies for a taste of the vaudeville era and the original Jewish Lower East Side!

Monday, June 27, 2011

From Subways to Ploughshares: a City Girl's Week on the Farm

When I was accepted to present a paper on our Living History programs at the Association of Living History, Agricultural and Farms Museums (ALHFAM) conference in Westin, West Virginia, I had no idea that my agenda would include time with a plough blade as well as a PowerPoint.

On June 3rd, I stepped off the plane and into the one-gate airport in Morgantown where I was greeted by Sierra Kessler of Historic Richmond Town in Staten Island--my sole New York City compadre. We followed the winding roads over hilltops and through valleys, stopping briefly for the necessary we’re-out-of-New York City Cracker Barrel lunch, and eventually found ourselves on the grounds of Jackson’s Mill, childhood home to Andrew Stonewall Jackson and a current 4-H campground.

Sarah gears up for the competition

During my week in West Virginia, I found a new family among first-person living history interpreters from across the country, and even met some of the characters they portray. Together, we learned new storytelling and historic theater skills, sharing ideas on how to respond to visitors’ anachronistic comments without breaking character or making anyone feel bad. I was embraced by the community of living history professionals, some of whom have been portraying their characters and attending ALHFAM conferences for longer than I’ve been alive.

As the sole representative interpreting urban life in the twentieth century, there were times when I was severely out of my element. I learned more than I ever thought possible about historic arts and machinery. I spun yarn for the first time, and practiced using natural dyes. The highlight, however, was learning to plough with a team of horses--see the video below for proof! In the end, I'm proud to say that I earned my stripes as a plough girl, coming in 4th in the novice class of the annual plough match.

Sarah is coached on how to plough a straight furrow before her turn in the match.

Though I don’t see Victoria Confino or Bridget Moore teaching our visitors to plough any time soon, it was a wonderful experience to encounter a very different aspect of American history, and to meet so many amazing living historians.

--Posted by Education Associate Sarah Litvin

Attention Lovers of Trivia!

Please direct further questions to events@tenement.org.

Friday, June 24, 2011

LGBT Immigrants and the Search for Home

Marriage and family are central themes at the Tenement Museum, just as they are for immigrant communities at large. Finding a partner, having children and making a home help us feel sense of belonging in our communities--whether we're immigrants or native born citizens.

However, for immigrants who identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) questions of marriage and family tend to be more complicated. Since June is LGBT Pride Month, it's a perfect time to take a closer look at these issues.

As LGBT people have become more visible in the U.S., so have their struggles as immigrants. The most obvious of these is that without legal recognition of their partnerships, LGBT immigrants can't apply for citizenship through marriage. This was formalized by the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which denies all federal benefits, including spousal immigration preferences, to same-sex couples. Even couples who have been legally married at the state level are denied this benefit.

Bi-National couple Henry Velandia, left, and Josh Vandiver
Image Courtesy the New York Times
As the New York Times reported in March, married couples like Henry Velandia and Josh Vandiver are in legal limbo while immigration officials determine their fate. Velandia, a Venezuelan citizen, and Vandiver, an American, were married in Conneticut in 2010.  Their application for a green card for Velandia was denied and he may be forced to leave the U.S. as a result.

On a related note, thousands of LGBT immigrants seek asylum in the United States every year for fear that they'll be persecuted in their countries of origin.  In dozens of countries around the world including Iran, Pakistan and Uganda, homosexuality itself is a crime--in some cases, punishable by death.

In January of this year, Brenda Namiggade, a Ugandan woman, was granted asylum by the United Kingdom. Namiggade's case became more well known after the brutal murder of gay Ugandan activist David Kato. Just months before Kato's death, a local newspaper named him among 100 of “Uganda’s Top Homos,” advocating their murder. Kato's subsequent murder has been cited as proof that Namiggade's life would be in danger if she were to return to Uganda.

Ugandan Brenda Namiggade was granted asylum by the U.K. in January 2011

The legal status of LGBT people is changing rapidly, however. Just one week ago today the United Nations endorsed LGBT equality for the first time in the institution's history, passing a resolution supporting equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation. As part of this resolution, a report will be commissioned to explore the challenges that LGBT communities face around the globe.

While the families of 97 Orchard were incredibly diverse--coexisting in close quarters despite different languages, beliefs and cultures--their most pressing concerns were universal. LGBT immigrants share these same concerns today as they seek safe homes and families of their own.

To read more about these issues visit:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tickets Now On Sale for "Taste of the Lower East Side"

Educator Adam Steinberg and group visit The Pickle Guys
Last month, we announced a scrumptious new walking tour interpreting the immigrant stories of the Lower East Side through food. The response has already been great--we've had messages and calls from several fans eager to try it.

Well, we're happy to announce that the wait is over: tickets are now available on our web site for the "Taste of the Lower East Side." This new tour will take place on Fridays and Saturdays only, beginning this Friday, June 24 at 1 p.m. general admission is $45 per person, $22 for Museum Members.

What can you expect from this two-hour walking and tasting tour?  You'll visit a diverse group of local purveyors and restaurants, tasting Dominican cheeses, Italian cured meats, Chinese dumplings, Asian fusion cream puffs and more. The tour opens a fascinating dialogue about the origins of some of our favorite foods, revealing that even some of the most quintessentially American fare is the product of immigrant adaptation and invention. Check out these delicious images for more inspiration--we'll see you on the Lower East Side!

Kossar's Bialys--fresh from the oven!

Green tea cream puffs from Panade

Traditional soft pretzels get a dollop of spicy mustard

Vanessa's famous pork dumplings

Meet the Neighbors: Bluestockings

The Lower East Side is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in New York. Even those of us who walk through it every day are often surprised by new treasures, or old ones we've overlooked. It's a neighborhood of small businesses, where chain stores are the exception rather than the rule.  Best of all, its abundant delights are generally accessible--from $5 lunches to $3 happy hours and free cultural events, there's a bargain around every corner.

Since a stroll through the LES yields so much, we're launching a new blog series called "Meet the Neighbors" which will profile restaurants, cultural institutions, shops, historic sites and anything else that makes the neighborhood unique. If you have topic suggestions, please share them in the comments section below!

To kick off the series, allow us to introduce you to Bluestockings, a bookstore, fair trade cafe and activist center. Whether you're familiar with Bluestockings or not, it definitely deserves a visit (or repeat visit). Located at 172 Allen Street, between Stanton and Rivington, Bluestockings sells over 6,000 titles on a variety of topics including: queer and gender studies, Black liberation, democracy studies and global capitalism.

Bluestockings also hosts events (most free of charge or small suggested donation), including performances, workshops, readings, and film screenings, all of which are listed on their events calendar. While you're there, sample the eats at their in-house cafe, which features organic, vegan and fair trade options.

Bluestockings strives to be a space that encourages and empowers all people. It makes a unique and important contribution to the neighborhood and the city at large--much like the immigrant communities that the Tenement Museum celebrates. Be sure to check back later for more introductions to our intriguing neighbors!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Celebrating Fathers

June is a month for many things—the end of school and subsequent start of summer, weddings, and fathers. For this Father’s Day, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum would like to celebrate by highlighting one of the dads who lived at 97 Orchard Street, Adolfo Baldizzi.

Adolfo Baldizzi
Adolfo Baldizzi came to New York from Italy in 1923. His wife, Rosaria, soon followed. A cabinet maker, he came to America hoping to make it big in the land of opportunity. Adolfo lived at 97 Orchard Street with his family during the depression era. His daughter, Josephine, remembered her father finding odd jobs to support the family during difficult times—he fixed doors, windows, and made furniture. “He had hands of gold, he really was a very good worker,” she said.
When Adolfo wasn’t working to help provide for the family, he took his children, Josephine and Johnny, to the theater to see Flash Gordon, The Three Stooges and Charlie Chaplin films. Occasionally he would take them to a diner around the corner for a 5¢ root beer. Though he could not read, he taught his children how to play cards and helped Josephine with her math homework. He encouraged her to finish high school, though Rosaria wanted her to work to supplement the family income. Josephine did finish her education, and worked in an office for many years.

Even when there was very little money, Adolfo made sure that the apartment at 97 Orchard Street was cozy. For Christmas, he made a tree out of things people threw in the garbage, and fixed it to the wall. He used old cheese boxes as planters for morning glories to brighten the windows. He loved riddles, music, and Westerns. During a time of great economic hardship, he and Rosaria both worked to ensure that their family was taken care of, and that their children would have a promising future in America.

So this Father’s Day, don’t forget to call up your dad, grandfather, or father figure and let him know how much he means to you—thank him for the root beers, card games, and riddles.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum would like to wish all fathers a very happy Father’s Day!

--Posted by Tenement Museum Intern Kathryn Barnard

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Building With a Past: the Many Lives of 103 Orchard

If you’ve been following the construction of our new visitor and education center at 103 Orchard Street, then you know the interesting history of the building and some of its past tenants. It seems like everything in the Lower East Side has a back story, and 103 Orchard is no exception!

With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that the building has significantly changed over time, evolving from 3 independent old law tenement buildings positioned in the middle of the block into one corner building. Through it all, 103 Orchard Street has witnessed the ongoing transformation of the neighborhood for well over a century, through cycles of boom and bust, expansion and contraction.

What is now 103 Orchard was originally built in 1888 as 103, 105, and 107 Orchard Street. These buildings were located in the center of block, sandwiched between others on each side.

103, 105 and 107 Orchard circa 1888

When Delancey Street was widened in 1903 to create a larger thoroughfare for traffic to the new Williamsburg Bridge, 109, 111, and 113 Orchard Street were demolished, making 107 Orchard Street the corner building.

103, 105 and 107 Orchard circa 1903

The most significant change came between 1913 and 1916 when the front halves of 103, 105, and 107 Orchard Street were combined to create one tenement building. At the same time, the rear halves of all three were demolished, clearing space for a new building to house a branch of the Bank of the United States facing Delancey Street at the rear of the merged lots.

103, 105 and 107 Orchard circa 1913-1916

When Allen Street was widened between 1930 and 1934, the tenements on the other side of the bank were removed, exposing the side wall of the bank and effectively changing the entire neighborhood.

103, 105 and 107 Orchard circa 1930-1934

Once again, 103 Orchard Street is changing, and so is the neighborhood. In July the Tenement Museum’s new Visitor and Education Center will officially open to the public, representing the historical memory of 103 Orchard Street and the ongoing evolution that makes the Lower East Side such an exciting place to be.

A Rendering of the new Visitor Center at 103 Orchard

Friday, June 10, 2011

This Weekend on the LES: Eggrolls, Egg Creams, Badminton, Ping Pong and more...

As summer begins and the temperatures rise, the Lower East Side is bubbling with activities you won't find anywhere else. This Sunday, June 12, the LES offers an only-in-New-York array of free activities to keep you well fed and entertained all day.

From 12 to 4pm, check out the annual Egg Rolls & Egg Creams festival hosted by the Eldridge St. Museum. Located in and around a restored 19th-century Jewish Synagogue in the heart of Chinatown, this one-of-a-kind event blends Chinese and Jewish food and culture. If you're interested in mah jongg, Chinese opera and acrobatics, crafts, synagogue tours, folk art, or language lessons, don't miss this cross-cultural block party.

Photo Courtesy Museum at Eldridge Street

Photo Courtesy Museum at Eldridge Street
 Next, walk a couple blocks east to the Hester Street Fair. Established in 1895 as a pushcart market, the Hester Street Fair has evolved into a Lower East Side summer treasure combining food, crafts, and vintage goods. This Sunday they'll also host their first Summer Sunday Picnic with 20 food vendors, picnic tables, live music, badminton, ping pong and more. Open from 11:00-6:00 PM, check out Hester Street Fair's website for a full list of food vendors and activities.

Photo courtesy Hester Street Fair

Wonder City Coffee and Donut Bar
Photo Courtesy Hester Street Fair

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Celebrating the Tenement Museum with Theater, Local Food and Friends

On Monday night, 300 of the Tenement Museum’s friends and neighbors gathered in Chelsea for our 23rd anniversary gala, “Celebrating Iconic New York.” The event honored former Mayor Ed Koch and the Museum’s previous Board Chair, Raymond O’Keefe. Guests rode a freight elevator (which incidentally is about the size of one of the apartments at 97 Orchard Street) up to the event, where some of our favorite New York City restaurants and purveyors served everything from pickles to pastries.

From Left: Tenement Museum President Morris Vogel, former New York City Mayor and Gala Honoree Edward  Koch, Tenement Museum Board Chair Paul Massey and  former U.S. Senator Alphonse D'Amato
We were excited to sample treats from the Pickle Guys, Ma Peche, Panade, Hot Bread Kitchen, Tortilleria Nixtamal, Russ and Daughters and many more. Guests were also treated to a preview of the upcoming Liberty: A Monumental New Musical which tells the story of the Statue of Liberty and her struggle to find a place in America.

The Museum’s founder Ruth Abram remembered Former Mayor Ed Koch as an important supporter in the early days, during a time when many were afraid to visit Orchard Street. Tenement staffer Frances Pena also rose to the occasion, sharing stories about working with our former Board Chair Raymond O’Keefe.

Former New York City Mayor and Gala Honoree Edward Koch accepts his award.

Museum Staff Member Frances Pena poses with former Board Chair and Gala Honoree Raymond O'Keefe
While the gala is always a terrific party, it also raises crucial funds to support the museum. As a testament to their dedication, guests committed an extra $32,000 at the event to the Museum’s P.S. 97 program, which funds school group trips to the Museum. With this support, 4,000 more students will get to visit the Tenement Museum and explore the stories of the immigrants that called 97 Orchard Street home.
Thank you to all of the food vendors, museum staff, board members, and museum supporters that made “Celebrating Iconic New York” such a success!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Who is this girl?

Recently, we received an email from the historians at the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp. The Museum is currently under construction, and is slated to open in 2013. It's named for an ocean passenger line which brought more than two million European immigrants to the U.S. in the early 20th Century. The Museum will re-purpose Red Star's customs and passenger processing facilities, telling the stories of the many families who traveled through the site on their way to new lives in the U.S.

The Museum's historians are currently seeking the identity of a young immigrant girl in a photograph dating to about 1905. The young passenger holds a Red Star Line ticket in her hand.

Young Galician immigrant holding envelope labelled "Red Star Line"
Saint John, New Brunswick, May 1905

The photo is beautiful, intriguing, even a bit haunting, but very little is known about its origins. It hints at just one of the museum's many stories. Though it was taken in Canada, it's possible the passenger and her family went on to the U.S., like so many others. The Canadian archives identify her as Galician (of an ethnic group located in the north-west of Spain), but her precise origins are unknown.

Through social media and other online platforms, the museum hopes it can connect this girl to a larger story by identifying her family and tracing their lives to the city they ultimately settled in. As an incentive, the successful sleuth can win a trip for two to Antwerp! To participate, visit http://www.redstarline.org/.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Pox: An American History by Michael Willrich

Late one evening in New York, vaccinators and policemen raided a tenement home in Little Italy, vaccinating everyone they could find with the smallpox vaccine.  Michael Willrich stumbled upon this article, published in 1901, as he searched The New York Times archive with plans to write a book on the aftermath of September 11 and civil liberties.  Instead, this 1901 New York Times article led Willrich on an exploration of the seldom-explored history of smallpox vaccinations and its impact on civil liberties at the turn of the twentieth century.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, a deadly smallpox epidemic spread throughout America.  With advances and optimism in modern medicine, the government called for a universal compulsory vaccination.  To enforce the law, health officials relied upon pesthouses, quarantines, and "virus squads."  Virus squads often consisted of doctors and policemen with billy clubs.  These governmental measures sparked a wave of resistance by Americans who felt a risk to both their health and to their civil liberties.

A professor of history at Brandeis University, Willrich examines the debates surrounding smallpox vaccination in the early twentieth century.  He also poses questions that continue to be a concern in the contemporary public health field.  Pox: An American History explores concerns and debates that affected Americans 100 years ago, and that continue to be relevant today.

Join Tenement Talks on Tuesday, June 7 at 6:30 PM to hear Michael Willrich discuss Pox: An American History.  Please RSVP to events@tenement.org.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Snap! Click! A Peek into Snapshot: a Tenement Museum Photo Event

When taking a tour of the Tenement Museum, one of the first rules the educator will tell you is "no photography, please!".  On Wednesday, June 1, however, participants of our "Snapshot" event were allowed to take pictures of the interior of 97 Orchard Street, a very special opportunity.  Here are pictures taken by staff members during the event.

Visitors take pictures inside the Ruin apartment

Participant takes pictures in the Levine apartment

A peek into the home of the Rogarshevsky's