Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thoughts from a New Educator

Recently, the Museum has welcomed several new Educators to the team. Below, Educator Ana Estrades shares her thoughts and experiences as a newcomer to the U.S. and to the Museum.

I am a new educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. We're a big team--there's around 40 of us. I am not the only non-native, but I'm the only one from Spain. Nothing so special about that, it just explains my origin and also that I immigrated to the States.

In the Tenement we tell the stories of the immigrant families who lived in New York at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, this diverse neighborhood is still home to many immigrants. Of course, many feel that lifestyles and welfare have changed a lot in the past century, so newcomers should find life a lot easier compared to the expreiences of immigrants in the 19th century, right?

However, we know that nowadays many immigrants struggle to find their way in the U.S. Their challenges are both similar to and different from those of the historical tenants of 97 Orchard Street. To fulfill the museum’s mission of tolerance and my own mission as an educator, I ask myself: How can we connect the stories of immigrants in the past to those of the present?

Educator Ana Estrades on Orchard Street
The Tenement Museum and the objects it contains help to explain the city and the country’s history, as well as the histories and everyday lives of ordinary people, like you and me. These stories aren't written by heroes, nor by wealthy and powerful men. They don't even share the common heritage of a single ethnic group. And yet when we learn about immigrants from different nationalities-Irish, German, Russian or Chinese- we often exclaim “I know that feeling!” Though we face obstacles and challenges in different ways, we share common fears and expectations when we face big changes, like adapting to a new city, country, work and environment.

These diverse life histories are incredibly enriching, leading me to an answer for my above question--it is through personal stories that we can build bridges to the distant past. When I face a group of visitors, I leave space for their stories too, because it is the best way I know to build those connections between what we explain in the museum and their own backgrounds and lives.

--Posted by Educator Ana Estrades

Friday, July 22, 2011

Meet the Neighbors: Worship and Washing Up at 133 Allen Street

With the temperature approaching 100 degrees again today, Orchard Street is sweaty--and slightly smelly. At the Museum, the "Eau de Summer" helps us describe what life was like for immigrants living in tenements with no air conditioning or plumbing and overcrowded rooms and streets. It paints a vivid sensory picture.
In the era before air conditioning, deodorant and Febreeze, the scent of the city (and its residents) was even more intense when temperatures rose. Through charity organizations and subsequent government intervention, urban reformers promoted the construction of public bathhouses in the City’s tenement neighborhoods, as both a public health measure and an attempt to assimilate immigrant populations to middle-class American norms.

So we'd like to introduce you to one of our lesser-known neighbors, the [former] Municipal Bath House at 133 Allen Street. Opened on November 23, 1905, it was just one of fifteen similar establishements in New York City offering free bathing facilities to those who did not have access to such amenities—mostly immigrants.

Image Property of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Before public bathhouses, baths were hard to come by. Children could be bathed in sinks, but adults had to either pay a fee to use private, Russian, or Turkish baths, or make use of the Jewish mikvehs (bathing facilities for use in purification rituals) that dotted the Lower East Side. Between 1870 and 1888, the City erected 20 free floating baths over the Hudson and East rivers, but the water was heavily polluted and not suitable for bathing.

Patrons wait in line at the Milbank Memorial Baths, New York City, 1904

Reformers believed that the bath could help immigrants assimilate to “American” ways and free them of their uncivilized foreign habits. The Sun advertized the bath’s ability to “transform . . . some of these grimy Anarchists, and some of these Poles, Russians, and Italians into good Americans,” and asked, “how can we expect to make patriotic citizens out of individuals to whom so much of their native land still clings, unless methods are provided for ridding them of these foreign reminiscences?” (March 31, 1891).

York & Sawyer, the architects of the Municipal Bath House on Allen Street, as well as other public bathhouses, took this philosophy seriously. With large arched windows in the waiting room and glass skylights punctuating the roof, York & Sawyer bathhouses were designed to maximize sunlight—a rare building strategy in the slums—to help uplift the bather morally and hygienically.

With the advent of the New Tenement Laws, private bathrooms were included in tenement buildings. By the 1920s, the City’s bathhouses were sites of social recreation—described as “almost as much of a summer resort as Coney Island” (Bertram Reinitz, March 21, 1926).

The Municipal Bath House on Allen Street closed in 1975 due to the City’s financial crisis, but 133 Allen continues to serve immigrant communities. Today it is home to the Church of Grace to Fujianese, which is mostly attended by immigrants from the Fujian Province on the southeast coast of China.

The Church of Grace to Fujianese. Photograph by Robert K. Chin

Established in 1988, the Church of Grace to Fujianese moved to 133 Allen in 1992. As new waves of Fujianese have arrived, the Church has grown exponentially, opening a second location on 6th Avenue in New York, as well as one in Philadelphia. In an effort to reach an even broader constituency, the Church holds services via conference call for Chinese immigrants throughout the U.S. The program was the subject of a 2006 story in the New York Times.

Though its purpose has changed dramatically, the elaborate facade of 133 Allen Street remains intact, including water-themed ornamentation left over from its former life. The layers of history and evolving uses of this building make it a great example of why the Lower East Side is an amazing place to visit--there are surprising stories on every block!

--Posted by Kathryn Barnard

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The New Center at 103 Orchard Makes Room for Our Youngest Visitors

What’s the best way to make a child really, really antsy? We know: Put them outside a store with toys and a bowl of free candy but bar them entry. Watch as the children press up against the store’s windows, licking their lips and hopping up and down on one foot.

This, alas, has been the state of affairs at the Tenement Museum for years. Our Visitors’ Center is too small and crowded for much more than staff and visitors on our public tours. All those school groups we cater to throughout the year have to wait outside, no matter what the weather.

This is why we’re so excited about the opening of our new Visitors and Education Center at 103 Orchard Street! Now schoolchildren get treated with the respect they deserve. They have their own private entrance leading up to the second floor, where they’ll sit in climate-controlled comfort before heading to their tours.

Schoolkids visit the Baldizzi apartment

And down in the basement level: bathrooms. Lots of bathrooms. Enough to satisfy a stadium full of drunk football fans. (Well, maybe not, but still – it’s a lot more than we use to have!) These facilities aren’t the most glamorous aspect of our new home, but they’re awfully important when you’re a third grade teacher presiding over twenty kids who polished off their juice boxes on the bus.

But wait, there’s more! The second floor isn’t a waiting room for kids – it’s a home for our three modern “smart” classrooms. Here the kids can study maps and primary resources projected onto a screen. The classrooms even have Internet access, allowing us to quickly update our activities with the newest research and draw parallels to current events.

We never forget our educational mission, or the needs of the thousands of children who visit us every year. And now, thanks to 103 Orchard Street, we can engage their minds and take care of their basic needs. We’re thrilled – and we know the schoolchildren will be thrilled, too.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Meet the Neighbors: Cake Shop

Summer is in full swing on the Lower East Side. Students are out of school (or enduring summer school) and people are exploring the neighborhood and the Museum with family and friends. So, as you get to know the community (or reacquaint yourself with old friends) allow us to introduce you to another one of our neighbors, Cake Shop.

Located at 152 Ludlow Street between Rivington and Stanton, Cake Shop is a theatrical, literary and music venue that also offers a café, bar, and a full line of vegan desserts—we’ve heard the Peanut Butter Bomb is out of this world. And because the café is open until 2 a.m., patrons can enjoy delicious baked treats well into the night.

But cake isn't the only great reason to visit Cake Shop. From spoken word to film screenings and eclectic musical performances, Cake Shop offers an events calendar with something for everyone. Featured bands tend to be new wave, hardcore, art-rock, metal and punk. Many are locals from the five boroughs, but this venue also brings in new and established talents from across the country and the globe. You never know, your random Friday night entertainment might be the next big thing (just ask Vampire Weekend).

Vampire Weekend Performing at Cake Shop
 Image Courtesy the Village Voice
As one of the city's premier independent music venues for new and breaking talent, this Lower East Side institution is definitely worth a visit. And don’t forget to let us know what you think about the Peanut Butter Bomb.

--Posted by Kathryn Barnard

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Scofflaws and "Scarfs": a Sign of the Past at 103 Orchard

While most of the Tenement Museum’s soon-to-open Visitor and Education Center at 103 Orchard Street will look and feel brand new, traces of its former, historic incarnations remain and will be visible throughout the space.

For example, we discovered a hand-painted, vertical sign that covers the northern-side of one of the building’s steel support beams during demolition in April of last year. The sign speaks to the presence of generations of shopkeepers who sold a vast variety of goods from the storefront space that will soon house the new Center.

The “scarfs” and handkerchiefs advertised here were once sold by Zwaifler and Co. Handkerchiefs, a manufacturer and wholesaler who occupied the southern storefront of the building between 1920 and 1956. Its proprietor was Morris Zwaifler, a Romanian Jewish immigrant who had arrived in New York in 1900 and settled on Lower East Side. By 1930, the Zwaifler family had moved to Brooklyn, and his second daughter, Minnie, appears to have been employed as the bookkeeper for the family business.

Mid-1930s Photo of M. Zwaifler & Co Handkerchiefs. Collection of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

According to the New York Times, in May of 1944 the federal Office of Price Administration (OPA) fined M. Zwaifler and Co. nearly $10,000  for charging its customers more that the ceiling price it had set for handkerchiefs. Established at the onset of World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the OPA was tasked with both rationing and setting price limits for goods made scarce by the war. But Zwaifler was not alone: oral history interviews conducted by Museum researchers have indicated that many Lower East Side businesses survived the war by selling goods that were restricted in some way.
Excerpt from the New York Times

Zwaifler's handkerchief sign will remain as we found it in the new Center, reminding us of the building's long and interesting history. We'll continue to uncover more of its stories in the months and years to come.
--Posted by David Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs