Thursday, August 23, 2012

We've Moved!

After more than four years, the "Notes from the Tenement" blog has moved! Please visit us at for the latest posts. You can continue to visit this address to view past articles as well.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Shopping for History

The historic shops at 97 Orchard Street were busy places, crammed full of people and goods. To recreate these environments for our "Shop Life" exhibit, we've done a bit of shopping ourselves, collecting historic objects to help us tell stories from dating all the way back to the 1860's.

Kathleen O'Hara, Collections Manager and Registrar, recently revealed some of these objects. Here are some of the highlights:

Iroquois war club, Schnieder's Saloon

We know that, in the late 19th century, 97 Orchard Street resident and shopkeeper John Schneider was a member of the Improved Order of Red Men, a fraternal organization that modeled many of its practices after Native American customs. The Red Men were known to dress in feathered headdresses, apply paint to their faces and collect artifacts associated with Native American culture.  While Native Americans would have used this type of club as a weapon, for members of the Order of Red Men like John Schneider, this would have been a souvenir and symbol of the fraternity.

Beer barrel, Schieder's Saloon

What would a German saloon be without a beer barrel? Nineteenth century German saloons were family-friendly gathering places on the Lower East Side.  While beer may have been the main attraction for parents of both sexes, whole families gathered in saloons like the one at 97 Orchard Street to enjoy home cooked meals and a lively atmosphere after a long day.

Sash and bundle of sticks, Schnieder's saloon

These objects are part of the regalia associated with the Oddfellows, another fraternal organization that congregated in the back rooms of saloons on the Lower East Side. The sash is made of velvet with intricate beaded designs. The bundle of sticks is a symbol which can be traced to ancient Roman concepts of strength and unity.

Trading Cards

These trading cards from 1934 were manufactured by the Schutter Johnson Candy-Corp. Collectors of all 25 designs could trade the cards in for various prizes such as a baseball mitt, a wristwatch, or roller skates. Cards depicting a detective, a policeman, a jockey, a hunter, a sailor, and an athlete are included in the Tenement Museum’s collections.

Microphone, Max Marcus' Auction House

A microphone like the one above would have been used by auction-house owners like 97 Orchard Street’s Max Marcus.  The microphone, when plugged into a radio, would broadcast the auctioneer’s voice throughout the room. In this image of Marcus' crowded auction house from 1933, we can imagine that it might have been hard to hear Max’s voice even with the microphone!

Undergarments, Sidney's Undergarments

In the 1970s, the Meda family started their own business in the basement of 97 Orchard Street selling ladies undergarments, called Sidney Undergarments Co. These colorful underwear were given to the Museum by the Medas themselves.  While these objects will not be on display for Shop Life, they give the curatorial team insight into the styles and prints that were popular at the time.


This is just a fraction of the cool items we have as part of our "Shop Life" collection. We'll keep you posted as we get closer to the exhibit's opening on October 1! 

-- Posted by Ana Colon

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Home Remedies from Back in the Day

Summer might bring great weather and shorter work hours, but it can be pretty rough on our bodies. Despite modern medicine and simple solutions found at the local drugstore, sometimes you can’t prevent falling under the weather.

Instead of (or in addition to) Theraflu and Hall's, some people treat their maladies with old school cures passed down from their abuelas and bubbies, or further up the line from their ancestors.

Image Courtesy New York Public Library

If you flip through The First Jewish-American Cookbook, published in 1871, you'll find a section dedicated to household cures for pesky seasonal illnesses. Here’s what Mrs. Esther Levy, the author of the book, suggests for our summer woes:

For that cold that sneaked up on you:
“Bathe the feet in warm water; if feverish, take a glass of hot milk with a tablespoonful of the best whiskey and a tablespoonful of lime water, sweetened with sugar; and in the morning, fasting, one tablespoonful of castor oil in milk. Be careful about exposure next day.”

For that cramp you got after getting lost on your way to a subway station:
“Stretch out the heel as far as possible, and at the same time draw the toes as much as possible towards the leg; it will give relief.”

For those mysterious mosquito bites you wake up to every morning:
“Put into a glass or basin of cold water, one ounce of alum, a handful of salt, and two tablespoonfuls of vinegar; run it on at night, and let it dry in the flesh.”
Image Courtesy New York Public Library

Feeling inspired by any of these Jewish-American remedies? Were you taught any special cures like these from an elder in your family? Tell us in the comments!

-- Posted by Ana Colon

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Shop Comes to Life at 97 Orchard

It's been exactly two months since we posted our last update on the "Shop Life" exhibit, and things are moving along quickly! The dust, plywood and puzzling artifacts have been removed; in their place a gleaming new space is emerging on the ground floor at 97 Orchard Street.

Everything--from paint color to floor finish and hardware--has been carefully selected to represent the era accurately. The finish work is being overseen by restoration craftsman and all-around Renaissance man Kevin Groves.

Kevin Groves at work

We'll be furnishing this space to re-create John and Caroline Schneider's German beer saloon, which served up lager and lunch in the 1870's.

The once and future Schneider's saloon

Next, Kevin's constructing built-in furniture, starting with the bar and back bar.  Once these are complete, Curator Pam Keech will begin filling the space with the objects that bring it to life--including expertly crafted faux food and carefully selected historic artifacts.

"Shop Life" is scheduled to open this October--we hope you'll join us for a tour!

-- Posted by Kira Garcia

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Room With a [Legally Mandated] View: Housing Laws at 97 Orchard

This post explores the legislation behind the design of tenement houses, and how changes in regulations can be seen at 97 Orchard Street. The Tenement Museum's “Hard Times” tour visits two apartments occupied during different periods of tenement house legislation— before and after the New Law of 1901.

97 Orchard is a pre-“Old Law” tenement, which means it was constructed before the passage of Tenement House Law of 1867 (the “Old Law”). This was the first law of its kind, listing requirements for adequate living conditions within tenement buildings.

In 1901, the “New Law” requiring vast changes to buildings like 97 Orchard Street, (called “dumbbell tenements,” because of their shape), in an effort to improve the health and safety of residents.  Dumbbell tenements were built for maximum occupancy, not for quality. Their structure was simple: four 325-square-feet apartments per floor, three rooms per apartment, and a window that wouldn’t necessarily let in much light or air. The Gumpertz family occupied their second story apartment from 1870 to 1883, just prior to the passage of the New Law, so they wouldn't have enjoyed the resulting upgrades.

The Gumpertz family resided at 97 Orchard Street  prior to the "New Law" upgrades

These reforms targeted specific (and unpleasant) aspects of tenement life, such as lack of ventilation and light, and sanitation of bathrooms. The New Law of 1901 meticulously described how every inch of a tenement house should look and function. The result was greatly improved ventilation, sanitation, and safety.

Here are a couple of the law's key provisions. They make distinctions between pre-existing buildings (like 97 Orchard) and new construction:

Chapter III “Light and Ventilation”, Title I, Section 67: Rooms, lighting, and ventilation of.— In every tenement house hereafter erected every room, except water-closet compartments and bathrooms, shall have at least one window opening directly upon the street or upon a yard or court. (New Law, 29)
Chapter III, Title II “Provisions applicable only to now existing Tenement Houses”, Section 79: Rooms, lighting, and ventilation of, continued.— No room in a now existing tenement house shall hereafter be occupied for living purposes unless it shall have a window upon the street, or upon a yard no less than four feet deep, or upon a court or a shaft of no less than twenty-five square feet in area, open to the sky without roof or skylight, or unless such room has a sash window opening into an adjoining room in the same apartment said sash window having at least fifteen square feet of glazed surface, being at least three feet by five feet between stop beads, and at least one-half thereof being made to open readily. An alcove opening of no less dimension than said sash window shall be deemed its equivalent. (New Law, 33)

Does this sash window sound familiar? If you’ve visited the Baldizzi’s apartment, right next to the Gumpertz’, you might have noticed that there's one over the kitchen table. The Baldizzis occupied this apartment between 1928 until 97 Orchard closed in 1935. It showcases the physical changes required by the new law. After paying a visit to the Gumpertz’, the Baldizzi’s apartment is noticeably more airy and better lit.

The "New Law" required interior windows like this one in the Baldizzi kitchen.

If you exit the Baldizzi apartment and look down the hallway to your left, you’ll see another important upgrade--a bathroom. They're not pretty, but these inside toilets were a significant upgrade from the outhouses set up in the yards behind tenements.

Sure, it's humble, but it's better than an outhouse!

In the 1930's, housing laws required further upgrades that proved too costly for some landlords, so many buildings, including 97 Orchard, were closed rather than renovated. In 1935, the residents of 97 Orchard were evicted, and the tenement closed its doors to residents for the last time.

-- Posted by Ana Colon

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Coney Island, Through the Photographer's Lens

Like generations of New Yorkers and tourists before me, I made my annual summer pilgrimage to the Coney Island Boardwalk two weeks ago to eat a hot dog at Nathan’s, smell the salty air and take in the sights.

Steven Harrington, Wonder Wheel, 2012

Coney Island didn’t always look the way it does today, though. In the same way that historians at the Tenement Museum use photographs to re-construct apartments at 97 Orchard Street, we can use photos to learn about the Coney Island of the past.

Jacob A. Riis, Playing by the Water, 1895
Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Jacob Riis, one of the pioneering social activists of the mid-nineteenth century, took this image of children playing at the Coney Island beach in 1895.  At the time this photograph was taken, cameras were heavy and required cumbersome equipment, like the detachable flash--which had only recently come to the United States from Germany.  But on his trip to Coney Island, Riis could do without the flash and other components, relying on the natural light of a sunny day at the beach. 

The image’s clarity and suffusion of light is notably different from Riis’s better known images, those of tenement life.  However, like in his photos of the tenements, the children seem unaware or disinterested in the photographer in their midst, concentrating on collecting driftwood and splashing in the waves.

The children’s modest beach attire is a stark contrast to the scantily clad figures captured by another famous portrait photographer, Diane Arbus, sixty years later.  Like Riis, Arbus was interested in capturing ordinary people, often those who were socially marginalized, in ordinary moments.  Arbus, however, focused on capturing and analyzing her subjects’ psychological states.

Diane Arbus, Two Girls in Matching Bathing Suits, Coney Island, N.Y., 1967
Image courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Photography
In this image, “Two Girls in Matching Bath Suits,” from 1967, the girls’ shared bathing suit accentuates their different attitude towards Arbus as photographer, and us as the viewer.  The girl in the left of the frame faces the camera head on, tilting her head coyly, while the girl at the right turns her body away from the camera lens, pursing her lips in contrast to her companion’s slight smile.  These young women, unlike the children in Riis’s photo, are aware of the photographer’s presence—and are clearly responding to it. 

Two of Arbus’s more well-known images are currently on display in the Naked Before the Camera exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Images like Arbus’s and Riis’s inform historians’ understandings of not only what places like Coney Island looked like but also the attitudes of people at that time towards their environments and the arts.

-- Posted by Hilary Whitham

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Humans of New York: Turn of the Century Edition

Humans of New York, a self-proclaimed “photographic census of New York City”, has become a social media sensation over the past few months. Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the ambitious project, captures residents and visitors of the five boroughs, highlighting their diversity in dress, heritage, hairstyle, and attitude. This unofficial record of the ever-changing face of New York City isn't the first photography project to document the people that roam New York City.

[Serbian Gypsies.]
 Augustus Sherman,"Serbian Gypsies", ca. 1906; 
                                    Image Courtesy New York Public Library                                

In the early 20th century, as large waves of immigrants were coming to New York to start new lives in a promising country, Augustus Francis Sherman photographed newly arrived immigrants as they passed through Ellis Island to officiate their entrance into the United States. He worked as the Ellis Island Chief Registry Clerk, and probably began taking these photographs at the request of the Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York at Ellis Island at the time, William Williams. Now in the trustworthy hands of the New York Public Library, these pictures once graced the pages of National Geographic (1907) and the walls of the lower Manhattan headquarters of the Federal Immigration Service.

While these portraits give us an idea of what people looked like as they entered their new lives in a strange country, it is very possible that they were partially staged by Sherman. Some subjects might have been detainees, while others might have changed into their finest garments—generally reserved for holidays or special occasions—in order to up the portrait’s theatricality. In any case, they offer a rare but impressive insight into the real faces of the people that would come to shape our nation at the turn of the century (many of them settling on the Lower East Side of New York City!)

Augustus Sherman,"Albanian soldier",
Image Courtesy New York Public Library
Augustus Sherman,"Guadeloupean woman", 1911;
Image Courtesy New York Public Library

[German stowaway.]
Augustus Sherman,"German stowaway", ca. 1911;
 Image Courtesy New York Public Library 

Augustus Sherman, "Alsace-Lorraine girl",
ca. 1906;
Image Courtesy New York Public Library
Augustus Sherman, "Dutch children", ca. 1905-1914;
Image Courtesy New York Public Library

-- Posted by Ana Colon

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

All About Mel Brooks: A Q&A with film historian Leonard Quart

This post was written for the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Blog From Battery Place, and originally published on June 14, 2012, in anticipation of their free weekly screenings of classic Mel Brooks films. The staff interviewed film historian Leonard Quart, who offered some insight into Brooks’ Jewish humor and overall relevance as a comedian. This summer film series is ongoing every Wednesday night until August 8, and tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis. 

In advance of our free summer film series, which will showcase the work of Mel Brooks, we took the time to interview film historian Leonard Quart, who will introduce the festival.

MJH: What about Mel Brooks’ humor is quintessentially Jewish?
Quart: In all his films Brooks incorporates Jewish motifs. Among other elements, he utilizes a constant use of Yiddishisms, reference to his Jewishness and gentiles, and a sense that his comedy relieves the pain of historical intolerance, and being a social outsider.

MJH: Do Brooks' films continue to push the boundaries of good taste?
Quart: Yes, he can be vulgar, scatological, and outrageous. But for me, his films are too innocent, even sweet-natured to draw blood, even though Brooks believes "comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

MJH: Is he still relevant?
Quart: How do we define comedy's relevance? If it's able to make us laugh, escape our lives, and, at its best, make astute sharp social and psychological points, it's relevant. I wouldn't say all of Brooks’ work meets those criteria, but he does meet some of them.

MJH: What is your favorite Brooks' film? What’s your favorite line?
Quart: My favorite films are Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Most of Mel Brooks’ funniest lines are profane, so I will say that one of my favorite (non-profane) lines is something Brooks said himself that is apt: “Humor is just another defense against the universe.”

MJH: In what ways does Brooks' comic style and vision differ from Woody Allen's?
Quart: That's a big question. To be honest, Allen, in his middle period (e.g. Manhattan and Annie Hall) was the more controlled, stylistically rich, and gifted director. And his works then seamlessly combined the comic and pathetic, with characters who had internal lives, and weren't merely cartoons. Brooks is the more manic and anarchic, and can evoke belly laughs that Allen rarely does. Both engage in social criticism, though Brooks' use of pop culture makes his work broader and less subtle. For a time, these two Brooklyn products, who did stand up comedy, and wrote for Sid Caesar, were, albeit in different ways, the two best American directors of comedy.

-- Originally posted by Betsy Aldredge for the Museum of Jewish Heritage

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tenement Talks Presents: Eat the City!

Robin Shulman became interested in food at age 17, when she witnessed how a garden transformed her own community on 4th Street in Manhattan. Once a destination for heroin addicts, the corner of Shulman’s street became “a small working farm” after her neighbors fenced off the area and planted vegetables and herbs. This renovation was part of a larger, long-established trend of urban gardening, and Shulman wanted to learn more. Her research on local food and its production comes together in Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York, which explores the rich history and innovative present of local food growers in New York City.

On July 19th, Schulman will host a group of local food producers for a  Tenement Talk titled "Eat the City: Taste and Talk with Robin Shulman". And of course, we'll be tasting some of the foods we talk about.  To save your spot at the Talk, you can reserve tickets here.

This panel, represents a small but diverse cross-section of New York’s rapidly expanding local food scene.  Here’s a little background on each of the event's participants:

Image courtesy the New York Times

Andrew Cote is  a fourth-generation beekeeper who has dedicated himself to spreading his enthusiasm for beekeeping and local honey in New York and around the world. His signature product, Andrew’s Taste-Bud Bursting Local Wildflower Honey, is available at Greenmarkets around the city.  He also runs Silvermine Apiary in Connecticut.

Image courtesy Serious Eats

Kelly Taylor first began brewing beer in his college dorm room.  He's now the brewmaster at Heartland Brewery and the founder of Kelso of Brooklyn.  He has been known to experiment with nontraditional ingredients, including ancho peppers, licorice, and chocolate cake.

Image courtesy ITVS
Imran Uddin is the butcher at Madani Halal, a shop that was founded by his father in Queens (halal is Islamic dietary law.)  Madani is somewhat unique: the entire butchering process takes place in full view, thus customers have the opportunity to witness their poultry or cow be slaughtered.  Madani has been profiled by Serious Eats and was featured in the Independent Lens documentary A Son’s Sacrifice.

Image of Ian Marvy courtesy the Red Hook CSA
In the summer of 2003, Ian Marvy and Michael Hurwitz (now the director of GreenMarkets) decided to transform an abandoned baseball field into an urban garden. Thus the Red Hook Community Farm was born, with the support of Added Value, an organization that has worked to combat issues of food justice in Red Hook for over a decade. The farm is a center for neighborhood and youth involvement, education, service-learning, and, of course, locally grown fruits and vegetables.

-- Posted by Natalie Fine

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ilse Bing's New York

Ilse Bing is one of the many remarkable photographers included in A Short History of Photography, an exhibition currently on view at the International Center for Photography (ICP). Born in Germany, Bing was an immigrant herself, moving to New York City from Paris in 1941. Bing was drawn to the immigrant communities on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and many of her images capture the same stories we tell at the Tenement Museum.

Bing was an innovator of her time, and became an expert with the Leica, a revolutionary 35mm hand-held camera that enabled photographers to capture fast-moving events.  One of the photographs she took during her time in the United States, "New York. El and Straw Hat", is included in the exhibition at ICP. It showcases Bring’s interest in both the urban landscape and the figure.

Ilse Bing, "New York. El and Straw Hat", 1936; Image Courtesy the University of California, San Diego

During her time in New York City, Bing met the influential artist, critic and gallerist, Alfred Stieglitz.  Stieglitz advocated for a more abstract style of photography, and his influence is clear in some of Bing's images. In "New York. El and Straw Hat", Bing interpreted the city skyline as graphic elements, highlighting the contrast between the upright pillars of the sky scrapers and the long horizontality of the elevated subway track. She described the New York City skyline as a unique blend of natural and mechanical forms, saying, “[The skyline is] like crystals in the mountains, little things grown up.”

One can also see Bing’s interest in the social realism that predominated in American photography at that time. In "Italians Playing Cards", Bing draws on earlier images of members of Stieglitz’s circle including Edward Steichen and Paul Strand, both of whom documented the immigrant communities on New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1890s and 1910s. 

Ilse Bing, "Italians Playing Cards", 1936; Image Courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum

Photographs like Bing’s – in addition to being beautiful – are excellent tools for Tenement Museum researchers and curators as they work to recreate the tenement apartments at 97 Orchard Street. Everything from the type of crates these gentlemen are sitting on to the cut of their jackets are clues for material culture historians.

If you are interested in New York City history or photography, check out "A Short History of Photography" at the ICP. It's a wealth of notable and beautiful images!

-- Posted by Hilary Whitham

For more information on Ilse Bing, check out the Victoria and Albert Museum’s website:

Friday, July 6, 2012

Teachers Go Back to School at the Tenement

Recently, we welcomed a group of local teachers to  “Becoming American: Using Food Culture to Teach Immigration,” A professional development workshop helping teachers introduce the theme of immigration into the classroom. Organized in conjunction with the New York Public Library, “Becoming American” focused on immigration and food—one of our favorite themes! Teachers got a sneak peek at the NYPL’s new “Lunch Hour NYC” exhibit in the morning, then made their way to Orchard Street for our “Foods of the Lower East Side” walking tour.

An image from the "Lunch Hour NYC" exhibit

Director of Education Miriam Bader explains that these programs are part of an effort to create relationships between the Museum and teachers that bring their students to visit. “Our goal is really two-fold; it’s both to support teachers on a personal level so they can learn more about this period of history, but it’s also for them to get tips, techniques, strategies, and content that they can then bring back to their students.”

Teachers participate in tours and programs that their students would participate in if they were to visit the Museum, also receiving a wide range of resources, from pictures to census records, which “help create the setting of what life was like in the Lower East Side neighborhood 100 years ago,” said Miriam.

Workshop participants at Economy Candy--a stop on our "Foods of the Lower East Side" tour

The Tenement Museum’s partnership with the New York Public Library  is “a perfect marriage” according to Miriam. The Library has an impressive online collection accessible to teachers from their homes, and the Tenement Museum has 97 Orchard Street, an exhibit space that brings our collections to life and puts history in context. In the past, the Tenement Museum has also teamed up with the Museum at Eldridge Street, the National Parks Service, and Facing History for Professional Development Workshops covering a wide range of topics including discrimination, cultural adaptation, and immigrant culture as a whole. 

On August 7th and 8th, the Museum is planning a special two-day Professional Development Workshop titled “The Democracy Walk,” which will focus on the idea of citizenship, from its origins in the birth of the United States to how it changed as the nation grew. Participants will visit Federal Hall and the African Burial Ground, followed by a stop at the Tenement Museum, where the group will consider how the meaning of immigration and citizenship has evolved since the 17th century. However, the Museum knows how difficult it is for teachers to sacrifice two glorious summer days (we like our vacation, too!). So this particular workshop comes with a $100 stipend. For more information on “The Democracy Walk” workshop, or other programs offered by the Education department, check out their page on our website!  You can sign up to receive emails about future workshops on the same page.  For more information, you can also email our Group Services Manager Harrison Rivers

-- Posted by Ana Colon

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The American Dream: Past, Present, and Future

“The American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement…”
 -- The Epic of America, James Truslow Adams

What is the “American Dream,” exactly? We use this phrase a lot, but seldom pause to take a closer look at it. James Truslow Adams popularized the now-ubiquitous term in his book The Epic of America, published in 1931. (And yes, I’m also surprised that the term “the American Dream” is a relatively recent addition to our vocabulary.) 

The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams, 1931

Different people have different definitions of this phrase.  To some, it means “making it big” or “striking it rich.”  To others, it’s associated with “intangible ideals like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, optimism and family ties.”*  Still others think the American Dream is now a myth; an unattainable goal that’s overly idealistic.

Poster from the 1983 film Scarface: “He loved the American Dream. With a Vengeance”

 The American dream is often understood to mean that each generation will do better than the previous one and that with hard work, anyone can improve his or her economic situation.  But after the worst recession in almost a century, is the American dream still achievable? Burdened by debt and an uncertain future due to the faltering economy, many Americans find their dreams more and more elusive. For some, the dream has become a nightmare, or “the American dream in reverse,” as President Obama describes.

A recent study by the Pew Economic Mobility Project Poll, "Economic Mobility and the America Dream,” revealed some interesting--and surprising--statistics:

• 70% of Americans believe the American dream is still “very much” or “somewhat alive.”
• 37% of the surveyed people said that s/he will achieve the American dream in their lifetime and 31% indicated that s/he have already achieved it.
• 59% of American parents say they think it will be “somewhat” or “much” harder for their children to achieve the American dream.

Advertising the American dream in the 1950's...

...And today

Please share with us: What is your American dream? Has it arrived yet? Is it still achievable? Is it a myth, reality, nightmare or simply a sales pitch?  We’re curious to hear your responses.

-- Posted by Lokki Chan

* From National Public Radio: "Sizing Up The American Dream"

For further reading on this subject, check out:

• Rethinking the American Dream by David Kamp, Vanity Fair, April 2009  
• Pew’s Economic Mobility Project
• Obama: ‘It’s Like the American Dream in Reverse’  by Huma Khan

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Greetings from New York

Summertime made an impressive entrance this year with a serious heat wave. Nonetheless, we're excited for the sunshine and well-deserved rest that comes with the most highly anticipated season of the year!

Some of you might be planning on jet-setting across the globe, across the country, or across county lines, taking pictures and sending messages to friends and family about what you've seen and done.
These days, smart phones kill two birds with one stone, performing both simultaneously. But nothing beats the old-time charm of a postcard.

Here are a few that captured our fair city in days gone by.

Courtesy the New York Public Library

Look familiar? Essex and Hester Streets are right here in the LES!
Courtesy the New York Public Library

Even in the early 20th century, you couldn't escape the traffic on Broadway.
Courtesy the New York Public Library

Times Square has grown a bit since the 1910's.
Courtesy the New York Public Library

The author of this message is enjoying New York, but heat waves must have been awful in those outfits!
Courtesy the New York Public Library

"New York: The Wonder City"— some things never change.
Courtesy the New York Public Library

-- Posted by Ana Colon

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Lower East Side on Film: The Fortune Writer

The Lower East Side has been inspiring artists, writers and filmmakers for years, so it should come as no surprise that there's an annual Lower East Side Film Festival located right here in the neighborhood. 

In 2011, The Fortune Writer won the festival's prize for Best Dramatic Short Film Selection. This film answers a question that often lingers after a meal at Chinese restaurant— who is the author of those concise but eternally wise thoughts inside our fortune cookies? Kirby, the film's protagonist, takes his responsibility as a fortune writer seriously, and observes diners during their meal in order to craft fortunes specific to their character.

Standing behind the swing door that separates the busy kitchen from the dining area of the restaurant, he quietly watches people as they interact with one another, in order to speak to them (and their individual situations) through the small piece of paper. The plot thickens when Kirby has the opportunity of his life to write a fortune for a woman he becomes transfixed by… Suspense!

A still from The Fortune Writer

In just eight minutes, we’re exposed to what lies behind those fortunes, and how Kirby reaches out to strangers through those brief messages that come with their checks. Maybe not all Chinese restaurants have a writer-in-residence exclusively for their fortune cookies, but it’s a sweet idea!

Click here to watch The Fortune Writer on Vimeo.

-- Posted by Ana Colon

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Family's Work

As you may know, construction workers are busy creating "Shop Life", a new exhibit at the Tenement Museum which will trace the commercial history of 97 Orchard Street. Educator Abigail Ladd found surprising commonalities with the Lustgarten family, who operated a family-owned kosher butcher store in our building in the early 20th century.

As an Educator at the Tenement Museum, I draw from my personal experiences to tell the stories of the former residents of 97 Orchard. Though they lived in different times, under different circumstances, some things are universal: we all struggle to do the best we can with what we have and try to enjoy it along the way.

I can't help but relate to our upcoming exhibit “Shop Life”, which tells the stories of families who lived and ran businesses at 97 Orchard Street.

Raised on a hilltop in Vermont, my four siblings and I gave up city life when my parents  decided to start a green energy construction company (way before green was cool). Since birth we were unpaid labor (It’s not called a family business for nothin’).

The author (in red) and her family at home in 1995

My first job at the ripe old age of five was messenger, relaying information from my mother in the house to my father in the ‘Shop’, with or without clothes on. At six, I knew my father’s pager number by heart and could forward him numbers. As technology progressed, we were one of the first families with a computer at home. My father graduated from pager to car phone and eventually a cell phone, which became the bane of my existence. Even now there is not a lot of cell service in Vermont, but back then there was only one location on our fourteen acres to receive a call...the head of my bed. My father was up at five and on the phone by five-thirty most days orchestrating things from the corner of mine and my sister’s bedroom. I learned to sleep through anything.

Most memorable was the Christmas Eve when my father and mother packed the entire family in two cars (we couldn’t fit in one) and drove us to a construction site. One of my father’s customers called the day before informing him that he and his family were going to drive to their second home for Christmas Day and asked everything be finished ahead of schedule. Thankfully, everything was finished, but not cleaned. Instead of calling in ‘the guys’ who had the day off, it being Christmas Eve and all, my parents used the labor readily accessible to them - us. I remember complaining to my mother - what else would you expect from a thirteen year old.

“This is child labor!” I exclaimed.
“Yup. Why do you think we had so many of you?” She said flatly.
It was a joke that was recycled by both my parents over the years and when we asked for pay for our efforts they would ask us a series of questions:
“Do you live in our house?”
“Do you eat our food?”
“Are you a member of this family?”
“Well, there you go.”

As a kid, this was incredibly annoying. As an adult, it was an invaluable training in how to be a member of a community, not just a family community, but a larger community as well.
I think of this when I think of the Lustgarden family’s butcher shop once located at 97 Orchard Street. Though it was 1902, I’m sure similar conversations happened in the small apartment located behind their shop.

The Lustgarten family c.1887; All members of the family--even five year old William--have donned aprons, ready to be called into work at any moment...

The Lustgardens’ daughter Rebecca had to cook and clean in a hot, stuffy tenement, the smell of raw meat drifting through, while her younger siblings went on to higher education and her parents cajoled her with the phrase: “You do what you do for family.” Or William coming home from a long day at school with piles of homework to find a line running right out the door of the ‘Shop’ and being enlisted, whether he likes it or not, to help out behind the counter. Or the arguments between Israel and Goldie about life and work, which probably sounded much like my parents.

My mother always chastised my father for all the labor he did for neighbors free of charge, but when something broke at home she had to get someone else to fix it. My father always wanted to spend more money on his motorcycle than on household essentials.

If people are people are people, then families are families are families, no matter their race, religion, creed, or immigration status. Communities are built not by the streets bordering them, but by the people in them--the people who work downstairs and live upstairs or across the street. Families are the atoms of society, building the communities they live in and, eventually trickling up or down or maybe even sidewaysto form a culture.

-- Posted by Abigail Ladd

Monday, June 18, 2012

Surviving Summer in the City

We've already had a taste of hot weather here in New York this spring, prompting city dwellers to switch on the air conditioning and grab whatever's coldest in the refrigerator.

Of course, heat rises, so those who live on upper floors are especially in need of these 21st-century remedies for summer weather. But the tenement dwellers of the past didn't have these luxuries. In the early days, tenants couldn't even access water without making a trip to the communal faucet in the back yard.

In July 1895, the New York Times proclaimed it was so hot that "few ventured to walk in the streets," and tenement dwellers suffered particularly. Public health campaigns focused on the city's most vulnerable residents, advising mothers to take special care with infants in over-heated tenements. Some children were even admitted to a "floating hospital" on a barge, where temperatures were cooler.

But New Yorkers are resourceful folks who have always found tricks for beating the heat. Steam boats took thousands of New Yorkers to the Rockaways and Coney Island for swimming and ocean breezes.

Cooling off at Coney Island, early 20th century; Image Courtesy New York Public Library

New Yorkers also made their way to the city's rooftops to escape their airless apartments. While wealthier folks enjoyed meals in the elaborate rooftop restaurants at the Waldorf Astoria and Ritz Carlton Hotels, tenement dwellers sought relief atop their own buildings, or at humbler public gathering spaces like the Lower East Side's Seward Park Library.

Girls embroider while woman reads aloud at Seward Park Library's rooptop reading room c.1910;
Image courtesy New York Public Library

On the hottest nights of the year, some city dwellers hauled bedding upstairs to the roof, or onto a fire escape, and settled down to sleep in the open air.

"The recent "heated term" and its effect upon the population of the tenement districts A night scene on the East Side", August 1882; Image courtesy Library of Congress 

This practice wasn't just confined to working-class neighborhoods; a 1908 Times article reported that many of the city's "writers, sociologists, charity workers, and even a number of its well-to-do business men [are] spending the hot nights in the open air." Among them was famed singer Alma Webster-Powell, who converted the roof of her Brooklyn home into a "star parlor" with a "Bewildering array of rugs, hammocks, cushions and easy chairs".

Other families went a step further, setting up long-term camp sites in the Rockaways as affordable  summer homes. The Times reported that this was a "healthy, free life, such as cannot fail to promote health and happiness for the youngsters...Tent dwellers spend at least 3 hours a day in the water when the weather is fine and there is not too much surf."

-- Posted by Kira Garcia