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

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Great Question: Which objects belonged to the Baldizzis?

Questions posed by our visitors lead to great conversations. Occasionally, we'll post a great question that's frequently asked, along with the answer, to give you a bit of back story on our exhibits.

Which objects in the Baldizzi apartment actually belonged to the family?

Some of the most precious objects in our collection are displayed in the Baldizzi apartment. Unlike other families we talk about, we were lucky to have a first-person link to the Baldizzi family through former resident Josephine Baldizzi. Josephine shared her family's story with us, giving a detailed account of her life in our tenement.

The Baldizzis were generous with objects as well as stories, so among the period-appropriate housewares that we've gathered from other sources, we also have family heirlooms on display in the Baldizzi home.

Among these precious objects are three monogrammed dishtowels--you can see them hanging from an improvised laundry line in the Baldizzi apartment below.

The Baldizzi kitchen

Baldizzi family heirlooms on display

These towels once belonged to Josephine's mother, Rosaria, who emigrated from her native Sicily as a very young woman in the 1920's. The embroidered monogram "R.M." stands for Rosaria Mutolo, her maiden name. They were precious possessions, among the few things that Rosaria was able to carry with her across the ocean on the long journey to her new life.

We're also fortunate to have a handful of other objects that once belonged to the Baldizzis, including some other textiles, cookware, and a box of Linit laundry starch. On our Hard Times tour, visitors hear an audio clip of Josephine recalling her mother's use of Linit to starch their clothes when she was a little girl.

Take our "Hard Times" tour to get a firsthand look at these objects in the Baldizzi apartment!

-- Posted by Kira Garcia

Friday, June 1, 2012

Will the Real Bridget Moore Please Stand Up?

Recently, a group of our costumed interpreters gathered to trade notes on their experiences portraying Irish immigrant Bridget Moore, who resided at 97 Orchard Street in 1868. Our “Meet Bridget Moore” program was just launched this October as a way for school groups to learn the Moore family’s story as outsiders living at 97 Orchard Street. During this program, Kindergarten through sixth grade students meet a costumed interpreter portraying Bridget Moore while she is preparing for a housewarming party. Bridget tells students about her life and asks for suggestions about how to befriend her German neighbors.

Four "Bridgets" at work in the Moore apartment

 To make the program richer and more engaging, our “Bridgets” pass around period household objects that would have been commonplace in the 19th century. This month, the group looked at some newly acquired era-appropriate objects and talked about how to use them while they’re in character.

This mechanical coffee grinder is a great example; it’s interesting looking and fun for kids to examine. But there’s a back story that informs how Bridget uses it on her tour.

Mechanical coffee grinders like these were used in the 19th century

As early as 1810, coffee was available on many New York City menus, and thanks to the German influence, “coffee and cake” shops were good places to find cheap lunch in the mid-1860s. Port blockades in the Southern U.S. associated with the Civil War curbed New Yorkers’ access to coffee for a time. But by the time the Moores moved into 97 Orchard in 1868, the price had come back down.

We doubt that Bridget would have owned a coffee grinder like this one, since most Irish folks preferred tea rather than coffee. However, Bridget’s German neighbors may have had one since coffee was an important part of the German diet in the late 1860s.

As the “Bridgets” considered how to incorporate the coffee grinder into our program, they developed the interpretation that Bridget borrowed it from a neighbor so she could provide her German neighbors with something familiar at her party.

Becoming Bridget Moore is more complicated that putting on a wig and an apron—it requires an in-depth understanding of the world that Bridget lived in. By applying the historical context of objects to the life of Bridget Moore and her family, our costumed interpreters are better prepared to answer questions and provide a more immersive experience for visitors.

-- Posted by Kira Garcia and Sarah Litvin