The Life of a City: Early Films of New York City

A young man tosses an apple in the air as he chats with a vendor. Pushcarts are piled high with wares. Children in blouses and pantaloons rush into the busy street. Women subtly hitch their skirts up, just enough to stay modest while keeping dirt off their hems. An elevated train bustling in the background. A cartoonish policeman swings his baton around, trying to keep the peace.

In the last century, film has become an American institution. From being seen as just a novelty at its inception, movies are now considered high art, or at the very least respectable form of pop culture (okay, and some of them are still very much just a novelty). Laying the groundwork for motion pictures to become what is it today, were artists, inventors, and engineers, perfecting the art all over the world.

Two production companies, Thomas A. Edison, Inc. and American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, were based in New York City at the turn of the century. A collection of their films dated from 1898 to 1906 are available to everyone on the Library of Congress online archive, from the Paper Print Collection. These films were called “actualities” or what we know of today as documentary films. Typically, they’re only a couple minutes long, but they are filled with a wealth of fascinating information. They might have been used as newsreel footage that became a popular way to spread the news after the advent of moving pictures, or later used as stock footage as movies because longer and more narrative-driven. We at the Tenement Museum love to recreate life on the Lower East Side as it used to be, and these actualities offer us a real two-minute window into the everyday.

We’re familiar with scenes like the one above, recreated in movies, retold in stories, captured in grainy photographs. Described on a Tenement Museum tour. City life at the turn of the century. This “actuality” from the Thomas A. Edison, Inc., dated October 27, 1903, presents a sight likely familiar to all the residents of 97 Orchard – crowded streets, overflowing pushcarts run by Jewish and Italian vendors, and policemen attempting to keep order. It’s nice to know, even a hundred years ago, New Yorkers were not bothering to obey traffic laws.

Along with the scene above, which is just an average day in the lives of New Yorkers at the time, they also produced films that hold more significant value, even if they might not have realized it at the time. Actualities that this one featured below, titled “Emigrants [i.e. immigrants] landing at Ellis Island” provide real historical context for the journey to becoming Americans, to be witnessed by people over a hundred years later.

Some of the films were also produced by the Biograph Company. Biograph, in operation from 1895 to 1916, switched their focus in 1903 from actualities to narrative-driven works. Even so, in 1906, they were also capturing the moments of immigrants landing in America, like the one shown below. Much like the Edison film three years earlier, the people are ladened with heavy bags, luggage, and children – all struggling to stand upright with the weight of everything they value. In both moving pictures, the newly arrived immigrants are lining up, waiting for instructions, crowding together, looking for the right places to go.

Perhaps the fact that there is no recorded sound is what makes these people seem both stressful and hopeful. We know from history that these captured moments are the first time they are stepping foot on American grounds, after travelling for weeks in an overwhelming crowded and dirty ship. They’re stretching their legs for the first time in a long time, breathing in fresh American air. Yes, only the first part of their journey is finished – the hard part, building a life for themselves, is just beginning, and nothing is guaranteed even after arriving. But even with the confusion and doubt, they still made it here.

The earliest films couldn’t tell a story, not the way we’re used to now. Watching these two-minute movies is literally the way to watch history unfold. Not only are the subjects illuminating a long-gone time, but the motivations of the men behind the camera is fascinating to contemplate. Could they ever imagine they were developing techniques and equipment that would one day lead to a billion dollar film industry? Did they foresee the historical treasure they were capturing as they filmed their surroundings, did they know even back then that their era was worth preserving for future generations? And what’s more, were they aware of how beautiful, how awe-inspiring their everyday was, deserving of being seen for years to come?

The Tenement Museum Summer 2017 Reading List

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School may be out for summer (and, for some of you, forever), but that’s no reason to slack on your summer reading! Here are our book recommendations that are perfect for any occasion that pops up this hot and hazy summer, available at our widely popular Tenement Museum bookstore and gift shop.

 

Bowery-Boys-Book-Cover4Book to read at the beach/pool/lake/soaking in a cold bathThe Bowery Boys: Adventures in Old New York: An Unconventional Exploration of Manhattan’s Historic Neighborhoods, Secret Spots and Colorful Characters by Greg Young & Tom Meyers.

The official companion to their award-winning podcast, Young and Meyers provide an in-depth and exclusive look into the New York City of yesterday. In between cooling off with dips in the body of water of your choice, become absorbed in these strange and memorable guides through Hell’s Kitchen, Columbus Circle, The Bowery, Astor Place, Foley Square, Little Italy, Chinatown, and more. So stay hydrated: quench that thirst for fascinating urban history, and also drink plenty of water if you’re going to be in the sun for too long.

Also recommendManhattan Mafia Guide by Eric Ferrara

 

upintheoldhotel_webBook to read when the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm traps you inside for the rest of the dayUp in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell, David Remnick

This anthology of essays written in the 1940s and 50s by Mitchell for The New Yorker offers a peek into the lives of some of New York’s most interesting and colorful characters. A bearded lady, street preachers, gypsies, saloon-keepers, steel-walking Mohawks – all will keep you riveted as the storm rolls overhead. Mitchell’s darkly humorous but respectful observations create the perfect tone to portray the city in all its oddness.

Also recommend –  City of Dreams by Tyler Anbinder

 

waterfront_1Book to read when you’re stuck underground in a sweaty, delayed train car for over an hourWaterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan by Philip Lopate

If you can’t just get out and walk already, let Lopate describe the city you’re missing as he walks over every inch of it – East Side, West Side, from the Little Red Lighthouse to Battery Park City. Explore the city you can’t see underground, as he shows you the history of each spot, while appraising today’s developers and environmental activists. If yet another signal problem doesn’t encourage you to walk part of your commute, perhaps these stories of Captain Kidd and Robert Moses will.

Also recommendMole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City by Jennifer Toth

 

brisket_1Book to make you the STAR of your next barbecue or neighborhood potluck – The Brisket Book by Stephanie Pierson

Hotdogs and hamburgers? Those guys are fine, sure, whatever. But delicious brisket will have a line forming at your grill for miles. Pierson provides more than just your average cookbook. She offers color photos, cooking tips, chef interviews, illustrations, graphics and butcher wisdom, all aimed to ensure your best brisket ever. Some of the recipes include Barbecue Brisket Sandwiches with Firecracker Sauce, Scandinavian Aquavit Brisket, and a 100% Foolproof Bride’s Brisket. Get cooking!

Also recommendThe Meatball Shop Cookbook by Daniel Holzman, Michael Chernow and Lauren Deen.

 

citizenshipquiz_1Book to read if you want to be extra patriotic this Fourth of JulyThe Great American Citizenship Quiz by Solomon M. Skolnick.

Civics, geography, history – the best of middle school social studies all come together to compile the official USCIS citizenship quiz. Though they ask you to study over 100 facts about America, you’re only expected to answer, verbally, six out of ten randomly chosen questions. This is a great addition to any Independence Day party. I can say from experience, having had to study for the real test only a couple years ago, there’s nothing more entertaining than watching native-born citizens trying to answer these after having a few drinks in them.

Also recommendMachine Made: Tammany Hall and The Creation of Modern American Politics by Terry Golway

 

howtobeanexploreroftheworld_1Book to read if you want to keep your kid busy for more than five minutes – How to be an Explorer of the World by Keri Smith.

This isn’t your average activity book. It’s a portable life museum, and the mission is simple, “Document and observe the world around you. As if you’ve never seen it before.” Kids will be instructed to take notes, collect things, document findings, notice patterns, copy, trace, focus, record. They’ll acted as scientists, researchers, artists, and historians with interactive, beautiful presented prompts. It’s never too early to encourage wonder at the world around you.

Also recommendLet’s Make Some Great Art by Marion Deuchars

 

Your purchases help support the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. And great books help support yourself. Take advantage of those extra daylight hours, and get reading!

The Millennials Are Our Future

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Millennials are the most frequent and most loyal attendees to cultural institutions, according to recent data from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study. Engaging and cultivating this audience into future museum members is why the Tenement Museum founded the Lower East Siders Circle, a new way for young professionals to participate with everything the Tenement Museum has to offer.

Melissa Stone, Membership and Events Associate at the Tenement Museum, discusses our young professionals program, and how Millennials can serve as ambassadors to the community, advisers to the museums, and cultural leaders in supporting the arts and the political issues that are more important than ever.

 

What is the Lower East Siders Circle?

MS: The Lower East Siders Circle is a patron group of young professionals who support the mission of the Museum. They have programmatic opportunities beyond our regular tours to engage with Lower East Side history and actively fundraise to support the work of the Museum.

How does the LES Circle differ from other young professionals clubs?

MS: While it is similar in some ways, as LES Circle offers networking opportunities and social components to the programming, the group remains focused in the mission of the Museum. The members are excited by the stories we tell and appreciate the work of the Museum to present the important contributions immigrants have made to the United States.

Why is it important for young people to engage with the Tenement Museum, or institutions like the TM?

MS: It is important for young people to engage with the Tenement Museum, and arts and cultural institutions in general, in order for them to understand the important work of these institutions. These institutions preserve and interpret art, history, and cultural anthropology. They are a source of public education on topics ranging from science and math, to music and dance. Supporting the arts brings fulfillment and offers opportunity for personal growth through self-reflection. The Tenement Museums and institutions like it serve the public good and it is important for Millennials to engage and support this work.

Conversely, why is it important for the Museum to have an organization of young people dedicated to it?

MS: It is important for the Tenement museum to have an organization dedicated to young professionals, as they are the future of the Museum. These patrons will be the champions of our work, help us grow and expand our opportunities, and financially support us in the near future. It is important for the Tenement Museum to keep this audience in mind as new programs and exhibitions are planned and make sure we engage them in our presentation. It is mutually beneficial for us to engage Millennials and for Millennials to engage with us. This is how we can continue to present America’s story to future generations.

What kinds of events do members get to do that others might not?

MS: LES Circle member events expand on regular programming. In March, the members toured the Schneider’s Saloon in 97 and then came back to a reception that featured a Germanic Beer flight hosted by Top Hops. The programs are experiential in design. The next event will be July 26, and the LES Circle members will have the opportunity to participate in Snapshot. This exclusive tour allows photography inside the 97 Orchard Street building, something that is not allowed on general tours. Additionally, LES Circle members will have a series of programming going behind the scenes that will offer them the opportunity to learn more about the operational aspects of the Tenement Museum. They will come away with greater knowledge of the complexities of Museum work in general and the importance of supporting it.

What other benefits do members receive?

MS: Depending on the level of membership, LES Circle members receive an Individual or Dual membership to the Museum, reserved seating at Tenement Talks, and discounts on tickets to Tenement After Dark: Gala After Party. Patron level LES Circle members receive a ticket to Tenement After Dark: gala After Party with their membership.

Head here to learn more about joining the Lower East Siders Circle!

Becky, Melis, Tatyana, Francesca

Evenings at the Tenement: This Land is Made for You and Me

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We tell the stories of the everyday people who made their way on Orchard Street, but we’re always encouraging visitors to create their own memorable experiences here, and one of the best ways to do so is by holding your own event at the Tenement Museum!

On May 4, the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA) hosted a fundraising event for Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Over a hundred guests enjoyed The Guthrie Sessions Live, with fantastic performances from star of NBC’s The Voice Brendan Fletcher, New Jersey singer/songwriter Bryan Hansen. and Brooklyn-native Lizzie No.

Along with the live musical performances, guests at the event were treated to a variety of Tenement Museum tours after-hours, food from some of the Lower East Side’s favorite restaurants, and a preview of Her Mother’s Daughter, a documentary produced by the HDSA to spread awareness and understanding of Huntington’s Disease. The guests were also invited to bid on exciting auction items, and by the end of the night, the event had raised almost $40,000 towards their cause.

The evening ended with a beautiful performance of the Woody Guthrie classic “This Land is Your Land.” It was led by Woody’s daughter Nora and Helen Jean Russell from the show Woody Sez, along with the other artists in attendance, right in the Museum shop. It was absolutely a moment to remember, and not just because I’ve had that song stuck in my head for the last couple weeks.

Whether it’s a nonprofit, corporate, alumni event, or a social occasion, make it one for the history books by taking advantage of everything the Museum has to offer.

Not only do you have use of our beautiful event spaces, but your guests can also enjoy private tours of our historic tenement buildings, as well as top notch catering services from several local dining establishments. We work with you to create vibrant, long-lasting memories your guests will be talking about for years to come.

Book your special event at the Tenement Museum, and ensure that your occasion leaves an impression as enduring and unforgettable as a classic American folk song.

Painting Grand Street

Tenement Museum President Dr. Morris J. Vogel and artist Hedy P posing with Grand Street NYC.

Tenement Museum President Dr. Morris J. Vogel and artist Hedy Pagremanski, with Grand Street NYC.

In 1973, Hedy Pagremanski’s daughter Joannie asked her what she really wanted to do with her life. At the time, Hedy was 44-years old. “I used to draw in a way where nobody could see me,” she recalled while speaking at the Tenement Museum last Friday, May 12. She told Joannie, “I’d like to sit on a street…with a canvas, and not hide anymore.”

Hedy, now 85-years old, is a prolific painter of New York City, and was at the Tenement Museum to donate a print of Grand Street NYC. The painting is part of a series, which showcase the history of a vanished New York City. The two 100-year old tenements shown in the painting were located at 400 and 402 Grand St. on the Lower East Side. The buildings were the last to be demolished to make way for the new Essex Crossing residential and commercial space.

This painting, which took two years to complete, is unique from Hedy’s other works. As she sat on the street corner with her canvas, she was often approached by people asking to be included in the painting. Her husband, Eric, told everyone that in order to be added in, they had to share their story with Hedy, and what the area she was painting meant to them. Much like our Your Story, Our Story online exhibition, Hedy collected and recorded the stories of every individual painted on her busy street, including the Ng family, who were also present at the painting’s donation on Friday. Charissa Ng was the first to meet Hedy on the street and ask to be in her painting, and eventually got her whole family involved.

Posing with some of the subjects of Grand Street NYC. From let to right are: Sharanne Ng, Charissa Ng, Jessie Page, Joannie Pagremanski, Ken Page, Hedy Pagremanski, Ken Page, Candace Feio, Larry Ng, Annie Chu.

Posing with some of the subjects of Grand Street NYC. From let to right are: Sharanne Ng, Charissa Ng, Jessie Page, Joannie Pagremanski, Ken Page, Hedy Pagremanski, Ken Page, Candace Feio, Larry Ng, Annie Chu.

Hedy was born in Vienna in 1929. A Holocaust survivor, she fled with her family to Panama as World War II was breaking out, before eventually settling down in New York. Hedy has dedicated almost half a century to painting New York City as she remembers it, before it disappears completely. As the neighborhoods change and the histories fade from the buildings and streets, Hedy’s work seeks to capture the rich cultured history of the Lower East Side, which she views as the gateway to the immigrant experience.

Her son, Ken Page, spoke about how often his mother was approached by people on the street who wanted to be included in her project. “The size of her heart has created this,” he said at the dedication. “I just look around at what people have given her. People just flock to her and say, ‘I love what you’re doing, and I want to [help] make this happen.”

The painting is dedicated to Eric Pagremanski (Hedy's husband, who was a holocaust survivor and Jewish immigrant) and Wah Theung (Tommy) Ng (Larry's father who was an immigrant from China).

The painting is dedicated to Eric Pagremanski (Hedy’s husband, a Holocaust survivor and Jewish immigrant) and Wah Theung (Tommy) Ng (Larry’s father, an immigrant from China).

Hedy’s goal was to help people remember New York’s important past, and by collecting the stories of the people she encountered while painting, she succeeded in adding more layers to the history of this vivid and diverse neighborhood.

“I missed people’s voices,” Hedy said, “so no one gets to be in a painting unless they give me a story.”

Grand Street NYC

Grand Street NYC

Did You Know: LES Stories

Did you know that the Lower East Side is home to the oldest Jewish cemetery in America, founded in 1683, and that it has Revolutionary War soldiers interred there? Or that Canal Street once actually had a canal, that helped drain the Collect Pond? Did you know that during the 1850s, the Lower East Side was overrun by the fearsome Dead Rabbits gang, or that the whole neighborhood celebrated with a parade at 4 in the morning after electing Meyer London in 1914, the first Socialist in Congress?

If you’re walking through the Lower East Side this month, look down and learn all these facts and more. Kicking off LES History Month is the organization’s two-day chalking event, LES Stories. Completed from Sunday, May 7 to Monday, May 8, the chalking project shared the long history of the Lower East Side on city sidewalks, available for any and all to learn. Volunteers, coordinated by FABnyc and Downtown Art, chalked trivia, drawings, stories, and historical facts on local heroes, major events, and the socio-political ups and downs of this diverse neighborhood.

Look down, and discover how the evolution of 76 acres of farmland, belonging to Jacobus Van Corlaer in the 17th century, transformed into a bustling neighborhood, with an approximate population of 166,000 in 2015. And though the Lower East Side has drastically changed in those four centuries, the urge to keep growing things hasn’t disappeared with the farms, as LES residents still enjoy almost 40 community gardens spread throughout the area.

Melanie, who works for the Lowline, chalking outside Sara D. Roosevelt Park

Melanie, who works for the Lowline, chalking outside Sara D. Roosevelt Park

LES Stories is just the first of many events taking place over the month of May to celebrate the Lower East Side’s vibrant history. Check out the rest of the celebrations here!

 

Look For the Union Label: Chinese Immigration in America

For the other parts of this series highlighting the new ethnic groups featured in Under One Roof, you can read Becoming “Nuyorican” and Of Memory and Survival: The Jewish American Identity
Garment factory in NYC's Chinatown. Photo: Bud Glick

Garment factory in NYC’s Chinatown, 1983. Photo: Bud Glick

May is Asian/Pacific Heritage Month, marking the considerable contributions made by Asian- Pacific Americans in the arts, sciences, technology, politics and more, as well as celebrating the immense and richly layered cultures of those Asian and Pacific Island countries.

May 6 is also the 135th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law in 1882 by President Chester A. Arthur. This is the only non-wartime federal law which discriminates against an entire nationality, and has had lingering side effects to this day.

Mrs. Wong and her daughter Yat Ping, subjects of our new exhibition "Under One Roof"

Mrs. Wong and her daughter Yat Ping, subjects of our new exhibition “Under One Roof”

The law was passed because of rising Anti-Chinese sentiment sweeping through the United States, and the reasons for that are not all that unfamiliar to what other ethnic groups dealt with in the past, and what they deal with today. Originally, Chinese laborers came to the west coast during the Gold Rush of the 1840s and 1850s. They were hired to help construct the Central Pacific Railroad, but once it was completed, and the gold mines had all but dried up, many Chinese immigrants stayed in the U.S., taking other labor jobs for less money, wanting to provide for their families back home. Of course, this led to that familiar xenophobic rhetoric – they’re taking our jobs, and they refuse to assimilate to American culture.

The Chinese Exclusion Act did exactly as it said it would. It banned the immigration of anyone from China who didn’t have a special work permit, including the families of those already living in the U.S. Beyond that, those who were already here were unable to become naturalized citizens. Many Chinese at this time were experiencing discrimination and violence in those small towns of the west. So of the few immigrants left in the country, many migrated East to denser cities like New York, places with much higher diversities. Today, the metropolitan area of New York is home to the largest ethnic Chinese population outside of Asia.

Photo: Bud Glick

Photo: Bud Glick

During the ban, only immigrants with specialized work permits were allowed in the country, those who were listed as merchants on documentation. So many enterprising immigrants started businesses with friends and family as partners, to allow them to travel to the U.S. — businesses like restaurants, laundromats, and garment factories, which are often still owned by Chinese American families.

New York’s garment industry is almost synonymous with the city’s immigrant history. Prior to the first major wave of immigrants in the mid-19th century, clothing was typically made in the home, or custom-made by tailors for the upper class. But fashions evolved and expanded, and an influx of skilled craftsmen coming into the country created a confluence of events, whereby 1910, an estimated 70% of clothing worn by American women originated in the garment factories of New York City.

In 1943, a repeal of the Chinest Exclusion Act allowed a small quota of Chinese immigrants into the country, in part due to China being a U.S. ally during World War II. Before, the Chinese population in America had steadily declined since 1882, but it was now starting to rise again, albeit at a much slower pace. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act, was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and it officially lifted the quota, but still placed caps on per-country and total immigration across the board. Even so, the population of immigrants, especially Chinese immigrants, skyrocketed over the next few decades, and the quota was eventually removed altogether in 1968.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Immigration and Nationality Act, 1965

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Immigration and Nationality Act, 1965

 

It was in 1965 when the Wong family, highlighted on our new tour Under One Roof, moved to the Lower East Side. Around the same time, the garment factories had diminished in the city, with much of production being outsourced to other places with cheaper manufacturing costs. But adapting Chinese entrepreneurs created a niche market in New York City, and developed factories that could reproduce high-demand clothing found in Manhattan department stores and have them on the shelves in a matter of days.  A few years after moving to the United States, Mrs. Wong would be one of the thousands of immigrants working in New York City’s garment industry.

The garment factories are an integral part of the recent history of Chinese American immigrants. On our new tour at 103 Orchard Street, visitors will step into a recreated, interactive garment factory instillation. They will learn about how Mrs. Wong, along with some 20,000 other Chinese immigrants, developed communities over their sewing machines. It was where they brought their children after school,  and where they spent most of every day. It was where they took a fierce pride in the quality and speed of their work, and took part in strong Labor Unions, such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, to ensure fairness for themselves and their colleagues.

The garment factory is a representation of the Chinese immigrant experience in New York City during the latter half of the 20th century. It encompasses the culture – family, food, work ethic, values – of their communities while displaying the advancement of technology and the integration of American culture into their own. You will be able to visit our garment factory in our new exhibition, Under One Roof, slated to open this fall.

 

Shine ‘Em Up Sadie

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When Josephine Baldizzi was a little girl, she and her family were evicted from 97 Orchard St, along with the rest of the building’s tenants in 1935. Despite this, she had many fond memories of her time inside her family’s tiny apartment, which visitors can view on our “Hard Times” tour. While standing in her recreated kitchen, visitors can listen to an audio recording of Josephine talking about growing up on Orchard Street, about the games she used to play with her father, and about her mother’s fastidious cleanliness. “‘Shine ’em up Sadie’ they used to call her,” Josephine says in the recording.

Josephine and Johnny on the Roof of 97

Josephine Baldizzi, with her brother Johnny, on the rooftop of 97 Orchard

The oral history adds another vivid contextual level to the tour, to hear in her own words what life was like, growing up a first-generation American during the Great Depression. Her story is one that lingers in the minds of many visitors once they leave the Tenement Museum. Visitors like Gertjan Van Hellemont and his brother, Sem.

Gertjan and Sem head up Douglas Firs, a Belgian indie band. They had been in Montreal earlier this year  when they hopped on a bus to visit New York City for the day. It was their first time in the city, but the Tenement Museum was on their to-do list. “We’d heard from a friend it was a go-to museum,” said Gertjan, “with interesting stories.”

Interesting enough to write a song, it seems. Last Friday, Douglas Firs released “Shine ‘Em Up Sadie,” a catchy new song inspired by the story of Josephine Baldizzi’s immigrant experiences.

“Looking back on the period when she’d lived there, sharing her memories, what really struck me was the amount of happiness and melancholy she felt about this period in her life,” Gertjan said. “She had been really happy there! It made me and my brother think about the importance of a sense of community, friendship,… In combination with having a dream and trying to realize this, and on the other hand, the lack of importance of material things, despite the huge struggle it must have been.”

douglas firs2Gertjan has been playing music for most of his life. Douglas Firs have been playing together for about eight years now, and they are currently working on releasing their third album.

“I think with this song I wrote about the Baldizzi family,” said Gertjan, “it’s actually the first time I wrote about something that far removed from my own life, to really do some research and write about something from an outsider’s perspective.”

Gertjan feels the stories of people like Josephine are as relevant today as they’ve ever been. “There’s a refugee crisis going on and most of the time, I find it scary seeing people respond to this with a sense of fear, short-sightedness and even a lack of basic humanity, sometimes,” he says. “I can lose a little bit of hope when I think about this for too long, but I tried to put the opposite feeling into my song. I think people will always reconnect to that sense of community, solidarity, sticking together, the things I felt in the story of the Baldizzi family who lived on Orchard Street.”

Check out the video for Douglas Firs’ “Shine ‘Em Up Sadie” now!

 

Beautiful Days in the Neighborhood

Federal-style row house, built over 180 years ago, on Allen St.

Federal-style row house, built over 180 years ago, on Allen St.

Springtime in New York is the stuff of songs. Whether it’s the beautiful clear skies and blooming flowers, the welcome change from the gray and biting winter months, or both, Spring just makes you want to skip the train and walk a couple dozen blocks, just for the opportunity to enjoy it.

So, if you find yourself out walking more, enjoying that crisp weather, you might as well learn something while doing it. The Tenement Museum is back to offering daily Walking Tours which are perfectly paired with are fantastic building tours. Pairing the two gets you a discounted ticket price, as well as an arsenal of information on the discovery and development of this iconic immigrant community.

Tenement Museum tour guide showing a picture of the old elevated subway track that ran down Allen St.

Tenement Museum tour guide shows a picture of the old elevated subway track that ran down Allen St.

The history of New York is the history of real estate. As a city that’s constantly changing, constantly demolishing, constantly building – that history is integral to understanding how far we’ve come and how far we can go. There is a feedback loop between the communities that live in a neighborhood and places they live, work and play. They evolve together, and to learn only one side of that history is to only get part of the story. When we discuss the neighborhood of the Lower East Side, we present more than just a textbook history lesson. After all, our tours go beyond the simple statistics of housing laws, ethnic populations, and square footage.

The walking tours at the Tenement Museum are designed to discuss and educate visitors and widen the worldview of the stories we tell inside the homes of early 19th and 20th century immigrants. The families who resided there present a honed, specific point of view to the New York experience, and with our walking tours, we explore the communities they lived in, and what they might have experienced once they stepped off their front stoops.

A former Jewish synagogue, coverted into an artist studio on Rivington St

A former Jewish synagogue, coverted into an artist studio on Rivington St

We talk about the changing architecture  on our “Buildings of the Lower East Side” tour.  The New York City skyline moves up and down like ocean waves throughout the decades, always reflecting the people who live and acting as a reflection of their spirit and culture. We talk about that mighty, all-powerful connection that spans every generational, geographical, and cultural divide – food, and our love for it. The “Foods of the Lower East Side” tour allows you to explore the many representations in the neighborhood of cuisine from around the world, from dumplings to pretzels to fried plantains, expanding your palette to understand those diverse culinary traditions, as well as how those traditions have affected American meals over time.

Our “Then and Now” tour discusses the gentrification and adaptation of the neighborhood and its residents. You’ll discover fluidly the area changes to represent to people living there, such as the structure on Forsythe St, built in 1890 as a church to convert local immigrant Jews, which was then purchased and converted into a synagogue by a congregation of Lithuanian Jews, and then sold again in the 1960s to a  Puerto Rican Seventh Day Adventist Church. Tenement Museum tour guides are here to highlight the Stars of David that still decorate the outside of the building, in homage to the building and the neighborhood’s rich history.

Burning incense outside a Buddhist temple on Broome St.

Burning incense outside a Chinese Buddhist temple on Broome St.

Finally, the “Outside the Home” walking tour shares the neighborhood as experienced by the residents at 97 Orchard and the other immigrants who made the Lower East Side their home for 150 years. Each space adds another contextual layer to the American story, from the Jarmulowsky Bank Building on Orchard St., where many immigrants lost their savings during World War I when the bank failed, to the Daily Forward building on Broadway, where Jewish socialists championed for worker’s rights in the early 20th century. Both those buildings have been repurposed for other uses now, but the details of their history are still hidden in the stonework, if you know where to look.

Guided tours at the Tenement Museum and the surrounding neighborhood are the best way to get a more comprehensive vantage point of this beautiful and historic neighborhood. Paired together (for a 40% discounted ticket) is the most educational, and most fun, you can have on the bright Spring days ahead.

Historic Romaniote Jewish synagoge on Broome St.

Historic Romaniote Jewish synagogue, Kehila Kedosha Janina on Broome St.

Of Memory and Survival: The Jewish American Identity

For the other parts of this series highlighting the new ethnic groups featured in “Under One Roof,” you can read Becoming “Nuyorican” and Look For the Union Label: Chinese Immigration in America

passover

In Bella Epstein’s home, her whole family – what was left of it – would gather together in their tiny apartment on the Lower East Side to celebrate Passover, they would recite the names of the family members who had been taken from them.

The rest of the year, Bella’s mother and father wouldn’t discuss their experiences during the Holocaust if they could help it. Certainly not with their daughters.

But on Passover, the retelling of the Jewish migration out of Egypt had a powerful resonance for many displaced Jews in the 1940s and 1950s. Jews like Bella’s parents, survivors from Germany and Poland who had met in a Displaced Persons camp following the end of World War II, were some of the lucky few able to take refuge and start a new life in the United States. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 put severe quotas on immigration, and most of the American population agreed with this policy at the time, mainly for economic reasons. Following World War I and the Great Depression, no one wanted immigrants coming in at a time when Americans struggled to get jobs for themselves. And people feared history would repeat after World War II.

But President Truman’s 1945 directive allowed a small number of immigrants to enter the United States with refugee status. Truman famously stated, “This is the opportunity for America to set an example for the rest of the world in cooperation toward alleviating human misery.” Bella’s parents came to the country through this executive order in 1947. The Displaced Persons Act passed a year later, increasing the number of incoming refugees over the next few years, so that by 1952, there were 400,000 Displaced Persons admitted to the U.S.

Video courtesy of Critical Past

It’s hard to imagine how Holocaust refugees like Bella’s parents might have felt, arriving on our shores. But then, it’s hard to imagine any of the trauma those people had endured. One can assume it was a complicated combination of relief and despair, mixed in with uncertainty of the future and the usual cultural shock of moving to a completely new country. Not to mention, moving from hostile territory to a place that wasn’t exactly welcoming you with open arms.

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Regina and Kalman Epstein, Bella’s parents

We may not realize it now, but the Holocaust wasn’t thought of a singular, capitalized event for a long time after the war. For many years, exactly what was done to Eastern European Jews and others in German concentration camps was unclear, and just part of a larger number of atrocities and brutalities that occurred during the War. The sheer scale of the War meant misinformation abounded, intentionally  and accidentally by both Allied and Axis powers, so the scope of what was lost took years to fully comprehend. In late 1944 to spring of 1945, three-quarters of the American population thought Germans had killed people in camps, but not nearly the right number. The typical estimate was only 100,000 people or less.

In the decades to follow, the understanding of the attempted genocide changed and expanded in the American social consciousness. Werner Weinberg, a German Jewish writer who wrote often about his experiences under Nazi regime, said, “Immediately after the war, we were ‘liberated prisoners’; in subsequent years we were included in the term ‘DPs’ or ‘displaced persons’…In the US we were sometimes generously called ‘New Americans.’ Then for a long time…there was a good chance that we, as a group, might go nameless. But one day I noticed that I had been reclassified as a ‘survivor.'”

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century did people begin to understand what had occurred, which coincided with the time that the concept of American Jewry began to take hold. Before that, and in the years during World War II especially, there was no real sense of a Jewish American community. Most Jews were either newly arrived immigrants themselves or first-generation. Postwar, American Jews became more politically motivated, and the desire to connect with each other only strengthened as they gained knowledge of whole families, villages, cultures, and histories being completely wiped out overseas. The Jewish American identity was created from the events of World War II.

Bella and her sister on the Lower East Side

Bella and her sister on the Lower East Side

New York’s Lower East Side has been, since its inception, a welcome sign for incoming Jews. And the Jewish history of this place – how Jews formed communities here, kept practicing their religion here, built long-lasting businesses here, raised their families here – has become fully enmeshed in what developed into the Jewish American identity as it is known in popular culture. Hasia R. Diner, author of Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America, wrote about how the Lower East Side is as integral to the soul of American Jewry as the ravaged lands of Eastern Europe. “Since the late 1940s, American Jewish memory had been bounded by these two mythic places, eastern Europe and the Lower East Side,” she said. “Each one stood, and still stands, as a point of memory, replete with an instantly recognizable set of images of people and places, described with a sensual trope built around sounds, smells, and tastes, stimulating a process of remembering even for those… who did not grow up in either place.”

Bella’s parents grew up in Eastern Europe. Then they continued to grow in 1947 on the Lower East Side, learning to reconcile their traumas in order to live here in America and raise American children, and we tell that story at our upcoming exhibition Under One Roof at 103 Orchard Street. The Epsteins, like many other Displaced Persons, were bound by two places, forming the bedrock of a new cultural identity for Jews in America. An identity based on survival, community, and memory.