A Special Message from the Tenement Museum President, Dr. Morris J. Vogel

It’s been a difficult weekend for all of us. We’ve watched in horror as an executive decree that might have been ripped from the pages of a dystopian novel tore families apart, challenged our notions of human decency, undermined the rule of law, and threatened America’s most cherished values. As a museum that tells the story of immigration, we know that this country has not always lived up to its extraordinary ideals. We know, as a museum community committed to sharing the American story, the tragedies to which racial and religious tests have led in the past. But we also know that immigration has always allowed us to become more than we already are as a people—and that this nation’s best values have shaped a society that is the envy of the world. We are justly proud that immigrants continue to want bring their dreams to this country—and that refugees have been able to escape homelands ravaged by the carnage of war, consumed by race hatred, and mired in self-destructive ignorance to rebuild their lives here. At least they were until this past weekend.

Last year’s electoral campaign made clear that the victories generations of Americans have won in the struggle to advance human rights would not continue to come without additional effort. We’ve inherited much from those who fought to win independence and create a republic; from those who knew that slavery and economic injustice and health insecurity would not yield without determination. Beyond rights, and beyond progress toward justice, earlier generations have vouchsafed us the responsibility to act in our time to preserve their achievements and build on them. We should take comfort that so many of our fellow Americans have demonstrated in the past few days their willingness to protect America’s enduring values. Our work at the Museum figures importantly—more importantly than ever before—in the work of our time. As we welcome visitors and share stories of the American past, we are doing our part to help our nation endure. Let’s find strength in our shared mission.

  • Morris J. Vogel, President of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Made of Star Stuff, And Some Other Stuff, Too

My mother on an English seashore, early 1960s.

My mother on an English seashore, early 1960s. She is not a cop.

Last year, in the middle of a wet November day, I received a phone call from my mother while on a lunch break.

“I have some news,” she said. “I just got the lab results back and — Oh, I have to go, I’ll call you back.” She hung up.

Several hours of hand-wringing later, I gave in and rang her back first. She sells perfume for a living, so the only lab who would be contacting her would presumably be a medical lab, relaying some kind of serious issue. I’d come up with several horrifying possibilities just in the time it took her to answer the phone.

“Oh. No,” she said. “The DNA test came back today.”

She lives in Florida, while I live in New York. We keep in contact with each other pretty regularly, but I feel like I would have known if she’d appeared on Maury or Jerry Springer. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.

My mother was born in London, and for the last twenty-something years she was living undocumented in the United States. It was an incredibly stressful handful of decades for her, particularly in the last few years, where life for undocumented citizens became extremely difficult for anyone without a social security number. But she finally received her U.S. residency last autumn, which has had some unexpected side effects. With her own social security number, she was able to open up a proper bank account, which gave her a debit card. Which opened up her world to the wonders of online shopping.

Among the odd clothing and accessories from websites I’ve never heard of, and numerous restaurant deals from Groupon, she had purchased a DNA test from ConnectMyDNA.com.

“It said I came from Belarus, Oman, and Chile,” said my mother, laughing. “I have no idea.”

If anything in a shop has a Union Jack flag on it, my mother will buy it. She’ll tell anyone and everyone about the time she met Princess Diana, she’ll grouse about how the villains in any action movie is always vaguely English, and she’ll spends many evenings watching what she calls “gentle comedies” on PBS. In short, she is extremely proud to be British, the same way many people are proud to be where they come from. But my mother is not uninterested in her history. She covets every family photograph, and she’s fascinated by the concept of lineage and ancestry. It’s a quality she passed down to me, too.

As far as she was aware, her family line had been in England forever. She knew of no relatives from Belarus, Oman, or Chile.

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My mother (far left) and her family, looking about as British as one can look.

At the Tenement Museum, we love to end tours showing the relations of the families we discuss on our tours. Standing in the parlor of Natalie Gumpertz from our Hard Times tour, decorated how she might have back in the 1880s, and looking at a photograph of her great-great grandchildren — is truly a highlight of what we do here. It adds another contextual layer to the stories we tell. The immigrants who arrived here were not just striving to achieve a sustainable life for themselves and their immediate families. Each of the 7,000 people who passed through the walls at 97 Orchard Street were a part of a legacy that continues to this day; themselves just another link in the chain of their own ancestry, but one that changed the direction of that line forever.

We don’t work with DNA tests, though. We rely on oral histories, faded records, slips of paper lost in the cracks of the floorboards. Different lenses to view the human migration experience.

Despite appearances to the contrary, this photo was not taken in the 19th century. It it actually a picture of me, my mother, and my grandmother at a convention center over twenty years ago in Boca Raton, Florida.

Despite appearances to the contrary, this photo was not taken in the 19th century. It it actually a picture of me, my mother, and my grandmother at a convention center over twenty years ago in Boca Raton, Florida.

A few weeks later, it was Christmas morning, and I was home for the holidays. Breakfast had been eaten, gifts had been open, and we were beginning the time honored festive tradition of lazing about, when my mum called me over to the kitchen table, along with my older brother and younger sister.

“I have one gift left,” she said. “But I only have one, and I don’t want to look like I’m playing favorites by choosing to give it to one of you.”

“What,” we said, “are you talking about.”

She put a Hershey’s kiss under one of three cups, and moved them all around, but the presence of a heavy tablecloth, as well as the fact that my mother never worked for a carnival, didn’t make the game very challenging, and my brother picked the right cup on the first guess.

“Okay,” said my mum, pointing. “You get it.”

What?

She’d ordered another DNA test for one of us to take. However, it hadn’t actually come in the mail before Christmas Day, but it did just happen to come in the days between my brother returning home and me flying back to New York, so the honor ended up falling to me. It was like CSI: Coral Springs, Florida — my mother the no-nonsense detective, cornering me in my own home and watching me swab the inside of my cheek to send off to the labs, trying to pin some heinous crime on me.

I was back in New York before I got my results, which were emailed to me at one in the morning. I’m not totally sure what I was expecting. Belarus, Oman, or Chile, on some level.

My top two results was Croatia and Iran. My “surprise connection” was Ethiopia. Okay.

More detailed information is hidden behind a paywall. The website gives some interesting facts about your regions of origin, facts like, “the city of Zadar is home to the world’s first Sea Organ that creates its music only by the action of the wind and waves” or “the Persian cat is one of the world’s oldest breeds. They originated in the high plateaus of Iran where their long silky fur protected them from the cold. “ Neat stuff, but I didn’t say how any of this related to me. I don’t know of any relative from Croatia or Iran or Ethiopia. I was tempted to write the whole thing off as my mother being conned by the internet, praying that I hadn’t just delivered a DNA sample to a mad scientist who might use it for cloning or framing me for a murder. Or making me a main attraction in some ill-conceived theme park.

But then I delved deeper into the information I was actually given, and I began to understand a little more what my mother had paid for. The website clearly states they’re not an ancestry product. They deal with that complicated tangle of genetic material that I barely understand on a good day. It’s a lot about alleles and loci, things half remembered from high school that I might have absorbed at one point through osmosis (that’s my one science joke, I do in fact know that’s not how osmosis works). But I understand that my DNA and yours aren’t as different as one might expect. “We know that over 99% of human DNA is identical,” the FAQ on ConnectMyDNA.com explains. “It’s less than 1% of our DNA that makes us unique; that tells us what our physical characteristics are like. We know that in some way we are all connected as human beings.”

A popular theory of human evolution states that human migration occurred over centuries, the human race beginning in Africa and spreading throughout the rest of the world. ConnectMyDNA.com uses a database to find those genetic traces from tiny fragments in our DNA, as theorized by that equation, the Hardy-Weinberg principle. Looking at these fragments, they compare them with similarities in our population groups around the world. The test has nothing to do with my own heritage, but how I relate to the population on a genetic level.

In a sense, a test like this shows something incredibly specific as well as broadly expansive. My DNA is as personal to me as my fingerprint or my phone number. Yet at the same time, it is a global phenomenon, linking human beings to one another on a microscopic scale, in ways we often cannot detect and in ways we certainly can’t change. Human migration has been occurring for millennia, people moving to new parts of a shifting Earth while evolving and reproducing. It’s as fascinating to me to see those traces of genetic ancestry, as though we were talking about my own great-great grandparent’s immigration story. It highlights the fundamental parts of ourselves that have remained unchanged, despite a constantly changing world. That deep within us, regardless or where we started or where we end up, humans have always just been humans.

The Yoga Connection

The vast majority of people in the United States have heard of, if not practiced, some form of yoga or meditation.  They have spread like wildfire in our contemporary age, but Indian practitioners who migrated here in the early 1900’s introduced yoga and meditation to this country.  With the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration act that fully restricted immigration from Asia, people started traveling to Asia to learn more about these practices.  By the 1960’s, the same decade the Johnson-Reed act is repealed, yoga and meditation were preparing to become mainstream.

In the summer of 2013, I decided that I too wanted to bring yoga and meditation to more people.  Even though yoga studios in New York City are now ubiquitous, I traveled to Mysore, India to do a teacher certification course with the goal of starting yoga programs in the public schools.

On one of my days off from the training, I took a 3 and a half hour bus ride to the nearest Tibetan settlement, Bylakuppe.  India hosts most of the world’s Tibetan exile settlers, and my friend, Cassie, from the U.S. had made it her life’s work to start a Tibet Women’s soccer team.  By a stroke of luck, Cassie was at Bylakuppe for a few weeks working with students at the children’s village in the settlement.  Some of the teenage Tibetan players generously took us around, insisted on paying for our orange sodas in glass bottles and fried noodles as well as getting us into the Dalai Lama’s living space (which was vacant at the time).  We spent a half hour or so meditating in a temple and then we all took photos for Facebook of each other meditating.

It was the most memorable day of my time in India and I was vividly reminded of it four years later when I started teaching yoga in a high school in Queens.  Two of my most dedicated students, Pemba and Tsomo, had recently moved to the U.S. from India.  Upon realizing they were Tibetan, I asked them where they were from, to which they responded, “the South.”  I thought I would throw it out there and asked if they were from Bylakuppe, and they were, and they knew Cassie!  I’m not sure who was more surprised.  Thousands of years of history, thousands of miles traveled and thousands of choices made for us and by us, were converging with our meeting in a basement cafeteria in Queens.

At the end of that first club meeting we all fell into a meditation that seemed to capture our amazement in silence.  As we continued the club, it became apparent to me that even as yoga and meditation provided them with an opportunity to connect with their experiences in India, their main motivation for joining was to increase their strength and flexibility to improve their hip hop dancing skills.  They also like to ask me questions about the U.S. that they might be hesitant to ask in other situations (after talking about Thanksgiving, it wasn’t until everyone else left that they asked me what a turkey is).  Cultural exchange is clearly a regular part of our club, but the traditions and ideas we share are not rooted in countries, but a reminder of how sometimes we actually live in a quite a small world after all.

  • Julia Mushalko, Lower East Side Tenement Museum educator

 

 

History in Technicolor: the Continuing Story of American Immigration

photo by Wijnanda Deroo

103 Orchard Street, Wijnanda Deroo.

The Tenement Museum is not an old dog. In the grand scheme of New York City cultural institutions, we’re a fairly young museum, despite our old buildings. And yet, we’re still learning some new tricks. With our new exhibition opening at 103 Orchard Street later this year, the Tenement Museum is keeping up with the times.

The telling of recent history, however, is a tricky thing. The answer to how much time needs to pass before being able to accurately document our era varies from person to person. The study of history is often about not just what happened in the past, but how these events affect the present and change the future. When deciding to expand the Museum’s rhetoric to include “today’s history,” we had to ask ourselves not only how we should do it — but why.

Actually, the why is a pretty easy answer. We are an immigration museum, and immigration did not stop in 1935. We believe it’s our responsibility to continue telling the immigration story however best we can. But with the apartments of 97 Orchard Street closing their doors that year, the Tenement Museum becomes a “sepia museum,” stuck forever between 1863 and 1935. Over the last few years we’ve attempted to update where we could, using evening events, Tenement Talks, and tours like “Shop Life” or our walking tours to discuss what the Lower East Side, immigration, and America would have been like outside of the grayscale. But we knew we needed to present  American immigration in glorious technicolor.

photo by Wijnanda Deroo.

103 Orchard Street, Wijnanda Deroo.

We’re continuing the narrative of immigration in the United States for the simple reason that it’s as relevant and important as it’s ever been. We are not a political institution, but we tell the personal stories of something that has always been heavily politicized. Not only are we looking to provide the historical, factual information behind immigration in this country, we also attempt to humanize something that, for many people, is seen as a “hot button issue” and nothing more. Often visitors come through our tours, hear about the real Eastern European Jews, Irish, and Italian families that made their way here at the turn of the century, and think, “They are just like my ancestors!” And many visitors, we know, do not. Thematically, of course, many immigration stories are similar. They’re tales about hope, survival, family, culture — and these are experienced across the board. But not every visitor to the Tenement Museum shares the same origin story as those living on Orchard Street in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

We also think it’s important to tell modern history because the past often finds a way of repeating itself when we forget it. Those who insist it’s not immigration they’re against but “illegal” immigration often don’t realize the naturalization process has changed dramatically since the time their ancestors might have made it to America. Or that perhaps their own great-great-grandparent might have entered illegally too, as was the case for one of our Italian immigrant families at 97 Orchard Street. They might not have realized that those who did enter “legally” were not always treated any better than those who didn’t, that their own families might have faced the same kind of hateful xenophobia that’s displayed towards our current immigrants. When people talk about the desire of some to ban whole ethnic groups from entering the country, as though this notion was an impossibility, something we’d never allow to happen — it’s likely they’ve forgotten about or have never even heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was only repealed in 1943. And the quota for the number of Chinese immigrants allowed in the country was only lifted in 1965.

We call our tour guides “educators” because that is what they do. And this is why we wanted to tell the stories of refugees and migrants, the diverse cultural changes in America in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s: because there’s always so much to learn.

So the why is pretty obvious. We’re expanding at the Tenement Museum because immigration is just as American as apple pie (originally brought over from Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, of course). We’re telling new stories because they need to be told, to preserve them and to gain wisdom from them, to explore as far as we can the rich diverse landscape of the American population.

photo by Wijnanda Deroo.

103 Orchard Street, Wijnanda Deroo.

The question then becomes how we tell these stories. The Tenement Museum doesn’t tell every immigrant story because of the limitations we place on ourselves — specifically location and time period. We focus on the Lower East Side because it was a major port for many new immigrant families in New York City’s history, and remains to this day the most diverse neighborhood in the city. It serves as an excellent representative for the immigrant experience in the United States as a whole, but there are noticeable absences from our narrative. Immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, etc., are not featured on any of our tours (although those stories would easily be told if the Museum was placed ten blocks north).

The two buildings on Orchard Street are the roots of our Museum. You can only learn so much about Van Gogh’s Starry Night from a textbook or a documentary, but eventually you need to stand in front of it and see the texture, the color, and the beauty for yourself. And there’s no better way to understand the lives of those we called “new Americans” in the past, than to stand where they once stood, to hover in the doorways of their kitchens, their parlors, their shops, and imagine. We place these limitations on ourselves for this reason.

But the Tenement Museum doesn’t tell “The” immigrant story, but simply “some” immigrant stories. We try not to paint the pictures in broad strokes, we just provide faces to the narratives. This time, it’s personal. Whether you yourself are the immigrant or you’re fifth or sixth generation, every story we share should provide context for your own realities, either because they’re so similar or because they’re so different. Sometimes the stories we tell result in us being able to say, “This happened to ______ which happened to many others at the time.” Or we say, “This happened to ______, which was unusual for the time.” And sometimes the narratives are incomplete, but that’s just life sometimes.

photo by Wijnanda Deroo.

103 Orchard Street, Wijnanda Deroo.

While we’ve accepted the boundaries of our real estate, by no means do we brush off that responsibility to share a completed immigration story. Here again is one of our new tricks: reaching out online to communities, classrooms, and, well, anyone with a story to tell, to share their personal immigration history on our digital archive Your Story, Our Story. Where the media has their citizen journalists, we have our citizen historians. By curating these stories, featuring tales of migrants as well as immigrants to fully encapsulate the American story, we are able to expand our narrative reach to include as many cultures as we can get. Your Story, Our Story presents a new way to educate, to connect, to celebrate our differences as well as our similarities.

At 103 Orchard Street, we will be telling the stories of a Holocaust refugee family, a Puerto Rican family, and a Chinese immigrant family. And whether you know it or not, at 103 Orchard Street, we’ll be telling your story, too.

photo by Wijnanda Deroo.

Orchard Street, Wijnanda Deroo.

The Tenement Museum Plays Its Hits 2016 Edition

It’s been a busy year at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and 2017 is shaping up to be even busier! As you get ready to start traveling for the holidays – or as you prepare for incoming guests, check out this list of must-read stories about the Tenement Museum from the last year to get you pumped for all the exciting things to come!

  • The New York Times breaks the story about our new exhibition

In August, we were finally ready to share the most anticipated story about the Tenement Museum: we are expanding! This new exhibition, set to open in the summer of 2017, will tell the story of post-war life on the Lower East Side, as seen through the lives of three immigrant families who resided at one point or another at 103 Orchard Street. The New York Times shared the stories of the Epstein, the Saez, and the Wong families, and how each were representative of the cultural changes occurring on the Lower East Side and in America following World War II.

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  • The Lo-Down talks with Tenement Museum President Morris Vogel about the new expansion

On September 15, the Tenement Museum held our official groundbreaking for our new exhibit at 103 Orchard Street. The Lo-Down interviewed President Morris Vogel about the exciting changes in the development of this new exhibition, as well as the inherent risks of a small museum attempting to expand. “This is a chance,” he said, “to overwhelm our visitors with the fact that (the museum tells) today’s story… It’s happening on your streets. This is why your city or community looks the way it does. This is why the country faces the issues it does and this is a strength to draw on in negotiating those issues.”

  • The changing opinion of U.S. Immigrants throughout the century

In October, The Canadian Press covered how the same negative stereotypes immigrants endure today were often directed towards Irish and Italian immigrants at the turn of the century, a topic often discussed on Tenement Museum tours. The Museum’s goal has always been to shed new light on the present by sharing the stories of the past, but in recent times modern-day attitudes towards foreigners has made this mission of ours more important than ever.

  • Frank discussions of current immigration issues on daily tours after the election

Reuters first covered how, following the president election, there has been a need for Tenement Museum educators to train themselves on how to turn potential heated debates on current immigration issues into productive conversations. Shortly afterwards, Forward followed up, including an Op-Ed by Tenement Museum Trustee Zach Aarons, about how educators are constantly upgrading and enhancing their teaching methods to deliver the Museum’s message of inclusiveness and America’s endless possibilities.

  • Naturalization ceremony blends ethnic identity and American identity

Last month, the NY Daily News attended our naturalization ceremony where fifteen immigrants from 13 countries were sworn in as new U.S. citizens. It was an emotional evening, the ceremony taking place just days after the presidential election, and each speaker brought messages of hope and inspiration. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers, originally from Ireland, was also there to be honored as an Outstanding American by Choice.

 

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  • Becoming a costumed interpreter of history

The NY Daily News also covered the process by which an actress steps into the lives of one of our real-life immigrant stories. The process of being Victoria Confino, a Sephardic Jewish teenage girl residing at 97 Orchard in 1916, is not only a challenging training process but an educational one, as the actress must learn everything about the life of Victoria in order to interact smoothly with visitors of all ages.

  • Jim Gaffigan also knows how to play dress-up

The comedian put on period clothes with his kids and hung around the apartment of Victoria Confino this summer, as reported by Bedford and Bowery, and he filmed a scene for the Jim Gaffigan Show. This was the first time a scripted show ever filmed inside the Tenement Museum, but we can safely assume Jim wasn’t prepared to perform as 14-year old Victoria.jim-gaffigan

 

  • Fantastic sets and where to find them

If any of our museum visitors saw the latest Harry Potter film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, they would have recognized some of the sets inspired by the Tenement Museum. That’s because last year director David Yates, production designer Stuart Craig, and others flew to New York looking to recreate their own New York City of the 1920s, as shown in this Pottermore article. And the production design team did us proud, importing details of the era accurately. Except for all the wizards.

  • On the hunt for ugly couches

And to get those perfect details the Harry Potter crew found so inspirational, the Tenement Museum turns to Pamela Keech, our curator of furnishings. The New Yorker recently profiled Pam, who tracked down all the everyday knick-knacks, tchotchkes, and decorations that bring the stories of 97 Orchard to life, and did it all in the pre-internet era. Now Pam is hard at work for the new exhibition at 103 Orchard Street, and while she does take advantage of sites like Ebay and Craigslist, a lot of the work is still done on foot.

  • How the other half lived

Many reform movements in the United States were sparked by pieces of art that shook audiences to their core, such as photojournalist Jacob Riis’s groundbreaking “How The Other Half Lives.” This collection of photographs portrayed the cramped and derelict conditions of many immigrant lives on the Lower East Side for the first time to upper class New Yorkers, and kickstarted much needed housing reform. Photographer Fred R. Conrad recently recreated Riis’s stunning photos for The New York Times inside the walls of the Tenement Museum, because the museum, he said, satisfied a curiosity he often felt in old New York buildings: What lives had been lived there?

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Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times

 

  • Devouring American History

While some people are recreating historical photographs for major publications or recreating whole period rooms for major motion pictures, others are recreating history for dinner parties. Our own Sarah Loman, part-time educator and historic gastronomist, enjoys making recipes from bygone eras, for better or worse, and discussing the culinary changes and the impact immigrants had on our diets over time. The New York Times recently profiled Sarah on her new book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine.

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  • Tasting at the Tenement

Sarah also leads guests through special food programs at the Tenement Museum, such as Tenement Kitchen, which explores the kinds of foods certain residents would have cooked and how they made do with their cramp kitchens. This article from The Wall Street Journal (subscription needed) details our other food programs, such as our food walking tours, which take visitors on a culinary jaunt through immigrant-made foods of the Lower East Side.

  • All you need is love

And while we love all our special event tours, our inaugural Valentine’s Day tour Love at the Tenement was definitely the most beloved. The NY Daily News covered this romantic exploration into the love lives of some of the 7,000 people who lived inside 97 Orchard Street. The seed for this tour began with a scrap of love letter found beneath the floorboard, signed by “Your only onliest.” But the best thing about this tour is that it features all kinds of love, across cultures and religions, between neighbors, friends, and family.

Meet The Tenement Museum Staff: Rachel Feinmark, Strategic Communications Manager

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In this month’s edition of MEET THE TENEMENT MUSEUM STAFF, we profile an individual who has the crucial job of helping to raise the museum’s role as a thought leader on immigration. Dr. Rachel Feinmark is our Strategic Communications Manager and ACLS Public Fellow. Find out more about Rachel and her job below.

TM: What is your title?
RF: Manager of Strategic Communications and ACLS Public Fellow

TM: What are your job responsibilities?
RF: I work on a variety of special projects for development and communications with the goal of cementing the Museum’s position as a thought leader on immigration.

TM: Where did you work before coming to The Tenement Museum?
RF: Before coming to the Tenement Museum, I was working on my PhD (a full time job in itself!), but also teaching freshman writing, museum studies, and human rights at the University of Chicago and putting in extra hours doing remote data-entry for an independent bookstore in Baltimore.

TM: Most interesting story related to your job since starting here?
RF: One of the most interesting things for me has been the variety of groups I’ve spoken to who were interested in the Museum and what we do, ranging from the more obvious – historians and museum professionals – to the slightly more eccentric – elderly amateur genealogists and Catholic school principals.

TM: What is your family’s immigrant history?
RF: My great grandparents came from small towns across Russia and Poland (the kind of towns that were in Russia one day and Poland the next!), with the exception of my mother’s grandmother, who was inordinately proud of being from Austria (or so family lore says).  Both sides of my father’s family settled in New Haven, Connecticut, and my mother’s family moved to the Lower East Side.  Because I never met any of my great grandparents, I learned very little about their lives and their journeys as immigrants.  My dad was quite close with his grandmothers, though, and prides himself on still cooking like a little old lady from the shtetl.  He renders his own chicken fat, makes gefilte fish from scratch, measures ingredients for honey cake with old yahrzeit candle glasses, and shops Chinatown butcher shops for special ingredients for his chicken soup.

TM: Where did you grow up?
RF: A tiny town in northern NJ.

TM: What do you like doing in your free time?
RF: I used to enjoy reading, cooking elaborate meals, and watching some terrible TV, but these days, most of my free time is devoted to playing with wooden trains and reading Frog and Toad.  I’m still trying to finish up some journal articles from grad school on the weekends, but that only rarely qualifies as something I really “like doing.”

TM: What have you learned since starting at the museum?
RF: The nicest thing I’ve learned is just how passionate people are about American history, and about the stories of their own family’s past.  I think, at least in some professional history circles, people tend to forget that a lot of historical work is meaningless without an audience, and so it’s encouraging to see so many visitors come in each day excited and ready to ask questions.

TM: Favorite Tenement Museum tour and why?
RF: Well, I lead Hard Times, so I’m a bit biased.  But I do love the Baldizzi apartment – my grandmother often told me of her childhood in a fifth story cold water flat on the Lower East Side, and though she lived down here a few years before the Baldizzi apartment is set, I still feel like I can imagine her there (or, more likely for her, out in the streets handing out leaflets for Norman Thomas, while her mother was calling out the window looking for her).  On the other hand, my first date with my now-husband was on a Meet Victoria tour years ago (fun fact!), and so Victoria will always hold a special place in my heart.

TM: Favorite place to go in the Lower East Side?
RF: Kossar’s.  I find it a little disappointing after the recent redo (sundried tomato bialys with hummus?  Really?), but it’s just another part of the LES that reminds me of my grandma.  We used to have to come to the Lower East Side from NJ to get her bialys when Kossar’s was barely a storefront, and bring them down to her in Maryland.  She always had a freezer full, and she would eat them every morning, one half at a time.

Indiana Jones and the CubeSmart of Bushwick

 

It’s a cold, gray afternoon in early November when we headed to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s storage unit located in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. There are many streets in New York one could point to and call it a perfect example of New York City’s rich, fluid diverse landscape, and this street in Brooklyn is no different. As we walked, we passed family barbers, hipster cafes, chop shops, a halal supermarket selling live goats and chickens.

“They actually have a garment factory across the street from the storage unit,” said Dave Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs for the Tenement Museum. “If they have the door open you can see inside.”

They don’t, but it’s not too surprising, given the weather. Favaloro and Danielle Swanson, the Museum’s Collections Manager, are showing me where we’re keeping the artifacts for our upcoming exhibition at 103 Orchard Street while the exterior is currently undergoing reconstruction.

When people hear the word “artifact,” it generally conjures images of dusty pieces of clay pottery, disputed memorabilia, or the Ark of the Covenant. I’d be lying if I wasn’t imagining a giant, silent warehouse with high shelves filled with wooden crates and ancient secrets. You know, something like this. They probably don’t picture a home hair dryer that looks like it was owned by The Monkees, locked behind a bright orange garage door.

But the newest exhibition at the Tenement Museum is exploring a more recent history of American immigrants: the post-Holocaust Jewish refugees, the Puerto Rican migrants in the 1960s, and the Chinese immigrants of the 1970s. It makes recreating and curating the historical place a much different affair than the apartments at 97 Orchard Street, where tours are currently held, but never detailing immigrant life past 1935.

Favaloro said curating everyday objects from the mid-20th century was an entirely different process than what was done for 97 Orchard Street. For 19th century and early 20th century furniture, decor, and textiles, antique malls in historical districts like Gettysburg, Pennsylvania were hugely beneficial.

But for the homes of people living in the 1960s, “you can’t go to Gettysburg for that,” said Favaloro. Typically, much of the curation was done at flea markets, or online sellers like Ebay, Craigslist, or Etsy. Favaloro related to me the harrowing journey to Long Island to pick up one of the sewing machines that’s going to be used in the garment factory portion of the exhibit. But after only a couple hours of hand-wringing uncertainty, the sewing machine belonged safely to the Tenement Museum.

Much of what we hold in storage came directly from the apartments at 103 Orchard Street. The small unit holds two bathtubs, a kitchen sink and base, several doors, and two electric meters, mostly removed from the Saez apartment to prevent any potential damage occurring during the outside renovation. They even removed some of the ceiling cornice mouldings. Much will go back into the space once they’re ready to start decorating, but not everything. A set of custom doors made by Jose Velez, son of one of the Puerto Rican family featured in our new exhibit and building superintendent for many years, will not be going back into the apartment, although a set of French doors in Ramonita Saez’s apartment will.

Many of the artifacts from the Saez family were still in the building when the Tenement Museum purchased it. When Ramonita returned to Puerto Rico in 2011 due to illness, her sons who ran the building simply left most of it behind. The Wong family also donated some of their belongings for the new exhibition, though the Epsteins had long since moved by the time the Tenement Museum popped up on Orchard Street.

The Museum strives to make connections between the past and the present, to build bridges over time and between communities that in a regular day people don’t often cross. Usually this presents itself as shared principles, religious ideals, economic strife, family values. But the similarities can also be physical, and material. It’s easy to look at a decades-old box of stringy Christmas tinsel and twisted fairy lights and know you — or people you know — will be pulling out the exact same box this month to decorate a fresh tree. We all have that one relic from childhood that somehow managed to survive the years, though they’re probably not all Stan Laurel piggy banks marked with a faded Frankenberry sticker.

The old books, the worn records, the forgotten collections, the outdated calendars — our history is preserved and shared in our stuff, in our pocket littler, in our messy kitchen drawers. A glance into the recent past, a walk around someone else’s storage unit, serves as a nice reminder to find the value in the things you own, and to wonder what significance future historians might find in the things you leave behind.

The Perils of Assimilation: How what we eat makes us American, for better or worse.

Sarah Lohman is an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a culinary historian, and author of the forthcoming book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, out December 6 from Simon & Schuster. She also writes the blog FourPoundsFlour.com, and this week, she is recreating the diet of an Italian family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan from 1919. Follow along here.

In 1919, a social worker named Sophinisba Breckenridge walked the streets of one America’s Little Italies, probably in Chicago where she was doing research on immigrant groups. She described what she saw: “Tomato paste, for example, is used in great quantities by Italian families and is made at home by drying the tomatoes in the open air. When an attempt is made to do this in almost any large city, the tomatoes get not only the sunshine but the soot and dirt of the city. The more particular Italians here will not make tomato paste outdoors, but large numbers of Italian families continue to make it as can be seen by a walk through any Italian district in late August or early September.”

Breckenridge, like many of her colleagues, were concerned about the health and diets of new immigrants, particularly the four million Italian immigrants who came to America between 1880 and 1920. In Italy, political and economic upheaval as well as volcanic eruptions, blight, and cholera caused, according to one turn-of-the-century study, “… a terrible, permanent lack of food.”  So many Italians immigrated to America that by 1920, they represented 10% of America’s population.

To greet this enormous wave of immigration, there were a growing number of American-born social workers occupying settlement houses, early social aid organizations that tackled the “settling” of new immigrants. The social workers offered a helping hand in Americanization. “The settlement ideal has included the preservation of the dignity and self-esteem of the immigrant,” Breckenridge wrote in her 1921 book, New Homes for Old, “while attempting to modify his habits when necessary… .” For Italian immigrants, it was their cooking habits that needed to be modified.

Mulberry Street, c 1900, the center of Manhattan’s Little Italy.

Mulberry Street, c 1900, the center of Manhattan’s Little Italy.

A few social workers credited the Italians for improving the diet of Americans. The Italian in America, a report written in 1905 by a handful of government officials, states: “The introduction of a variety of wholesome greens, celeries, dandelions, spinach, fennels, has been very greatly advanced throughout the country by Italian-American example and influence. The increased consumption of fruits in answer to the demand and by the multiplication of fruit venders has been one of the most noteworthy accompaniments of Italian immigration.” Other authors praised the diet of Italians in Italy, especially after World War I, and they thought Italian immigrants in America were getting it all wrong. In The Italian Cookbook, The Art of Eating Well, published in 1919, author Maria Gentile writes that food of the “Italian race” was “palatable, nourishing and economical.” Nutritionist Bertha Wood wrote in her 1922 book Foods of the Foreign Born in Relation to Health: “Naturally they are painstaking, good cooks.” Wood goes on to comment: “The raw food materials of the Italian diet, many of which were easily procured from their own farms, when combined in their home-country ways, furnished a cheap, well-balanced diet.”

Although food in Italy was praised, the Italian immigrants who came here were criticized for their dietary indiscretions. “Often it has been said ‘They should learn to eat American foods if they are to live here,’” writes Wood. But she points out that the American diet is corrupting the immigrant: “The Italian laborer here is paid larger wages; he handles more money than in Italy, but with the joy of this comes the realization that it costs more to live. At home he had a garden and never had to count the cost of vegetables and fruit; here he has no garden and is amazed at market prices.” Italian families decided to spend their wages on more calorically dense carbs and meat. Buying fine pastas, olives oils, cheese and cured meats was also seen as a sign of success by these immigrants. Meat, especially, was a sign of a financially accomplished American: “Here I eat meat three times a day, not three times a year,” boasts a letter home from Italian immigrant Antonio Ranciglio. But this carb and meat-heavy diet, Wood believed, was affecting the health of Italian-Americans.

Although some of the nutritionist’s apprehension about Italian food may have come for prejudice or xenophobia, some of their fears may have been grounded in truth. Anecdotally, Wood saw higher rates of heart disease and diabetes amongst assimilated Italians. And we see a parallel in America today with modern immigrants. In 2013, the New York Times published an article called “The Health Toll of Immigration.”

“A growing body of mortality research on immigrants has shown that the longer they live in this country, the worse their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. … For the recently arrived, the quantity and accessibility of food speaks to the boundless promise of the United States. Esther Angeles remembers being amazed at the size of hamburgers — as big as dinner plates — when she first came to the United States from Mexico 15 years ago. “‘I thought, this is really a country of opportunity,’ she said. ‘Look at the size of the food!’”

A recent study from Columbia University reported that the longer an immigrant resides in America, both their sugar intake and BMI increase. This shift is blamed on an adapting to the American way of life; the immigrants abandon the more balanced diets of their home countries, in favor of high fat and sugar “American” foods. What meat was to the Italians is what fast food is to a new wave of immigrants: a status symbol, inaccessible in one’s home country, but because of higher wages in America, a symbol of financial success. As the Times said, “The pattern goes against any notion that moving to America improves every aspect of life. It also demonstrates that at least in terms of health, worries about assimilation for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants are mistaken. In fact, it is happening all too quickly.”

Bowery Mission and Modern Hard Times

Bowery Mission

A few weeks ago I contacted the Bowery Mission in the hopes that a member of their staff would speak to our Walking Tour Educators. Monthly, we meet to share best practices and work to improve the way we tell the myriad stories of our neighborhood. The Mission generously agreed to host us for a meeting and give us a tour of their incredibly important space. Although the institution was founded in 1879, it moved around in its early years. Since 1894, however, it has been within 10 blocks of its current location at 227 Bowery.

During a brief phone chat with one of the staff members, she mentioned that the Mission’s programming is far larger than just the Bowery shelter. They also work with those recovering from addiction and assist those with food needs by handing out meals and bags of groceries at various locations around the city, including some city parks. She stressed that the services of the Mission and other aid organizations become all the more pressing as the days turn colder. I immediately though of the families of 97 Orchard Street who, during their times of need, also relied on similar generosity in an effort to get back on their feet, feed their children, and continue their stories.

“There is a large class of people in this city for whom the approaching Winter is far from encouraging,” wrote a New York Times reporter in 1873. That year, the onset of winter brought far more than just cold weather.  A major building boom after the Civil War led to financial overreach by the railroad companies, bringing the stock market to a complete halt by September of that year. After the onset of the Panic of 1873, roughly 25% of New York City was out of work and many of the the laboring class, one that was largely immigrant, found themselves in dire need of assistance.

As a Jewish family, Natalie and Julius Gumpertz of 97 Orchard (featured on our Hard Times tour) were eligible for assistance from the United Hebrew Charity, a central relief organization for the Jewish charities of New York City. The Gumpertz family received $5 sometime in the early 1870s with a note on the record that read, “assist only occasionale [sic]”.

In the late 19th century, there were those who thought it their moral duty to provide for those in need regardless of situation. That worldview was not shared by many. An 1873 conference was held in New York during which many of the city’s charities met to debate the most productive ways to distribute relief. Should it go through the police? Should folks have to go to a location to receive it or should it be brought to their home? Though a consensus was not reached, one thing was made certain: “What we most dread is impulsive and indiscreet general charity” (New York Times, Nov. 1873).

The charity in question was specifically that of outdoor relief. Provided by the local government, outdoor relief consisted of coal or food and was typically collected in a park or public place. Annually, the program saw roughly 5,000 recipients before the Panic. During the Panic the number was said to increase fivefold. The immense need clearly sent the government into crisis, as they abolished the program in 1875 citing a fear of “pauperism,” meaning dependence on the government.

What did the halls of 97 Orchard Street sound like during the winter of 1873? How our residents ended up getting by? Natalie Gumpertz’s story details the challenges and tragedies faced by her and her daughters. Finding herself a widow during the height of the Panic, it is quite likely that Natalie and her neighbors had to turn to one another for support after the government seem to turn on its citizens. At the Tenement Museum, we lay a foundation of fact that then explore the stories of families through often answer-less questions.

The fact that the residents of 97 Orchard had each other to turn to was undoubtedly important, as was the fact that they all had a roof over their head. Those who found themselves on the street that winter faired much worse, a fact that remains true today.

As reported by the Coalition for the Homeless, as of September of this year, there are 60,000 homeless individuals in New York City, three quarters of that number are comprised of families. The best data for counting homeless New Yorkers is shelter attendance, so a part of the homeless population often goes uncounted, as many individuals sleep nightly on the streets of the city. A disproportionate number of street homeless are living with mental illness and in need of help, making it more challenging to locate and assist regularly. Today, New York City has many organizations that support those in need, both religious and secular. They provide vital services to the many New Yorkers who simply need a little boost during hard times, just Natalie Gumpertz did.

The offerings of these organizations are far more diverse and the barriers to support are thankfully fewer as organizations like the Mission fight the stigma associated with poverty. However, just as it was in 1873, when the government seemed to act counter to the good of its citizens and people were vilified for situations beyond their control, the local community must continue to come together to weather the storm.

This year, the Tenement Museum sponsored a food drive in support of the Mission.  We searched our pantries for canned food and our closets for gently used winter clothing in the spirit of community stewardship. We’ll deliver the goods on November 18th, just in time for Thanksgiving. This year, the Mission plans to serve 11,000 Thanksgiving meals and provide each diner with a new coat. The Museum is honored to play a role, however small, in providing a happy holiday for our neighbors. As we are so thankful that we have the chance to talk about families who faced adversity and triumphed, we are equally happy to make that a reality for a present day New Yorker.

To donate goods, time, or money to the Bowery Mission, visit their website.

  • Post by Brendan Murphy, Senior Education Associate, at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum 

Meet The Tenement Museum Staff: Brendan Murphy, Senior Education Associate

Brendan Murphy, Senior Education Associate at the Tenement Museum

Brendan Murphy, Senior Education Associate at the Tenement Museum

 

In this month’s edition of MEET THE TENEMENT MUSEUM STAFF, we profile an individual who plays a crucial role in the creation and editing of content for the museum’s Walking Tours. Brendan Murphy, a Senior Education Associate at the Tenement Museum, is relatively new to the position but as you will read has been in the Tenement Museum family for a long time.

 

TM: What is your title?
BM: I am a Senior Education Associate.

TM: What are your job responsibilities?
BM: Like most of us, I wear many hats. I manage the walking tour program, help support Educators through small group facilitation and general management, and assist with teacher workshops.

TM: Where did you work before coming to The Tenement Museum?
BM: I’ve been at the Museum for nearly four and a half years now, but the bulk of that time was spent as an Educator. While part-time here, I worked at the Brooklyn Public Library in the educational wing of their archive, the Brooklyn Collection. I helped students hone their research skills while exploring their borough’s history. Before my current career in education, I lived my best Millennial life: bartender, caterer, temporary administrative assistant, house manager, yoga studio administration, room service clerk, stroller valet, census worker, etc.

TM: Most interesting story related to your job since starting here?
BM: The most interesting story since starting as Senior Education Associate (thus far) happened just after I was hired. I reached out to a local community member, K Webster with the Sarah Delano Roosevelt Park Coalition, on Adam Steinberg’s suggestion. We sat down and chatted and discussed our roles within our respective institutions. She then brought over the head gardener of M’Finda Kalunga, one of the gardens that the Coalition oversees. He has been in the neighborhood for years and was there when the garden was first founded in what was then a trash heap. While I listened to him share both his memories and his predictions, it struck me just how lucky I am to work in a neighborhood that inspires such passion, both from those who currently live here and those who have longstanding family ties.

TM: What is your family’s immigrant history?
BM: My immigration story is very pale. My father’s family is Irish and Scottish and, for the most part, has been here since the late 1700s. My mother’s side is Scandinavian and the majority of them immigrated in the middle of the 19th century.

TM: Where did you grow up?
BM: I was born in Athens, Georgia and all of my father’s family still lives in the Deep South. We moved to Oregon when I was four and from there to Washington State. It was in Washington that I spent my formative years. I migrated to New York about eight years ago. I am caught between two coasts – I love New York for its cultural vibrancy, but there are few places on the planet more beautiful than the Pacific Northwest.

TM: What do you like doing in your free time?
BM: I like to hike* and spend time outside, jog, read, watch good TV, watch bad TV, and spend time with my amazing community of friends. *We don’t actually have locations where one can hike in New York, rather places to walk outside. Yes, yes, I know that there are what New Yorkers call “mountains” around, but… come on. Who are we kidding?

TM: You are in charge of the Walking Tours at the museum, do you have a dream Walking Tour idea for the museum?
BM: I’m not pandering, I promise. I’m so proud of our current offerings and the Educators who lead them. We take visitors to places they’d never think to stop at and ask them to explore the entirety of the neighborhood, not just the parts that make it into guide books. Although, if I had to make a change, I’d add more beer to our programs in general, walking tours and otherwise.

TM: Favorite Tenement Museum tour and why?
BM: I love leading Tastings as the Tenement. Inviting visitors to share their stories at a family table and explore the subtle ways that immigration has changed our country for the better is such a gratifying experience. Even folks who are picky eaters benefit from immigration! My cousin’s husband is perhaps the pickiest eater I’ve ever met, but he never says no to a hot dog. Thanks John and Caroline!

TM: Favorite place to go in the Lower East Side?
BM: The waterfront is really beautiful. But, let’s be real, my favorite place in the neighborhood is Melt, the ice cream sandwich place on Orchard. They are absolutely delicious and I refuse your judgement.