2018 Holiday Gift Guide

The Tenement Museum has a wide array of books, housewares, gifts, knick-knacks, and memorabilia to make your holiday season one for the history books! Everyone likes getting gifts, but is there anything better than being known among your friends and family as the person who gets everyone the perfect present? We’re here to help you claim that title, my friend, with our unique collection of gifts for all the HOSTS, NEW YORKERS, TRAVELERS, and KIDS in your life!

For the HOST…

You’ll never show up empty-handed with these stellar gifts for the host or hostess. Whether you’re invited to dinner or spending the weekend, show your appreciation with a holiday cookbook, clever kitchen tool, or party game!

  • Click to purchase: Little Book of Jewish Feasts, $18.95

For the NEW YORKER…

For the New Yorker who has everything and claims they know everything, a selection of our most popular New York- centric goodies is sure to delight. Some of these items are so fun you might need to buy yourself a little something too!

  • Click to purchase: Tenements, Towers & Trash, $29.99

For the TRAVELER…

Take New York with you wherever you go next! We’ve scoured the globe for a perfect mix of compact souvenirs and travel-inspiring presents. The perfect gifts for the trailblazing tourists, the NYC subway navigators or the wannabe wayfarers. 

  • Click to purchase: Lower East Side Tenement Tote, $29.99

For the KIDS…

Keep the kids busy through the holiday parties and the frostiest of snow days. They’ll be enjoying these challenging puzzles and educational reads well after the holidays. With such great finds, you might stock up for their next birthday too!

  • Click to purchase: Vintage New York Pencil Set, $12.99

Happy shopping, and happy holidays from the Tenement Museum!

 

What Lies Beneath

If someone opened up the floorboards of your home, what would they find? A grain of rice that dropped to the floor? A scrap of junk mail? A lost button? There’s something surreal in imagining the tiny pieces of ourselves that seem so small and unimportant at the time, suddenly made significant when found decades or centuries later by another.

From August to September, I sorted through a sampling of detritus that had settled bit-by-bit beneath the floorboards of 97 Orchard Street from 1863 to present day. Some of it had fallen through on its own, like a stray bean or onion skin lost in the business of cooking dinner. Other objects were clearly brought there by those ambitious and ever present NYC residents: rats and mice. These unintentional yet marvelous archivists left their mark in the form of tiny gnawings along the edges of cigarette cards, the precious fabric scraps they made their nests from, and even their own mummified bodies hidden beneath a hearth once warmed by a coal burning stove.

At least ten bags of debris were removed from the floors of Apartment 13 during a conservation project on the fourth floor in the spring of 2014. In a continuing effort to protect 97 Orchard, and make it accessible to the public for years to come, the floorboards were opened up to reveal the old plaster keys that pressed between the lath when the ceiling of the apartment below was first installed.

These keys, however, age and break and sometimes need extra help to support the ceiling. Our conservation team from Jablonski went in from above, creating artificial keys with resin injected into the void between the floorboards. The project resumed on a different floor this summer (2018) to stabilize the ceilings of second floor apartments to the north. Several more bags of debris were collected.

The bags from Apartment 13 were labeled by room and the directional quadrant where the detritus was found, and then brought to the cellar of 97 Orchard. It was there that I set up a pair of sawhorses and a screen to sift before the open bulkhead of our building.

As I went through the bags a number hazards had to be kept in mind — toxic rat pee from a century ago, lead dust, splintered wood, rusted nails —all manner of nasty things I didn’t wish to take into my lungs or carry home on my clothes. So, during the sifting phase of the project, this was my work uniform:

As I worked through each bag, I found that they all had different personalities. The first, from the parlor, was filled with a dust so fine it looked like smoke as it curled from the screen. The second and third, both from the kitchen, was a darker, heavier soil that didn’t seem to cling as much to the coveralls I wore. And the fourth bag barely had any dust to sift through at all. It contained heavy, jagged pieces of wood and chunks of plaster that threatened to tear through the bulging plastic. This bag ended up being my favorite, because among those bigger pieces of debris came bigger finds. All of the more notable pieces found in abundance were accessioned into the permanent collection under the banner of Apartment 13.

Here are a few of my favorites. The first is this little friend:

I was growing tired of the monotony of searching through horsehair laced plaster, which I’ll admit was initially very exciting, when I found this mouse amid the debris. I started cheering, muffled of course, by the rubber of my respirator.

Another discovery was a rectangular piece of cardboard which, while dirty and featureless at first glance, stood out to me as something worth keeping. During the accessioning process I was able to dust it off and the print of a woman was revealed.

Cora Dean, the card proclaims—though her name must be taken with a grain of salt as these particular cigarette cards were not known for their accuracy. They were produced during the 1880s to drum up interest in W. Duke Sons & Co Cross-Cut Cigarettes, and while searches bring up one Cora Dean in a month-long Broadway production of John Hudson’s Wife in 1906, no other information seems to remain.

Sometimes, the finds are more unsettling, like this small pharyngeal jaw found in one of the kitchen bags. It caused such a visceral reaction in me that I just had to show it every staff member I came across.

Certain fish (like Sheepshead fish, for which Sheepshead Bay is named) have startlingly human-looking teeth in rows that line their throats. This cluster looks similar to Freshwater Drum. However much this artifact made my skin crawl, it did provide insight into what was on the menu in the kitchens of 97 Orchard. I also found the vertebrae of chickens and fish, cleanly cut beef bones for stews, stone fruit pits, chestnut shells, and even scrap advertisements for M. Prechter’s Rye Bread, a bakery started in the 1880s that continues to sell Jewish Rye bread today.

Then I found a coffee bean. I’m certain coffee beans have fallen in similar fashion through the floorboards in my own home and I have given them little thought. But something about picking up this one, dropped by someone a century ago and left quiet and untouched for all those years, felt profoundly special to me. All of these things have a sense memory that calls back every hand they passed through. In finding them, they become a bridge that closes the gap between people of the past and present, showing how shared our lives and stories continue to be.

Blog posted by SJ Costello

SJ  is an Educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, illustrator, and general story-teller with a focus in 19th century American history.

Museum Educator Discovers Unexpected Tenement Ties

If this story inspires you to discover your own family ties,  the Tenement Museum is hosting its own genealogy program next Thursday 9/27/2018. The program will  explore the genealogical research process through the stories of New York immigrants and attendees will learn 10 essential steps for discovering your own family history. Buy tickets: UNCOVERING FAMILY HISTORIES: 10 ESSENTIAL STEPS

In the fall of 2017, just before I began work as an Educator at the Tenement Museum, my grandmother sent me her parents’ marriage certificate. By then, such gestures had become routine – she needed someone to safeguard old documents and reasoned they belonged with the only historian in the family. Over the next year, she sent me several historical gems –old photographs; a 1944 letter of recommendation allowing my grandfather to enter the Navy; his list of places served during the war; and court papers documenting the family’s name change from “Buznitsky” to “Barry.”

My great-grandparents’ marriage certificate

But the marriage certificate proved the most revelatory, containing information directly relevant to Lower East Side history and, even more astoundingly, 97 Orchard Street. My grandmother’s father, Hyman Mayo, immigrated to the United States from Kastoria (listed on the 1910 census as “Turkey [Spanish]”) in 1907. By that time, his father, Bivinisto, and two older brothers, Zachary and Jacob, had already arrived in the country, working as a dressmaker and laborers in a kettle factory, respectively. By 1910, the entire family had settled on the Lower East Side, first on Broome Street before moving, as indicated on the marriage certificate, to Allen Street. In short, my ancestors lived around the corner from 97 Orchard Street and hailed from the same town, Kastoria, as Victoria Confino, the feature subject in one of the museum’s most popular tours, ‘Meet Victoria’.

When I became an Educator at the Tenement Museum, these facts seemed a strange coincidence. But the marriage certificate reveals something more: my great-grandfather’s mother, listed as Sophie, had a Confino surname as well. Could Sophie and Victoria have been related? In fact, they were. After consulting the museum’s voluminously rich Confino family history archive – with helpful assistance from Jessica Underwood Varma, head of the museum’s costumed interpretation programs – I learned that Sophie and Victoria were cousins on opposite sides of a family drama. According to family lore, Victoria’s father, Abraham, married her mother, Rachel, only after someone left her at the altar. That someone was Semantov “Chino” Confino, Abraham’s older brother and the alleged “black sheep” of the family. Later, Chino fathered Sophie with his first wife in 1875. Thirty years later, Sophie gave birth to my great-grandfather, Hyman. From there, the family line becomes easy to trace: Hyman fathered my grandmother, Sylvia, in 1931, and Sylvia gave birth to my mother, Loren, in 1956. My sister and I entered the world in 1988 and 1983, respectively. The marriage certificate uncovered a new piece of family history: my mother, sister, and I directly descend from Sophie Confino, Victoria’s cousin, who lived in 97 Orchard. For nearly a year, I had been giving tours in one of my ancestor’s homes without knowing it. Did Sophie ever visit? If so, what did they talk about and what other residents did she see?

Back (left to right): my great-grandparents, Esther Mayo and Hyman Mayo, and Sophie Confino, my great-great grandmother. She frequently shopped on Orchard Street, stored extra food on her fire escape, regaled my grandmother with stories in Spanish, and loved jujubes. Front (left to right): Sam Mayo and Sylvia Mayo, my grandmother.

On a personal level, this discovery infused my research on the Lower East Side and work at the Tenement Museum with personal significance and highlighted the museum’s unique mission.  Discussing family history offers a different lens through which to analyze and understand history. For me, the marriage certificate raised precisely the sorts of imaginative questions that can animate tours at the museum. From a single historical document, it became possible to flesh out the daily experiences of individuals, families, and residents in a single building. Examining the lives of the Gumpertzes, Levines, Baldizzis, and others allowed me to engage audiences in the process of using the public record to capture human reality. The museum thus creates space to analyze the intersections between micro- and macro-history, how large-scale policies, cultural shifts, and social and political change impacts ordinary people and vice-a-versa. As an historian whose work tries (sometimes in vain) to balance these two perspectives, it was refreshing to continually grapple with how to best situate the museum’s widening pool of individuals and families in the times in which they lived. The museum’s programs thus raise questions about the relationship between family history and academic history and the ways in which individuals can (and maybe sometimes cannot) change the course of history and complicate historical knowledge.

By centering this type of genealogical research in its tours, the museum provides an opportunity to examine where others’ experiences converge and diverge from the families who lived at 97 Orchard. These similarities and differences – both large and small –make the Tenement Museum a fundamentally different historical experience and institution. Recently, the museum has created a program to make its focus on genealogical research more explicit. On Thursday, September 27th from 6:30-8:30 PM, “Uncovering Family History: 10 Essential Steps” will discuss the process and challenges of researching family history. Perhaps the seminar will lead you to a surprising discovery that connects to 97 Orchard or elsewhere – sometimes it only takes a marriage certificate to learn something new.

-by Barry Goldberg

Summer Escapism: Coney Island Dreaming

Coney Island’s Luna Park, one of the Island’s most popular amusement parks, photographed in 1917. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

It’s summertime and you want to get away from it all? You aren’t the only one. Despite limited means, Lower East Siders often tried to find a little escape from their routines. For a time, from around 1880 to 1911, one of the most popular destinations for working-class new Yorkers was Coney Island.

In the early 1870s Coney Island was a lovely, if lonely, stretch of beach with just a few inns and bathhouses. In the later 1870’s the multiple municipal train lines finally linked the beachfront to Manhattan, which allowed visitors to pay a relatively inexpensive fare to reach the shore.  A regularly scheduled steamship arrived to shuttle visitors by 1880. When Coney Island initially developed it was as economically stratified as Manhattan.  First wealthy families settled Manhattan Beach as a season-long destination, bringing their entire households, including servants to high-end establishments Oriental Hotel and its competitors. Norton’s point, was a rough destination for men on their own, who gambled, fought and visited brothels. West Brighton became a destination for middle-class families traveling for day excursions.

By 1900 Coney Island had attracted the weekend crowd that would make it famous – as many as 300,000 to 500,000 visitors descended on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Middle and working-class families began to throng the Island, and attractions began to cater to the tastes of these new consumers. In 1896 Captain Paul Boyton collected few attractions close together for his Sea Lion Park. Sea Lion Park boasted of sea lions (naturally) and an ride called “shoot-the-chutes” among other themed amusements. The success of Boyton’s park inspired entrepreneur George Tilyou to create Steeplechase Park in 1897 and subsequently Dreamland and Luna Park attractions.

With the consolidation of the beachfront attractions into organized parks, Coney Island’s culture began to shift again. Concession stands were now largely leased out through the larger “parks,” which streamlined the experience.  The parks were suddenly pitched to attract the largest possible audience. Some establishments served soda, rather than alcohol, and heavily marketed themselves as family friendly establishments.

Visitor’s enjoy the Shoot-the-Chutes attraction in Sea Lion Park. Photo courtesy of the New York Public LIbrary.

The plan worked. The parks became so wildly popular that they attracted all classes and began to erode the distinctions between the way these groups spent their leisure time. Coney Island amusements helped crumble some of the staunch Victorian insistence on middle-class conduct. Popular participation in the amusements helped to create mass culture on a whole new scale.

Another ride at a Coney, a successor to Tilyou’s original Steeplechase concept featuring mechanical horses. This photograph is dated 1905. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Dreamland and Luna Park provided opportunities to do things that most people, married or single were never able to do. They could laugh, mingle, flirt, and touch the opposite sex in public! Swimming, sliding, falling and any number of other sensations were encouraged by the amusement park rides. These unfamiliar activities broke down the expected codes of conduct and put park-goers in touch with sensations society had largely taught them to bury or suppress. It seems only fitting that Sigmund Frued, pioneer of the unconscious, visited the park in 1909. One park even contained an attraction called Fire and Flames, which contained a staged disaster where firemen battled for a tenement building (covered in asbestos) that went up in flames twice a day.

Still a beloved summertime destination for New Yorkers, Coney Island has recently survived the impact of Hurricane Sandy and a boardwalk fire. Photography courtesy of New York Department of Parks and Recreation.

Eventually Coney Island’s popularity waned. Coney never quite recovered the controlled magic it once wielded, after Dreamland itself burned to the ground in 1911. Following World War One more tangible technologies like the automobile, the airplane and eventually television replaced the park as Americans’ perferred amusements. Coney Island has survived even the immense power of Hurricane Sandy and remains a popular summertime destination for New Yorkers.

A dreamlike image of Luna Park at night. The Park’s popularity coincided with the debut of electric lighting for display and public space. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Some fantasies of the old Coney Island will always survive from a time when Americans played in Dreamland.

 

– By Julia Berick

New Immigrant History Museum Opening in the Hudson Valley

It’s not often you get to see inside of a museum before its official opening. But if you travel up the Hudson River this summer to Kingston, New York, you have the chance to experience a museum’s beginnings. The Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History, located on Kingston’s Broadway in the neighborhood of Rondout, interprets the immigrant stories of the Hudson Valley through a historic bakery building once owned by the Reher family. Sound familiar? This site shares many characteristics with what we do at the Tenement Museum—they tell stories of a neighborhood and family history and recognize the incredible potential in connecting visitors and residents in Kingston today to the stories of immigrants past.

The Reher Center is housed in a former bakery building at 99-101 Broadway, Kingston, New York

On a bright Saturday morning, a few of us gathered for a preview tour of the Center’s historic bakery building. The three-story building sits on a corner of the main commercial street in Rondout, lined with cafes and shops, just a few blocks up a hill from the Hudson. Director Sarah Litvin met us outside, and traced for us the evolution of the Rondout neighborhood from farmland to a shipping hub in the early 19th Century, to a bustling, diverse neighborhood of working class immigrants from Europe. Immigrants like the Reher family settled in Rondout, moving from Krakow, Poland, to New York City, and then to Kingston. Why did they make the move up the river? With neighborhoods like the Lower East Side so crowded, and housing so uncertain, immigrant families in the late 19th Century might seek better jobs and housing in cities further up the Hudson, as they often do today.

The Rehers opened a bakery on the bottom floor of the building in 1908, and Litvin opened up the tour with a taste of rye bread for each of us, inviting us to break bread as countless Rondout residents had before. Our rye bread came from Graziano’s Downtown Café a few doors down, but we could easily imagine we had just bought it fresh from Frank and Ada Reher. Frank and Ada were both Jewish, so many of their customers came for their challah just before the Friday Sabbath, but their busiest day by far was Sunday, when churchgoers would stop by after services alongside their Jewish neighbors.

Sadie Reher ran the counter of the bakery and store in the mid-20th Century

Litvin brought us into the former retail shop and focused the stories of these Sundays, particularly the ones in the 1950s. By the middle of the 20th Century, the bakery became a corner store as well, selling canned and dry goods, groceries, and other staples. The neighborhood was also on the precipice of “urban renewal,” the same demolition of buildings to build freeways and new housing that the Lower East Side experienced in the same period.

“What are your memories of this place?” The Reher Center wants to know about the bakery from the stories of the people who went there; they asked neighbors, family members, and residents of Kingston what they recalled about the family and their store. People shared stories of Sunday deliveries of the Reher’s famous hard rolls, of going there to buy a pack of cigarettes and getting swept up in the neighborhood news exchange. One woman talked of the ritual of leaving money on the kitchen counter every week and arriving home to a fresh-baked loaf of rye bread in its place; another, of the “Reher’s Rocks” that would form if you left the rolls overnight.

The Reher family baked rolls, challah, and rye bread in this 1916 coal-powered oven

As we stood along the smooth wooden counter, we listened to these memories from the people themselves, thanks to recorded oral histories. Litvin revealed the Center’s research and preservation work: they found artifacts like the Sunday List, detailing customers’ orders for delivery; bakery trays that revealed the same pattern of dough laid out every week, and the centerpiece of the baking room: a 72-loaf oven from 1916.

The Reher Center’s upstairs gallery, open on Saturdays through the summer, invites visitors into an exhibit on the wider history of Rondout, and connects past to present with stories and photographs of the immigrant business owners of Rondout today. They will continue research and restoration through the year, while developing programs that connect visitors and locals to the rich, multi-cultural baking traditions of Kingston today.

The exhibit on the second floor of the Reher Center features a photo series of immigrant business owners in Kingston today

While the building is smaller than 97 Orchard Street, and the city slightly smaller too, the Reher Center’s historic site is baked from the same recipe as the Tenement Museum: share a building’s stories, past and present, and open the doors to all.

For more information, visit https://www.rehercenter.org

30 Years of Tenement Museum Milestones

As the Tenement Museum celebrates its 30th anniversary, we are looking back at some of the milestones that have shaped our first thirty years. From expanding into new spaces to the launch of new tours, from changes in leadership to recognition at the local and national level, this timeline chronicles some of our most noteworthy accomplishments. We invite you to take a trip down memory lane with us, starting in 1988 and working your way up to the present. Along the way, we hope you’ll learn something new while you gain a better understanding of how we became the Museum we are today.

  • Post by Katie Heimer, Marketing & Communications Coordinator at the Tenement Museum

 

Modern Parenting from 1878

We know that being a mother is the hardest job in the world – moms are nurses, therapists, chefs, friends, and style-gurus on top of everything else. The job is certainly not for the faint of heart and deserves a lot of praise and appreciation. This Mother’s Day, the Tenement Museum has you completely covered…

Rest your tired feet, moms, because we’re going to take the reins here and raise the kids using these helpful 130-year old parenting tips.

Mothers and children in a New York City park on a hot day, 1900’s. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Don’ts for Mothers, published in London in 1878, is filled with useful tidbits and advice for how to raise a healthy, productive child. We’ll be using these hints and turning your sons or daughters into perfect gentlemen or ladies. Even if your children are already grown, it’s not too late to make a turn around.

Even before the child is born, we must already take care: “Don’t indulge in any species of excess. Endeavour to keep the mind in the greatest tranquility.” Sit quietly for nine months.

Women care for babies in a day nursery in the early 1900’s. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Something as simple as bathing a child is filled with danger:  “Don’t bathe your new-born babe in cold water. It frequently produces stuffing of the nose and looseness of the bowels. Don’t, however, run into an opposite extreme. Hot water weakens the babe, and thus would predispose him to disease. Lukewarm rain water is the best to wash him.” No advice on the collection of rainwater, however.

We always forget this one: “Don’t feel it necessary to wash your infant’s head with brandy.” It just feels so necessary!

Babies in a field – we assume that none of these children have had their heads washed with brandy. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

The rules are also quite stern when it comes to feeding a baby: “Don’t let your wet-nurse succumb to fretting. She ought strictly to avoid crowded rooms; her mind should kept calm and unruffled. Nothing disorders the milk so much as passion and other violent emotions of the mind.” I know my mother’s wet-nurse often suffered from passion, and it disordered everything!

A woman stands beside a bassinet and holds pasteurized but not passionate milk. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

We’ll keep your children well-fed and healthy too: “Don’t neglect to be sure that a child eats salt with his dinner. Let a mother see that this advice is followed, or evil consequences will inevitably ensure.” The evil consequences of normal blood pressure.

Keeping a youngster healthy can be quite difficult, but thankfully we have tips like this to follow: “Don’t purge an infant during teething or any other time. IF WE LOCK UP THE BOWELS, WE CONFINE THE ENEMY, AND THUS PRODUCE MISCHIEF.” The capitalization is original to the publication. Sounds serious.

Getting plenty of sodium at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

After a bath and a good meal, we’ll put your child down for a nap. “Don’t attempt to harden a young child by allowing him, in the winter time, to be in a bedroom without a fire, or by dipping him in cold water, or by keeping him with scant clothing on his bed. He ought to be kept comfortably warm.” It is tempting to make your baby sleep in a frigid room, but we must resist.

Women with their children in Central Park, 1909. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Of course, the trials don’t end once the child is no longer an infant; a child must grow up in a loving and incredibly rigid environment. We will encourage your small children to develop hobbies; “Don’t neglect the educative possibilities of the stamp collecting mania. A youth might become quite an authority on geography from this pastime.” We must remember that some hobbies, such as the brass or woodwind instruments, can be dangerous; “Don’t permit a youth to play the flute, blow the bugle or play any other wind instrument. It is injurious to the health; the lungs and windpipe are brought into unnatural action by them.”

A mother and children at a lodging house in New York. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

This last one is just common sense; “Don’t allow the child to be with persons who stutter, or have any extraordinary sort of ugliness.”

Raising children is not an easy task – even with these clear cut directions, moms of the world need to know how much we appreciate them.

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone!

– Posted by Lib Tietjen

Tenement Museum Gala 2018 Recap!

The Tenement Museum’s 3 Presidents: Ruth Abram, Morris J. Vogel & Kevin Jennings together at the 2018 Gala

What a night! The Tenement Museum’s 2018 Gala this week exceeded expectations, celebrating 30 years of the Tenement Museum and raising close to $1 million, which will be used to support the Museum’s ambitious new strategic direction.

The Ziegfeld Ballroom welcomed nearly 500 attendees on Tuesday, a crowd comprised of everyone from leading immigration advocates to New York City politicos.

Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, leading voice for the human rights of immigrants and one of our Gala honorees, gave an impassioned speech about the need for inclusivity and honesty in our national conversation on immigration and described the role the Tenement Museum must play in today’s debate:  “Our immigration past informs the present, which dictates the future.”

It was only fitting that during a celebration of Tenement Museum’s past, Ruth Abram, the founder of the Museum, would also be honored. She received the Founders Award and delivered a speech that looked both back and forward, expressing her pride that the Museum she established 30 years ago has such relevance today.

Other honorees included Paul J. Massey Jr, who previously served as Museum Board chair and The Boston Consulting Group, whose pro bono help was instrumental in developing the new strategic plan for the Museum.

Kevin with Gala honoree Jose Antonio Vargas

Kevin delivers his speech

In his speech outlining this new direction, Tenement Museum President Kevin Jennings stressed the importance of putting a human face on the immigrant experience and rejecting bigotry. Growing up with an uncle and grandfather who were active members of the Ku Klux Klan, he told attendees, “I know what bigotry and ignorance look like.”

“I also know how you overcome them,” he continued.

Kevin outlined the Museum’s plan moving forward to engage millions annually through a range of new initiatives. These initiatives include school curriculum development, Museum partnerships and digital media ventures, such as virtual reality and podcasting. The goal, Kevin says, is to deliver the Museum’s “superpower,” its trademark storytelling approach to educating about immigration, to the masses.

“We plan to educate America on how immigrants built – and continue to build – this nation,” he said.

It’s not too late to support the Gala! You may make a donation here

Kevin’s speech is available in full below:

I’d like to read you an email I got two weeks ago:

“I recently enjoyed the ‘Under One Roof’ tour. I work as a Nurse Practitioner and I couldn’t help but reflect on the lives of Chinese immigrants that we see in the hospital. I have met immigrants who live in illegal buildings with no water and heat. I also had another patient who at the young age of 91 lives with 4 families in an apartment and sometimes sleeps in the hallway due to lack of space. This makes me realize that the immigrant experience is not just one of the past but of the present. “

“The immigrant experience is not just one of the past but of the present. “ The writer’s words reminded me of those of my fellow southerner, William Faulkner: “The past is never dead: it isn’t even past.” Today’s headlines have echoes in the headlines of the past, echoes that remind us that America has often struggled to live up to its ideal of being a place where the tired, the poor, the huddled masses spoken of on the Statue of Liberty could indeed find refuge and build better futures for themselves and their families.

We live in one of those times now, a time in which our country is deeply divided over immigration and many feel we should close our doors to newcomers, some of whom come from unfamiliar lands and practice an unfamiliar religion.  The debate too often descends into the language of ignorance and bigotry, language which has no place in America…language I grew up with.

As you might be able to tell from this picture of my mother’s family, our roots are in Appalachia.  Not far from my hometown of Lewisville, North Carolina, there was a billboard that I remember well from my childhood.  My partner gave me a historic photo of that billboard a few years ago.  This is what it said.

My uncle was a member of the United Klans.

I know what ignorance and bigotry look like.

I also know how you overcome them.  President Lincoln once said, “I do not like that man: I must get to know him better.” Once you know someone, once you know their story – truly know them, as a fellow human being – it becomes nearly impossible to hate them.

That’s what makes this the perfect time for the Tenement Museum to launch a new phase in its own history.  In a time when ignorance pervades the public discourse, our superpower – our ability to tell stories, stories of real people who came to this country to build new lives and, in the process, built a new nation – is the antidote to fear and ignorance.

We know this works. For three decades people have walked the halls of 97 Orchard Street and learned the stories of the Moores, The Baldizzis, the Levines, and the other families that lived there and have left with a new appreciation of what immigrants have done for America.  As I often put it, nobody’s life was ever changed by a PowerPoint presentation: stories are what move hearts and minds, stories stir our spirit, stories change our lives.  And the Tenement Museum is really good at telling stories.

We now need to reach millions – not thousands – with those stories.

Our new strategic plan, developed with the pro bono help of tonight’s honoree the Boston Consulting Group, will help us take what we have perfected on Orchard Street to the rest of America.  We seek to both increase visitorship to our historic buildings on Orchard Street as well as to educate people who may never even visit New York.  We plan to use various channels to do so, including:

  • In New York State, for example, the study of immigration is required in 4th, 8th and 11th grades.  By developing and implementing comprehensive curriculum about immigration, we can potentially reach 400,000 young people in New York State alone each year.
  • OK, tell the truth: how many of you have been on your phones tonight?  Good.  We’re planning to meet you there.  Through virtual reality tours, augmented reality programs, podcasts and a host of other device-based interventions, we plan to take the tenement experience to your phone and enable you to learn from us no matter where you are logging on from.
  • Every place has its own history, and I believe people are hungry to know where they’ve come from.  By using our expertise at telling stories in partnership with museums and historical societies outside of New York, we can help build understanding for our immigrant forbearers in cities across America, just as we do every day here in New York City.

By these and other means we plan to dramatically increase our reach and impact over the next five years, so that we have meaningful interactions with a million people annuallyWe plan to educate America on how immigrants built – and continue to build – this nation.

To educate more people, we’ll need substantially more resources.  I know you’ve already been generous, but we’re hoping to raise an additional $200,000 to kick off some of the new initiatives I have spoken of tonight.  The Zegar Family Foundation is putting up the first $25,000 we need to reach that goal.  On your table there are pledge cards.  I hope you’ll consider making a special gift to help us educate even more Americans in the years to come.

I believe in the power of education.  Education took me from a trailer park on an unpaved dirt road in an unincorporated town in rural North Carolina to Harvard, where I became the first member of my family to graduate from college.  Education changed my world, and I know it can change lives.  Help us reach into the heart of America, and—through the use of education and the telling of stories — replace fear and ignorance with appreciation and respect.  Thank you.

 

Post by Jas Chana, Media & Communications Manager at the Tenement Museum

#NeverAgain and the Fighting Legacy of the Triangle Factory Fire

Protest after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, 4/5/1911. National Archives, General Records of the Department of Labor

This weekend, the whole world prepares to either watch or join in the March For Our Lives, with over 800 protests taking place over six continents. It also happens to be the 107th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred on March 25, 1911.

On the surface, these two events have little in common. March For Our Lives is spurred by the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018 that claimed the lives of 17 students and teachers. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 started when a lit cigarette accidentally ignited a pile of rags at a garment factory, resulting in the deaths of 146 people, either from asphyxiation or from jumping from the 10-story building to escape the flames. Both horrifying, senseless tragedies, but without any common details.

The more I researched the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, however, the more I saw similarities.

When people discuss the 1911 fire these days, they might say something like, “Over a hundred people died in this really awful, preventable way, and people were so horrified it changed workplace safety laws forever.” As though the event happened in a vacuum, and was in itself the catalyst for change, when that is simply not true. And saying so does a disservice to all those, the workers still endangered and the families of those harmed, who organized themselves and fought for change.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Greenwhich Village, March 25, 1911

On April 5,, 1911, just over a week after the fire, union organizers and workers held a march down New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Except they called it a funeral procession. Reports vary, but it’s estimated between 80,000-120,000 people marched for over six hours, with 300,000-400,000 people observing. Such a great number of people do not come out to mourn a single tragedy, no matter how large a tragedy it was. Something bigger was happening.

The people were protesting decades of workplace hazards and general disregard for the health and safety of workers, resulting in countless lives lost or permanently maimed. Now, in hindsight, we’re able to look at those lax laws and wonder how anyone could have allowed such things to occur. What little fire safety laws that existed were rarely enforced. Building owners could decide to save on cost by not installing fire escapes, fire sprinklers, or outward opening doors – and still were able to say the building was “fireproof.” Not to mention how unsanitary and hazardous most workplaces, often utilizing toxic chemicals or heavy machinery, were allowed to function free from enforced regulations.

Many lives were lost before March 25, 1911, due to corporate and government corruption waving away safety and health concerns. Part of the problem was many who were injured or killed in workplace accidents were young people – children – and immigrants who did not speak English and weren’t informed of the dangers of their job. They were people who did not know how to speak out in defense of their own lives. A majority of the people killed at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were young Jewish and Italian immigrant girls, for example.

April 5th funeral procession, Kheel Center

On the day of the funeral procession, socialite and reformer Martha Bensley Bruere watched from her window. Of the display, she said:

“There have been no carriages, no imposing marshals on horseback; just thousands and thousands of working men and women carrying the banners of their trade through the long three-mile tramp in the rain. Never have I seen a military pageant or triumphant ovation so impressive; for it is not because 146 workers were killed in the Triangle shop – not altogether. It is because every year there are 50,000 working men and women killed in the United States – 136 a day; almost as many as happened to be killed together on the 25th of March; and because slowly, very slowly, it is dawning on these thousands on thousands that such things do not have to be!”

This sentiment reminds me of another quote, from legendary labor activist and community organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones: Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living. I’m also reminded of the succinct yet rallying cry of our new wave of gun control reformers, who know too well the similar statistics of gun deaths that occur in this country every day: #NeverAgain.”

But a single day’s protest, we all know, is not enough to exact change. It must be carried out at the highest levels of government. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “The sorrow and anger of the community were too great… to be dissipated in a demonstration.” Prior to the funeral procession, civic leaders, religious figures, teachers, and reformers held a mass assembly to discuss what change needed to occur. “Out of that assembly emerged a Committee on Safety, which served as a clearinghouse of information on fire safety, and more importantly, because an effective political force.” The Committee was able to pass a bill in June 1911 creating the Factory Investigating Commission, whose sole purpose was “to investigate the conditions under which manufacturing is carried on.”

Caption reads: “Who is responsible? Who is responsible for the murders of one hundred and forty-five young girls and men in the “fire proof” fire trap? On whose head rests the blame for the inadequate, antiquated, criminal stairs and single fire escape, made possible because the building was classed as “fireproof”? These dead girls cry aloud, not for revenge, but for justice. Their flame-racked bodies demand protection for the thousands of sister toilers who have not yet been sacrificed to fire. Their silent lips call, ‘Who is responsible?’” Detail of March 28, 1911 New York Evening Journal editorial cartoon.

The New York commission was the largest and most thorough study of workers’ safety done up to that point, compiled of a group of leaders and politicians fully dedicated to the cause. Between 1911 and 1912, the FIC held 59 public hearings around the state and interviewed 472 witnesses, compiling 7,000 pages of testimony. They investigated and visited workplaces ranging from meat packing plants to bakeries to printing shops, developing reports covering fire safety, building construction, machine guarding, ventilation, and more.

They uncovered numerous dangers prevalent in these workplaces, and in their 1912 report concluded that “Health is the principal asset of the working man and working woman,” and that the government “is bound to do everything in its power to preserve the health of the workers.” While this seems like a fair, if somewhat obvious, declaration, the measures put forth by the FIC for a stricter code of factory safety and health laws were met with counter-attacks by the business owners who would be forced to implement these new rules.

One such attack involved accusing the commission of “making sensational and unfounded charges against industry and of using inexperienced investigators,” which sounds like the 1913 version “fake news.” They insisted the new labor code was unfair and impractical for employers, and the high costs would be taken out on the workers. Legislators who supported the industry tried introducing bills to weaken the safety and health laws in various ways, motivated, we can assume, not by any governmental obligation “to preserve the health of the workers.”

But the commission’s supporters were larger, and louder, and rallied in its defense. Eventually, the FIC’s achievements survived these attacks, with a total of 20 new laws providing stricter regulation of occupational safety and health conditions. Just as important, the commission sparked a new awareness of the health problems running rampant in the workplace, and authorities in other cities began their own investigations. Frances Perkins, an American hero, sociologist, and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, called the FIC a “turning point” in American attitudes towards social responsibility.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the Parkland shooting are not identical, but the aftermath of the fire is illustrative of how change cane come about: people come together, organize, speak out, and get the people in charge to support their cause.

At a memorial meeting a week after the fire, Rose Schneiderman, organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and the Women’s Trade Union League, addressed the audience. “The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable,” she said. “Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves.” Replace “working people” with “students” — or even “Americans” — and you’ve got yourself a March For Our Lives protest sign.

Source: Getty Images News

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ode to a Plastic Covered Couch

Coney Island has its Cyclone, the American Museum of Natural History its dinosaurs, MoMA its Picassos. At the Tenement Museum, what elicits thrills these days is the 1960s plastic-covered sofa and armchair in our recreation of Ramonita Rivera Saez’s parlor. The furniture serves as a paean to this sociable Puerto Rican garment worker, who raised her children (and helped raise her grandchildren), embraced the Catholic community at St Teresa’s, and—as “matriarch of the building”—welcomed successive waves of immigrant families to 103 Orchard Street.

Visitors exploring our recently opened Under One Roof exhibit revel in the memories evoked by the shiny squeakiness of this plastic-covered furniture: “My great aunt had a sofa like this!”; “My grandmother covered her furniture too!”; “This brings back memories.” Plastic-covered furniture resonates for Puerto Ricans, Jews and African Americans, as it does for Americans of Chinese, Irish, and Italian origin. Those seat covers are a common denominator of 1960s and 1970s American family life and identity.

Many Americans who took seats on plastic covered furniture understood how migrations shaped their families. Some were the children and grandchildren of Eastern and Southern Europeans who came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before being stopped by the 1924 race-based immigration quotas. Some were among the refugees brought in by the Displaced Persons and Refugee Act of 1948. Some were those whose families had undertaken migrations from one region of the United States to another, from Puerto Rico to New York, from North Carolina to Brooklyn, from Mississippi to Milwaukee. In 1965 Congress passed the Hart Celler Immigration Reform Act, lifting race-based quotas and bringing Civil Rights Era ideals to immigration policy, expanding the idea of who could become American and enabling Asians, Africans and others to take seats on plastic-covered furniture.

Under One Roof focuses on how three families—the Epsteins, Saez-Velezes, and the Wongs—started over at 103 Orchard. They found work in the garment industry and raised their children on a Lower East Side that had become one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. Their memories shed light on American identity and pluralism, its messiness and its beauty.

Individual homes allowed families to maintain their distinct traditions even as they gave them the space to learn how to negotiate the cultural and linguistic barriers their migrations exposed. The same record player in the Epstein home played cantorial music for Kalman and Rivka, and Paul Anka hits for Bella. Seated on their plastic-covered couch, Ramonita’s boys did their English homework, but by the 1960s also watched Spanish language stations 41 and 47. The Wong children had a desk where they worked on their public school and Chinese school assignments; they also devoured Marvel comic books and enjoyed The Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels. In shared hallways families learned that being American was also about living with neighbors who came from other traditions. The three families experienced diversity daily through the cooking aromas emanating from airshafts, the foreign language conversations overheard in hallways, and the accented-English pleasantries they exchanged with neighbors in the stairway. Tenements schooled residents in shared living.

Conflicts, tensions and insensitivities inevitably arose as families adapted to their new lives. Coming home after a long day of factory work, Ramonita couldn’t decipher PS 42’s English-only notices. Her son, Andy Velez, remembers Italian boys chasing him when he crossed Chrystie Street. Bella Epstein recalls how her Catholic friend and neighbor, Rosetta, abruptly told Bella her parents weren’t invited to a party because they were Jewish. In the fifth grade, Yat Chung Wong became “Kevin” when his teacher distributed a list of “American” names and instructed Chinese students to adopt one before the bell rang. On a larger scale, neighborhood conflicts over control of the schools and housing resources fell out along ethnic lines, exacerbating tensions.

Despite the tensions and misunderstandings that separated them, people also overcame differences to form crucial ties on a daily basis. Andy and Jose Velez joined a Little Italy Boy Scout troop that made Andy a leader. Jose honed his carpentry skills under the tutelage of an Amish teacher, and turned on Sabbath lights at neighborhood synagogues. Rosetta’s abrupt declaration of family prejudices did not dent the hours of playtime that bonded her and Bella. Bella also befriended Barbara, the African-American girl she met at the park who became her favorite checkers partner. Kevin Wong speaks admiringly of Ramonita, who moved beyond her Spanish-language comfort zone to use English and made welcoming conversation in the halls with Chinese families. As well, the Velez brothers recall how neighbors brought them red envelopes and pastries on the Chinese New Year.

from left to right: the Wongs, the Epsteins, and the Saez-Velezes on Orchard Street. Photo by Julie Stapen Photography

As our country debates immigration, we still have much to learn from the tenements, and how our own daily experiences, and those of our ancestors, help shed light on an American identity that is dynamic and complex. Living under one roof and being part of a diverse country is not easy: its messiness and complexities demand constant discussion, negotiation and reflection. The Epstein, Velez and Wong children and grandchildren became nurses, doctors, soldiers, contractors, teachers, IT directors, lawyers, school administrators, and government employees, experiencing moderate economic mobility. Though they’ve left 103 Orchard, they’ve kept its lessons, cherishing an American identity that encompasses people of all backgrounds, religious and skin colors. They remind us that the American Dream has always been as much a spiritual as a material quest, a hope that our strength as a nation derives from the experience of people of all backgrounds living among one another.

We invite you to take a seat on Ramonita’s plastic covered sofa, and consider how your family stories contribute to our country’s ever evolving identity.

  • Annie Polland, Senior Vice President for Programs & Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum