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

7 Protests That Shook Lower Manhattan

New Yorkers have always known one idea to be true: there’s strength in numbers.

The history of this city is peppered with revolutions that reflect the issues of the neighborhood and the people populating them. The protests of Lower Manhattan reflect the people who lived here – immigrants, students, workers, and marginalized communities who made an effort to stand up for their beliefs, despite the risks in doing so.

Below is a timeline of seven uprisings and riots, stretching from the 19th century to the 21st century. Each story shows the unwavering courage of the protester, the importance of a unified community, and the timeless strength and spirit of the New Yorker. From low wages to no wages, from civil rights to overpriced meat – each cause, in the end, proved to be worth the fight.

 

Our American Holiday: Refugees and the Meaning of Hanukkah

What is the American holiday tradition? It might not be what you think it is. Or rather, it’s everything you think it is: if you live in this country and are celebrating this holiday season, your customs, celebrations, and beliefs are woven into the fabric of the American cultural tapestry. Throughout the month of December, we’ll be looking at these different customs – where they came from, how they’ve evolved, and how they’ve become integral to defining what we know as “Our American Holiday.” 

Bella Epstein (right) with her sister on Orchard Street

Every winter, Bella Epstein (Under One Roof) would gather with her family to light the Hanukkah candles. Her mother Rivka, a Holocaust survivor, always insisted that Bella’s childhood be filled with light and color and joy, so it’s likely the new American way of celebrating would have been adopted by them early on. For eight nights, their traditions would come to include catchy songs, lively games, and treasured presents. And their menorah would be one of many illuminating the windows of the tenements on Orchard Street.  

In the Jewish faith, every moment is a story. And from every story, comes an opportunity to learn, to interpret new meaning from centuries-old tales in order to make sense of modern-day hardships. The story of Hanukkah is one such tale – how can one relate to a two thousand-year-old victory by the Maccabees against the Syrian Greek army? 

While there is much to be appreciated from a military battle, it is the story of the aftermath, the survivors, the miracle of their continuation that early Rabbis chose to focus on. Hanukkah is the holiday of rededication, in remembrance of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem which had been sacked and destroyed during the fighting. “Very few remember when the Temple was first dedicated,” says Rabbi David Wolpe, “but almost all Jews remember when it was rededicated.” 

The Rabbi goes on to say how people who have experienced such unbelievable hardship, such as “Holocaust survivors, refugees who fled oppression, people plagued with illness and others to whom life has dealt cruel blows,” – how they might take this concept of rededication to heart. Given every reason to despair, to grow cold, to become hateful, a bright future is possible, if one is strong and determined enough to rededicate themselves to a better life. 

It is both easy to imagine and hard to contemplate the mixture of emotions felt by Holocaust refugees Regina and Kalman Epstein, when their ship arrived in New York Harbor on April 22, 1947. Trepidation, exhaustion, fear, hope. By the time their daughter Bella was born the following year, the Epsteins had begun adjusting to the American way of life. They had a home in New York City, were starting a family, and were taking part in their community.  

While we don’t know for sure how the Epsteins celebrated, there is evidence of Hanukkah celebrations taking place in the ghettos and camps throughout Europe during World War II. Both Regina and Kalman were religious, and during times of great persecution, the importance of these rituals increased, even if the rituals themselves had to be subdued. “Already in the Talmud,” says Rabbi Wolpe, “there are provisions for lighting secretly in times of persecution.”   

Jews in the Westerbork transit camp in Holland light candles for the seventh night of Chanukah.

We can surmise, though, the shock they must have felt, living in American in the years following World War II, and seeing the differences in the holiday celebration. By this period of time, Hanukkah had already started to become the Jews answer to Christmas. In the late 19th century, America was going through a lot of changes. Waves of immigration, industrialization, and urbanization created an attitude of upheaval. Emphasizing winter holidays became a way of boosting American morale. The sentimental home celebrations became even more important, with two major wars being fought overseas in the first half of the 20th century. And, by the time the Epsteins lived in New York in the 1950s, American manufacturers were making and selling goods at a higher volume than ever, and the middle class was born. People used the opportunity of the holidays to showcase their wealth, as well as providing delights for children that parents never received themselves. 

Hanukkah in America meant something extra, though, for Jews immigrating to the U.S. After decades of persecution – from the pogroms in the 19th century to the Holocaust in the 20th – here was a place they could celebrate their religion openly. Here, their holiday was mainstream. 

Giant Hanukkah candlelight ceremony at JCC, circa 1950 (Courtesy of the Center for Jewish History)

Bella describes the bravery of her parents as they put up a mezuzah in the doorway of their American home. The courage that took, after escaping such horror, to proudly proclaim their Judaism. For refugees and survivors of persecution, maintaining a custom becomes an act of valor. 

The Jewish tradition is the tradition of storytelling, and many of these stories are ones of struggle, oppression, and subjugation. In that sense, each Hanukkah candle becomes the hero of that story, glowing in the windows of tenements and houses over the decades and throughout the country. 

What is your American holiday tradition? Share it now on Your Story, Our Story!

 

Our American Holiday: Saint Nicholas Day

What is the American holiday tradition? It might not be what you think it is. Or rather, it’s everything you think it is: if you live in this country and are celebrating this holiday season, your customs, celebrations, and beliefs are woven into the fabric of the American cultural tapestry. Throughout the month of December, we’ll be looking at these different customs – where they came from, how they’ve evolved, and how they’ve become integral to defining what we know as “Our American Holiday.”

Children around a Christmas tree. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Today, on Saint Nicholas Day, we’re exploring the traditional American Christmas celebrations, many of which are actually a product of German immigrants – from spiced cookies and wine, to the ever-present, always-beautiful Christmas tree.

Imagine it’s evening on Orchard Street, December 1871, and though the streets, homes, and saloons of Kleindeutschland are crowded and noisy with people, the song that rings out into the cold is a newer German classic: “Stille Nacht.” Otherwise known as “Silent Night.”

We may not know exactly how John and Caroline Schneider, saloon owners discussed on our Shop Life tour, were celebrating that Christmas, but we can easily infer it was a festive night for them. The New York Times describes the revelries of Christmas Eve, 1871 as a joyous, busy affair, especially for business owners:

“Among the Germans Sunday was a busy day in making preparations for Christmas Eve, which is a German family and children’s festival. A feature of this is always the brilliantly illuminated Christmas tree, decorated with toys, confectionary, and holiday gifts for the young.  As the weather was delightful yesterday, the principal thoroughfares on the east side, the Bowery, Division, Grand and Houston Streets, were crowded with persons, patronizing the shops where Holiday goods were retailed, which yesterday were kept open for the occasion.  The places of amusement in the Bowery, the beer saloons and other public places, were decorated with Christmas trees, and many of these places were illuminated in the evening.”

Tenement Museum costumed interpreters portraying Caroline and John Schneider, on our Live! at the Tenement program “Last Call at Schneider’s Saloon.”

Christmas had only become a National Holiday the year before, but German immigrants like the Schneiders would have been celebrating every year, and their customs are now what we know as traditional Christmas features in America. Having a celebration on Christmas Eve in general was first part of the German festivities, as are holiday markets, letters to Santa, gingerbread houses, and, of course, the Christmas tree. Preparations for Christmas began even earlier than December 1 (so the next time someone tries to shame you for listening to Christmas music in November, inform them you are just partaking in a centuries-old German tradition.) The lead-up to Christmas is known as the Advent, which takes place throughout the month of December.

The most famous of these Advent days is St. Nicolas Day and is, as you might have guessed, the foundation for another Christmas tradition – Santa Claus. However, St. Nicolas visits the children of Austria, parts of Germany, and Switzerland on December 5th, not the 24th, and the holiday is seen as a preliminary to Christmas.

Still practiced in some areas today, children would place freshly polished boots in front of doors, under windows, or at the foot of their beds before heading to bed. Then, St. Nicolas would leave gifts – candy, nuts, and toys – inside the shoes to be found the next morning by well-behaved children. Unlike Santa Claus, though, St. Nicolas had a counterpart known as either Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht, who teased the badly-behaved kids with a switch, or gave them goal instead of presents.

But while German children might have been more excited by St. Nicolas Day, Christmas Eve was the biggest of the celebrations. This is when families would exchange gifts (rather than on Christmas morning) and parents would reveal the beautifully decorated Christmas tree to the children. Outside the home, the religious would go sing carols and attend midnight Mass. Everyone else would go to the saloons.

The Schneiders most likely decorated their saloon with a Christmas tree, and John, a talented musician, would have filled the warm bar with music and songs. Yes, German immigrants were likely the first to start “rockin’ around the Christmas tree.”  John’s home region of Franconia is famous for its Lebkuchen, a tradition Christmas cookie that Caroline might have made for her customers to snack on year-round. And while the Schneiders typically just sold beer at their saloon, Caroline likely made Glühwein for the holidays. A delicious spiced wine served hot, Glühwein would have paired well with the Lebkuchen and all the other traditional German food that the Schneiders gave away for their free lunch.

Immigrating to a new country is always a trial, even when still surrounded by fellow countrymen like that in Little Germany. But with the holidays being a time to celebrate family, good will, and community, these cherished traditions are essential in making a new home feel like home. And likewise, over time, these rituals become adopted, and blended into their current landscape, creating what some might call “the new old-fashioned way.”

What is your American holiday tradition? Share it now on Your Story, Our Story!