Bowery Mission and Modern Hard Times
November 15, 2016

Bowery Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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