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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bowery Mission and Modern Hard Times

Bowery Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brendan Murphy, Senior Education Associate at the Tenement Museum

Brendan Murphy, Senior Education Associate at the Tenement Museum


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Message from Dr. Morris J. Vogel, President of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

I’ve spent the morning talking with staff and members of the extended Museum community as well as those from further afield who want us to know that they wish the Tenement Museum well. Many wonder how yesterday’s election will impact our work; they are concerned as well with whether it will vex our spirit. The first half of that inquiry is generally easy to answer, though it will take renewed effort on all our parts to accomplish.

The Tenement Museum has always been about how people from many nations brought their dreams to this country; and about how Americans became a people. All our programs are based in the premise that the nation continues to shape and re-shape its identity. Those of us who are longer-settled Americans need to be accepting of newcomers bringing their hopes to a new land and dedicating their individual and family struggles to the common future that all of us continue to build together. We know that many voters yesterday sought to distance themselves from what we at the Museum regard as this nation’s foundational principle—that immigration allows us to become more than we already are as a people. This is a history museum. We explain to visitors that Americans in the past sometimes lost confidence in their national future and lashed out against immigrants in reaction. We try to help visitors appreciate that immigrants often had to build new lives in the face of hostility. Generations of newcomers prevailed even in these circumstances; it is our strong hope that today’s immigrants will prevail as well.

I know that many of us wonder where we, as an institution and as individuals, go from here. I hope we can redouble our efforts to amplify the voices of the past. I hope that we can individually find reassurance in the importance of doing this necessary work. Renewing our shared commitment to tell stories of the American past can help us comfort and strengthen one another—and shape America’s future.

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


What 97 Orchard Street’s First Woman Voter Can Teach Us About American Identity

(originally posted on Huffington Post June 15, 2016)

As Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win the nomination of a major party in a presidential election, I thought about Sarah Burinescu, an immigrant mother who lived at 97 Orchard Street (now part of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum). In 1920 Burinescu was the building’s first woman to vote for president, a result of the 19th Amendment, and a milestone in US history. She registered as a Socialist, so she likely cast her first vote in 1920 for Eugene V. Debs, who won close to one million votes. While we can’t imagine who she would have voted for almost 70 years after her death, I can’t help but think how excited she might have been by Bernie Sanders’ progressive ardor, Clinton’s historic accomplishments, and the fact that children of immigrants—Sanders, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio— ran for the nation’s highest office. I am certain, however, that she would have been disheartened by the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-woman sentiments surfacing in this election year.


Burinescu’s experience as an immigrant mother, living in a tenement and a neighborhood teeming with first and second generation Americans of diverse origins and religions, helped her forge a cosmopolitan worldview that remains relevant at this political juncture. Care for their families bound immigrant mothers to a life of mind-numbing, repetitive and often unpaid labor, and they negotiated complicated economic hardships in the nation’s most crowded neighborhood. Mothers cleaned homes, tended to boarders, and raised children, all in 325-square foot apartments, just a scant few inches from their neighbors’ doors, their airshaft windows offering direct views onto neighbors’ apartments.  Burinescu, like others, turned tenement hardships into connections to neighbors, despite potentially differing backgrounds.

In 1920 the thirty-five year old Burinescu had five children. Having lost her beloved husband, Jacob, in the flu epidemic of 1918, she eked out a living cleaning homes and sewing clothes. Her daughter Jacqueline, born in the tenement just a few months after Jacob’s death, told the Museum how Sarah carried her to the factory in a basket, and how “I used to think she never slept because I went to bed, she was still up. And then when I got up in the morning she was up.”

Lacking a formal education, Burinescu was nonetheless well-schooled in the art of neighborly relations. She spoke English and Yiddish, and also conversational Spanish, Italian and Polish: “at the time they bargained, and she’d talk to you in your own language …” She might have spoken to vendors in these languages to get the best prices on cabbage and fish, but they also conversed about the weather, child-rearing, landlords’ demands, job opportunities, politics. She tended to sick neighbors, bringing them food, and helping to tidy their homes. Sharing hallways and toilets with neighbors from a variety of countries and shopping in a neighborhood that hummed with a variety of languages didn’t offer the space to cultivate extreme, hard-lined prejudices.

And as tenement dwellers overcame potential fears of difference, they often reaped the benefits of cross-cultural relationships. Jacqueline and her sister befriended Chinese sisters from the neighborhood who invited them to their home for meals, and also loved Burinescu’s potato pancakes. But these connections did not end with food:

“My mother says, “You learn to judge people by themselves and not what they are.” And that’s how we made friends, we weren’t taught bigotry or anything. There’s good and bad in every race, creed, or color. So you stay away from troublemakers and you make friends with the nice people.”

Shared experience in complex circumstances helped foster philosophies as simple and as sophisticated as Sarah Burinescu’s, and remind us that the tenements offer not just a window on prior waves of immigrants, but also lessons on women’s labor, ethnic interactions and working class challenges that are just as relevant today as they were a century ago. From the constricting tenement spaces and immigrant neighborhoods, an expansive and inclusive American identity gathered new energy, force and ambition. In this election season of heightened anxieties and xenophobia, the model of Sarah Burinescu and her neighbors urges us to uphold this expansive and inclusive American identity, and to “stay away from troublemakers” who use anti-immigrant, anti-woman and anti-Muslim invective.

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


Hyphenated And Good: Filipino American Heritage Month

PhilippinesIn 1915, Theodore Roosevelt said, “There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American.” One hundred and one years later, here I am: a child of immigrants from the Philippines, born and raised in the United States, and writing this in October during Filipino American Heritage Month.

So much can shift and change in the span of a century.

During the time Roosevelt made this statement, the United States was on the brink of World War I against Germany. Subsequently, many aspects of German America were then perceived as suspicious and threatening, including German-Americans themselves. It was also a time when the Philippines was officially a U.S. colony. This was after Spain had rooted its kingdom in the soil of the country for over three hundred years. Spain lost the Spanish-American War in 1898, and for a brief moment the Philippines was independent. Then came American occupation for nearly fifty years.

The ideas of Philippine sovereignty finally became a reality in July of 1946. In the aftermath, what remained for the Republic of the Philippines would be a complicated and multi-layered political, economic, and financial tie with the United States. English was the second official language, and the dream was America.

Like many immigrants before her, my mom, a registered nurse, would seek out this dream for herself when she arrived in 1986. What she left behind was her family and her husband, whom she had only recently married. What kept her close but still a world away was her determination to get her family out of poverty. My father waited for her return and would reunite with mom for a few months at a time; eventually, after my first birthday in the States, she brought me back to meet him in the spring of 1990. At that point, dad’s immigration papers were still in process so mom was essentially raising me on her own in a small apartment in New Jersey. Shortly before she returned to America, my parents made the decision to leave me behind in Manila with dad and our extended family. My mom could not afford to keep me on her own and my dad did not want to see me go. She called me “the bridge that kept them together”. Even now, after all these years, there is still a hint of pain and regret in her voice when she speaks about this. In December of 1992, shortly after my sister was born, my dad and I permanently joined them in Philadelphia, just in time for Christmas.


Since then, I think of the “American” experiences my family and I have had, including: moving to the suburbs of southern New Jersey, my parents becoming citizens, making Thanksgiving dinner with American and Filipino food on one table, and my sister and me graduating from college with honors. All the while, my parents were raising us in a country they themselves only came to know as adults. I feel like my mother’s Filipino daughter at her kitchen table, but when my sister and I speak effortlessly in English to our parents, it is America that falls off the tip of our tongues. It is “mommy” and not “nanay.” It is “The Star-Spangled Banner” we grew up singing and not “Lupang Hinirang.” It is Thomas Paine we learned about in school before Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, entered our consciousness. I imagine these were the moments my mom and dad realized they raised American children and felt at once a wonder and pride about us and a growing distance from my sister and me.

On the other hand, during a recent trip home, I saw all of our diplomas together for the first time. Along with our birth certificates, their marriage contract, immigration papers, and naturalization certificates, their college degrees from the Philippines are stored away with their children’s markers of progress. “If they ask, tell them we are educated,” said my mom.

Through any hardship my parents faced together, they are comforted by the saying: “Makaraos rin tayo.” Translated, it means, “We can recover.” I like to think it has become our family saying. Through the years, my Filipino immigrant family has faced the heaviness of distance, the ache of memory, the unimaginable pain of my mom and dad saying goodbye to their parents, siblings, relatives, and friends, and the sting of being seen as foreigners because of our brown skin and their accents. Their resilience is why I am Filipino-American.

A century later, I am among many that live what Roosevelt dismissed. It is more than possible to be a hyphenated American and good. As a child of immigrants, I have lived the dream of my parents into a reality. As an adult, I have fiercely embraced a significant part of my identity that for a time was lost to the pressure of assimilating into one idea of an American. At times, the balancing act is challenging. There are days when I feel my identities align, and then there are the moments when it splits me into two worlds and between two nations. In that struggle, I have found solace in the experiences of those historically and in the present who do not fully belong to one country or the other.


In my search for an America of Filipinos, I realize that those before me set down roots in this country that would pave the way for mom to do the same. The history of the Philippines is a story of resisting and surviving over four hundred years of colonization and like the United States, would call for revolution and demand freedom from not only Spain, but Britain’s former colony itself. In this truth, Philippine America is an American story. Filipinos have made the sacrifices like many groups in this country, developed the land, cooked the food, fought the wars, cared for the patients, taught the students, and raised their children to never forget where they came from and to remember why they are here. I celebrate a past where the hyphenated Americans struggled, celebrated, reshaped, and transformed the United States. I continue to live the present where this legacy is carried on today.

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

DISCLAIMER: Some of the photos below contain graphic imagery and may not be safe for work.


“19305 undersize.” Sante speculates the photo could possibly be in lower Manhattan. “The killing might have been in connection with a robbery or an argument on the street, although the open door of the laundry on the left…suggests something beginning inside the store and spilling out.” Photo from Evidence by Luc Sante.

Luc Sante was doing research for his 1991 non-fiction novel Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York at the Municipal Archives, when an employee offered to show him the New York Police Department Photo Collection. What Sante found would eventually lead him to publish another book entitled Evidence: NYPD Crime Scene Photographs 1914-1918, which in turn were later used by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum for curatorial purposes.

The history behind the crime scene photos found by Sante is interesting, and a little heartbreaking. The box he was given was a disorganized mishmash of photographs, memos, and paperwork. They were rescued by city archivists sometime around 1983 or 1984, when an old police headquarters had been resold for private use, and workers had taken roomfuls of files and dumped them into the East River (which, for some history buffs reading this, might be the most horrifying thing about this entire article). But a small room beneath a staircase had been overlooked, where archivists found filing cabinets, neglected for nearly 75 years, presenting a snapshot, if you will, of New York City at its darkest moments.

It is hard to look away from Sante’s discovery. The collection varies, some depicting the aftermath of a violent crime in graphic detail: the blood stains, the signs of struggle, the faces frozen in pain or fear – or some merely show the surrounding area: the curious witnesses, the grim faces of police officers, the possible clues of which their importance is now long forgotten. Both are evocative in their own way. The gruesome deaths are perhaps not as bad as what pop culture has desensitized us to, except when the dawning realization hits that what we’re seeing is completely real. But the empty photographs are just as horrible in what they’re able to imply. “Empty photographs have to reason to be,” Sante wrote in Evidence, “except to show that which cannot be shown.”


No caption. The body is lying in the front hallway of a tenement. Sante: “A crowd has gathered outside, in the rain, holding umbrellas. The cigarette butt on the floor might have been thrown there by anyone, including the cops.” Photo from Evidence by Luc Sante.


“Homicide (female) 1917 (undersize) #1724 6/24/17” Sante found a corresponding newspaper article with the headline “Girl Slain, Man Shot In Joy Ride – Cabaret Singer Is Killed When Three ‘Friendly’ Strangers Attack Her Sweetheart.” Photo from Evidence by Luc Sante.

Nearly all of the 1,400 plates of forensic photography found beneath that staircase had no caption or detail, all significance lost except for what clues could be deciphered in the photographs themselves. One can look at them out of morbid curiosity, and then maybe only at a momentary glance – or one can look at them out of respect for their surprising artistic quality, detaching oneself from the true nature of the subject. “I am presenting [the photos] because of their terrible eloquence and their nagging silence,” Sante wrote. “I cannot mitigate the act of disrespect that is implicit in the act of looking at them, but their power is too strong to ignore; they demand confrontation as death demands it.”

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, however, saw their implicit value as a window into the past. The Museum itself operates as that window, inviting visitors to climb through, and prides itself on the authenticity of what lies inside. Though none of the Museum tours walks its visitors through a crime scene, the everyday details inside each photograph that were practically banal to the people when the pictures were taken, but for historians, curators, and archivists they’re a priceless glimpse into the actual.

Specifically, the time period of the photos lines up perfectly with one apartment, belonging to the Rogarshevsky family in the early 1900s, as viewed on our Sweatshop Workers tour.  “What’s useful about these photos,” said Tenement Museum curator Dave Favalaro, “is that, unlike similar images captured by reformers like Jacob Riis, the crime scene photographers did not have 1) an agenda in trying to depict a certain set of conditions; the worst of the worst, to galvanize public support for house reform and 2) the crime scene photos are, in a morbid way, much more spontaneous than similar photos taken by reformers.”  Often reformers like Riis would stage photographs to provoke the most outrage and garner the most change for those in abject poverty, which was a worthwhile goal. But the residents of 97 Orchard Street were working class families, who typically weren’t living in squalor, so finding accurate visual representations of their living conditions proved to be challenging.


“Killed by William Burke at 140 W 32 on 1/22/16 DeVoe file #1002.” Sante could not find any other information about this crime, but noted: “Much can be gleaned about the subject’s life in this photograph, but little about his death.” Photo from Evidence by Luc Sante.


No caption. The white circle is the result of plate damage. The photo of a yard often found in the middle of tenement blocks reveals the garbage of the day but no clues of its purpose. “It is not, for example, inconceivable that this could be the site of the July 1916 murder to which the perpetrator called attention by drawing an arrow on the sidewalk in his victim’s blood.” Photo from Evidence by Luc Sante.

When someone died inside their home, however, the police weren’t going around straightening up the place or rearranging the furniture. So the decor, the furniture, the arrangements, were as true to life as one can get, in a scene of death. “The crime scene photos are therefore a much more ‘authentic’ depiction of tenement interiors from this period,” Favalaro said. So we grit our teeth, study the dead, leave out the blood splatter and take note of what’s on the dresser.

Photography is such an effective and provoking medium because it holds forever still a moment in time – a moment now long gone. One can look at a photo from 1918 and assume everyone in it has passed away, but, as Sante explains it, even a photograph – of a dinner, a portrait, a nature hike – now only exists in the past. The food’s been eaten, the smile’s been dropped, the bird has flown away. As Sante put it, “Every photograph is haunted, and….is the occasion of a haunting.”


No caption. According to Favalaro, this photo was the basis for restoring and recreating the Rogarshevsky apartment. Photo from Evidence by Luc Sante.

Life in 97 Orchard Street in 1908… Chicago Cubs Edition


As a die-hard Major League Baseball fan – as well as a former American History major – the idea of potentially seeing the Chicago Cubs in the World Series for the first time has me giddy with excitement. I know, I know, one step at a time. There is no need to rush. But the reality is, if the Cubbies can somehow make it pass the Los Angeles Dodgers – whom are led by their brilliant ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw – we will be watching potential American history unfold. You see, for all of you non-baseball fans out there, the Cubs haven’t actually been to a World Series since 1945. More significantly – and relevant to why I am writing this blog for the Tenement Museum, the Chicago Cubs haven’t actually won a World Series since 1908.

There is no denying the fact that 1908 was a long time ago. That was so long ago, that residents were still living in 97 Orchard Street. That was so long ago, that the Baldizzi family (one of the two families whose story we share on our daily Hard Times tour) are still almost twenty-years away from moving into the building! I mean forget the Baldizzi family, we estimated that the Rogarshevsky family whose story we share on our daily Sweatshop Workers tour had just moved into 97 Orchard Street circa 1907 (the Cubs won the World Series that year too). Even our Meet Victoria Confino tour, which features a costume interpreter playing 14-year old Victoria Confino, takes place in 1916, almost a full decade after the Cubs won a World Championship (the Confino family didn’t actually move into 97 Orchard Street until 1913). So we are potentially on the precipice of making some contemporary American history here.

If the Cubs do in fact make it to the World Series (and I am fully aware that this blog could be jinxing them, though then again I don’t believe in jinxes, just dominate pitching beating dominate hitting in the postseason), there will be a lot of articles written about life in the United States in 1908. There have already been several. However, I was curious about what life looked like here at 97 Orchard Street and in the Lower East Side at this time. This is a crucial time period in the history of this building and one that we spend much time discussing the several tours we offer.

The residents that lived at 97 Orchard Street wouldn’t have heard about the phenomenal Game Five complete game, three-hit shutout by Cubs starter Orval Overall (yes, that was his name, check out the box score here) that clinched the 1908 World Championship until the next day in the newspaper. You have to remember; they didn’t have radios or televisions or even phones in 97 Orchard Street. It was good old fashion print media that caught folks up on the daily events.


A lot of people at 97 Orchard Street would have found out about the news of the Cubs winning the World Series because according to records, the building reached its peak population by this time, with approximately 110 people living in the building. Keep in mind, that is five stories, four apartments each floor. The Lower East Side at this point in time was the most densely populated place in the world. It had transitioned itself from the German dominated immigrant neighborhood of Kleindeutschland in the late 19th Century to a predominately Eastern European Jewish immigrant community.

To say that the world has changed significantly since 1908 is an understatement. Cubs fans have had to hear about this their whole lives. But perhaps – hopefully – in a few weeks, blogs like this will no longer have to be written. Perhaps…

  • Post by Jon Pace, Communications Manager at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Meet The Tenement Museum Staff: Gemma Solomons, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Gemma Solomons, Marketing and Communications Coordinator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Gemma Solomons, Marketing and Communications Coordinator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

In this month’s edition of MEET THE TENEMENT MUSEUM STAFF, we profile the individual who is largely responsible for creating and putting together the content that appears on the very blog you are currently reading. Gemma Solomons is the Marketing and Communications Coordinator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Besides working at a museum that tells the story of American Immigration, Gemma herself has her own personal immigrant story to share.

TM: What is your title?
GS: I am the Marketing and Communications Coordinator at the Tenement Museum.

TM: What are your job responsibilities?
GS: I write most of the blog posts, compile the weekly and monthly newsletters, and run the social media platforms on the days I’m here.

TM: Where did you work before coming to The Tenement Museum?
GS: In the last few years I have worked every end of the “prestigious career” spectrum, which I feel is pretty typical for my generation, especially while still in school. For example, I was the Aquatics Director at the British Swim School in Florida, and the year before I worked the night shift in an assembly line at a vegan bread factory in Colorado.

TM: Most interesting story related to your job since starting here?
GS: I’m fortunate enough to have started working for the Tenement Museum right as we were getting to announce the new expansion, so getting to see how a new museum exhibition is developed from the inside has been really fascinating, and the research I’ve done to create relevant content to the new stories has been a lot of fun. Also, that day we had to evacuate 108 because we all nearly passed out from paint fumes – that was an interesting day.

TM: What is your family’s immigrant history?
GS: We moved to the United States in 1992, and as far as I’m aware my family had lived in England for several generations with the occasional off-shoot, like a great-grandmother from Ireland, etc. There’s some Russian and Lithuanian ancestry in there somewhere, or so I’m told, but I’m not sure how it got there. Growing up, I heard a lot of first-hand accounts about my more recent relatives that not only imbued some sort of odd yet reverent British pride, but also reflected who I am as much as knowing my family history generations down the line. When friends find out I had a great-grandfather who used to con tourists on Blackpool Pier by taking their money and then photographing them with a broken camera, they aren’t all that surprised. I do know at least one branch of my family tree which would be tough to trace, as my paternal grandfather’s name was John Smith.

TM: Where did you grow up?
GS: I grew up in Coral Springs, Florida, which was actually a swamp before 1960. It’s a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, and I can’t recall anything exciting happening in the 15 consecutive years I grew up there. One of the things I love about New York City, and about the Tenement Museum, is the existence of actual history, because there was none where I grew up. Really, the oldest building in town was this supermarket down the street from my home, and when the roof caved in after Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005, they just tore the whole thing down instead of trying to renovate it. It wasn’t paradise but they literally put up a parking lot.

TM: What do you like doing in your free time?
GS: This is going to make me sound like a suck-up but I really enjoy going to museums. Not to keep ragging on my hometown but growing up, the only museum we went to was this children’s science museum where you got to do things like “Stand Inside a Bubble” (which was awesome, but, you know, some variety would’ve been nice).

I’m an amateur photographer, and I’ve only lived in New York since January, so I’m still working on getting all the tourist-y things out the way and blowing up my Instagram feed. I also try to write in my free time but it rarely ever actually happens.

TM: You became an American Citizen in 2015 despite being born and essentially raised here. What are some of the differences you encountered before citizenship and after citizenship?
GS: HOO BOY. The thing about not being a U.S., Citizen but still being white and speaking English, is you don’t even realize you’re not an American until you turn 16 and you’re told you’re not actually allowed to get your driver’s license. Or get a job. Or get state financial aid. Or qualify for most scholarships. Or, if you’re still feeling patriotic after being denied all that, the chance to vote. It was an added level of stress to an already pretty stressful time. The whole process of becoming a citizen did teach me valuable life lessons such as patience when dealing with bureaucracy and the best times to visit the DMV, but I am happy to be an American citizen now. It turns out, after struggling through it all for almost a decade, the urge to vote actually gets stronger.

TM: Favorite Tenement Museum tour and why?
GS: I haven’t done all the tours yet, but “Meet Victoria” was just a blast and so well-done. And “Hard Times” is great, especially when the tour is being lead by Jon Pace.

TM: Favorite place to go in the Lower East Side?
GS: Kossar’s. I have a real bagel problem, wherein if I’m not eating a bagel I have a real problem.

To read more about Gemma’s personal immigration story, you can read her blog from earlier this year here.

  • Post by Jon Pace, Communications Manager at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

The Photos of Wijnanda Deroo: The Ruins of Orchard Street

103 Orchard Street interior, Deroo, 2016

103 Orchard Street interior, Deroo, 2016

If you’ve taken a tour at the Tenement Museum, you’ve heard them described that way: the ruins. Before entering one of the recreated apartments at 97 Orchard Street, educators take visitors into a room showing how the building looked when it was rediscovered in the 1980s, after it had been left alone, more or less forgotten, since 1935.

Wijnanda Deroo doesn’t forget these places, and she doesn’t view them as ruined, or abandoned. “My work,” she says, “is about the history.”

97 Orchard Street, Hallway, Deroo, 1988

97 Orchard Street, Hallway, Deroo, 1988

97 Orchard Street, Ruined Apartment, Deroo

97 Orchard Street, Ruined Apartment, Deroo, 1988

Deroo, originally from the Netherlands, came to the Lower East Side in 1988 to photograph 97 Orchard. She loves to capture places with history, which was one of her main draws to the Lower East Side, the starting point for so many New York immigrants. Her photographs of 97 Orchard Street are housed within the archives of the Tenement Museum.

97 Orchard Street kitchen, Deroo, 1989

97 Orchard Street kitchen, Deroo, 1989

PA 8901

97 Orchard Street, Ruined Apartment, Deroo

“I want to make the history visible,” says Deroo. “That’s what makes the Lower East Side really special.”

One striking aspect about Deroo’s body of work is the absence of people in her settings, whether it is an artist’s studio or a former tenement. The reason, she says, is because when a person is in a photo, people’s eyes are inevitably drawn to look at the person first, not the space. “I never photograph people inside because I want to make it timeless,” Deroo explains. “I want to allow people to make their own story.”

The Tenement Museum asked Ms. Deroo to come back to the Lower East Side earlier this year to photograph 103 Orchard Street the site of the upcoming brand new exhibition scheduled to open in July 2017. The Museum asked her to photograph the space prior to construction beginning so it would be similar to the photographs she took of 97 Orchard Street back in 1989. The differences between the two tenements, despite being on the same block, were “shocking.”


103 Orchard Street interior, Deroo, 2016

103 Orchard Street interior, Deroo, 2016

103 Orchard Street interior, Deroo, 2016

“The layers [of history] are more visible” in 97 Orchard, says Deroo. Since it was boarded up in 1935 and had not been inhabited for decades, the history had been preserved. At 103 Orchard, however, people called it their home up until 2015, and so natural renovations had occurred over the years. “The history [in 103 Orchard] is much closer, more recognizable,” says Deroo. “Closer to what you still see.”

“But,” Deroo continues, “you can still see [evidence of] the different cultures.”


103 Orchard Street interior, Deroo, 2016

103 Orchard Street interior, Deroo, 2016

103 Orchard Street interior, Deroo, 2016

The focus of Deroo’s work is to photograph what no one may ever get a chance to see. Despite the lack of people in her photos, Deroo says, “I want to show how they live, how they surround themselves.” Her photographs are transformative – showing both the ways our worlds were, once upon a time, and how and what they are becoming now.

Sunset from the rooftop of 97 Orchard, 1988

Sunset from the rooftop of 97 Orchard, 1988