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

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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

Miriam’s Travels: To Drive History Home

ballenberg 1

Homes are where history both happens and ends up. The vast majority of historic events are not composed of battles or major discoveries, but rather consist of the ordinary acts of living. As such, houses contain the history of the world.

The very idea of home is ancient. Regardless of where people have lived and at what point in time, they created homes. And yet, while nearly everyone has an idea of what a home is, defining it is difficult. At museums where homes are recreated such as at the Tenement Museum, the staff face the challenge of presenting and interpreting domestic life authentically.

This task recently brought together a group of historians and museum practitioners at the University of Bern in Switzerland as part of the Sinergia Project’s Doing House and Family Conference. We pondered: What is a home and what makes it authentic? Can we ever know what domestic life was truly like? What stories should be told within exhibits of home and what agendas mediate these interpretive decisions?  And, lastly how should visitors be allowed to engage with the spaces and its objects?

Throughout the conference, we grappled with understanding the full complexity of homes and the multitude of meanings each contains. The way a space is composed, its acoustics, and even its smells are essential sources for understanding domestic life. Homes bear witness and demonstrate the transformation of public and private space and of spheres for humans and animals, as well as the creation of a nuclear family. They also illustrate changing notions of aesthetics and legal rights. And while decorations and furnishings change more rapidly than architecture, they are the stuff of material culture and key sources of home life.

While nearly all of us shared the ideal of evoking a home in a specific period of time, we differed in our approach to being site-specific, telling stories of real people, and in creating the context of the domestic sphere. For example, at the Geffrye in London, an old almshouse contains exhibits of multiple living rooms that never belonged to real people. Visitors explore the spaces through the lens of an invented story that is representative of time and place outside of the museum’s location. In contrast, at the Tenement Museum in New York City, the Birmingham Back to Backs , and at the Chateu de Prangins, the stories of real families that once lived inside the location are presented. The Robie House in Chicago offers a different combination of place-based stories of real people by giving little emphasis to the Robie family that lived inside, and instead using the space to illustrate its architect’s vision, Frank Lloyd Wright.

ballenberg 2

It was though our visit to Ballenberg, the Swiss Open-Air Museum, which left me puzzling the paradox of preserving living spaces by removing the life within them and freezing them at one moment in history. This museum includes 100 homes from across Switzerland that date from 1455 to the present. While it has the records of some of the stories of the people that once lived inside, the majority of homes are divorced from the stories of specific residents and all have been relocated from their original setting. Nevertheless, the museum’s emphasis on creating the context of domestic life by having real animals on the grounds, growing gardens, and giving visitors access to engage with the contents of the home was striking. The museum professional in me was shocked and amazed to discover that in some houses I could open pantries and look inside, that the smell of smoke was coming from an actual lit stove, and that real oil lamps provided the lighting. As I sat in a house, knowing nothing of the actual family that once called it home, I gained the knowledge that only comes from physically sitting on a hard wooden chair at the kitchen table and looking at its window onto its garden.

Like with all good museum visits, my curiosity was piqued, and I left with more questions about how museums present and interpret homes, then with answers.

Meet The Tenement Museum Staff: Kevin McCallister, Facilities Manager

Kevin McCallister, Facilities Manager at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Kevin McCallister, Facilities Manager at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

This month we will be starting a new Tenement Museum feature on the blog, called MEET THE TENEMENT MUSEUM STAFF. Every month we will profile a different staff member that works at the Tenement Museum to find out a little bit more about what they do here at the museum and who they are. For our first entry, we were fortunate enough to interview the Facilities Manager at the museum, Kevin McCallister. Kevin was able to answer all of our questions – and yes, that includes questions about how often people ask him about the movie HOME ALONE. Enjoy!

TM: What is your title?
KM: My title at the Tenement Museum is Facilities Manager.

TM: What are your job responsibilities?
KM: My main responsibility at the Museum is to ensure that all facets of the property are operating efficiently and safely for our visitors and staff members 24/7 – 365 days a year.  Other responsibilities include but not limited to are; supervisor, security guard, handyman, and a good ear for listening.

TM: Where did you work before coming to the Tenement Museum?
KM: Prior to joining the museum, for ten years I worked with the restaurant group Boqueria.  Boqueria has three locations in New York City, one in Washington, DC and one in Hong Kong.  I managed the facilities for all of the NYC locations.  When a new restaurant was being built, I would advised the partners on the build out and progress until its completion. I also negotiated fair prices for the partners on all work performed by outside vendors.

TM: Most interesting story related to your job since starting here?
KM: The most interesting story since starting this job is going on right now, with the construction project of the new exhibit and office space in 103.  As I watched the space get stripped down to the wood beams and getting a look at the bones of the building, it put a vision of what is to come.  This time next year the exhibit will be open to the public, and I will be looking forward hearing all about the visitors reactions to the new exhibits.

TM: What is your family’s immigrant history?
KM: Although I do not know when ancestors immigrated to America, I do know that my paternal grandparents were of Scottish/Irish decent and my maternal grandparents were of Norwegian decent.

TM: Where did you grow up?
KM: I grew up in Sunset Park Brooklyn, with my parents, two brothers and three sisters.  When I turned 18 years old, my parents, younger brother and I moved to Staten Island.  I moved back to Brooklyn to the Kensington area after meeting my wife Helen.

TM: What do you like doing in your free time?
KM: I enjoy going out to dine with Helen and our son Cassidy, we are always looking for a new place to add to our list of eateries.  I also enjoy fishing and crabbing here in the city and have followed the Mets & Jets for over 40 years with the ups and downs… through first and last place, with last place being a common place.

TM: Your name is Kevin McAllister the same name as the lead character played by Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. Have you seen Home Alone and how often do people bring this up?
KM: Yes, I have seen all three Home Alone movies.  People under 30 years old have watched the movies as children and people over 45 have watched them with their kids.  Around Christmas time the movies are aired a lot, so I frequently get asked “Do you know, you have the same name as Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone?”

TM: Favorite Tenement Museum tour and why?
KM: My favorite tour was The Foods of the Lower East Side.  I was able to catch Adam Steinberg before he left, he did a great job explaining and setting the scene for each food stop, as well as getting everyone involved.  I also liked getting a free food to taste during the tour.

TM: Favorite place to go in the Lower East Side?
KM: My favorite place to go in the Lower East Side would be the path along the East River, it is a great place to walk, sit or just relax… The price of admission is great, since its free!  I am looking forward to The Lowline Park that is planned for the area.  As far as food goes, the Lower East Side has many food options, most of which are reasonably priced.


Q & A With Annie Polland

Annie Polland, PhD, is the Vice President of Programs and Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and has dedicated countless hours bringing to the public a modern view of American immigration history. With the development of the new exhibition at 103 Orchard Street, Annie hopes to bridge the gap between what we think of when we imagine the historical Lower East Side — an image often trapped at the turn of the century — and the diverse yet trendy neighborhood it is today.

The mid-20th century is not only a vital era for many nationalities coming to America at this time, but it also greatly altered the landscape of American culture forever. Annie took the time to answer some questions about how a museum of this nature comes into being, and what the Tenement Museum hopes to accomplish with the new exhibit.


Annie Polland. Photo by Benjamin Hoste.

Annie Polland, Vice President of Programs and Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Photo by Benjamin Hoste.

What is the new project at 103 Orchard St?

AP: This exhibit will focus on three families, all of whom lived in 103 Orchard Street in the post World War II era. We’ll tell the story of Kalman and Regina Epstein, refugees who survived the Holocaust and came to the Lower East Side in 1947 to start a new family. This story relies on the memory of their eldest daughter, Bella Epstein Seligsohn, who was born here on the Lower East Side and moved with her family to 103 Orchard in 1955. The next story is that of Jose Velez, who came with his mother, Ramonita Rivera, and his brother in the mid-1950s and moved into 103 Orchard in 1962. Ramonita, like many Puerto Rican women, came for the employment opportunities in the garment industry, and wanted a better life for her children. We’ll also tell the story of the Wongs, who came to New York in 1965, and moved into 103 Orchard in 1968. Mrs. Wong worked in the burgeoning Chinatown garment industry, and this will be a central part of their story.

How did this project initially get started?

AP: In many ways, the impetus for the new exhibit came from the museum founders’ original philosophy and methodology. From the very beginning they understood the importance of not focusing all exhibits on one particular time period, say, for example 1900, but rather to use the entire span of the building’s residential history, from 1863 to 1935, as the base for exhibits. This was a pretty radical idea, as so many historical houses focus on one decade as their period of significance. Further, this approach broadened the variety of families who could be featured. Were the museum simply to have chosen 1900, when the building was at its peak population, we would have only done Eastern European Jewish stories. But by broadening the time frame the Museum could create exhibits of the earlier waves of Irish and German immigrants, as well as later waves of Italian immigrants. So, both the extension of time frame, the site specificity of our exhibits and the Museum’s desire to be as inclusive as possible were baked into the original philosophy and methodology. Granted, finding another tenement that would enable us to continue the stories and reach into the present and paint a fuller picture of the Lower East Side and New York was its own very laborious project, but it was buoyed by core principles of the Museum.

What are the key steps that first go into starting a new museum exhibition?

AP: Research. Research. Research. And more research. Consulting with scholars,  more research, writing tour content, vetting tour content, training educators, revising tour content, Focus Groups, more talk with scholars.

What was different about this tour, however, was our contact and interviews with the families we are featuring. Whereas research for the 97 Orchard exhibit relies on lots of documents, in particular the census, research for 103 and the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s means that we are working on a time period in which the public does not have access to the census in all of its particularities. Here, though, what replaced the scouring of the census, were the many interviews with family members and neighborhood residents. Clearly, we never had the opportunity to interview Bridget Moore, who lived at 97 Orchard in the late 1860s, or Harris Levine, who lived in 97 Orchard in the 1890s; but we are in fact able to talk to all of the families featured in the new exhibit. It’s almost as if all the questions we’ve always wanted to ask the residents of 97 Orchard—are unleashed in this exhibit.

To put it another way, I can text Bella Epstein, call Alison Wong or email Jose Velez and have a response within minutes; yet sadly I have no way of accessing Fannie Rogarshevsky or Caroline Schneider, and I can therefore only imagine their responses. Once we open the exhibit and field all of our visitors’ questions, I’m sure there will be opportunities to turn to the families anew, and enrich the tour content. So it’s exciting to think about how responsive this exhibit will be to visitors’ questions and ideas.

Inside 103 Orchard Street. Photo by Wijnanda Deroo.

Inside 103 Orchard Street. Photo by Wijnanda Deroo.

What would you give as the central thesis behind 103?

AP: The Lower East Side in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s fades from historical and collective memory. People have a historical image of the pushcart-laden streets of the turn of the 20th century, and people also have a sense of a contemporary Lower East Side with its boutiques, art galleries and cafes. But the forgotten middle decades of the 20th century were fascinating: an array of newcomers started new lives.

What is particularly exciting about the mid-20th century is that the Lower East Side was becoming one of the most diverse neighborhoods in New York City. A New York Times article in 1957 discussed a significant, though decreasing, Jewish population and estimated that Puerto Ricans composed 20% of the population, African Americans from the South 10% and also listed Italians, Chinese and European refugees as important groups. Thus, as much as our exhibit will delve into the particularities of the stories of our individual families, we are also focusing on what it means to live in a diverse apartment building, attend a diverse school, hear a range of languages and smell a range of cooking aromas through the air shafts. What is the everyday experience of diversity and what do these families have to teach us? We’re especially intrigued by Bella’s stories of befriending Barbara, an African American girl, at the park, Jose’s stories of learning to cook lobster from a Chinese neighbor and Alison Wong’s story of attending a diverse PS 42.

With what do you hope visitors will walk away from 103 that they wouldn’t necessarily get out of another historical site, or 97 Orchard?

AP: Having the opportunity to engage with the more recent past… Although we connect past to present in 97 Orchard, by virtue of the fact that visitors are standing in a 19th century building, the experience feels historical. By contrast, in 103 Orchard, when our fabulous furnishings curator Pam Keech has done her magic, visitors will stand in rooms pegged to time periods many of them or their parents have experienced. So while the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are definitely in the past, they’re a more accessible past. We hope to offer the opportunity to reflect on more recent events, and to consider how the recent past shapes the present.  Again, often visitors make connections between what they learn about in 97 Orchard to today, but we expect that those connections will be much more vital in the new exhibit.

Why do you personally believe these stories are important to tell now?

AP: America is an immigrant nation. That continues to be the case today, with 13% of our country made up of immigrants and 37% of our city. Understanding how newcomers seek and create opportunity provides a fascinating lens on American identity. Further, telling these stories through real families allows us to study immigration in a compelling, engaging and human way. We’ve always known that our visitors’ identification with the families was core to the experience at 97 Orchard, and understanding history; now we have the opportunity to engage more contemporary issues in as compelling a manner.

Why was it important to utilize new technologies in this exhibit?

AP: As we interviewed Chinese immigrants and their children, we realized how central the story of the garment industry was to this neighborhood and to their lives. Early on, we recognized the importance of recreating a section of a garment shop to fully grasp the issues of daily life—work, economy, family. Technology enables us to recreate this garment shop, allowing visitors to sit at sewing machines and other garment stations and access the stories—through video and audio—of dozens of garment workers and their children. Technology, then, enables us to tell a wider array of stories and to give voice to the “ordinary,” though extraordinary people who worked in the industry and lived in the tenements.

103 Orchard Street. Photo by Liz Clayman

103 Orchard Street. Photo by Liz Clayman

Getting ahead of ourselves here, but do you hope one day to include more communities at the Museum?

AP: New York City has become more diverse than ever, and to fully represent the experiences of all New Yorkers we’d have to acquire more and more buildings, and to expand to Queens or Brooklyn, something that isn’t practical at the moment.

Perhaps more important than real estate, though, are the real stories that the Museum and our visitors share. Our visitors—especially our New York City schoolchildren—have incredible migration and immigration stories, and to feature them, we’ve created a new website, Your Story, Our Story, that has visitors select an object that tells their families stories. We have amazing objects, almost 1000, representing the Great Migration from the South, and immigration from the Caribbean, South America, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, you name it. What we love about this website is that it represents both the diversity of our origins, but also shows what we share, and how we value our family stories through objects that show our everyday food, work, religious and cultural life. Please share your story too.


Gettin’ Schooled: A History Lesson

Grammar school class photo of Sam Jaffe, born on 97 Orchard Street in 1891. He went on to become nominated for an Academy Award in 1951. Back of the photo reads "about 1909". Photo from the LESTM.

Grammar school class photo of Sam Jaffe, born on 97 Orchard Street in 1891. He went on to become nominated for an Academy Award in 1951. Back of the photo reads “about 1909”. Photo from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

You might remember a Staples commercial that came out a few years ago: a goofy dad dancing around the aisles in a store with his shopping cart, his two kids looking on sad and depressed. Overheard, the Christmas jingle played, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

My parents loved this commercial. It didn’t air in December, though. Every August it went on the air, advertising the most wonderful time for many parents: back to school.

It’s difficult to fathom that the current school system in place in the United States is relatively new, not even a hundred years old. It’s also hard to believe that the push for free access to education for all children was met with controversy and dissent. But the right to an education (you can assure your children) was hard fought over many years throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The use of child labor during the Industrial Revolution is a black mark on one of the most important time periods in Western history, and the development of Child Labor Laws and Compulsory Education Laws were a synchronized movement to combat this problem over a period of several decades. Before then, children were either taught at private institutions for those who could afford it, by religious organizations, or instructed at home.

But many children — such as those living on 97 Orchard Street during this time period — would often be working long days, every day to help provide for their family’s food and home, some of them working in factories for 70 hours a week. Factory work was not like the farming work children have done with their families since hunter-gatherer times that continues to this day; instead kids were working in difficult, dangerous, and dirty conditions with very little compensation. They didn’t have much time for resting, let alone going to school or having fun the way kids should.

Glass factory, working at midnight. Lewis Hines. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

Glass factory, working at midnight. Lewis Hines. Photo from the New York Public Library

Compulsory education laws were seen as a way to try and curb the abuse of child labor. These laws state that every child, with some exceptions like homeschooled children, must attend a public or private institution for a specific period of time. The first was enacted in Massachusetts in 1852 and the last in Mississippi in 1917, and they were seen as a way to prevent factory owners from exploiting children, since their school attendance was mandatory.

It took a long time for these state laws to be instituted on a national scale. Twenty-eight states had regulated child labor by 1899, but it wasn’t until 1938 that the Fair Standards Labor Act fixed the minimum age requirements for children at no younger than 14 for some jobs. This national policy was in part a way to cure the child labor ill but it also served to open up the job market to adults during the Great Depression.

Coinciding with the Industrial Revolution was a major wave of immigrants entering the country and inhabiting large urban areas during this time period. The number is estimated to be close to 20 million between 1880 and 1920. Many native-born Americans were concerned with the growing diversifying population, and access to American schools became a great way for immigrant children or the now native-born children of immigrants to become assimilated into American culture.


“Laying Down The Law.” 1880. Photo from the New York Public Library.

One of the things these foreign children were taught in this time period was how to read and speak English, and an appreciation for American history, government, and rhetoric — as well as other subject matters not unfamiliar to children today, such as basic arithmetic and literacy skills. Textbooks from the 19th century show just how similar school subjects were to today, although the classroom setting was very different from how we’re educated these days. A single classroom often had kids of various ages and education levels, with the older students helping teach the younger ones in what’s known as the Lancasterian model. Teachers were mostly young, unwed, pious women who administered much harsher disciplines for unruly students, and there were no aisles of school supplies for parents to dance around.

Of course, if one has any questions about what life was like for an immigrant child attending American schools at the height of the immigrant influx into the country, they could always Meet Victoria Confino and ask her all about it.


Parks and Preservation

plaque 3

August 2016 celebrates the centennial of the National Park Service, which has spent the last 100 years ensuring beauty and history are maintained in the United States. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has been classified a National Historic Site and is officially a part of the National Park Service and the National Register for Historic Places.

On the surface, it may seem like there is a great difference between the Tenement Museum and a National Park — but both are dedicated to the conservation and preservation of this country’s rich cultural history. Both work to educate people on their history and their inheritance, both build a foundation of understanding for one’s heritage. (Both would also appreciate if visitors take nothing but memories and not start any fires.)

The first U.S. National Park was actually established in March of 1874 at Yellowstone in the territories of Montana and Wyoming. Afterwards, following in the footsteps of Yellowstone, many other parks, preserves, and monuments sprung up all over the country, but were split among different government agencies. Yellowstone and other similar National Parks belonged to the Department of the Interior, while other historic monuments and natural areas were a part of the War Department and the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture.

It wasn’t until President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act on August 25, 1916 that a National Park Service was established to keep all these culturally significant places under one management, whose “purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects” with the intention to “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” This creation of a national system allowed for a broader classification of parks – areas that were not just scenically and scientifically important but historically, too.

It’s strange to think, what with our society being very nostalgia-driven, that there was a time in America when preserving our historical areas wasn’t quite as important as it is now. Following World War II, the development of the National Highway System and increasing urbanization caused the careless destruction of many historical properties throughout the country, and made negative changes to the structural identity of several cities.

plaque 2This resulted in the National Historic Preservation Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 (which turns 50 on October 15th!) Early preservation movements in this country were typically fueled by patriotism, and focused mostly on specific buildings or areas relevant to the nation’s history. Over time, this mindset eventually evolved into caring and preserving landscapes and neighborhoods.

Here is where the mission of the National Park Service and the goals of the Tenement Museum align: both work daily to uphold the integrity and innate beauty of our shared history and our shared space. New York City is a city defined by its infrastructure. Its architectural identity is deeply entwined with its history and its residents.

But to anyone who has ever been to New York City — and especially to those of us who live here — it is an area constantly changing. “It’ll be a great place,” goes the famous quip by author O. Henry, “if they ever finish it.”

Buildings are constantly renovating, repurposing, disappearing, or popping up to change the skyline. The Museum often talks about how the cultural makeup of the Lower East Side changed rapidly during the years that 97 Orchard housed some 7,000 immigrants, and the same can be said for the city’s physical attributes. Heck, you can say that so much has changed in this city since the Lower East Side Tenement Museum opened in 1988. One could say this shifting disposition could easily be considered a main characteristic of New York’s identity.

But it is also why preservation is so important. For the Tenement Museum specifically, the safeguarding of immigrant history, tenement living at the turn of the century, tenement architecture, and the vital housing reform movement all serve to foster conversation about our shared past and where our future is headed. In the Lower East Side Tenement National Historic Site Amendments Act, Congress recognized the importance of ensuring “continued interpretation of the nationally significant immigrant phenomenon associated with New York City’s Lower East Side and the Lower East Side’s role in the history of immigration to the United States.”

As the National Park Service prepares to celebrate its momentous birthday, it is still striving to achieve even greater works in their duty to the people in this country. In particular, their dedication to improving their urban spaces — the upkeep and expansion of public parks in places like New York City — is truly noteworthy. This city hugely benefits from the works of the National Park Service, whether it is the recognition of its widespread history or the preservation of its natural beauty.

The One and Only Jewish Miss America

bess2On August 15, 1945, seventy-one years ago yesterday, Bess Myerson became the most beautiful woman in America. Myerson became the first postwar Miss America, winning the same year the beauty pageant started offering its scholarship program. And she was the first ever Jewish Miss America.

She was also the last ever Jewish Miss America.

Born in 1924 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Myerson was raised in New York City to appreciate Yiddish culture and art. At her mother’s insistence, she became highly skilled at the piano. By the time she was 12 years old, she stood at  5’10″ tall. Myerson never felt comfortable in her own skin, and though she initially had no intention of participating in the Miss New York City contest, she was entered by her sister and her friend without her knowledge.


Myerson described herself as “the wrong person in the wrong place” when she competed wearing a borrowed bathing suit. She was more interested in the scholarship money than in the competition itself. She still won advancing to the Miss America pageant.

One of the defining moments in Myerson’s career as a public figure occurred before she was ever even crowned Miss America. The director of the pageant had pulled her aside and told her she had a real chance of winning, but suggested she change her last name to something more “attractive.” What he meant was “less Jewish.”

In the 1987 book by Susan Dworkin titled Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson’s Own Story, Myerson described the decision to ignore that advice as one of the most important she ever made.

“Already I was losing my sense of who I was; already I was in a masquerade, marching across stages in bathing suits,” she said. “Whatever was left of myself in this game, I had to keep, I sensed that. I knew I had to keep my name.”

Myerson’s coronation as Miss America took place just days after Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. Back then, the role of beauty queen still held huge cultural significance. During the war, the Miss America pageant had gone through a kind of rebranding. The country needed to be united in the fight against the enemy, and Miss America became a valued national icon. She was a beautiful patriotic symbol to sell war bonds and bolster the American spirit, both at home and overseas. In a time of overwhelming hardships, who wore the crown bore great significance.

What made Myerson’s reign particularly significant was it came at one of most important times in all of Jewish history. Towards the end of 1945, once the war was won, everyone was discovering just how deep the atrocities against the Jewish people ran. All Jews — from the European refugees directly affected to the American Jews being blamed by Anti-Semites for causing the war — were just starting to come to terms with the sheer magnitude of loss. Jews at the time were also dealing with logistical questions of what to do next, where to go, and how do I keep my faith when something like this happens.

The image of the Jewish body in this time began to take on a horrifying shape. It’s a picture that persists to this day when people think of a Jew during World War II — the image of a starved body: gaunt, hollowed, abused. Dead or dying, with little to indicate the difference. For many Jewish Americans post-World War II, Myerson’s win as Miss America gave the world a different view of the Jewish body — beautiful, gifted, and full of hope.

Her year as Miss America, however, started off pretty rocky. Touring the country on the vaudeville circuit was unsatisfying — the crowds were more interested in her bathing suit than her musical talents. She faced anti-Semitism from all corners: businesses refused to offer her sponsorships as was customary for pageant winners, she was denied entrance to many places, and encountered open hostility for being a Jew.

Bess_Myerson_1957She was approached by the Anti-Defamation League to speak on bigotry and tolerance around the country. She spent her year as Miss America speaking at high schools and housing projects with a speech titled “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate”, saying, “…hate is a corroding disease and affects the way you look. … You can’t hide it – ever. It shows in your eyes. It warps your expression.”

It was on this lecture tour where she was discovered by a television producer who launched her career as a TV personality and later as the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs. Throughout her long career she always presented herself as a Jewish public figure, and later in life donated much of her money to charities, including over a million dollars to the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. She died on December 14, 2015.

Myerson was a vital part of the Jewish American story, simultaneously changing and being affected by the discourse surrounding the Jewish community in the tumultuous post-War era. The current Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham H. Foxman spoke of how integral she was to the narrative, calling Myerson a “treasure trove” to the ADL’s goal.

“Miss America was a much bigger thing back then than it is today, and she represented the promise of that contest and the reality that the country was still racist, anti-Semitic and bigoted,” Foxman said. “She had the guts and the courage to be a proud Jew and to stand up for it.”