Ridley’s… Believe It or Not!

The Tenement Museum offers four different walking tours, where our visitors will take a stroll around the neighborhood with an experienced educator, and will explore the buildings and stories of the Lower East Side that residents of 97 Orchard Street would have experienced. One building on  Orchard Street truly stands out from the rest – the building which once housed the Ridley and Sons Department Store, makes quite a statement with its large windows and bright pink paint job!

The Ridley's Department Store building as seen in 2012. Photo courtesy the NYC Landmarks Preservation Committee.

If the building itself seems a little wild, the story of the Ridley family will really knock your socks off. Edward Ridley, an English immigrant, founded a millenary and dry goods store in 1849 and by 1883, had acquired and converted many of the buildings on the block. In 1886, Ridley’s sons Arthur and and Edward commissioned a building that would span the entire block from Allen to Orchard Street on Grand. Grand Street was a bustling shopping district in the mid-19th century, with shoppers from other neighborhoods taking the Grand Street ferry (which left from Grand Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – do you see a theme here?) and streetcars to come to Ridley’s.

An 1886 advertisement for Ridley and Sons Department Store. Photo courtesy the NYC Landmarks Preservation Committee.

An ambitious five story building with copious window and floor space, Ridley’s was certainly the largest store on the Lower East Side and possibly the largest in New York City upon its completion. By the late 1880’s, Ridley and Sons employed about 2,500 workers – most of them young immigrant women from the neighborhood.

A March 23, 1876 article from the New York Times about the variety of bonnets available at Ridley and Sons.

Edward Ridley senior died unexpectedly in 1883, and his sons Arthur and Edward took over the operations of the store until 1901, when business had slowed to the point where the store went out of business, and the building was sold to different businesses. Both sons went into real estate.

Edward Ridley Sr. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

Edward the younger seems to have been a bit of a strange guy, and operated his real estate business out of the damp, dark subbasement of his family’s old department store. He took to wearing rain boots and carrying an umbrella at all times, and let his beard grow out, making him look rather unkempt. In January of 1931, Edward came into work one morning and discovered Herman Muench, his secretary of 51 years (who had been working with the Ridley family since the age of 9), dead in the cellar. At first, a doctor determined that Mr. Muench had died of natural causes, but when the body was taken to the morgue the coroner discovered two bullet wounds in Mr. Muench’s abdomen and chest! Robbery was the suspected motive, but Mr. Muench still had all of his money in his wallet. The case went cold.

The New York Times headline of Moench's 1931 murder.

Two years later in 1933, 88-year old Edward Ridley and his new secretary, Lee Weinstein, were found dead in the very same room where Muench was murdered in 1931! Weinstein was shot five times and Ridley had been beaten to death with a high stool. Robbery was not a motive, as both men had all of their money, and Edward’s gold watch had not been removed. A dispute with a tenant was a possible motive.

The 1933 New York Times headline of Ridley's murder.

Things get much stranger when police reopened the Muench case in an attempt to shed some light on the two latter murders, and a ballistics report showed that Meunch and Weinstein were shot with the same gun!

The investigation did reveal that Weinstein had been living with his wife under an assumed name in a midtown hotel, and was bootlegging in a room in the garage where Edward kept his office, but neither of these pieces of information explained the murder. Police found Edward’s will in which he bequeathed $200,000 to Weinstein, but further investigation discovered that the will was a fake and Weinstein and two accomplices had already stolen over $200,000 from the old man. The thieves were indicted, but no murderer was ever punished. It remains one of the Lower East Side’s strangest cold cases.

Interested in more stories like this one? Check out our walking tours!

- Posted by Lib Tietjen

Getting “Hooked” – 19th Century Human Smuggling on the Mexican Border

Next week’s Tenement Talk discusses After They Closed the Gates, an exploration of Jewish illegal immigration to the United States from 1921 to 1965. Many of the Jewish migrants who illegally entered the country during that time used human smugglers to aid their journey into the country.

Contemporary human smuggling is perhaps more prevalent than ever; people are smuggled either into or out of nearly every country in the world. Immigrants use smugglers to help them escape natural disaster or political unrest, or to simply try to make a better life for their families in a new country. Closest to home, human smugglers known as coyotajes (“coyotes”) help Central American and Mexican immigrants sneak across the U.S.-Mexican border. Smugglers like this have been bringing people over the border for over 120 years.

In the late 19th century, the United States passed severe immigration restrictions which established quotas of immigrants allowed from each country. Two notable laws of the era were the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which outlawed Chinese immigration, and the Immigration Act of 1885, which banned contract labor from outside the United States. These laws, which were intended to curb immigration and create jobs for native born Americans, in effect created a massive labor shortage across the country, most severely in the South and Southwest – a shortage that Hispanic immigrants could easily fill.

U.S. officials check a train for smuggled Mexican immigrants. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

Because of the labor shortage, American companies hired Mexican smugglers to bring immigrant laborers into the United States. These smugglers, called enganchadores (literally translated to “hooker” from the noun “hook” and the verb “to hook”), were labor recruiters who convinced Mexican peasants to make the trip north into the United States on the newly completed Mexican-American railways, guaranteeing jobs once in the U.S. According to David Spencer’s book Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border, the enganchadores would accompany the migrant laborer on the train, ensuring their delivery to the American company that requested them.

Despite the fact that the border was not well guarded, the enganchadores were still breaking U.S. law. An 1891 law “prohibited the importation of alien laborers by the use of advertisements circulated in foreign countries which promised employment.” The methods used by the enganchadores was often not legal either – they “convinced” men by getting them drunk or conspiring with Mexican authorities to coerce vagrants and criminals, shipping them off to America without their consent.

The U.S.-Mexican border in New Mexico, between 1915 and 1920. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

Once laborers were “hooked” and in the United States, the jobs that the enganchadores had promised them were often much worse than what had been originally offered; much of the time, the enganchadores would not have the migrant worker sign a contract until they were already in the U.S. Some migrants were treated no better than chattel and were held until they could repay their transportation debts – a form of indentured servitude.

It is estimated that enganchadores smuggled thousands of men into the U.S. from the 1880’s to the 1910’s, and most of them worked for American companies in the Southwest.

Mexican immigrants wait at an Immigration Station in El Paso, TX, 1938. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

Contemporary coyotajes act much like enganchadores in that they are middlemen between Mexico and the United States for hopeful immigrants. While coyotaje are not recuiters for specific American companies like the enganchadores were, their existence is a continuation of the enganchadores’s legacy.

The Tenement Talk, After They Closed the Gates, is at 103 Orchard Street on Monday, April 21st at 6:30 PM. For more information on this free event, click here.

- Posted by Lib Tietjen

More Harm Than Good

Spring is finally upon us! Soon New York will be blessed with warm evenings and blooming flowers, and the delightful side effects of itchy bug bites and raging allergies…

New Yorkers taking in the pollen and the sunshine in Central Park, circa 1870. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

These days we can just pop into the drugstore for various medicines that’ll cure what ails you, but to the former residents of Orchard Street, relief from the itches, sniffles, aches and pains as well as more serious diseases that were common in the cramped quarters could be hard to come by.

"A Girl and Her Sick Father, New York Tenement" by Lewis Hine. Photo courtesy the New York Public Library.

Not all remedies available to tenement residents were helpful; so-called ‘patent medicines’ could be poisons that were advertised as healthy supplements or cures and often made people sicker or even killed them. These false medicines prayed on the poor, for they were cheap and could be purchased without seeing a doctor. Even the term “patent” is misleading, as most of these supposed cures were not patented, though some were trademarked. Patenting an elixir would require the maker to make public the ingredients of their ‘medicine,’ which is something that the maker very much did not want to do.

The cover of a 1905 issue of Collier's Weekly, exposing the patent medicine trade as a sham. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

Patent medicines were advertised as having exotic or natural and wholesome ingredients, like snake oil, swamp root, vegetables and herbs – some even claimed to have electricity or radium in them (some actually did have radioactive ingredients and were extremely deadly). They purported to cure a range of ailments from venereal disease to hangovers, depression, cancer, paralysis, and “female complaints.” Some claimed to have restorative effects on blood, liver and stomach.

This iodine water claims to cure everything from cancer to syphilis to "derangement of the liver." Image courtesy the Library of Congress

The ingredients actually hiding behind the flashy label were often poisons like turpentine, laxatives, or even controlled substances like alcohol, opium, cannabis, and cocaine.

1800's label of a hair tonic patent medicine with "busts of typical women of Holland, America, Persia, and Spain." The images of exotic women could make American women want to purchase the tonic. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

Due to these drugs, patent medicines that claimed to calm sick babies did so, because the crying children would become laconic from the opiates, and therefore the parents would continue to purchase and administer the drugs. 97 Orchard’s Bridget Moore probably gave her baby Agnes, who was suffering from marasmus due to tainted milk, opium laced patent medicines, thinking that the medicine could cure the baby, even though it was only killing her faster.

Label for Dewdrop Stomach Regulator, about 1868. Dewdrop was most likely simply alcoholic bitters. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act stated that ingredients must be clearly labeled on patent medicines and drastically reduced the most fraudulent patent medicines, but it wasn’t until the 1930’s and 40’s that most patent medicines either were driven out business or re-branded and no longer claimed to have medical purposes. Some recognizable items began as patent medicines, including Angostura bitters, 7-Up, tonic water and Coca-Cola, which supposedly would cure morphine addiction and impotence.

A 19th century Coca-Cola ad describing the medicinal effects of the drink.

Of course, some medicines from the era were truly beneficial and are still sold today, such as Bayer aspirin, Goody’s power, Anacin and Vick’s VapoRub. Maybe some of those could help you out with those bug bites and allergies.

- Posted by Lib Tietjen

Kick Up Your Heels!

Many of my favorite nights out on the town have occurred on the Lower East Side; from getting happy hour drinks with colleagues at the Magician to dancing the night away at Home Sweet Home. Here at the Tenement Museum, we connect to the past to the present, and out of habit, I’m always curious about the parallels between my activities today and those of a bygone era.

Barney Flynn's - a bar on Bowery and Pell St - in 1889. Photo courtesy the New York Public Library.

For three years, I lived in a 300 square foot Lower East Side tenement apartment, and at times, it felt like the walls were moving in on me. Summertime with no air conditioner could be the most trying on one’s mental state, and the local bars and restaurant become a refuge and a place of community. This is not a new concept; while the state of my apartment in no way compared to the overcrowded, sordid conditions of tenements of the past, there are certainly some similarities to life on the Lower East Side.

An account from October 12, 1863 New York Tribune states, “The homes of the poor in the [Five] Points are not fit places in which to spend an evening pleasantly, for in most of them there are from four to a dozen individuals – the rooms are dirty and unventilated, consequently the inhabitants are forced into the streets to find either pleasure or comfort.” When a tenant got home from long hours at work, they often did not want to return to their cramped and seasonally uncomfortable apartment – so they went to the saloon.

A Five Points rum shop - 1872. Photo courtesy the New York Public Library.

In the 1800’s, dance halls, saloons, and grocery stores – where drinks were sold by the glass – were scattered throughout the Lower East Side in great numbers. Residents of the Lower East Side flocked to these venues to drink, socialize, and distract themselves from the reality of everyday life. In 1851, there were roughly a dozen saloons and groceries per block in the Five Points.

When Charles Dickens toured New York in 1841, he was unimpressed by the City until he visited the Almack dance hall in the Five Points neighborhood. A dance hall run by African Americans, Dickens was enthralled by black American culture and dancing. These establishments shocked many uptown visitors because of the mixing of blacks and whites on the dance floor.

Harry Hill's Concert Saloon. Photo courtesy the New York Public Library.

Dancers of different ethnicities sported their own cultural dance styles. Dance contests were organized where African Americans would dance against Irish immigrants, each featuring their own traditional steps. There were friendly rivalries between the native-born whites, Irish immigrants, and African American dancers. Often times, these dancers would incorporate elements of their competitors’ dance styles into their own. In fact, the development of “tap dancing” occurred because of the collaboration between the African American shuffle and the Irish jig.

O'Reilly's bar on Third Avenue in 1942. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.

With these new nuggets of information, I will be sure to look more carefully for the newest cultural developments within the raucous and vibrant nightlife of the 21st century Lower East Side.

- Posted by Alana Rosen

Emma Goldman’s Legacy: An Interview with Activist Cynthia Cooper

“Hers was the sensibility not of the intellectual but of the artist; and she performed like an artist, dramatizing for others what they could hardly articulate for themselves.”  (Historian Vivian Gornick on Emma Goldman)

Emma Goldman's mugshot for her arrest for "Inciting a Riot."

Today, Emma Goldman is most recognized by the general public as a “dangerous person.” I find that most visitors I speak to know of her mostly by name only, or because of her role as an anarchist, her involvement with people like Alexander Berkman, the wrongful implication of her in an assassination attempt on President William McKinley, or her deportation in 1919.  But I find, time and again, that very little of her legacy is recognized.

Emma Goldman laid the groundwork for the daily lives that women live in the 21st century, fighting for the recognition of women’s health issues, birth control and worker’s rights, and focusing on the rights of women to be recognized as intellectual personalities and not sexual property. Today, women continue the struggle, finding new creative ways to discuss the systemic and social setbacks that we culturally experience.  One of these creative women is Cynthia Cooper, an activist and New York City playwright who has focused her art on involving women in their healthcare and legal choices.

Cindy, what first piqued your interest in the women’s movement? When did you first get involved? 

I think I first became involved in the women’s movement as a girl – although, obviously, I didn’t have the language for it. I recall asking, again and again, why there weren’t more women authors of the books in school. I was perplexed that boys had more sports opportunities. And I also stood up for boys – I protested in junior high when a boy in the class was punished more severely than me when both of us were talking.

I think Emma Goldman’s spirited view of life is what people most remember – “If I can’t dance, then I don’t want this revolution.”

Playwright, artist and activist, Cynthia Cooper.

Why did you choose to use theater and other performance based art to share your viewpoints?

Theater and performance art have such immense capacity to open hearts and minds.  They allow transformation. I didn’t come to theater or performance first.  I worked as a journalist, studied and practiced law. But as “backlash” to the women’s liberation movement set in, I became more and more convinced that laws alone would not protect our rights.  Theater and performance art can reach beyond a fact sheet and influence people in powerful ways, outside of the mainstream policy corridors, and help them move to action.  Arlene Goldbard, an arts theorist, calls this “the culture of possibility” – something especially needed now when the issues can become overwhelming.

What do you think some of the most pressing issues for women are today?

Distraction, overload and paralysis are the most pressing issues for women today. So many people are busy trying to get by or keep up.  Or they only become engaged in a fake world of entertainment and celebrity. When that happens, they don’t have an opportunity to shape decisions of the times.  Sadly, other forces are willing to take advantage of that disengagement. As Emma Goldman said, “Let us not overlook vital things, because of the bulk of trifles confronting us.”

Many “settled” issues have come back into play.  Reactionaries who want to push back our rights are a minority, but they have managed to co-opt politics and to box in our rights.  It’s easy to do nothing if we aren’t aroused – something Emma Goldman was very good at doing.

Many of the rights that we’ve taken for granted for the past 20-100 years are being undermined – sometimes in quiet ways that move us back an inch or two, and sometimes a mile. Challenges to bodily integrity – reproductive freedom, access to abortion, contraception, child rearing assistance, sexual expression and the right to privacy.  Attacks on cultural dignity, environmental health, diversity, economic security, freedom from gender violence, equal representation in public leadership, parity in the arts, media and private sector, and even on voting. There are forces working actively to encroach on women’s human rights.

Neglect your rights and they will go away.  Emma Goldman once said, “People have only as much liberty as they have the intelligence to want and the courage to take.”

Goldman speaking to a crowd in Union Square, New York City, 1916.

During the time period of your work, are you surprised about anything that has changed? What hasn’t changed?

Birth control is now under attack in the U.S. Supreme Court because businesses said that they shouldn’t have to be part of a health care system that covers contraception for women as preventive care. Some people opposed to birth control made the same arguments that people heard in Emma Goldman’s day;  they’ve filed briefs saying that birth control is immoral or against nature, that it harms women, that it undermines marriage and is “unwomanly.” Since 99% of American women have used birth control at some time, it seems that the past is truly whapping us.

What are some of the new challenges that women like Emma Goldman would be discussing today?

Emma Goldman would fit right into the zeitgeist today.  She had a big picture view of rights and freedom, and was interested in and activated on many issues. Women today, especially young women and people of color, are reclaiming that big picture and connecting the dots on issues in powerful ways. (The academically inclined call this “intersectional.”)

People see that our rights can’t be isolated and protected in little pods – the same thing that  Emma Goldman understood.  People’s lives and communities are not touched by a single right or need – but by a vast array.  Underpayment in labor affects women’s ability to live full and free lives, just as lack of access to birth control or education means that women will lead diminished lives.

Plus, Emma Goldman understood, as people should today, that you can dance — you can enjoy art and love and life — and you can still fight for women’s rights and human rights.  The important thing is not to give up. “The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people is the greatest and only safety in a sane society,” she once said.

Emma Goldman

Thank you Cynthia!

The Tenement Talk, “Emma Goldman’s Legacy” is Wednesday April 9th at 6:30PM. More information here.

If you’d like to see Cynthia in action, check out the Reproductive Justice Walking Tour on June 7, 2014, 1 pm, which will include information and a short performance about Emma Goldman.

- Posted by Emily Gallagher


History at Home

A few months ago, quite out of the blue, my friend Nathalie emailed me with a rather strange request. She lived on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side in a building that had some features that would be rather familiar to anyone who has ever visited 97 Orchard Street – pressed metal walls, hallway toilets, and narrow stairs – and was curious: how old was her building?

Detail of the pressed metal in Nathalie's building's hallway.

From the outside, Nathalie’s building is pretty ordinary – lovely brickwork, a few steps up to the modern looking door. But once inside, I could tell that this was one old building. Of course, Nathalie’s  apartment had been renovated over the years and had modern appliances (no hauling a cast iron stove up the stairs like the tenants of 97 had to do!), cable/phone hook ups, modern drywall, and a bathroom in the unit. However, the hall of the building looks as untouched as 97 Orchard.

The stairs in Nathalie's building on Ludlow Street

The hallways were very narrow and dark – the landlords had obviously put more lights in the hallways as time had gone on, but the tightness of the space simply didn’t allow for much natural light to come in. Along the stairs was pressed metal with flaking paint, which looks very similar to 97 Orchard’s hallway.

The current tenant of the air shaft.

Each landing on the stairs had two windows that faced the building’s air shaft. This indicated to me that the building was a type known as a dumbbell building – one that is made in a shape like a hand weight in order to create a breeze in between the buildings that would theoretically help keep disease and grime away from the building. The law that mandated dumbbell tenements passed in 1879, but in 1901, dumbbell tenements were outlawed (air shafts basically acted as flues in the event of fires), so we can safely assume that the building was built between those dates.

I entered Nathalie’s address into the New York Times archive and found a few interesting things: on August 28th, 1865, the cigar store on the ground floor of the building was a polling place for a municipal election; in 1903, one year old Chase Linsberg died in the building; resident Max Resnick was drafted to fight in the First World Waron August 3rd, 1917. A dried fruit and nut store replaced the cigar store, opening in 1938 and remained in business until 1986.

From the August 3, 1917 New York Times. A long list of men called to be examined for the draft into the First World War.

An 1832 map shows that there was a residential space at Nathalie’s address, but it’s unlikely that this was the same building. G. W. Bromley’s 1891 city atlas shows a brick building on the lot (this is opposed to a brick building with stone front, which is what the neighbors had).  In a 1924 atlas from the same company, there is a 6 story building with a store in the ground level in the lot. We can assume this is the same 6 story building that stands today.

A great selection of digitized city atlases can be found online through the New York Public Library here.

A section of the 1891 G. W. Bromley NYC atlas

Of course, there is a difference between assuming that a building was built in 1875 and knowing for sure it was there in 1924. However, when you’re researching the everyday people and buildings in a city that has a single-minded drive to move forward in history, a 50 year guess is as good as it gets.

Plus, when this is the view from the roof, sometimes it’s best to just forget about dates and enjoy the present.

Not a bad view.

- Posted by Lib Tietjen 


One Powerful Handshake

Over the past 100 years, anarchist, writer, orator, and women’s rights activist Emma Goldman has influenced many people, inspiring them to stand up for their rights and beliefs. The influence that Goldman had on Private First Class William Buwalda was a bit stronger than most – it changed the course of his life entirely.

Emma Goldman in 1911. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

On April 26th of 1908, Buwalda attended Goldman’s lecture at Walton’s Pavilion in San Francisco wearing his full Army uniform. After the lecture, he shook Goldman’s hand. Detectives who had witnessed the handshake followed Buwalda  to his Army base and turned him into the Army authorities.

Buwalda was court martialed him for breaking the 62nd Article of War, which states that a service member can be court martialed or other punishments for participating in “contemptuous or disrespectful words against the President, Vice President, the Congress of the U. S., the Secretary of War or the Governor or Legislature of any states.” Not only was he court martialed, but he was found guilty by a military court, dishonorably discharged and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, sentenced to five years at hard labor on Alcatraz!

An anarchist May Day rally in Union Square, 1913. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

Buwalda’s commanding officer, General Funston, called Buwalda’s interaction with Goldman “a great military offence, infinitely worse than desertion, a serious crime, equal to treason.”About a month later, Buwalda’s sentence was commuted to three years hard labor because of his 15 years of exemplary military service. The court decided that Buwalda was under the spell of an “anarchist orator” and therefore wasn’t really in control of his actions.

Goldman immediately started a campaign to free Buwalda, which was successful. Buwalda served only 10 months in prison before he was pardoned by President Theodore Roosevelt, who disliked the anarchist movement, and Goldman in particular. Buwalda was released on December 31st, 1908. In January of 1909, Emma Goldman announced that anarchists across the country had raised one thousand dollars for Buwalda to begin a new life after prison.

Emma Goldman in Union Square, May 21, 1916.

That new life started rapidly when Buwalda became an anarchist orator! He spoke with Goldman in San Francisco soon after his release. The very next night, Goldman and Buwalda were arrested for disturbing the peace. In April, Buwalda sent a letter to the Secretary of War returning his medal that he had received for bravery while fighting in the Phillippines, saying that he had no use for it and that the Secretary should give it to someone who might appreciate it more.

For the rest of Buwalda’s story, we can turn to this exerpt from Mother Earth, a monthly anarchist magazine founded and edited by Goldman:

Mother Earth, Vol. 6 No. 1, March 1911.

If one handshake from Emma Goldman could alter a Buwalda’s life so drastically, imagine what an entire Tenement Talk about her can do for you!

Next Wednesday, Historian Thai Jones, journalist Rebecca Traister, City Council Member Rosie Mendez, and author Vivian Gornick will discuss how Goldman has influenced them personally. Our Tenement Talk, “Emma Goldman’s Legacy” will begin at 6:30 PM at 103 Orchard Street on April 9th. More information here.

- Posted by Lib Tietjen

March’s Visitor of the Month

Our visitors are what make the Tenement Museum the thriving and growing place that it is today. Since we appreciate our visitors very much, every month, we’ll give a shout out to a special visitor (or visitors) to the Tenement Museum! It’s our Visitor of the Month. If you’d like to be one of our Visitors of the Month, just ask your friendly Tenement Museum Staff Member!

Meet Wayne and Pam Steadman of Asbury Park, NJ. They are members of the Tenement Museum who came to take our Irish Outsiders tour in January.

Wayne and Pam Steadman in our Visitors Center at 103 Orchard.

Wayne is a retired engineer for Mobil Oil (now ExxonMobil) and Pam is a retired teacher who is currently working as a playwright; she wants to write a play about someone who comes to a museum.

They became members after taking their first tour, Shop Life. Wayne thought it was fascinating to learn how the Orchard Street business district has changed so many times, from being filled with lager beer saloons to being filled with discount underwear stores. Pam was impressed at Caroline Schneider’s ability to take care of her family, run a business, and cook for all of their guests while living in such a small apartment.

The Schneider kitchen in the recreated apartment in the Museum.

They said they love the museum because it really allows you to put yourselves in the immigrants’ shoes.

The Irish Outsiders tour left both Wayne and Pam with lasting impressions. The Irish wake most effected Pam; her grandmother, who was Irish, never talked about death or went to funerals at all. Wayne was struck by the similarities between Irish immigrants in the 19th Century and Hispanic immigrants to the United States today, “The issues on immigrants haven’t changed at all,” he said, “because people don’t change.” He went on to quote president Harry Truman: “‘There’s nothing new in the world except for the history you haven’t read.’”

An advertisement for the American Citizen, a Nativist Newspaper, circa 1852. The paper claims to be opposed to "being taxed for the support of Foreign paupers millions of dollars yearly." This was an often repeated idea that Irish immigrants would come to the United States and be a 'drain on tax dollars' by needing government assistance. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

The Irish-controlled political machine known as Tammany Hall reminded him of a story his mother, who grew up on Avenue A, told him about greasing the wheels of New York City government; if she wanted to receive her driver’s license quickly, she should keep a $10 bill visibly sticking out of her pocket at the DMV. And it worked! The clerk took the money and gave her driver’s license.

After their tour, Pam and Wayne visited our bookstore where they bought two mugs and three books: Ellis Island, by Kate Kerrigan; 97 Orchard: An Edible History, by Jane Ziegelman, and Up from Orchard Street. They took them home in a Tenement tote bag.

Thanks for coming, Wayne and Pam!

- Posted by Colin Kennedy

Spring Cleaning? They Do It All Year!

According to the Huffington Post, Tokyo is the cleanest city in the world; New York City is ranked an unimpressive 28th, but this is not for lack of trying. The removal of garbage and refuse in New York City is a near-Herculean undertaking in a time with garbage trucks and recycling plants – imagine what it was like at the turn of the century!

Garbage in Manhattan, 1927. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

New York’s Department of Sanitation is the world’s biggest, collecting 10,500 tons of residential and institutional refuse and 1,760 tons of recyclables a day (private garbage companies haul away another 13,000 tons a day). The Department of Sanitation is comprised of 7,197 uniformed sanitation workers and supervisors as well as 2,048 civilian workers, who operate a fleet of 2,230 collection trucks, 450 mechanical street sweepers, 275 specialized collection trucks, 365 salt/sand spreaders, 298 front end loaders, and 2,360 various other support vehicles. All of these people and machines work together to keep New York as trash-free as possible. Of course, this is with over 120 years of practice! Things could get a little fragrant before the Department of Sanitation, originally called the Department of Street Cleaning, was formed.

A pile of garbage on Mulberry St. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

Before regular street cleaning and garbage removal, residents of working-class neighborhoods like the Lower East Side were supposed to put their garbage in garbage-boxes set in front of the tenement building, which could prove difficult as these boxes frequently weren’t there! Even when they were present, the boxes were not big enough or removed frequently enough to keep the street clean. In 1863, the New York Tribune reported that garbage boxes were little more than piles of “heterogeneous filth…forming one festering, rotting, loathsome, hellish mass of air poisoning, death-breeding filth, reeking on the fierce sunshine.” Sounds nice.

For decades, household refuse and rotting animal carcasses remained piled in the streets of the city. Not only was this extremely unpleasant, but it was also deadly. According to anthropologist Robin Nagle, “A study done in 1851 concluded that fully a third of the city’s deaths that year could have been prevented if basic sanitary measures had been in place.”

Piles of garbage at Essex and Hester Streets during a Sanitation workers strike, 1911. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

This is not to say that people didn’t make any effort to keep the city clean; for much of the 19th century, street cleaning in New York was conducted by private carting operations who were awarded contracts by the municipal government. Not surprisingly, such a system encouraged political graft and corruption and ultimately proved ineffective. Wealthy neighborhoods could afford to continue with private street sweepers, but many working-class neighborhoods could not, and the garbage piled up again.

Beginning in 1866, the Metropolitan Board of Health assumed authority over street cleaning – the responsibility shifted to the Metropolitan Board of Police in 1872. Finally, in 1881, the Department of Street Cleaning was created with the specific purpose to clean up New York.

A street sweeper with his handcart in 1896. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

Effective street-cleaning, however, did not arrive until the appointment of George Waring to direct the department in 1895. In that year, Waring, a Civil War veteran, “reorganized the department along military lines, minimized political influence in employing workers, stressed sweeping by hand rather than with machines, and dressed street sweepers in white duck uniforms, earning them the nickname of ‘white wings.’”

Street cleaners got the nickname "White Wings" from their crisp white uniforms.

While Waring’s leadership style often clashed with unions and even some of his own workers, his strategy proved very effective, and under his leadership, the Department of Street Cleaning cleared the streets of shin-deep animal, human, and who knows what else waste.

A page from a 1920 NYC guidebook shows the improvements that Waring made to the fleet of street sweepers. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

As you can imagine, New Yorkers were rather grateful – in 1896, they threw a parade for the Sanitation workers.

The funny thing about much of New York’s infrastructure is that when it’s working perfectly, it’s mostly unnoticeable. But let’s all take a moment to thank the Department of Sanitation from saving us from the “festering, rotting, loathsome, hellish mass” of the past.

- Posted by Lib Tietjen and Dave Favaloro

Reading, Writing, Architecture

What does a school look like? If you envision a big building with big windows and tall ceilings, a building whose classrooms are bathed in light and fresh air, then you have C.B.J. Snyder to thank.

C.B.J. Snyder in his office, about 1900.

Before Snyder became chief architect of the New York public schools in 1891, school buildings – especially in immigrant neighborhoods like the Lower East Side – were infamous for their poor ventilation and cramped quarters. Snyder wanted to fix that. His schools would be massive, with the biggest windows and highest ceilings he could get away with. Although his schools often covered most of a city block, they were full of airshafts and indentations, ensuring lots of air and light for every child in every classroom.

Snyder had a thing for air and light.

DeWitt Clinton High School in the West Bronx, designed by Snyder. Photo courtesy NYC Department of Education.

But then, so did most reformers back then. Tenements were dark and fetid, and middle-class reformers feared that these grotesque living conditions would stunt the physical, mental, and moral development of young immigrant children. For Snyder, schools were not just for learning. They were also a cure for the evils of tenement living. The more time a student spent in these new school buildings, the better his or her health would be – and the better an adult he or she would become.

Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts on West 114th Street, Manhattan, designed by Snyder. Image courtesy the NYC Department of Education.

Today, Snyder’s schools look elegant and imposing, and some are even landmarked. But how did the students and their parents see these schools?

Students and parents, it seemed, were ambivalent about these schools. The schools made no attempt to respect the native culture of these families. Lunches were not kosher, much to the chagrin of some Jewish parents. All students were required to sing Christian hymns, much to the chagrin of both Jewish and Catholic parents. And teachers made no attempt to ease the transition to an all-English curriculum.

A class of Caucasian and Chinese students inside a public school, circa 1910. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

Newly arriving students were sent straight to kindergarten until they spoke English well enough to join their peers in their proper grade. Imagine you’re a newly arrived 10-year-old immigrant child, sitting in a kindergarten surrounded by children half your age while the teacher speaks in English, a language you don’t know. Meanwhile, you do know that you could be getting a job and making money to help support your family. What do you do? And if you’re that child’s parent, desperate to feed all your children, what do you tell your child to do? Many parents demanded that the city build more of Snyder’s schools in their neighborhoods, but others would yank their children out of school and put them to work shining shoes or sewing clothes.

PS 42 on the corner of Hester and Orchard Streets, designed by Snyder. Phot courtesy the NYC Department of Education.

These big, imposing, scientifically designed schools were a huge improvement over the older schools, but it would take more than a few big buildings with lots of light and air to ensure that all the children of the Lower East Side got a school-based education. For many of these children, “school” was a sweatshop or the streets, not a clean, light-filled classroom in a big, modern building.

Erasmus Hall Educational Campus, Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, designed by Snyder. Photo courtesy the NYC Department of Education.

Today’s public schools are very different from schools of an earlier era. Whereas Snyder wanted to bathe his students in light and fresh air to compensate for the unhealthy tenements, today’s school designers focus more on building “smart” classrooms where students can use the Internet or learn through multimedia presentations. And whereas Snyder designed his buildings to be like factories through which students passed from classroom to classroom, like automobiles on an assembly line, today’s schools are more likely to support much more intimate education, with repeated interaction among students and teachers. Indeed, New York City has divided many of the older, factory-like schools into smaller magnet or bilingual schools, each one catering to a different group of students.

Students in a public school classroom, circa 1910. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

Perhaps the biggest difference between today’s schools and Snyder’s schools is in the attitude of the students. A hundred years ago, many immigrant children saw the schools as an impediment to success. Far better, they reasoned, to devote themselves to work. Although today’s students are by no means immune to apathy and cynicism about school – a particular problem for adolescent students – few would deny that a good academic education, when attainable, is the key to success.

The question we face today is not how to convince immigrant children to complete their education. It’s how to ensure that they get the education they deserve. With a new mayor focused on education, perhaps now is a good time to ask ourselves what we want 21st century schools to look like, and what we want taught there.

- Posted by Adam Steinberg