Tradition (and Individual Talent): How the Stories of the Shtetl became a Broadway Sensation

Zero Mostel and the original Broadway cast. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

One of the best-loved musicals of all time returns to Broadway this fall, with fanfare, glossy print advertisements, and plenty of press. When the curtain rises on this new production of Fiddler on the Roof however, that Broadway sparkle will give way to something a little less glamorous: the shtetl.

A shtetl (for those who did not spend their childhood dancing to the original Broadway soundtrack on the family turntable) was a small market town in pre-World War II Eastern Europe characterized by a large Yiddish- speaking Jewish population. Though of course living in a quiet community of like-minded people can have its advantages, the shtetl was not necessarily something to sing and dance about. These were small settlements where Jews were often persecuted; their lives were regulated, and they lacked any significant political clout. The stories of this community have been consecrated many times, and passed on by many bubbleh, but perhaps the most famous scribe of the shtetl was Sholem Aleichem, born Sholem Rabinovich in 1859 in what is now the Ukraine.

A poster for a yiddish production of a Sholem Aleichem play in 1938 in Roxbury, Mass. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Fiddler on the Roof is based on some of the nearly 40 volumes of stories and plays of Sholem Aleichem, all originally written in Yiddish. His works eventually became important cornerstones for Yiddish theater in New York.  It is hard for us to imagine now, okay now that we’ve discussed the shtetl it is not at all hard to imagine, but when Fiddler on the Roof first opened in 1964 it was a bit more of a long shot.

Old hands at Broadway magic, Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick nevertheless found themselves searching for a hit in 1960.  Fortunately, someone had a translation of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories. These stories might have at first seemed an unlikely match for a mid-century Broadway musical. So how did the Yiddish stories of a tiny, beleaguered Jewish town become a smash-hit Broadway show?


Fiddler was the longest running production at the time of its close in 1972 and already a blockbuster film. It is actually a tale that will wrap you like the warmest shawl in the coldest Russian winters.  When the team began working Aleichem’s material into a musical, they were hard-pressed to find investors, and perhaps for good reason. Even Jewish New Yorkers who left (in many cases fled) Eastern Europe couldn’t imagine their experience as exactly crowd pleasing.  The creative team finally convinced an initially reluctant Jerome Robbins to choreograph and direct the show. Robbins, like second-generation immigrants everywhere, had done what he could to distance himself from his father’s Eastern European Jewish past, but with Fiddler he decided to finally face the music. Robbins had just traveled back to the tiny Polish town where his father had grown up and found that in post-war Poland the Jewish community he had visited as a child was totally gone. Some historians speculate that this was the necessary push Robbins needed to commemorate his heritage.

A scene featuring the original cast. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

Soon Robbins was (respectfully) sneaking himself and his cast members into Orthodox Jewish weddings to gather impressions of Jewish traditions. Robbins was inspired to choreograph the movement for the play when he witnessed a drunken party guest striding with bravado at one such wedding. For the play, Robbins conceived of the equally bold “bottle dance” where dancers made increasingly daring movements while balancing a bottle on their heads. In the original production the bottles were real and so was the threat of broken glass. By opening night the largely agnostic directorial team was exchanging heartfelt tokens of the Jewish faith: a yarmulke, a shofar, and a mezuzah. Robbins’s father was thrilled by the production, commenting, “How did you know all that?” according to Alisa Solomon, author of Wonders of Wonders: a cultural history of Fiddler on the Roof.

Zero Mostel saying a host of things with a single hand. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

While the play is about a very specific part of Jewish identity, it also became about embracing one’s roots and about tradition in a much more universal way. Audiences loved the production, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, known for his immensely popular portrayal of another New York tribe, Puerto Ricans, in “In the Heights,” and a reinterpretation of U.S. history in “Hamilton.” By the time the musical traveled it was a huge hit in Japan, with a Japanese director reportedly asking an American involved with the production how American audiences could have liked a story that is so Japanese!?

So the hit-making aspect of Fiddler on the Roof turns out not to be dazzle after all. The narrative that attracted New York audiences, Jews, gentiles, Puerto Rican teens, and Japanese citizens was really an enduring tale of change and tradition.

Real Old-World glamour. A Jew in Vilna in 1922 carries water. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.


–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

With a great debt of research to

Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof”

By Alisa Solomon

Illustrated. 433 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company


Honoring Adam Purple: a Tenement Staffer Remembers a Community Activist


Adam Purple in action. Photograph courtesy of Harvey Wang.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Adam Purple.  His long, white flowing beard moving across his chest rhythmically while he rollerbladed, if my memory is right, up the Williamsburg Bridge.  It was about ten years ago, and I was riding my bike from Greenpoint, Brooklyn to go to a Food Not Bombs meeting at ABC No Rio on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side.  I would see him occasionally after that on a bike, but never standing still.

I never personally knew Adam, but he became a point of fascination for me.  Through my time working in the Lower East Side, I came to know his legacy.   Adam Purple, born David Wilkie, was a NYC transplant like me, and like me, he came to New York and found himself instead passionately connecting with his neighbors in advocacy.  He had a variety of careers which included writing for newspapers and producing artwork and writing small, rare, philosophical books.  But his most important legacy was as an environmental advocate.  He was an appropriate person to see on my way to Food Not Bombs, because he shared that organization’s ideology—that it is a human right to have food, and that people don’t have to participate in the mass consumption of things that destroy the earth– that they can take what is already there, as well as make and create on the earth, all that they need.  He was a recycler and a bicycler; a gleaner and a gardener.  He occupied the city with compassion and care for his neighbors and shared in a commitment to improve their shared neighborhood home together.  He was a hero of mine and I wish I had told him.

Adam Purple’s most notable achievement came when he began to create community gardens on the Lower East Side in abandoned lots on Eldridge Street.  It was enormous, occupying 15,000 square feet.  It was razed by the city in 1986 after a protracted court battle.   In an oral history interview, he says that he was inspired to do this by watching his neighbor’s children play in a garbage pit in the abandoned lot. He said, “That must be some way to grow up.”  Being from Missouri, he was able to envision and create something different.

When the court battle began to destroy the garden and turn it into housing, it was revealed that the lots were listed as Vacant.  Adam and his neighbor’s reality were never recognized by the City at all.  His enormous garden produced corn, black walnuts, strawberries, black berries and others foods that the neighbors could help to grow and consume.  It was a safe and beautiful place to play for the children, and like everything beautiful in this city, it was impermanent, and it was only visible to the people who loved it.

Adam Purple died on the Williamsburg Bridge on his way to stay at the Times Up space in Williamsburg.  He always held true to his commitment to living an earth friendly, community based life.  He is a hero, and he is not the only one out there.  This weekend, there will be a memorial for Adam Purple at the LUNGS Harvest festival on the Lower East Side.  If you can’t attend I suggest you take a walk around your own neighborhood, and find a neighborhood garden, and maybe even give a hug to a gardener there.  Because, the truth is that no matter how much money you have, or how much time, we can co-create beautiful spaces in our communities.  It takes, love, passion and effort—and a knowledge that all things are just passing through New York, people, buildings, gardens, and moments.  We have to grab hold of what we can.



A memorial for Adam Purple is planned for Sat., Sept. 26, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., at La Plaza Cultural, at the southwest corner of E. Ninth St. and Avenue C.

People are invited to speak and briefly share their memories of the famed gardens godfather of the Lower East Side and his legendary Garden of Eden.

Further details of the memorial are still being worked out.

Purple, real name David Wilkie, 84, collapsed and died on Mon., Sept. 14, while taking his bike over the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan from Williamsburg. The cause of death was apparently a heart attack.


6 minute video about Adam Purple’s garden:

– Posted by, Emily Gallagher Community Outreach Coordinator


In Vogue: a quick history of the Garment Industry and the Lower East Side

Two styles of dress collars from 1863, hours hand work for the lace and stitching. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

September can be the herald of a fresh beginning. For students, September brings the start of a new school year, for Jews, it brings the New Year, and for the sartorially inclined, it brings  a flurry of fresh fashion fodder and furious Instagramming all for New York Fashion Week.

As we speak, the most current possible “looks” are on display from New York designers (and one very famous French house). The debates will rage about what the youthfulness or seriousness of the clothing means about the economy, though most of the consumers for this apparel are of the stratosphere of wealth that is unaffected by even major fluctuations. Comments will be made about the age and shape and ethnic background of the models, who are usually young and thin and Caucasian. Almost none of the hubbub has anything to do with our little Tenement on the Lower East Side, except the final debate about how much of the clothing is actually made in the United States and, more specifically, made in New York. While Fashion Week has little to do with the history of the Lower East Side it has everything to do with the garment industry in New York and how it has changed.


A luxe style from 1903, manufacturers were beginning to operate factories across the city. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

This week’s shows feature clothes for the spring season 2016. This practice harkens back to the days when clothing was made by hand, and elaborate outfits for wealthy customers were agreed upon several months in advance so that they would be complete by the time the customer wanted to wear the apparel. Many of the residents of the Tenement at 97 Orchard Street worked in the garment industry, assembling clothing in their own home or in a neighboring apartment.  Most of these families were not making ‘couture’ garments made to order; instead, they had agreements  with “manufacturers” who contracted a set number of garments a week. The Levine family, who lived in the Tenement in the late 1800s, would have pooled their resources to buy a single sewing machine, manned by the Harris Levine, the patriarch. They produced garments in their home factory and sent the items off to the manufacturers when finished. The manufacturers would in turn sell them to department stores like Ridley’s, where middle class and wealthier clients would buy the “ready made” items. Many department stores, would  also employ seamstresses and tailors to alter garments to fit more closely to the customer.

Looks from 1913, the attire was becoming simpler for the wearing and for the producer. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

But by the early 1900s manufacturers decided to consolidate their production in larger factories throughout the city. A family living in the Tenement during this time period would have sent their daughters to work in this factory outside of the home, to do less skilled labor and more receptive mechanized work.

The Great Depression reaches nearly to the ankles... Today's cheap manufacturing overseas allows customers the freedom to buy new clothing not just every season but every couple of weeks. This scheme too has its drawbacks for low-paid laborers and for the environment. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

Today, even some of the most avant-garde clothing in the New York shows is produced outside of New York as the cost of labor has risen with pressure from labor unions and government regulation. Some New York designers, like the bright young label Public School, make it a point of pride to create their clothing in the  five boroughs for authenticity and quality.  So if you tune into the shows, you are tuning in to the next chapter of garment manufacturing in New York… and by next season the clothing will be history.

Posted by Julia Berick Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Singing the Unsung: Ben Shahn and Labor in United States

One of many lingering images by Walker Evans for the Farm Securities Administration. This image is of Allie Mae Burroughs an Alabama sharecropper, taken in 1935 or 1936. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Farm Securities Administration isn’t exactly the place you would think to look for art. In 1935, when the Farm Securities Administration was created to provide support for the rural poor, the Administration set out to prove that there was poverty that required immediate ministration. No problem there. In much the same way some Government agencies use auditors and statistics, the FSA deployed artists and photographers to document both the work of the Administration and the continuing need for its existence. Though the subject was bleak- or perhaps because it was –  some of America’s finest artists, Jacob Lawrence, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn did some of their best work for the FSA. In the field, rather than lose faith in the U.S. laborer and the farm, many of these artists developed a new respect for those who had been stricken by disasters both economic and natural. Though some of these artists were born and raised in the United States, growing up with the lore of America’s  strength and endurance, Ben Shahn was actually born in Kaunus, Lithuania. He became one of thousands of his generation who learned to love his new homeland with an articulation almost rivaling his American-born peers.

Shahn emigrated from Lithuania with his family in 1906.  As for many immigrants growing up in the first half of the 20th century, work shared a premium with school. Luckily for Shahn, work was also art. Shahn apprenticed for a lithographer while in high school, working during the day and attending school at night. Eventually, Shahn would attend NYU and the National Academy of Design from 1917 to 1921. But it was at the Farm Securities Administration where Ben Shahn did some of his most seminal work. Inspired by Walker Evans, Shahn took photographs of farms across the United States. Unlike Evans, Shahn also created paintings based on these photographs.

The American farmer wasn’t Shahn’s only political focal point . His early work focused on one of the conditions he knew best: the isolation of the city dweller.

A Ben Shahn Mural in the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building in Washington, D.C. Built in 1940, the Cohen Building continues to remind us of a time of socialist art in government buildings.

Shahn also devoted himself to defending and beatifying less beloved versions of the U.S. laborer. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants who were known to be politically radical. When a series of murders broke out in the Boston Metropolitan Area, allegedly committed by Italian radicals, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested. With little evidence against them, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted of murder and put to death.  Shahn’s 23 works, specifically on the plight of Sacco and Vanzetti, allowed him to venerate by association hundreds of immigrants and labor advocates whose opinion and background was seen as threatening or anti-American.

It was a thin line for many, between celebrating the American worker and touting controversial socialist polemic. Even in celebrating American workers, Shahn edged a little too close to controversy.  One of Shahn’s most famous works was a mural for the Bronx Central Annex Post Office, an egg tempera on wet plaster, a  fresco, of the “Resources of America.” The work depicts the nobility of the American worker in steel mills and in fields as well as the proudest industrial developments of the day: hydroelectric dams and factories.

Another Shahn work in a New Jesery Community Center. Photo courtesy of the LOC.

Part of the fresco, and part of the inspiration for the work, is a quote from Walt Whitman’s “As I Walk These Broad Majestic Days.” The fresco originally boasted a quote also from Whitman which was deemed, however, too controversial for a United States Post office. The original quotation was from Whitman’s “Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood”.  Many objected to the lines:

“To recast poems, churches, art, (Recast, maybe discard them, end them – maybe their work is done, who knows?)”

A Jesuit Professor at Fordham formally denounced the mural for this challenging content. Shahn, who had seen the works of Diego Rivera destroyed in Manhattan for similarly controversial content, agreed to change the mural’s text to something more palatable. (Shahn had worked with Rivera on his mural for Rockefeller in Detroit and had met his wife there, with whom he worked on the Post Office mural.) Once the public was satisfied with the message of the mural, Shahn’s work should have been safe in the American canon. When Shahn died in 1969, he had had his work on the cover of Time Magazine numerous times, not bad for a little boy from Lithuania.

However, the mural has a few more adventures before it. In October 2012, the Bronx Central Post Office lobby, with its works by Shahn, was officially named a Landmark. The Post Office has since sold the building to a private developer, Youngwoo & Associates, who purchased the Building for an undisclosed sum. This has been the fate of many post offices around the country. Though around 1,100 contain public murals like Shahn’s, not all of this artwork has been protected from destruction. At the timepublic works for Post offices, like art for the Farm Securities Administration was a boon to working artists during the depression.

30 Rockefeller Center without the benefit of Diego Rivera's communist manifesto. (This imagine is actually of the Post Office in Rockefeller Center which was not the intended location for Rivera's work. ) Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

So where might we see the next surge of profound American art? Post offices may not be the answer, but can we look to the Government to inspire another generation of American art?  As we wait for the next chapter in public works, we can be grateful that even during the darkest years of the Great Depression, government programs brought together relief, remarkable artwork, and another proud immigrant happy to depict his adopted home.

–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communication Coordinator

What Should We Remember?

Frankfurt Castle

How do you manage the enormity of the past? I grappled with this question while on a fellowship with Germany Close Up and Classrooms Without Borders. Germany contains fairytales and castles alongside nightmares spanning centuries of wars, government, and evolving concepts of who belongs. I saw ancient city walls dating back to Charlemagne and parts of the Berlin Wall that divided an East and West Germany until 1989. There were countless memorials to Prussian royalty as well as to the Holocaust. Every corner I turned, juxtaposed the past with the present.

The immensity of the history and vibrant contemporary life overwhelmed me. Berlin has managed to pull off the duel feat of being both a modern city and one that is surrounded by the memorials of its long past. The two crisscross throughout the streets and graffiti. They meet at the memorials, in the debates surrounding them, and in the conversations people have about their meaning. With the recent Charleston church shooting in my mind, I reconsidered the confederate flag debate and America’s own shameful history. Where do we force ourselves to reckon with the past?

In Germany, it was citizens, rather than the government who drove many WWII related memorial projects. In the late 1980s uncomfortable with the lack of memorials, some Germans championed the idea that the future must remember the past and cease to detach from it. These debates led to a variety of projects ranging from large memorials in the city center, to lampposts documenting the gradual removal of rights for Jews, and stumbling stones that mark the residences of the deported. One of my favorite projects is the summer camps, which involve the care of Jewish cemeteries as there few descendants/relatives remaining to perform this caretaking. “This we can do,” remarked one volunteer to me as we walked through the overgrown Jewish Cemetery Weißensee. “We can’t get rid of  our past so we do what we can.” Her sentiments echoed those I heard throughout my time in Germany – of the crushing weight of the past on the descendants of its history.

In Worms, I sat in a synagogue first built in the year 1000. It would be destroyed during the 12th century Crusades and in a 14th century pogrom, burned during a 1689 war, used as a horse stable in the 18th century, and blown up in a 1945 air raid. And yet, it stands, seemingly miraculous, like a phoenix from the ashes. Stones, vaulted ceilings, and windows reveal clues to its former incarnations while prayer books translated into Russian tell of its current community life. Like so much of Germany, the layers of history compound and ache. They pressure the present, pulsing questions of dualities, rights, and responsibilities.

Jewish Cemetery WeiAensee

These questions are something I regularly consider or are often on my mind. Each day at the Tenement Museum, we connect visitors to America’s complicated relationship with immigration. By elevating the story of the immigrants that lived in 97 Orchard Street, we examine ideas of who belongs and what it means to be American. In Germany I gained new perspectives on these debates and new questions about the role of historic sites and memorials to create spaces for conversations about a country’s past and present.

While the past overwhelms, time moves forward. I wonder how the meaning of the sites and memorials I visited in Germany will change over time and to other people. Will they always feel heavy? Will they be absorbed into the city like the royal buildings and street names of Prussian greats? What will they communicate to the country’s burgeoning immigrant community and to the next generation?

- Post by Miriam Bader, Director of Education at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Passport to Lunch

New York City: The Melting Pot of America. But what exactly is in that pot? And how did it get there? More importantly, how does it taste?

Food is arguably the most widespread “language” spoken across the globe. The methods of preparation and ingredients that go into our favorite dishes vary as we travel from country to country. However, without a plethora of frequent flyer miles, it can get a little pricey to taste all these countries and cultures. Enter: New York City. For those of us fortunate enough to call ourselves residents of the Big Apple, we know that the options are endless, no matter what we are craving. Whether it is a Cuban sandwich, a tofu Banh Mi sandwich, or some crispy sour pickles, The Lower East Side’s got it. A person can country-hop the globe by strolling the neighborhood that millions of immigrants have called home for generations.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum celebrates the courageous immigrants who left everything they knew to start a new life in the land of opportunity, but more specifically in New York City. The thousands of people who settled into 97 Orchard Street brought with them everything they could jam into their suitcases, but perhaps more importantly, their rich and culturally diverse knowledge of food. How to season it, prepare it, share it, and love it. Back when the Lower East Side was known as Kleindeutschland (or “Little Germany” due to its predominantly German population), popular dishes such as boiled sauerkraut and egg noodles made their American debut thanks to families like the Glockners, one of the many former residents of 97 Orchard Street.

As the demographics shifted and the neighborhood became more Jewish, residents of the Tenement may have stopped to enjoy the aromas of freshly baked challah bread engulfing the hallways of the third floor, home to the Rogarshevsky family. These traditional cuisines had been prepared in kitchens for centuries before they migrated to American dinner tables, and they continue to be enjoyed by those who hail from entirely different regions of the world. This is what the Lower East Side is all about.

As the neighborhood evolved, so did the menus. More and more immigrants from every hemisphere brought their own traditional styles, but found they were welcoming customers from other community groups. Immigrants like Vanessa Weng, a Chinese native, realized that Mandarin cuisine was not as highly represented as deserved in the Chinese food scene. To counter this, she opened her own dumpling house in 1999. The stars of this now Lower East Side landmark eatery are her dumplings in a wheat-based wrapper. Northern China’s soil is better equipped for growing wheat, which is a staple in Mandarin cooking. As a foodie, I can personally attest to the culinary revolution that is Vanessa’s Dumplings. Additionally, immigrants and locals can all appreciate Vanessa Weng for proving that deliciousness does not have to cost a paycheck.

Common German Food from the 19th Century

The Tenement Museum knows the integral role that food has played in shaping New York City, especially the Lower East Side, and has whipped up various programs that allow our guests to indulge in all that our neighborhood has on its plate. From our “Foods of the Lower East Side” walking tour, to our “Tours and Hors D’oeuvres” and “Tastings at the Tenement” evening programs, we have expanded our appetite for cultural learning, and of course, eating. But we are still hungry. There are simply too many scrumptious delicacies to savor, right here at our finger tips. In addition to these tasty programs, The Lower East Side Tenement Museum now offers our exclusive event space for your own lunch programs. Whether it’s for weekly meetings, presentations, or team-building, you can now spice up your company or group’s lunch routine with the help of the Lower East Side’s famous cuisines.

Food is perhaps the main ingredient in any culture. The traditions and flavors that millions of immigrants have brought with them over the past few centuries has helped cultivate “The Big Apple” into the deliciously diverse city that so many of us are fortunate enough to call home.

- Post by Ryan Jensen

Tea Time: The Story of the Nom Wah Tea Parlor

On the horizon are those halcyon days of fall. The days are warm, the nights are crisp, and the crowds and the smell of garbage slowly ebb.

It is the perfect time to visit a piece of New York’s past. No, I don’t mean the Tenement Museum! There are plenty of corners of the city that have hidden away from the passage of time. Take a trip to Chinatown to visit the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which first opened its doors in 1920 and remains the oldest dim sum spot in the City.

While the current Nom Wah has undergone a few changes recently, it all remains in the family. The original tea parlor opened at 15 Doyers Street, one door down from its contemporary storefront. It was there that Ed and May Choy’s tea parlor quickly became a hit with those inside and out of the Chinese community.

Inside the Nom Wah

The next chapter in Nom Wah’s history began in 1950 when Ed and May’s nephew, Wally Tang, moved to New York and began working in the kitchen. He was only 16. Wally quickly became head of the kitchen and bought the business from his uncle and aunt in 1976. During Wally’s rise, in 1968, the business made its move next door to 13 Doyers Street, where it still stands today.

Just as the restaurant has changed, so has its customer base. While Wally was working his way up in the family business, the federal government was dissolving the Chinese Exclusion Act. Signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers and made deportation much easier. When the law was finally lifted in 1965, New York’s Chinatown became a stronger community and a portal of Chinese immigration to the rest of the nation. Chinese immigrants and business owners had more opportunities, not only in New York, but nationwide.

The dissolution of the Act also helped to change American attitudes toward Chinese immigrants; today, there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than there are McDonalds. But not all of these restaurants offer Americans authentic Chinese fare. This is why we are so glad to find Nom Wah’s newest proprietor continues to offer food that satisfies customers of Chinese descent and those who are not. Wilson Tang, the nephew of Wally Tang, currently runs the Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers Street. While he updated the kitchen in 2010, the restaurant remains mostly the same as his family has run it for generations.

But don’t take our word for it. Go have a taste of Chinatown’s past today.

Brewing Bustelo: the unlikely story of how a Cuban flavor captured the attention of New York and then the Nation

The Cuba of the U.S. imagination as captured in 1904. Photograph courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Bustelo Coffee should be pretty self-explanatory. It is a beloved Cuban-style coffee which became a serious staple among Cuban immigrants in New York City and then charmed its way into the homes of immigrants from Puerto Rico and  the Dominican Republic, and then everyone else. Now try walking into a bodego (corner store)in any of the 5 boroughs without passing by a brick of vacuum-sealed, brilliantly-colored Café Bustelo. This one-time family roaster is about to hit the world stage, or at least the national stage. But let’s start at the beginning.

Gregorio Bustelo was actually born in Galicia, Spain. As a young man, he moved to Cuba and fell in love with the country’s rich, dark-roasted coffee.  Cuban-style coffee is usually taken with sugar and frothed with a little bit of hot espresso for lovely, creamy espumita (foam on top).  Who could resist?

Gregorio fell in love with the people of Cuba as well, specifically a woman who loved Cuban coffee as much as he did. The couple married and moved to Puerto Rico to pursue opportunities in the coffee industry. Soon after they arrived in Puerto Rico, the Jones-Shafroth Act was signed into law. This Act made all Puerto Ricans American citizens, greatly simpifying immigration to the United States. The Act also simplified Puerto Rican laws, giving the U.S. government the ability to dissolve any Puerto Rican legislation.  Two months later, 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted into the First World War.

A simpler version of commerce captured in Cuba in 1904. Photography courtesy of the NYPL.

The Bustelos joined hundreds of newly Americanized Puerto Ricans who moved to the United States hoping for better job opportunities. The Bustelos settled in East Harlem, also called Spanish Harlem and El Barrio, because of the predominance of Spanish speaking immigrants, many of them from Puerto Rico. The Bustelos, having a hard time finding work, went all in on what they knew best: roasting coffee. Spending their savings on a coffee roaster, the Bustelos began roasting at home, which was conveniently located down the street from a movie theater. The couple thoughtfully roasted just as the movies were letting out, seducing patrons with that most tempting of aromas: freshly roasted coffee.  By selling coffee out of their apartment at night and to area restaurants during the day, the Bustelos were able to open their own storefront in 1931 on 5th Avenue between 114th and 113th.

The brand prospered, especially as immigrants from the Carribean streamed into New York, eager for a little taste of home and, one imagines, a little extra energy to take on the big city.

In 2000, Bustelo was finally bought by Rowland, a rival family-owned company with Cuban roots. Rowland was owned by the Soutos family, who began the company  after arriving in Florida in 1960. They had already lost a successful coffee business that the family had held since 1865, so  like the Bustelos, the Soutos had to build their U.S. company from scratch. Once Rowland bought Bustelo marketing significantly expanded.  J.P. Souto felt that young people were a perfect untapped market for the sweet flavor of Café Bustelo. 2009 saw Bustelo ‘host’ parties in Cochella and other popular, high-end music festivals in a bid to work their way into the energy-hungry hands of young consumers, especially those whose abuelos didn’t know from Bustelo. The brand was eager to bring in young people who were outside of the brand’s heritage demographic.

But in recent years, Bustelo has changed hands once again to J.M. Smucker, the company that often claims to have first made apple butter from apples planted by Johnny Apple seed himself.  This all-American company has recently seen the advantages of pulling in a brand with a loyal hispanic following.  According to National Public Radio, the the most recent census showed that the Cuban population is on the rise in every State in the union. Can Bustelo keep its special New York brand of Cuban flavor under the umbrella of an American corporate giant? There is only one way to find out. Keep tasting Bustelo.

The Americas runs on coffee. Who doesn't need a cafecito now and again? Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

Is coffee research one of the U.S. Government’s 12 good reasons to visit Cuba?


–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Get in Touch: Another Kind of Tour at the Tenement Museum


Many of the tours at the Tenement Museum take place in 97 Orchard Street. The Building is 152 years old and we usually ask visitors to be mindful of the peeling wallpaper, delicate doorframes and antique furniture. Most tour groups are asked to keep food, drinks and gum outside the museum. It may have caused some surprise then to see a tour of visitors touching objects in the museum with four dogs in tow. But this was no ordinary tour.

An educator prepares for the touch tour by working with the 3-D model of 97 Orchard Street.

On July 14th the Tenement Museum  held a touch tour for visitors who are blind or have low vision. The group was a total of 15 people and four guide dogs. The tour was offered in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act which was passed in 1990. This tour was slightly different from tours given on a daily basis at the Museum. Tenement Museum tours are constructed to be as accessible as possible for a wide audience. The Museum is committed to the idea of universal design for learning, planning and anticipating the needs of a wide audience. At the museum educators give tours to groups of individuals that want to visit the museum. Educators incorporate different teaching styles and methods to try to engage everyone in the group and can adapt as necessary. In this way a person who is blind or has low vision can come on any tour at the museum.  An educator can also combine these strategies with other tools such as touchable historic objects and braille transcriptions of key historic documents to enhance the experience further if a visitor requests them.

Additionally, if booked in advance and schedule permitting, the Museum can offer a brief orientation session to visitors who are blind or have low vision to orient them to the museum’s historic tenement building, 97 Orchard Street where the tours take place. With raised line drawings and a 3-D model of one floor of 97 Orchard Street, visitors can use their sense of touch to understand the building’s layout before they hear about family stories inside the building. The Tenement Museum is pleased to welcome anyone on our daily public tours but the experience is wholly different when the group is entirely comprised of visitors who are blind or have low vision.

This tour on July 14th began with visitors participating in the orientation session as a group, guided by the Education Associate for Access, Ellysheva Zeira. They used a raised line drawing of the façade of 97 Orchard to understand the framework and makeup of the building. Then the group used two 3-D models of one floor of the historic tenement to conceptualize the dimensions of an apartment and how one apartment fits into a floor where it is one of four. The group then started to use replicas of decorative elements to explore the unique hallway in 97 Orchard Street. Due to improvements made throughout the building’s residential life from 1863 through1935, the hall boasts some impressive features such as; ceramic tile floors, painted burlap on the walls, raised plaster decorations, and pressed metal ceilings. Each of these elements has been replicated for visitors who are blind or low vision so that they can experience these impressive features of the building. After the orientation the group was split in two and led through the Hard Times tour.

The tour focused on verbal descriptions and handling objects more than a public tour. Summer tours can be hot and the tour on July 14th was no exception but everyone involved had a great time. The Tenement Museum in the past offered these tours but had not done so in quite some time. Bringing back a tour of this nature for this audience was a wonderful way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and we hope to host more tours of this nature in the future.

–Posted by Ellysheva Zeira, Education Associate for Access

Reading E.L. Doctorow in the Old Neighborhood


The author, E.L. Doctorow brings New York of the past to life like no one else. This photograph shows the lights of Time Square in 1920. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

“I was facing the wall of my study in my house in New Rochelle and so I started to write about the wall. That’s the kind of day we sometimes have, as writers. Then I wrote about the house that was attached to the wall. It was built in 1906, you see, so I thought about the era and what Broadview Avenue looked like then: trolley cars ran along the avenue down at the bottom of the hill; people wore white clothes in the summer to stay cool. Teddy Roosevelt was President. One thing led to another and that’s the way that book began.” – E.L. Doctorow

Who makes history? Though it is old, 97 Orchard Street is just a dwelling; it has been home to more than 7,000 people. Though we have been able to track their names and occupations, they were mostly ordinary people. This means they may not show up in the history books as being especially good at business, singing, or waterskiing. No matter. History is not made just by the few holders of wealth or beauty. Immigrants moved to the Lower East Side from all over Europe, Puerto Rico, and from China. Some of them notable, all of them namable- someone’s brother, daughter, uncle.  They brought us housing reform, vaudeville, and Kung Pao chicken.  When Doctorow died last week at the age of 84, he was mourned on the front page of the New York Times, yet he is famous in part for his thoughtful and colorful imaginings of the smaller moments in history, and his reimaging of the fireworks moments we all know well.

A map including Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx. Doctorow grew up in the Bronx and many of his novels touch down in his old neighborhood including Billy Bathgate, named for the street. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was like our residents on the Lower East Side and also – not. His grandparents had arrived from Belarus in the 1880s, and he was raised on Eastburn Avenue in the Bronx. The Doctorow story was not immediately one of success; Doctorow’s parents struggled for financial security- his father worked at a failing music business in the old Hippodrome building in Manhattan. Doctorow’s uncle was apparently much wealthier, and, as a result, Edgar experienced a bifurcation of wealth which he later wrote about with such timelessness. Doctorow attended the prestigious Bronx Science but was already distracted by tales. As a student, he famously fabricated a much-lauded “interview” with a stage doorman at Carnegie Hall. He was chastised when he admitted the truth, but this was just the beginning of Doctorow’s ability to bring to life stories that might not often be told.

Another piece of old New York: the Hippodrome building where Doctorow's father ran a failing music business. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

Doctorow’s books have reached the Civil War, the Wild West, and contemporary America, but as lovers of Lower East Side history we are particularly attached to Doctorow’s unforgettable novel, Ragtime. The novel imagines the space and conversations around many of the headlines of the early twentieth century: Freud visits America. Harry Thaw shoots Stanford White. Ragtime perfectly demonstrates Doctorow’s ability to write about grand historic figures, such as Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, and Emma Goldman with as much flexibility and realism as the more pedestrian figures he invented himself. When interviewed at the 92nd Street Y about documenting real versus imaginary figures, Doctorow admitted, “Actually, if you want a confession, Morgan never existed. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit: all of them are made up. The historical characters in the book are Mother, Father, Tateh, The Little Boy, The Little Girl.”

The beautiful Evelyn Nesbit, or Evelyn Shaw, is leading lady material but only plays a supporting role in Doctorow's novel. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

An author for whom real history resides in the unnamed and the anonymous? Emma Goldman would be proud.