Remembering the Streit’s Matzo Factory

The Streit's Matzo Factory on Rivington Street. Photo: Edmund Gillon

The Streit’s Matzo Factory on Rivington Street. Photo: Edmund Gillon

The spring of 2015 marked the end of an era on the Lower East Side. With much fanfare, the Streit’s Matzo Factory – a staple of the neighborhood since 1916 – permanently closed its doors. The company decided to move its manufacturing from the Lower East Side to a new plant in Rockland County. For many, the Streit’s Matzo Factory was a lasting vestige of a different time in Lower East Side history, representing a Jewish immigrant culture that has come and gone. In fact, the factory was called by several scholars, “the Jewish Plymouth Rock.”

The terrific new documentary, Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream, which concludes its week-long run at the Film Forum tonight, tells the story of Streit’s and its significance to the Lower East Side. Directed by Michael Levine, it is a must-see for anyone interested in immigration, food, or New York history. If you aren’t able to see the film, you can check out the film’s website to get information on other screenings.

Before we go into specifics, let’s first explain – for those who are not familiar – what exactly matzo is. Matzo is an unleavened flatbread made from flour and water. The flour can be from whole or processed grains, but it must be either wheat, spelt, barley, rye, or oat. Matzo plays a significant role during the Passover festival when chametz (which is leaven and five grains that, according to Jewish Law, can be leavened) is forbidden. The tradition refers to the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, when the departing families had to leave their homes before their bread had time to rise.

Aron Streit, the founder of Streit’s, was in the matzo business most of his life. Aron and his wife, Nettie, arrived in the United States from Austria in the 1890’s. Like many Jewish immigrants, Aron and Nettie maintained the Old World traditions in their new homeland, hosting Friday night Shabbos dinners. Another tradition Aron brought with him was his knowledge and ability to make matzo.

Aron founded his first matzo company with a business associate, Rabbi Weinberger, in 1916. The location of Aron’s first matzo company was actually on Pitt Street in the Lower East Side. In the Pitt Street location, Aron and Rabbi Weinberger made each piece of matzo by hand. By 1925, there was a massive Jewish population in the Lower East Side (they made up about 60% of the neighborhood) and the demand for matzo was increasing. So much so, that Aron opened a new matzo factory with one of his sons a few blocks away on Rivington Street. His second son would soon after join the family business, and the company prospered. They would remain in the Rivington Street space until 2015.

The factory was 47,000 square feet. It usually produced about 16,000 pounds of matzo each day. By the time the factory closed, it had two 75-foot ovens which baked 900 pounds of matzo per hour. The factory did adhere to strict kosher laws, allowing only Shomer Shabbat Jews to touch the matzo dough before being baked. The whole matzo baking process was under the supervision of a Rabbi, who would time the baking process to ensure that it did not exceed eighteen minutes. If it did go beyond the eighteen minutes, the matzo was discarded.

Aron Streit died in 1937, but his family continues to operate the business. Streit’s is the only family-owned and operated matzo company in the United States. The company also sold more than just matzo; they also had noodles, soup mixes, potato products, and cake mixes, among others. Today, Aron’s granddaughters and great-grandsons now run the company.

With the rich history of Streit’s Matzo Factory and all that it represented, it is easy to understand why there was a lot of publicity when the family decided to close the Rivington Street location last year. Today, not much remains in the Lower East Side of the time when it was a predominately Jewish neighborhood (though restaurants like Katz’s Deli and Russ & Daughters have managed to stay alive and well). The Streit’s Matzo Factory reminded many people – and may have given them a brief glimpse – of what life was once like here in the Lower East Side.

 

Refugee Blues: Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt a refugee of Facism who helped to shape Post-War thought about the violence of the twentieth century. Image courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.

Hannah Arendt: a refugee of Fascism who helped to shape Post-War thought about the violence of the twentieth century. Image courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

–From “Refugee Blues” by W.H. Auden

Immigration to the Lower East Side has been a complex tug of war. Each wave of immigrants has negotiated their share of push and pull factors depending on their country of origin and the time of their departure. In the late 1930s, violence in Europe and Asia caused shockwaves of tension in many corners of the globe. Many immigrants attempted to flee Fascism just as military measures made boarders impenetrable.

One of the luckier refugees of the violence was a brilliant German-Jewish philosopher named Hannah Arendt. In order to become “lucky”, Arnedt had to have the resources to recognize the seriousness of fascism in Germany and to find a way to arrive first in Prague and then Geneva and then Paris. Finally in 1941 she found a way to enter the United States: New York City. Arendt brought with her some of the most lasting analysis of Fascism and Stalinism to arise in the post-war period. As a result, theorists, historians, professors and film-makers continue to honor Arendt to this day.

Arendt was born in Hanover, Germany in 1906 to a family of ‘secular’ German Jews. Her education reads like a who’s who of preeminent German philosophers at the time.  In 1926, after completing high school she attended Marburg University where she studied under Martin Heidegger, one of the most highly-regarded minds of German philosophy. Heidegger recognized in Arendt another bright mind and their relationship quickly became a “brief but intense love affair.” Arendt was just getting started. Soon she moved to Freiburg and spent a semester attending the lectures of Edmund Husserl another widely respected philosopher. After Freiburg, Arendt moved to Heidelberg to study with Karl Jaspers in the spring of 1926 and began an important intellectual relationship which lasted for years.

After completing her doctoral dissertation on St. Augustine’s ideas of love in 1929, she worked for a German Zionist organization in a climate of increasing toxicity for Jewish Germans. That same year Arendt married Günther Anders who wrote under the name Stern, a fellow philosopher and thinker whom she met at Heidegger’s lectures. At the time, Arendt only had eyes for Heidegger, but when they met again at a ball in Berlin, Stern whispered a sweet treatise on love to marvelous effect [1]. Arendt was arrested and forced to flee Germany in 1933. When Arendt finally arrived in Paris she worked for six years for several Jewish refugee organizations. She had divorced Stern in 1937 and began a relationship with Henriech Blücher whom she met while working for Youth Aliyah an organization which helped Jewish youth escape internment in Europe.

Arendt deep in thought. Image courtesy of the Film Forum.

Arendt deep in thought. Image courtesy of the Film Forum.

She was imprisoned at Gurs detention center for her political ideas but escaped, walking and hitchhiking to as yet unoccupied territories of France where she encountered Blücher by chance.  Hard work and brilliance had helped win her a certain renown and she had made the list of Varian Fry’s Jews to be saved. (Fry was an american journalist who, through forgery and Black Market maneuvers managed to get around 2,000 people out of Nazis occupied territories where they were wanted by the Reich.) In 1941 Arendt and Blücher managed to board a ship leaving from Lisbon and became two of the last Jews to leave France.

Once settled in the United States, Arendt lived on Riverside Drive in New York and worked as a writer, scholar and editor writing frequently on refugees and anti-Semitism through the 1940s. In the 1950s Arendt published two of her most important works, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition which discussed the impact of modernity on the human condition and the impossibility of understanding tradition after the savage acts of Nazism and Stalinism.

In 1961, she covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi commander for The New Yorker. When she concluded that Eichmann had committed millions to death not out of raging malice but out of a bureaucratic devotion to the regime, both Arendt and The New Yorker were at the height of their powers.

With her ever present cigarette. Image courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.

With her ever present cigarette. Image courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.

Arendt was honored in the United States as a visiting professor at Berkeley, Princeton, Columbia and Wesleyan. After the death of her husband, the acclaimed poet Wystan Hugh (W.H.) Auden – who was openly gay – proposed marriage to Arendt as a display of their firm friendship. She did, however, refuse.

It is a testament to Arendt’s incredible intellectual powers that an extensive study in recent years have both undermined her theories about Eichmann, and reified her thoughts on modernity. Years after Eichmann’s trial, archives she could not have accessed have showed that Eichmann was much more intentional than Arendt at first believed, bringing her controversial claims to life again. Even popular audiences have welcomed portraits of Arendt. A feature film, Hannah Arendt, and a documentary have charted her dramatic and rich intellectual life. Vita Activa is the newest documentary about Arendt currently showing at the Film Forum through tomorrow, April 20.

–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Research for this blog was aided by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College , Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Humanities the Magazine for the National Endowment of the Humanities. Much more in-depth discussion of Arendt’s philosophies can be found at these sites and others.

[1] “I won Hannah [Arendt] at the Ball with a comment made while dancing, that loving is that act by which something aposteriori–the by-chance-encountered other is transformed into an apriori of one’s own life. –This pretty formula naturally has not been confirmed.” – Anders in his book The Cherry Battle, this quote was harvested from the blog of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.

What Lies Beneath: A History of Collect Pond

A rendering of what the island of Manhattan looked like in 1609. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

A rendering of what the island of Manhattan looked like in 1609. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Apocalyptic movies (and a few more scholarly sources) suggest that New York’s future may be under water. But there is more poetic justice in this end than you might think, considering New York’s past was also submarine. Before there were skyscrapers and taxicabs, New York City was made up of lush vegetation fed by a large network of waterways. When the Dutch joined  the Lenape on the island in the 1600s, there were more than two dozen streams and four dozen ponds in Manhattan. Early residents would tap into those water sources through privately-owned wells that would provide fresh water for drinking.

As the city’s population grew, the government constructed the first reservoir downtown where Broadway and Pearl Street currently stand today. During the Revolutionary War, water from the reservoir and from Collect Pond, which was located in what is today Chinatown, was distributed to most of the city’s 22,000 residents through hollowed out logs. “Collect” originated from the Dutch word “Kolch,” meaning “small body of water.”

Residents would spend time by the pond, picnicking in the summers and ice skating in the winter. This idyllic scene did not last long though, as the rise of industry started to affect New York City’s natural resource; the neighboring slaughterhouses, tanneries, breweries and other local shops began dumping their waste into Collect Pond. By 1800, the Pond was completely polluted, spreading cholera and other diseases to the city’s residents.

An 1887 map depicting Collect Pond. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

An 1887 map depicting Collect Pond. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

Eventually, city leaders decided to drain the water and backfill the pond with debris, dirt and trash. Because the land surrounding Collect Pond was marshy, in 1807 the city started construction on a canal that would drain the polluted water into the Hudson River. The water was eventually drained in 1811, but New Yorkers complained about the smells emanating from the canal. Workers began to cover the canal, and in 1821, they completed a 100-foot wide street surrounded by trees, and Canal Street was born.

 

This newly constructed land was owned by rich businessmen, who capitalized on this opportunity to build brand new apartments over the former pond. The area was dubbed Paradise Square, though over time, it failed to live up to its name. Built over marshland and landfill, Paradise Square began to sink and the foul odors from the canal began to rise to the surface. Affluent residents moved out, opening up housing for poorer residents, who at the time, were comprised of the newly arriving immigrants. As the area fell more and more into neglect, what was once Paradise Square became known as the Five Points, one of the most well-known immigrant slums in the city.

An early photograph of the neighborhood known as Five Points taken in 1875. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

An early photograph of the neighborhood known as Five Points taken in 1875. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

The city eventually turned to reservoirs farther north; in what today is Westchester County and the Catskills region. Yet, evidence of these early waterways still exists in some shape or form underneath tons of concrete and steel. Basements and sub-cellars around the city flood with water from these underground springs, providing a constant reminder of New York’s past landscape and revealing the layers of a constantly changing metropolis.

 

–Posted by Tricia Kang, Marketing Manager

Remembering… STICKBALL!

The great Willie Mays playing a game of stickball in NYC.

The great Willie Mays playing a game of stickball in NYC.

This week, millions of sports fans will come together once again to participate in America’s favorite pastime, as the 2016 Major League Baseball season gets underway. Expectations are particularly high for both New York teams.  With the acquisition of the overpowering closer Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees have created a terrifying triumvirate in their bullpen; fellow relievers Andrew Miller and the Lower East Side’s own Dellin Betances round out the pitching team that Yankee fans think could be their ticket to the playoffs. Meanwhile, Mets fans (like me) simply want to see a repeat of what the Mets did last year and go back to the World Series… only this time win it. Come on, this year marks 30 years since the Mets actually won a World Series title. We are due!

As passionate as New York baseball fans are, one tribute we probably won’t see this year is a renewed interest by the city’s youth in stickball. Stranger things have happened, but these days when we think of stickball (and I bet you not many people do), we tend to think of it as an extinct game that has more in common with the dinosaurs on display in the Museum of Natural History than it does with the sport of baseball. Yet, there was a time – and not too long ago, mind you – when stickball roamed the earth. More specifically, there was a time when witnessing a game of stickball in a neighborhood such as the Lower East Side was as common as witnessing a game of pickup basketball today. It was ubiquitous and popular. So where did stickball come from? And what exactly happened? And finally, is there any chance it could come back? Or is it doomed to end up in the Human Memory Dump and tragically fade away into oblivion like Bing Bong from Inside Out?

First, what exactly is stickball? Well, simply put, it is a street game –usually formed as a pick-up game- that follows the rules of baseball despite using different forms of equipment. Typically, a broom handle is used for a bat and a rubber ball (often a Pinky ball, which we sell in our Museum Shop replaces the traditional baseball. One of the cool elements of stickball is the adjustment made to the rules of baseball to fit the street location of where the game is being played. A manhole cover may be used as a base (or home plate) and buildings for foul ball lines. A square rectangle representing the strike zone would often be drawn in chalk on a building wall to provide a target for the pitcher. The batter is out when the ball is hit and caught on a fly or if the ball is hit on the ground and caught on a single bounce. If the ball hits a roof, porch, or breaks a window from afar, it is often ruled a home run. Rules and variations change depending on the location, but often the game involves the hitter running to a base (though there are variations where there is no running).

From the description of stickball, you can understand why it would have been a popular game in New York City and especially the Lower East Side (though make no mistake, it was popular across the country, especially in cities like Boston and Philadelphia). It lent itself perfectly to the neighborhood layout, and it was a cheap game to play. Balls only cost a few cents, and most homes had a broom stick that could be converted to a bat. Stickball’s rise in popularity – which peaked in the 1950’s and 1960’s – was also a reflection of what was available to kids during that time period. In the pre-Internet, pre-video game, pre-Cable world of 1950’s and 60’s New York, a cheap game like stickball had an immediate appeal. It was easily accessible, and a way to be with your friends and stay outdoors.  It also helped stickball’s popularity that the iconic centerfielder for the then New York Giants (and arguably one of the most popular athletes in the United States at the time), Willie Mays, would often be seen playing the game outside his New York apartment with the local kids. While New York is still a baseball-crazed town, during the 1950’s when the city had three Major League teams (Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants), baseball was easily the most popular sport in town.

Stickball remained a common and frequent sight in various areas of the city up until the 1980’s (here is a video of actor Khalil Kain visiting his childhood neighborhood in New York and describing his memories of playing stickball). But popularity in the game dropped dramatically come the late 1980’s as youths had alternatives to turn to, including video games, cable television, and skate boarding, among other things. Also, while Major League Baseball was – and remains – popular, interest among youths in the NBA and NFL skyrocketed.  By the 1990’s, you would have had a better chance of finding a three-legged ballerina than a pickup stickball game in New York City.

However, this blog does not end with the death of stickball. Stickball does, in fact, still exist in New York City in a certain capacity. The New York Emperors Stickball League, formed in the Bronx in 1985, is an eight team adult stickball league (though they do have a youth division) that plays 180 to 240 games a year! It even hosts an annual tournament every Memorial Day weekend that attracts teams from California, Florida, and Puerto Rico. So who knows, perhaps there is some hope out there for the long term future of stickball? In that case, stickball enthusiasts and supporters would agree with the late, great Mets reliever Tug McGraw’s saying: Ya Gotta Believe!

Eat Up: A New Bookstore Cafe with Old World Roots

Kids these days… aren’t so bad after all??

Sometimes a story of immigrant success can have a hidden lining that is more grey than silver. What happens when one generation arrives in a new country, works hard, and sends their kids to school, who then gain opportunity and a foothold in their new home? That sounds like success and it is. However, after a generation or two, maybe these descendants are more comfortable ordering from Seamless than whipping up their own tacos.  Maybe Aziz Ansari doesn’t keep enough Tamil to talk to his grandmother.  This is the oldest tale – some things change and some stay the same.

An array of cookbooks at Archestratus. Photo courtesy of the very entertaining Archestratus Instagram account.

An array of cookbooks at Archestratus. Photo courtesy of the very entertaining Archestratus Instagram account.

Paige Lipari seems to have answered some part of the riddle of immigration. She is a talented, young American woman who has opened a great cookbook shop and café: Archestratus. While the shop is obviously a great idea it is less obviously a quiet homage to a part of Paige’s heritage that isn’t so many generations away.

The cookbooks and food related books the shop features include new titles as well as rare, old, and out-of-print treasures. Lipari has worked with rare books before and the mix is invigorating and means a visitor gets to happen upon an older gem or secure the latest beautiful full color edition of a star New York chef.  The interior of the shop also strays far from the firmly nostalgic take of many Brooklyn establishments. In recent years, new establishments have imported worn-out floorboards and elderly light fixtures to give their spaces a pedigree. It is perhaps because Lipari has nothing to prove that she leaves distressed wood and vintage liquor bottles for a different version of that borough. But one Wednesday night a month, Archestratus hosts an Italian table, a comfortable environment for Italian speakers of all abilities to connect or reconnect (the next one is April 20th).

One of many dynamic Thursday night Sicilian Blue Plate Specials. Photo courtesy of Archestratus.

One of many dynamic Thursday night Sicilian Blue Plate Specials. Photo courtesy of Archestratus.

And of course there is the food. Every Thursday night is a Sicilian Blue Plate Special. For a set price, visitors taste one of Paige’s Nona’s recipes or some other deliciously authentic Sicilian dish. Her grandmother is in her 90s, but she hasn’t missed a Thursday night yet. Paige is trying to get all the recipes down before it is too late and is trying to learn some Sicilian dialect as well.  Daily, Paige puts out several treats to complement her beautifully simple coffee and tea offerings, and the café has secured a wine and beer license for after hours.

Perusing the bookshelves can lead even the most blue-blooded “American” into a reverie about the importance of regional identity and cultural exchange. There are cookbooks of Polish cuisine, Moroccan cuisine, and then the “Jewish” cookbooks which could easily contain recipes from both regions. There are cookbooks for recipes from New England and ones from Scotland with all their similarities. And “health and diet” cookbooks, some of which more or less obviously hunt and gather low fat meals native to Sri Lanka, Jamaica, and Brazil. Also present are the thoughtful anthologies of a new fusion movement that has hit the culinary scene. Where is it more apt than at Archestratus to buy David Chang’s Momofuku cookbooks, including Chang’s empire-building recipes of Japanese, American, and Mexican dishes all influenced by his Korean-American childhood.

Tea at Archestratus. Photo courtesy of Archestratus.

Tea at Archestratus. Photo courtesy of Archestratus.

After happily browsing, one is tempted to sit down, have a cup of Russian Caravan tea and an Italian cookie, and think, “the kids are alright.”

 

–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

The Great Escapist: A Story of an Immigrant and a Showman

America has long been known as the land of opportunity. The country welcomed people looking for jobs, religious freedom, and a better future. But while most immigrants in New York City entered the traditional workforce, some paved their own, more unique paths to the American Dream.

One such individual was Erich Weisz. We’ve all heard of him… Born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. He was one of seven children born to Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz and his wife Cecilia. In search of work, the family settled in Appleton, Wisconsin. They continued to struggle, and Erich and his father eventually moved to New York City in 1887. While working in a necktie factory, Erich partnered with a friend, Jacob Hyman, to create a magic act, and soon after they hit the road. A fan of the ground-breaking French magician Jean Eugene Robert Houdin, Erich took on a professional name that both played upon his nickname Ehrie, and paid tribute to his idol. Before long, Erich Weisz was being welcomed to the stage as Harry Houdini.

Dubbed “The Brothers Houdini,” Harry and Jacob performed in dime museums and small theaters in New York and throughout the Midwest, making a stop at the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago. In the summer of 1894, while Harry and his younger brother (who eventually replaced Jacob at his side) were performing in Coney Island, Harry met 18-year-old Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner – or“Bess”. Three weeks later, they married, and Bess joined the act.

Harry and Bess and the bonds of love. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

Harry and Bess and the bonds of love. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

Harry and Bess caught their first big break in 1899, when they met Martin Beck, who incorporated Harry’s handcuff escapes in vaudeville shows around the country. Harry, not only a master performer but also a skillful promoter, would perform escapes for free in public spaces in order to sell tickets to his shows. The public spectacles would draw tens of thousands of people, and Harry would make sure to add dramatic flair. Audiences were amazed, and as vaudeville gained in popularity, Harry Houdini became a star.

The man, the legend. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

The man, the legend. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

After building his reputation in America, Harry spent five years touring Europe before returning to the States where he continued to reinvent himself. He performed more challenging escapes, including his signature Milk Can escape and Chinese Water Torture trick. His tricks became more dangerous – mid-air suspensions and underwater escapes – relying more on his physical strength and technical abilities.

The early 20th century brought on new challenges for Harry, who began starring in films. In his first film, The Master Mystery, which came out in 1918, Harry brought his magic to the big screen. He founded two film companies – which never gained success –  and in 1923 took over as president of Martinka & Co., America’s oldest magic company. Throughout the 1920s, Harry also became a leading critic of spiritualists and psychic mediums; he did not believe their claims of being connected with the spiritual world, but viewed them as skilled performers much like himself.

One of Houdini's most famous escapes. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

One of Houdini’s most famous escapes. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

Harry continued to perform until 1926, when he took his successful Broadway show on the road. While backstage at a stop at McGill University in Montreal, a student challenged Harry’s claim that he was strong enough to handle any blow, and punched him three times in the abdomen. Harry continued with two more days of shows, but died a few days later in Detroit of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. He was 52.

As Harry Houdini’s birthday approaches this Thursday, let’s remember him not only for his physical strength and masterful sleight of hand, but also as an immigrant. In many ways Houdini’s is just another  immigrant success story. With hunger for acceptance and financial stability he worked hard to find a niche in his new home. Unlike some, Houdini ‘s niche turned out to be escaping from a straitjacket while hanging from his feet  four stories above the ground. On March 24th remember to pay tribute to immigrants who thought outside the box!

A star in his own right, Houdini would later be the subject of many biographies and films. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

A star in his own right, Houdini would later be the subject of many biographies and films. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

 

—Posted by Tricia Kang, Tenement Staffer

Five Stories and Counting: The History of 97 Orchard Street in Five Terms

You may ask yourself, okay – what is a Tenement anyway? So we’ve defined the building at 97 Orchard Street in 5 words. And yes, this may come in handy at the bar.

Nathalie Gumpertz was one of the residents with which Lucas Glockner formed a close and supportive relationship. When Nathalie fell on hard times Glockner, rather than evicting her provided help.

Nathalie Gumpertz was one of the residents with which Lucas Glockner formed a close and supportive relationship. When Nathalie fell on hard times Glockner, rather than evicting her provided help.

Landlord: The landlord of 97 Orchard Street was also its developer. In 2016, it is more common for a real estate developer to buy a plot of land and ‘develop’ it by building one or several structures that will be attractive to buyers, or to landlords who will buy the property to rent it out. Lucas Glockner bought the plot of land on which 97 Orchard Street now stands, ultimately developing it, renting it, and playing the roles we think of today as landlord and building manager. Historians who work with us to uncover the building’s past have hypothesized that Glockner probably did not use an architect because the style of housing he built – a tenement – was so common and so standard that building crews knew just how to quickly put one up. Glockner was not a wealthy man but he had a little more solvency than the new German immigrants who were just arriving. Chances are he borrowed some money from German immigrant bankers who were, in turn, just a little more financially stable. Glockner even moved his family from St. Mark’s Place (8th Street) to Orchard Street in order to keep a closer eye on the property. This proximity also resulted in some real relationships with his tenants, including helping them in times of dire need. Visitors can learn more about this when taking the Hard Times tour offered daily at the Museum.

 

Our Tenement at 97 Orchard is pretty special, partly because it is a surviving example of what was once an extremely common housing structure in New York.

Our Tenement at 97 Orchard is pretty special, partly because it is a surviving example of what was once an extremely common housing structure in New York.

Tenement: The term “tenement” really just refers to a building housing three or more unrelated families. However, in part because of the history of the Lower East Side, this term has become synonymous with a “slum,” or substandard housing built for the poor. But that’s not how 97 Orchard Street started. The tenement and others like it were built to maximize housing. At the time, three-story buildings were most common and Glockner’s tenement and those around it would have seemed like high rises. New German immigrants would have been happy to see the buildings however, because at the time the alternative was to divide and subdivide a three-story home. In this new model, each family had an apartment and kitchen to themselves. This was great!

These cornice models were most likely originally inspired by Roman stone carving. Though made of metal, our cornice would have maintained the styles and themes of much grander stone-carved cornices. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

These cornice models were most likely originally inspired by Roman stone carving. Though made of metal, our cornice would have maintained the styles and themes of much grander stone-carved cornices. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

Cornice: The cornice, or the crown, of the building was one of the only parts of the Tenement that would have been required by law. Buildings taller than three stories could not have a wooden cornice which is why the cornice at 97 is made from metal. The cornice was meant to prevent stray bricks from falling off the building – hence it was required by law! Long an opportunity for architectural flourish, the cornice on more expensive buildings would have been carved from stone. The cornice on 97 Orchard was metal painted brown. Sand would have been mixed into the brown paint while it was still wet to make it look like brownstone.

This view of East 48th Street shows the evolution of a city block. The building in the center of the frame has a brownstone front and is probably the oldest based on the material used and its height. It is surrounded by a brick-fronted and a glass-fronted building. Courtesy of the NYPL.

This view of East 48th Street shows the evolution of a city block. The building in the center of the frame has a brownstone front and is probably the oldest based on the material used and its height. It is surrounded by a brick-fronted and a glass-fronted building. Courtesy of the NYPL.

Brownstone: So how did the word “brownstone” get on this list? Most people associate the word with grand old city homes appreciating in value. Brownstone actually applies to the kind of stone popular with builders at the time that a lot of urban housing was being built. The term refers to brown-colored sandstone from the banks of the Connecticut River. In the Tenement at 97 Orchard Street, hardly any brownstone was used. Brick was still a cheaper building material as they were made locally. Brownstone was used for lintels – that is the beam over an opening, be it a door or window. The brownstone lintels in 97 Orchard Street seem to have been sanded off, perhaps because they were already showing wear and tear.

This image was taken by the New York City Tenement House Department in around 1902 most likely to contribute to health code regulation and enforcement. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

This image was taken by the New York City Tenement House Department in around 1902 most likely to contribute to health code regulation and enforcement. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

Plot: the tenement is built on what was at the time an extremely standard lot: 25 ft. x 88.6 ft. 97 Orchard Street consists of five stories, with four apartments of approximately 325 sq. ft. on each floor. The Tenement takes up 68 of the 88.6’ of the lot. This is to leave room for a rear yard. Hardly a generous gesture, the rear yard was a necessity as it housed an outhouse and a water pump, the only source of water for the saloon and all the apartments. The shared pump situated so close to the outhouses was one of the many threats of illness for residents of 97 Orchard Street. It is important to remember that Glockner was not setting out to subject his tenants to inferior conditions. In the 1840’s only the wealthiest households would have had a nascent sort of indoor plumbing. Only in 1865 were laws passed to introduce general sewage. The Tenement, however, was about to become the most common form of housing, and its residents were soon to increase. With many more people living in the apartments than was originally intended and with many more people living in the neighborhood than ever before, population density soon overtook the modest hygiene systems in place. Tours at the Tenement Museum show visitors several evolution of the building. Immense changes have been implemented both by requirement and by default over the years. The 1901 Housing Law introduced several new health and safety requirements but 97 Orchard probably received indoor plumbing around 1904. Eventually, electricity also came to the building, but finally the government required changes that the landlord could not sustain. The building was condemned for these reasons in 1935, but that’s only half the story.

Come visit us on Thursday nights and take the Exploring 97 Orchard tour. Come hear all about the double life of the Tenement Museum, before it was condemned and as it began its journey to becoming an immigration museum.

—-Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

SURRENDER : Movie Theatres in the Lower East Side

metrograph

I was 13 years old and I remember stopping at the old Kossar’s on Grand Street, buying half a dozen warm bialys in a brown paper bag, and going next door to the Essex Theatre on a Saturday afternoon. Snuggled into my seat smack in the middle of the theatre, I bit into a warm bialy as the opening credits began to roll for Norman Jewison’s film version of Fiddler on the Roof. The Essex is long gone and today a community health care facility stands in its place. I often wonder where all those cinematic ghosts and shadows have gone. I often wonder where the thrill of going to a theatre, seeing the lights dim and the curtains part, and that tickle that rises in your stomach that something magical was going to happen has gone. Continue reading

The Legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Gibson on vacation

Images of the idealized Gibson Girl created by Charles Dana Gibson. This image was published in May of 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

With the boom of the ready-to-wear garment industry, American artist Charles Dana Gibson personified what he believed was the standard of American female beauty. A woman with a long neck, a pompadour hair-do, tall and slender, with curvaceous hips and bust, adorned in a shirtwaist. Shirtwaists, which were originally modeled from the men’s shirt fashion of the time, were functional, ready-to-wear, and signified an independent, American woman. Upper-class American women were often identified as the classic Gibson girl; however, women across socio-economic classes were wearing, and making shirtwaists. Many immigrant women were employed in the garment industry, working long hours for low wages, often in unsafe working conditions. Continue reading

All the Right Notes: A History of Hazel Scott

Hazel Scott poised, as always behind a piano. Photo courtesy of WQXR.

Hazel Scott poised, as always behind a piano. Photo courtesy of WQXR.

In honor of Black History Month, we are paying tribute to Hazel Scott, one of the most talented pianists of the 20th century. An immigrant, born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, Hazel moved with her mother and grandmother at the age of three to meet her destiny in New York. Though born abroad, Hazel’s talent, resolve, and dignity led her to break through the barriers of expectation for a woman of color in the United States. Continue reading