A Walk Among the Tombstones… in the Historic Lower East Side

With Halloween rapidly approaching in 24 hours it only seems appropriate for us to write about the New York City Marble Cemetery located in the historic Lower East Side (aka the East Village). Now when you think of New York City you tend to associate it with skyscrapers, tenements, taxi cabs, hot dog vendors, and the films of Spike Lee or Woody Allen (no disrespect to you fans of Midnight In Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona). One thing you don’t associate with Manhattan is a cemetery.

Yet among the apartments and buildings on Second Avenue, you will very quietly come across the historic New York City Marble Cemetery, which is one of the few still active cemeteries in the city. Recently, we at the Tenement Museum were fortunate enough to get a rare tour of the cemetery – so rare in fact that rumor has it years ago they turned down The Rolling Stones who wanted to shoot a video there – to find out more about its fascinating history. The folks at the cemetery also allowed us to take some photographs which we will be posting in this blog.

Now let’s get one very confusing thing out of the way. There is The New York Marble Cemetery which is located one block away at 41 ½ Second Avenue that is not visible to the general public. We aren’t going to be discussing that cemetery. The cemetery we are going to discuss is called New York City Marble Cemetery and is located at 52-74 East 2nd Street between First and Second Avenues. It’s confusing because besides being similar in name and location, they also were founded one year apart with The New York Marble Cemetery opening in 1830 and New York City Marble Cemetery opening in 1831. Similarities aside, they are completely independent of one another.

A headstone among the NYC apartments... don't say that often.

When the New York City Marble Cemetery opened its gates – or should I say its tombs – in 1831, it was the second non-sectarian burial ground in New York City opened to the public after The New York Marble Cemetery.  Similar to The New York Marble Cemetery, the cemetery buried its dead in specially constructed underground marble vaults, made specifically from Tuckahoe marble (yes, from Tuckahoe, NY). This was a result of the yellow fever outbreak in 1830 that caused many residents to fear burying their dead in the traditional way: casket a few feet below ground. To this day, the cemetery continues to bury its dead this way.

When the cemetery first opened, it was a highly sought after location to spend your eternal days. Monuments and markers were permitted to signify the location of specific family vaults. There are many well-known New Yorkers who are buried in New York City Marble Cemetery that include Stephen Allen, the one-time mayor of the City and governor of New York; James Lenox, who was one of the founders of The New York Public Library; and a well-known New York merchant in mercantile and shipping named Preserved Fish. Yes, his actual name was Preserved Fish… awesome, isn’t it? 

But with all due respect to these men of great reputation and success, the biggest and most important name ever buried in the cemetery was that of former President of the United States, James Monroe. After the death of his wife, Monroe moved to New York to live with his son-in-law who happened to own a vault in the cemetery. When Monroe died in 1831, he became one of the first people buried in New York City Marble Cemetery, and because of the attention his death received, it raised the profile of the cemetery. However, even in death nothing is eternal, and in 1858 Monroe’s home state of Virginia passed a resolution to have the President’s remains returned to the state and reburied at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. The cemetery’s most famous internment had left the building…or should I say graveyard.

Today, besides being an active cemetery, the New York City Marble Cemetery does in fact give occasional tours and host special events. Yes, they even will host the occasional wedding. If you are DYING to visit the cemetery you can find out more at their website www.nycmc.org

-          Post by Jon Pace

They Walk Among Us: Vampire and Immigration in Victorian London

Dark and rainy by nature, London was just waiting for its moment in the Gothic low-light. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

They’re here. Vampires are with us in our daily lives. The time when they seemed  to appear only around Halloween is past- if it ever existed. With the popularity of Anne Rice’s book series, then Stephenie Meyer’s (perhaps you have heard of Twilight), young women of all ages have fallen in love with this particular avatar of the undead.  A million spin-offs later it may be hard to trace when all these beings began to haunt us.

Bats: considered a threat to the blood stream and women's hair since at least 1897. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

 

Vampires have existed in the human imagination in some form for hundreds of years, but the first famous vampire came in with immigrants to Victorian London. Some argue that Dracula, the monster Bram Stoker created his in 1896 novel, is a response to the waves of eastern European immigration which were flooding England in the final decades of the 19th century.

Those who have studied Stoker’s original text detect clues to suggest that in many cases this villain stands in for the threatening masses of eastern European immigrants, many of them Jews, who migrated to London.

 

By now, most of us are familiar with this vampire story: an undead figure from Transylvania is enticed to London where he stalks two women. Spoiler alert! One who succumbs to him and one who resists. Eventually, with the help of clear heads and cool consciousness (as in most British narratives) the evil is vanquished.

The real threat: a portrait of a woman in traditional dress from Bashkir Russia in 1814. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

 

 

The novel presents continuous contrasts between the folklore of Eastern Europe and the moral decency and scientific uprightness of modern London. That fact that Dracula is able to move unimpeded through London spoke to the terror of a hybrid city. The idea of contaminated blood can be seen partly as a fear of miscegenation, or a ‘contamination’ of the British population.

 

Women were especially idealized during the Victorian era, the period which was just ending as Dracula was written. The Victorian woman was supposed to be selflessly devoted to the home and the family. It is the more independent of the two female characters who falls prey to Dracula.  There is a sexual element to the way Dracula preys on women, and therefore also a moral warning against the more liberated woman who was emerging at the end of the Victorian era.  The warning inherent in the sexual element of Dracula’s predation is less a direct accusation against immigrants than just a general call for “things as they were.” (Curiously, the most famous vampire of the 21st century, Edward Cullen from the Twilight series is characterized as sexually abstinent- different approach, same moral message.)

Feeding the beast in Kensington Gardens, London. These proper British citizens are all behaving respectably...for now. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Dracula is said to be in some ways inspired also by the Jack the Ripper cases in 1888. In these cases a serial killer is believed to have killed and mutilated at least five prostitutes in the neighborhoods around Whitechapel in London. These neighborhoods, which were poor and predominately Jewish, became the focus of intense speculation and xenophobia. The insularity of the Jewish ‘ghettos’ was blamed for the difficulty the police had in solving the murders. The murders were deemed the work of a Jewish killer, around whom the community ‘closed ranks.’ The Chicksand neighborhood in Whitechapel is the setting of much of the action in Dracula as is Bermondsey, a town similarly settled by immigrants.

As further evidence of this theory: Stoker’s characters also refer to the Hungarian social critic Max Norda, whose work “Degeneration,” which focuses on the moral degeneration of Eastern Europe, had just been published in English.

Ghost stories and superstitions are often conjured by a community to answer to some threat and serve as a warning or fable terrifying children and titillating adults.  As vampires continue to haunt popular culture remember they could be representing more earthly concerns than just the Prince of Darkness.

Merchandise from the outstandingly popular book and movie series, Twilight, featuring a chivalrous, abstinent vampire: now in lunchrooms everywhere. Photo courtesy of Amazon.

 

–Posted by Julia Berick

With a great debt and special thanks to Greg Buzwell of the British Library whose article “Dracula: vampires, perversity and Victorian anxieties” was a fascinating resource.

Don’t You Forget About Me: Remembering Old Enough (1984)

Films of the LES is a monthly blog series where we examine feature films that either take place or were filmed in the Lower East Side.

The 1980’s saw a smorgasbord of films that examined the teen experience during that decade of decadence. Many have stood the test of time and are still as beloved and popular today as they were 30 years ago. Yet for every Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club – teen films that seem to have a ubiquitous presence on Cable television – there is a wonderful hidden gem from the genre such as Old Enough that in many ways is still waiting to be discovered and appreciated. 

Released in the summer of 1984, Old Enough tells the simple coming-of-age story of the friendship that develops between wealthy pre-teen Lonnie (Sarah Boyd) and working class teen Karen (Rainbow Harvest) in New York City. Lonnie lives in a plush brownstone in uptown Manhattan with her parents and younger sister (played by a young Alyssa Milano in her film debut), while Karen lives in a tenement on the Lower East Side with her working-class parents and older brother. The film is as much about class as it is about friendship, and the filmmakers use New York City, and more specifically the Lower East Side, as a backdrop to tell this story.

Old Enough is unusual compared to the other teen films of the 1980’s in that it is one of the few that is about urban teens. Whereas other teen films like Adventures in Babysitting and Big depict cities (Chicago and New York) as a “big, bad, scary place,” Old Enough never goes that route. The city – and more specifically the Lower East Side – is depicted with a realism and grittiness that makes it simply come across as home to these characters.

This might be because the writer and director of Old Enough, Marisa Silver, grew up in New York City on the Upper East Side and Old Enough was very much autobiographical. Believe it or not, Ms. Silver is not the first in her family to make a feature film primarily set in the Lower East Side. Her mother is Joan Micklin Silver, who wrote and directed two Lower East Side cinematic staples: Hester Street and Crossing Delancey (two films that we will be visiting in future FILMS OF THE LES blog entries).

With Old Enough celebrating its 30th anniversary, we were fortunate enough to interview Ms. Silver, now a successful best-selling award winning (this is a lot of adjectives) author living in California, about the making of the film, its origins, and what exactly the deal is with her family and making movies in the Lower East Side!?

Q:  How did you come up with the idea for Old Enough?

MS: Old Enough was loosely based on something that happened to me in my childhood. My family had moved from a rather suburban life in Cleveland, Ohio to New York City. We landed in Yorkville, in the east 80s, where there was a large German immigrant population, and I became friends with a girl from the neighborhood. During the year that I knew her, I was introduced into her world, which was so different from one I was used to, and vice versa. In those days (the late ’60s), kids had, I think, much more freedom to run around, and the girl and I spent an enormous amount of time getting into various forms of trouble. It was a most excellent year.

Q: Did you always envision much of Old Enough taking place in the LES? If so, why?

MS: Since the actual story took place on the UES, I was not specifically looking to film on the LES. What I was looking for was the texture of the neighborhood I’d grown up in, as I remembered it. The street where I lived had a mixture of older, tenement-style apartment buildings as well as single-family brownstones. There was a church on one side, which was the focus of activity for much of the neighborhood. There was a strong sense of a very specific ethnic population, both in terms of the kinds of shops that were around and the way in which people used the street — the way the older people sat out on their stoops, the way the kids played stickball in and out of traffic, the way that people, to some extent, knew one another’s business.   I can’t remember why the actual street in Yorkville didn’t work out for us, but the street we used on the LES had exactly the texture I was looking for.

Q. Filming in the LES in the early 1980’s was probably very different than filming in the LES today. What was that experience like? Are there any stories that stand out?

MS: It was a long time ago! I do remember one canny neighbor who, realizing that we were making a film, started playing his horn every time I yelled “action” and stopping every time I yelled “cut”. I think he was hoping for a bigger pay-off than we could afford. It was a very low budget film! Mostly, people friendly and curious for a little bit, then they went about their business. I think anyone who has ever watched a film being made realizes that watching paint dry would be more interesting. It’s a pretty slow, tedious endeavor and not all that glamorous.

Q. I noticed that when the film was released in Europe it was entitled “Girls Wanna Have Fun”. I take it they were trying to capitalize on the Cyndi Lauper song released a year earlier (albeit a slightly different title). Was there any discussion of changing the title to that in the United States to give a wide distribution?  

MS: I don’t remember that! I guess I didn’t have any input in that decision; otherwise it certainly wouldn’t have been the title I’d have chosen.

Q. Was the film only released in NYC? In the 30 years since it has been released what has been the general response to the film?

MS: I think it was released a bit more widely than just NYC, but I don’t remember its release pattern. Like most films, it got some nice notices, some not so nice ones. It was invited to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival, and it won first prize in the US Film Festival, which was later renamed The Sundance Film Festival. So it had a pretty nice life. For me and my sister, Dina, who produced the film,  this was our first real adult accomplishment. So it was a big personal success for us.

Q. So between your film, Old Enough, and your mother directing Hester Street and later Crossing Delancey, the Silver family seems to have the corner on making feature films that take place in the LES. Does your family have history in the LES? If not, what do you think the appeal of the LES been for you?  

MS: Again, our choice of the LES was more happenstance. Hester Street and Crossing Delancey could only have been made on those streets. My family lived on the UES. But our forebears started on the LES when they immigrated to America. As a kid, I used to go down to the LES a lot — to wander around Hester and Ludlow, check out the clothing vendors, hang out on St. Mark’s Place doing, you know, what you did on St. Marks Place in the seventies.

- Post by Jon Pace 

A Blintz is Just a Blintz, as Time Goes By

The author had more sophisticated tools than the Russian peasants in her proverb but not probably more sophisticated than those used by her grandmother.

Much of the wisdom passed down from my Dad’s family is only of the most practical nature: make sure you have cash when you travel and  remember whatever is wrong could always be worse.

But there are two actual proverbs my Dad handed down. This one floated up this weekend. A clutch of Russian peasants are gathering after a long day scything barley or being exploited in some other way. One peasant says to the others, “Blintzes! I keep hearing about blintzes all the princes eat all day. I just wish I could eat one blintz.”

“Let us make some,” says the another peasant. “What could be so difficult? We’ll have our own blintzes in no time.”  So the peasants [in the tale they are genderless with work and grief] get their hands on a recipe and find someone who can read it to them.

“This says ‘fine white pastry flour.’ We don’t have that.”

“We’ll just use rye.”

“The next ingredient is sweet butter.”

“We’ll just used chicken smaltz [this is chicken fat- we could call it lard but that would make it sounds disproportionately artisanal].”

“The recipe asks 3 eggs.”

“Skip that part.”

And so forth and so on the peasants make what substitutions they can to cobble together the recipe for blintzes.

Finally they sit down to taste the fabled dish. The result? “Ouch, this is foul stuff.” “Mine is not so great either.” “Who needs these blintzes anyway?” “The princes can have their stupid blintzes.” And the peasants return happily to their kasha.

The moral? Up for debate.

This weekend, however, I decided to take part in the centuries-old tradition of blintz-lusting and make my own. My dad found me his mother’s recipe, which was based on her own mother’s.  My mother typed up my grandmother’s lean instructions and emailed them to me. My grandmother was an extremely disciplined and professional home cook. I am not. Typically empathetic, my mom also sent Mark Bittman’s more supportive recipe along via a snazzy Mark Bittman app I didn’t know she had.  Bittman asked me to keep in mind during the frying stage that the first blintz almost never looks good. This is not the kind of comment my Grandmother’s notes included.

My first sally, with the help of a Kitchenaid portable mixer older than I am, went fine.

My blintz-taster-in-chief deemed them a great success. We feasted with copious peach preserve. He asked whether I felt connected to my fore-mothers. I said yes, but I also said that next time I made them I thought I could do better. The blintz-taster-in-chief correctly identified this self-depreciation as the kind of vital connection to my foremothers at which he was hinting.

But try it yourself. If it doesn’t work out… at least you won’t know what you are missing.

Grandma Marion’s Blintzes (typed and annotated by my mother)

2 eggs

1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup + 1 Tbls milk
pinch salt
Beat well, adding each item in the above order.
Let rest so bubbles disappear. It will be a very thin batter.

 

The author's grandmother offered this one piece of reassurance, "it will be a very thin batter." Indeed.

Cheese Filling #1
1 lb Farmer’s cheese
1 egg
1 Tablespoon butter
drop of sugar
salt to taste
Cheese Filling #2
1/2-3/4 lb ricotta
2 egg yolks
grated lemon rind
mix well. use to fill blintzes

Pillows of ricotta for the filling, as well as raw egg yolks: baker beware.

Cheese Filling #2
1/2-3/4 lb ricotta
2 egg yolks
grated lemon rind
mix well. use to fill blintzes

Lemon zest addition.

Preheat small pan to hot, then reduce to medium.
Butter each time with a buttered bread crust (or paper towel)
pour in 1/4 cup of batter
should make about 15 small blintzes

Pouring out the batter.

To fill, put spoonful in middle, fold in the sides, then roll up from
bottom, what Dad remembers.

The blintzes beginning to look like blintzes.

Dad thinks his Grandma fried the blintz again after filling. That makes them really crispy.  (He still remembers….) Also could bake,

as other recipe said.

Delicious!

 

–Posted by Julia Berick

Hometown Traitors: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, and Spies on the Lower East Side

One of the last remaining players in the most notorious spy cases in United States history died in July, but the news was only announced this week as the deceased was living under an assumed name. On Tuesday, the New York Times discovered that David Greenglass had died in a nursing home. He was 92.

Greenglass became infamous in the 1950’s after he provided testimony that sentenced his sister, Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg, and her husband, Julius, to death on charges of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after being found guilty by the jury in 1951. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The story of the Rosenberg’s trial is extremely complicated and is a miasmic portrait of family betrayals and loyalties as well as national and political ones; and it all began on the Lower East Side…

It was not uncommon for some of the Eastern European immigrants on the Lower East Side or their children to be Communists in the early days of Communism and the birth of the Soviet Union. Though many Lower East Siders later became critical of the realities of Communism, at first the political tenets seemed like the equality for which these exiles had been hoping. The Greenglasses and the Rosenbergs were extreme examples of this idealism.

Shots of a Communist demonstration in 1937 from the photo archives of the New York Public Library.

Ethel Greenglass and her brother David were the children of Eastern European immigrants; their mother was from Austria and their father was from Russia. They grew up on the Lower East Side – Ethel met Julius Rosenberg, the child of Russian immigrants, in high school. Initially Ethel’s parents did not approve of Julius, and the young couple met in secret in the rooms of Ethel’s brother Bernard, where there was much discussion of the Communist party.

David also met his wife, Ruth Leah Printz around their Lower East Side neighborhood. They were neighbors and allegedly childhood sweethearts, who also shared a love of the Communist party (it’s hard to imagine now, but for some, Marxist revolution was quite romantic).

David attended Haaran High School and later Brooklyn Polytechnic but he flunked out. He was not seen as an especially bright engineer but he was somehow assigned to work with the top secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. There he was able to successfully gather information on the atomic bomb, which he eventually brought back to his sister’s apartment in Knickerbocker Village, a housing complex on the Lower East Side. Either Ethel or David’s wife, Ruth, transcribed the documents, but this matter remains up for debate.

A early photo of Knickerbocker Village, a housing development on the Lower East Side, home at one point to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Ruth alleged that it was Ethel who had typed the notes, and David defended this position on the witness stand. It is seen as one of the most damning pieces of testimony in the case in which Ethel and Julius were sentenced to death via electric chair. Speculation today entertains the possibility that David exaggerated the roles of his sister and brother-in-law to draw attention away from his own deeds.

David received 15 years in prison for his role in the spying, and was released after 9 ½ years. Ruth faced no prosecution due to the Greenglass’ cooperation with authorities. While evidence today suggests that Julius was guilty of treason, New York Times reporter and Tenement Talk alumnus Sam Roberts prompted an admission from David that he lied on the stand. Though he claimed it was his sister who typed the fateful notes, he had no real memory of this being the case. Roberts received the answer, “’I don’t remember that at all,’ Mr. Greenglass said. ‘I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don’t remember.’”

[Even after all the years of reflection, David said he had no regrets] “‘My wife is more important to me than my sister. Or my mother or my father, O.K.? And she was the mother of my children.’”

That’s as dramatic a tale as any of love and betrayal on the Lower East Side.

A 'modern' cell at Sing Sing maximum security prison where Ethel and Julius were held and eventually executed. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

–Posted by Julia Berick

A Tale of Two Tenements

145 Buccleuch Street also known as the Tenement House, a museum run by the National Trust for Scotland, in a row of tenements in Glasgow.

Of course we are not the only Tenement on the block… and last month we brought you news of a Tenement on another continent, Glasgow’s Tenement House at 145 Buccleuch street.

Many aspects of immigration were similar between New York and Glasgow. Both cities witnessed a period of booming industrialization, which filled the city’s tenements with working class populations. Taking  a look at the life of Miss Agnes Toward, a resident of Glasgow’s Tenement House museum, gives us a sense of the day-to-day similarities of life between the Lower East Side and Glasgow.

A picture of Miss Agnes Toward in the 1960s courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland.

In many ways Miss Toward’s life resembles that of the residents in our tenement at 97 Orchard Street. Agnes Toward was raised as an only child after her sister died in infancy from Tabes Mesenterica,  a kind of tuberculosis contracted through infected cow’s milk. Our records suggest that cow’s milk, which was often mixed with contaminants like chalk and ammonia, was also a common cause of death among infants in our own Tenement.

The Toward family was financially comfortable until Agnes’ father died when she was three, revealing the difficulties widowed women faced in maintaining a livable income. Agnes’ mother became a dress maker but records show that she also received help from her church (called a kirk) and from the Glasgow Benevolent Society. Much like our own tenement resident, Natalie Gumpertz,  who started a dressmaking business after being abandoned by her husband, Agnes relied on community support as well as her own entrepreneurial skills to survive.

Even with these financial difficulties, Agnes was able to finish school. Upon reaching the end of her studies, she mostly likely chose training as a typist because it would have been relatively affordable. Agnes eventually settled at the shipping firm Prentice, Service & Henderson where she would work until she was in her 70s. She was paid 17 shillings, or 70 pence, a week, which in today’s currency is about a dollar. While her income was modest, Miss Toward also enjoyed paid vacation and was able to take annual holidays, which was as rare in Glasgow as it would have been on the Lower East Side.

At the time it was uncommon for a woman to work her entire life as a typist. Most of Miss Toward’s co-workers would have quit working such a job after they were married. Miss Toward however, never married and was therefore more free to continue to work, but it also required her to be more self-sufficient.

The kitchen at 145 Buccleuch Street in Glasgow. Photo courtesy of the Scottish National Trust.

Agnes belonged to a food co-op which would have been a bit more expensive means of buying vegetables, but there were benefits to this kind of purchasing. Agnes would have been able to get a dividend or a ‘divvy’ based on how much she had spent that month. In addition, the co-op offered special services such as milk delivery, funeral arrangements and catering.  Miss Towards involvement in the co-op can be seen as similar to the community investment of many of our tenement dwellers. For both populations on a strict budget, the security of having support to pay for the unexpected expenses, such as funerals or weddings, was well worth the effort. Our tenement dwellers might have gotten similar support through political party alignment or religious membership.

Born into the 19th century but raised in the 20th, Miss Toward in many ways represents the challenges that so acutely faced our residents. Miss Toward, like the residents of our tenement, managed to find a place for herself in a city which evolved daily to produce more goods, employ more people, and house more residents. Though Agnes did not emigrate like many of our residents, she died a long way from rural Bonhill, Dunbartonshire where her father was born in 1843.

–Posted by Julia Berick

Visitor(s) of the Month: Caraline Brown & Evelyn Frost

Meet Caraline Brown and Evelyn Frost, a dynamic duo hailing from the United Kingdom!

The dynamic singing ticket purchasing duo of Caraline Brown and Evelyn Frost

They voyaged across the pond to see the musician Morrissey perform, but when his US tour was cancelled, Caraline and Evelyn found musical solace in a somewhat unlikely place… The Tenement Museum! Morrissey’s loss is the Tenement Museum’s gain.

The pair, who had first visited the museum in 1998, strolled up to the Tour Tickets counter and actually sang to the Visitor Center staff an improvised operatic duet requesting printed tickets for the Irish Outsiders tour. Our Visitor Center staff melodiously informed them that their tickets were printing, and that they would meet their educator promptly at the time of their tickets, in the center of the room.

After their Irish Outsiders tour concluded, Caraline and Evelyn came back to the Visitor Center and shared their feedback and more of their story.

The Tenement Museum was a natural destination for the duo, who share a deeply rooted interest in housing for those who live below the poverty line. Evelyn works in housing in London, where she advocates for resident agency and helps set policy. Caraline participated in a remarkable “Street Retreat,” where she lived under the conditions of homelessness for four nights.

When asked why they took Irish Outsiders, Evelyn mentioned that the pair had been “taught by Irish nuns,” at convent school, where they became life-long best friends since age 12.

The duo was surprised by the fine details and carvings, and particularly shocked to see top hats on the tour. “My Irish family living in England had it worse,” Caraline muses after the tour. “In the 50s, they were still living like it was 30s.”

Musical souls who “learned to sing hymns in the church” as school girls, the two were particularly moved by the sound of keening heard on the Irish Outsiders tour.

If you are planning a visit to the Tenement Museum, consider our Irish Outsiders tour, especially if you are deeply moved by the power of music. And don’t be afraid to sing while your tickets are being printed!

- Post by Ben Wigler

Fresh-Faced! Restoring the Storefront at 97 Orchard Street

This layer of white primer made the storefront really stand out for a day or two.

Tenement lore has it that when the Tenement Museum’s founders, Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobsen, first entered 97 Orchard Street in 1988 the interior had been untouched since 1935. The exterior, however is a different story. The buildings stoop and storefront façade had looked markedly different a half-century earlier. While some elements of the turn-of-the-twentieth century façade remained, it had been painted a deep green and steel roll-down gates had been added to the storefront windows.

97 Orchard Street’s stoop and wooden façade was restored in 2001 to appear as it did circa 1905 when then landlords Barnet Goldfein and Benjamin Posner gave the stoop and storefronts a facelift. Using a circa 1915 photo of the Rogarshevsky family taken in front of 97 Orchard Street, architects Li/Saltzman traced and compared elements in the image with extant examples in the vicinity to responsibly restore the stoop and façade.

The storefront of 97 Orchard Street before renovation.

Using design software, the Museum’s preservation architects, Li/Saltzman Architects, enhanced the stoop in this 1915 photo of the Rogarshevsky family. The results, which offered an idea of what the stoop looked like after being overhauled in 1905, were traced and compared against extant elements from other stoops in the vicinity. Due to the mass production of building elements from the period when the Tenement was built; it was possible to find comparable historic examples on other buildings neighborhood.

Preservation architecture always requires a lot of research but sometimes requires a little creativity. The cast-iron balustrades proved to be particularly challenging for the architects to reproduce, as there was only a small portion visible in the Rogarshevsky photo.  A similar balustrade was located on MacDougal Street matching the “form and intent” of the original pattern. Similarly, the design of the stair treads was difficult to discern in the c. 1915 photograph, but using similar stairs at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, the architects came up with a suitable alternative.

Paint analysis of the remaining wood elements on the façade conducted by Cynthia Hinson of Historic Preservation & Illumination revealed a crude faux wood graining as the storefront’s earliest finish. Contractors with Felix Chavez Inc., recreated the faux wood grain to the architects specifications.

The photograph of the Rogarshevsky family in front of the stoop of 97 Orchard Street. This photograph helped preservation architects recreate the details of the original façade.

After nearly 15 years, the storefront restoration was in need of a facelift. The elements had not been kind to the restored finish, resulting in areas of significantly deteriorated wood and fading of the historic faux wood-grain paint. And you thought you suffered through the polar vortex. Between September and October 2014, the Tenement Museum’s long-time restoration carpenter, Kevin Groves, repaired sections of the storefront façade and repainted using the same faux-wood grain technique used in 2001.

If you are in the neighborhood stop by and admire our fresh-faced façade!

– Posted by Dave Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Hebrew Technical Institute  Research Fellow 

 

An Experience in Rwanda…

As we sat around the table in the art room surrounded by their paintings and drawings, I asked the students, “What is a museum?” “A place for old things,” they said.  “You can learn about people from the past.” They were surprised to hear that some museums collect stories and that these stories are not just about important people who lived long ago, but also about people just like them.

I have had this conversation with many students in New York City, but this time the conversation took place in Rwanda at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV).  Home to 500 high school students, ASYV provides some of Rwanda’s most vulnerable teens with a home, education, and the opportunity to realize their potential. Founded in 2008 by the philanthropist Anne Heyman, the village is a testament to resilience.  The children are all survivors of Rwanda’s national trauma, but I never would have guessed this looking into their smiling faces.  My week at ASYV challenged many of my own assumptions about global citizenship, at risk youth, education, and what it means to heal. It also affirmed my belief in the power of personal stories to connect us across time and place, from the specific to the universal.

Students from the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village

 

The students were amazed that a museum could be in a former home as the Tenement Museum is, and that it could tell the stories of immigrants that once lived inside. It also got the group thinking about the stories that each of them have to tell. At the Tenement Museum, objects ground our stories and so I had the students think about an object that was special to them and begin to write about it. Initially they were dubious about the power of ordinary objects to communicate, but as time passed, markers quietly filled the paper and ideas were shared.

For many students, the objects that were most special to them were worn. Jewelry linked their lives to family members who had passed on. Necklaces had the power to communicate the love of grandmother and of a father who never met his child. Plastic watches became living memorials that inspired students “to work hard in order to reach his/her purpose.” The objects were rich in meaning. They contained memories, motivation, and emotions that traversed generations.

As we heard about each other’s objects and looked at the drawings they inspired, the value of the students’ stories was clear. They were powerful. Although they were specific, it became apparent that their stories were also universal and that they too were worthy of a museum.

Special thanks to the Jewish Joint Distribution Community for organizing the Entwine program that brought me to Agahozo and to the ROI Community for its financial support of my travel.

- Miriam Bader

Questions for the Reporter: We ask Sam Roberts about 101 Objects

A pink “Spaldeen” ball, a bagel, a yellow checker cab… which objects do you think of when you try to distill New York in to 101 Objects? Inspired by a project done by the BBC and The British Museum that told the History of the World in 100 objects, Sam Roberts saw the opportunity to tell the history of our eclectic city in 101 objects.

Sam Roberts's latest book takes a look at the history of New York through 101 pivotal objects.

We are so excited to welcome Sam Roberts to the Tenement Museum as he discusses his new book, A History of New York in 101 Objects in conversation with writer Kevin Baker. Roberts has been the New York Times Urban Affairs Correspondent since 2005 and is the author of several other books including  Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America. The New York Historical Society has gathered some of the 101 Objects and they are now view in a special exhibit until November 30th.

We were so excited to welcome Mr. Roberts to the Tenement Museum to discuss his book that we could not resist asking him for a bit more information about the project and his own history with New York.

……..

You have an obvious love for the city, what is your favorite New York neighborhood to stroll? Is it your own? When did you first fall in love with this particular piece of New York?

My favorite to stroll in is the Lower East Side because it is so vibrant, so diverse, in such constant flux and so rich in history and I’ve loved it ever since my parents first took me there shopping from Brooklyn as a kid. My favorite activity is getting on the subway and getting off at a stop I’ve never been to before and just walking around, or even one I haven’t been to in a while. You’re always bound to discover something new about New York.

A History of New York in 101 Objects is a definitive and fun factual guide to the city. If you were to suggest a novel that conveys important information about the New York what would it be?

A trick question! I love the novels of Kevin Baker, Pete Hamill, Caleb Carr, Jack Finney’s “Time and Again,” Dos Passos, Ed Doctorow, Jimmy Breslin (uh, oh, whom did I leave out?). Through prodigious research, they and other novelists capture the richness of the city, its history and its characters and what makes it so distinct from every other city I’m familiar with.

I know you had to winnow some of the myriad possible objects, which were most reluctant to let go?

Times readers suggested hundreds, many of them ingenious: Delaney cards that teachers used to keep as seating charts and record your grades, a Bella Abzug hat, and, of course, every variety of pizza.

Several of the objects you chose also represent a turning point of some aspect of New York. Was there are moment in your history with the City when your feelings for New York shifted or changed- be it new mayoral administration or a previously undiscovered block or even a really good meal?

I witnessed the underside of New York through some of its worst years in the 70s when I was city editor of the Daily News. I was always buoyed by the perspective that we had had the grit to make it through tough times before and, in the late 80s and 90s, and after 9/11, was heartened by New Yorkers’ resurgence and resilience.

 

Thanks Mr. Roberts!

Come learn more about A History of New York in 101 Objects on Wednesday at 6:30pm at our Free Tenement Talk where the book will be on sale with a special 15% off discount.  See you there!

–Posted by Julia Berick,  Marketing and Communications Coordinator