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

 

A Tenement Thrives in Glasgow

3,218 miles (or shall we say 5229.25 kilometers) away,  at 145 Buccleuch Street in Glasgow, Scotland, a tenement stands that is very similar to the one at 97 Orchard Street. The Tenement House is preserved and maintained by a government charity called the Scottish National Trust, which also helps to manage former castles and country estates. The Tenement House’s apartments, or ‘flats’ as the Scottish would call them, give visitors a chance to explore the challenges and successes of the building’s former owner, Ms. Agnes Toward, who moved into the building in 1911. Like our own residents of 97 Orchard Street, Ms. Toward was a working-class woman who carefully made her way to financial independence.

Cigarette cards probably provided the only affordable tour of Glasgow for our families on the Lower East Side. This view of Glasgow shows the pronounced Victorian influence on the Architecture, also evident in most tenement blocks. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Scots have been living in dwellings that can be defined as tenements (a legal term that simply means three or more families living in the same building) since the medieval times. The tenement at 145 Buccleuch St. was built in 1892 by a developer who anticipated an increase in population brought by industrialization –  specifically technological developments in cotton production. Its three-storey, red sandstone structure is a common architectural style in Glasgow.

George Square in central Glasgow. Like many cities that benefited hugely from the Industrial Revolution, great production also brought wealth disparity to the city. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When Scottish tenements were built, they offered a greater diversity than the tenements on the Lower East Side. While all the apartments in 97 Orchard Street have three rooms, Scottish tenement apartments could be one to four rooms large, which allowed for a more economically diverse population. The most popular size, however, was that of the single room. The apartments in the Tenement House are retro-fitted with gas lighting to maintain authenticity – electric lights weren’t installed until 1960!

Another view of Victorian Glasgow. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The efforts to preserve these two tenement buildings – ours in the Lower East Side and The Tenement House at 145 Buccleuch Street – makes clear the similarities between the cities and the people who lived in them. Both in Glasgow and in New York, the period during which these buildings first became important was a turning point in that city’s history.  After the industrial revolution, Glasgow, which was once renowned for ship-building, became known for its industrial capacities. As in many industrial cities, a significant discrepancy in wealth developed between the populations who owned the factories and those who worked in them.

In Glasgow’s history, the majority of the population moving into the city was not from overseas, but rather from the countryside. With technological developments in processing cotton and cotton-based products, low-skill jobs were suddenly an enormous pull for workers. Individuals found jobs overwhelmingly in the garment industry – at one time, the cotton industry employed a third of the city’s residents. Whereas these tenement-dwelling populations came to Glasgow through ‘pull factors,’ most tenement- dwellers in New York arrived as the result of push factors, such as famine, religious persecution, and military conscription.

A row of red sandstone fronted tenements just like the Tenement House at 145 Buccleuch Street. Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland.

Ms. Toward’s story will sound familiar to visitors of our own tenement; Ms. Toward’s mother was a dress-maker who worked out their apartment, but Ms. Toward learned stenography and became a typist. In her achievement of a white-collar position, Ms. Toward’s story resembles that of the immigrants who lived in our tenement on the Lower East Side.

Ms. Toward’s mother and many of the residents of our tenement did what they could to find a place for themselves in their new city. What these hard working people could not achieve in their own lifetimes, they hoped would be achieved by their children – a hope that people continue to share all across the world.

A view of the Tenement House in Glasgow preserved to appear as it did when Miss Agnes Toward lived there from 1911 to 1965 when failing health prompted her to move. Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland.

   – Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

A New Leaf: Getting in Touch with a Fall Tradition

I’ve always preferred the fall holidays. Because I was raised “casually” Jewish, fall holidays meant that in addition to soccer parties, Halloween, my birthday, and Thanksgiving, my back-to-school blues were always somewhat sweetened by the punctuation of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.  I always thought I would be overjoyed to have outgrown the school semester, but without the landmarks of new marble composition books and brand new Bics I find I get a little lost.  This year I decided to start my own fall tradition by baking a round Rosh Hashanah challah from Joan Nathan’s seminal recipe – who else!?

I happily watched Joan in her well-appointed kitchen mix the familiar ingredients and use her handy Kitchen Aid mixer. In my tiny East Village apartment I made do with arm power and some encouragement from friends and family phoned along the way.

Joan Nathan’s Chosen Challah

1 3/4 cups of water
1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon salt
8 cups all-purpose flour
Poppy or sesame seeds for sprinkling

1. Put water, yeast, and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer and blend, using a paddle.

…Or using a stout wooden spoon and some woman-power. My “full-time assistant”, my boyfriend, suggested that I “think of Seamus.” He is referring to Heaney’s poem “Churning day” which documents the process of hand-churning butter in Heaney’s Northern Irish Childhood. I tell my “full-time assistant” this is more of an opportunity to think of Fannie and the shtetl….

2. Add oil, then add 2 of the eggs, one at a time, using the paddle to mix. Then switch to the dough hook and gradually add the flour and salt, then knead with the dough hook. Roll dough onto floured board and knead by hand.

…At 7 cups of flour I could barely imagine coaxing the dough to take anymore. I made a quick phone call the the expert – Mom.

She gives me great maternal advice for any situation “use your best judgement” but reassures me that I live in New York after all, and I can always find a bakery early  in the morning if this doesn’t pan out….

 

 

3. Grease a bowl with nonstick spray, put the dough in the bowl and cover with greased plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place for 1 hour.

… I watch the bowl anxiously for what feels like each minute of this hour-long wait until my “full-time assistant” getting into the spirit of the exercise suggests I stop worrying and eat something….

 

 

 

4. After an hour, when the dough has almost doubled in volume, punch it down, cover, and let it rise again in a warm place for another half-hour.

 

 

 

 

5. To make a six-braided challah, take half the dough and form it into 6 balls.

With your hands, roll each ball into a strand tapered at the ends, about 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide.

Pinch the strands together at one end, then gently spread them apart. Next, move the outside right strand over 2 strands.

Then, take the second strand from the left and move it to the far right. Regroup to 3 on each side. Take the outside left strand and move it over 2 to the middle, then move the second strand from the right over to the far left.

Regroup and start over with the outside right strand. Continue until all the strands are braided, tucking the ends underneath the loaf. The key is always to have 3 strands on each side, so you can keep your braid balanced. Make a second loaf the same way. When you are finished you can either keep a long braided challah or twist it into a round challah for Rosh Hashanah.

… I get lost during the braiding twice, once irrevocably and unwind my entire braid to begin again muttering to myself the whole time…

6. Place the braided loaves on parchment paper on cookie sheets.

7. Beat the remaining egg and brush it on the loaves, then sprinkle with seeds—or put the seeds in a small bowl, brush the loaves with egg again, then, dipping your fingers first in the egg, then the seeds, gently touch the humps of the braids with the seeds. Repeat until your challah is well decorated. Let rise another half hour.

8. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and bake for 30 minutes or until golden. When the bread sounds hollow when tapped with a cake spatula, the challahs are done. Cool the loaves on a rack.

Yield: 2 challahs

…and a lot of pride. 

L’shannah tovah Happy New Year and happy fall!

–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

 

Good Neighbors: Steve Yip of the Chinese-American Planning Council

In our Good Neighbors column, Emily Gallagher, our Community Outreach Coordinator, introduces us to the Lower East Side communities she works with every day:  

Today Emily speaks with Steve Yip, from the Chinese-American Planning Council.

Steve Yip

Tell us a bit about the work that your organization does.

I’ve been an administrator for the Chinese-American Planning Council for 16 years after 17 years in health care administration.  CPC’s the oldest human service organization serving the Chinese-speaking communities, with roots in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. This organization began from the legacy of the Civil Rights era, and when the immigrant laws for Asian immigrants were relaxed.  As a pioneer human services organization in this community, it has since developed into a large professional agency providing a broad spectrum of human services to the Chinese immigrant and the Lower East Side communities.  CPC will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2015.

Where are you (or your family) from?

My wife and I are Asian Americans originally from the San Francisco Bay Area.  She is a sansei, a third generation Japanese-American, and I come from parents of Chinese immigrant and Chinese-American heritages. My mother’s family has roots in Arizona from since the turn of the 20th century.   I consider Oakland, California home.

 

When did you first come to the Lower East Side?

We came to the Lower East Side in 1975, just when more Chinese –speaking immigrants were coming through into Chinatown and beyond.  At that time, the Lower East Side was obviously quite rich in history, though depressed and neglected.  Little Italy still had its flavor as a community, as was Grand Street and East Broadway maintained its Jewish character.  There was also an important legacy left by the struggle of Latinos and African Americans during the tumult of the 60′s and 70′s – some of this was manifested in the mural movement.  Unfortunately, many of these murals are gone today. And the demographics have shifted significantly today.

 

What makes this neighborhood special?

It really was, and still is, an admixture of cultures. And of cultural collisions where — ironically — people had little to do with each other.  This will change, and much of this will occur in the course of common striving for social change.

–Posted by Emily Gallagher, Community Outreach Coordinator

Good Neighbors: Katherine Chang of the University Settlement

In our Good Neighbors column, Emily Gallagher, our Community Outreach Coordinator, introduces us to the Lower East Side communities she works with every day:  

Today Emily speaks with Katherine Chang, the Program Coordinator for University Settlement’s Project Home program.

Katherine Chang is the Program Coordinator for the University Settlement's program Project Home. Photo courtesy of Katherine Chang.

Tell us a bit about the work that your organization does.
University Settlement is America’s first social settlement house, established in the Lower East Side 128 years ago. Today we provide holistic social services to the communities we serve, including childcare, senior services, youth programs, and mental health. I work for the eviction prevention program, called Project Home. We help tenants in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn who are at risk of eviction. Our case managers go with tenants to court, provide information as well as moral support, and help advocate for benefits to ensure that tenants can stay in their homes. We also provide short-term housing counseling for tenants in our communities.

Where are you (or your family) from?
My family is originally from China, and I am a first-generation American. I was born and raised in California but knew that I wanted to move to New York since the first time I visited my aunt and uncle here. I moved here for college and have lived in New York ever since.

When did you first come to the Lower East Side?
My work at University Settlement brought me to the Lower East Side just over 5 years ago.

What makes this neighborhood special?
The community here makes the Lower East Side special. Throughout my time at University Settlement, I have had the opportunity to meet many residents and community members here. I have also seen how willing neighbors are to help one another, even when they may be in a crisis of their own. Whether you’re hosting a rent party or recruiting volunteers to teach a community art class, the Lower East Side is its own best resource!

What inspired you to get involved in the lives of your neighbors?
I worked as a volunteer in the Bronx at an organization called Lift when I was in college, helping residents type up their resumes and connecting them with various resources. This experience introduced me to social services, and it inspired me to continue doing similar work after college. I was fortunate enough to be hired by University Settlement, where I am inspired by my coworkers and by our participants every day.

–Posted by Emily Gallagher, Community Outreach Coordinator

When Your Building is a Museum

A photo of 155 Avenue C taken by the city of New York for tax purposes serves as the cover of Cashman's new book. Photo courtesy of Bill Cashman.

At the Tenement Museum, we think a lot about two particular buildings, 97 Orchard Street and future exhibits at 103 Orchard Street, and its power to hold stories. However, it’s really our building’s ordinariness that makes us stand out as a museum. Hundreds of buildings on the Lower East Side contain stories of families, of businesses, of success and failure, but how does one go about finding the names, images, and narratives that make up the fabric of these ordinary structures?  One East Village resident’s, search for everyday history started around the time when his building became a museum.

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space opened in 2012 in the ground floor of 155 Avenue C; they focus their exhibitions, events, and walking tours on the rich history of grassroots community spaces on the Lower East Side in the late 20th Century. The building, a residence and performance space that served as a hub of the Lower East Side activist community in the 1980s and 90s, went by the name of C-Squat, owing to its identity as a building that had been reclaimed from the City for residential use. One current tenant, Bill Cashman, decided after a heated conversation with a close friend about the building’s name, to find out about the other stories of the building, those that pre-dated the history addressed at the museum. He embarked on what he thought would be a quick research project about his building’s identity.  What resulted, though, was a two-year expedition through archives and articles that led him to find former residents through the mail and track an 1884 Tammany Hall poster on a multi-state journey back to New York City! Bill shares his research in a zine (a self-published booklet) annotated with anecdotes, stories, drawings and photographs, called ‘Homeo-Empathy 9th and C,’ and he starts off with the history of the Lenape in Lower Manhattan.

“I don’t consider myself a historian and I’d never put together something like this,” Bill said, “I started by going to the Municipal Archives.” He discovered that a 5-story tenement had been built on the land in 1872, meant to house 16 families and ‘light business use.’ However, the building hadn’t been constructed to housing code. Though there wasn’t much of a code in those years, there were building depth requirements, so only commercial tenants occupied 155 Avenue C for most of its history. Through the City Register’s record and New York Public Library resources, Bill traced stories of a family Davenport’s fruit and pickle business that went bankrupt, a Jewish-owned shoe store, a shirt factory, a cigar factory, and various workshop lofts that occupied the upper floors. He learned that around the turn of the century, the building housed a bar and union meeting hall (much like 97 Orchard Street’s basement saloon!). In newspapers, Bill found dozens of meeting announcements, for everything from the Groceries Association in 1909 to the Workmen’s Circle in 1915, as well as evidence of an (illegal) pool hall in the lower level! He also searched through the Department of Buildings records, uncovering a document that reported unsafe conditions in 155 Avenue C which lead to the closure of the upper floors to any occupants in 1935, the same year that 97 Orchard Street closed to residents.

A rendering by Bill C of the building and its history. Courtesy of Bill Cashman.

The space’s history as C-Squat began in 1989, but the paper trail thinned out during the middle of the 20th Century. Instead of leaving gaps in his story, Bill chose to write letters to people whose names had appeared on residents’ lists. Two hours after Bill had dropped four letters into the mailbox, he returned back to his home at 155 to find an older man standing outside. The man introduced himself as Allen Furbert, and he turned out to be one of the people to whom Bill had written! Allen, an immigrant from Bermuda who had long since moved uptown, had made his first home in the United States at 155 Avenue C and was visiting because he missed his brother Lance, with whom he had shared an apartment there. He showed Bill around, recounting tales of the Puerto Rican superintendent and the building’s life as an impromptu party venue, and remembered the landlord cutting back on heat and hot water in the 1970s. A few months after mailing the letters, Bill also heard from Rena, a woman whose husband had lived in the building in the late 1960s and who remembered $80 rents and disliking her husband’s taste in apartment décor. Neither Allen nor Rena remembered the building being taken over by the city in 1978. After the City claimed it, the history could best be tracked by meeting people and talking, which Bill did a lot of, unearthing dozens of details and anecdotes about the building’s start as a reclaimed living space.

 As he puzzled out the various threads of 155 Avenue C’s 20th Century history, the present day building had become a relief center during Hurricane Sandy, a spot where neighbors could gather for a meal or some company. For Bill, seeing the community in action led him to reflect back on a conversation with a friend from the start of his project. The friend had noted how this building had had a million different overlapping lives, all created by the individuals who had lived there. No version of the building’s history was the definite version, none of the stories were more right than others. In his work, Bill ultimately reveals this power of shared history and constructs previously untold tales of his building, neighborhood, and city. And while his residence does happen to be a museum, any residence will reveal history if we listen closely enough

–Posted by Kathryn Lloyd, Education Associate

When Life Gives You Lemons, Sell them On the Lower East Side

A pushcart story

A pushcart vendor selling nuts in New York in 1947. Nut vendors are still one of the most ubiquitous examples of modern pushcarts. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The immigrants to the Lower East Side at the turn of the Twentieth century brought what skills they could to their new lives in New York but often lacked the opportunity to put these skills to use. Many immigrants were fleeing economic hardship and some immigrants, especially the Jewish populations from Eastern Europe also fled government-sanctioned religious persecution which limited their trades and occupations. Even those exceptions, immigrants who had held higher status jobs at home, mostly lost their standing in their move to the United States.

However there was one job that was open to all, regardless of  prior experience or education; immigrants of all social standing found opportunities for work as pushcart vendors. The area with the most replete with push-cart peddlers was the Lower East Side.

These vendors often sold goods to their own neighbors with the benefit of knowing their religious, cultural and practical needs. For decades a vast pushcart economy met the needs of this crowded neighborhood. Pushcart vendors sold everything the residents required from books and toys to clothing and food. Because a majority of Lower East Side residents worked long hours in the garment industry, the pushcart vendors adjusted to this schedule, setting up lanterns and, later electric lights, to allow residents to shop after work.  In fact, shopping became a great excuse for young adults in the community to stroll and socialize.

This photo taken in 1906 under the direction of Lawrence Veiller accompanied the report on the "Pushcart Problem." Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

In 1899 the price of a municipal pushcart license fell from $15 to $4 and by 1904 there were 6,747 push-cart peddlers in New York City. (Today a food cart vendor license is $200 for a “processing food unit” and $75 for a “non-processing food unit.”) The trade developed so dramatically that the Mayor, George B. McClellan, created a “Commission Appointed to Investigate the Push-Cart Problem.” Pushcarts were partly problematized when, as the report puts it, “traffic regulation [had] arisen.” The narrow streets were choked with carts which proved difficult for carriages and pedestrians to avoid and impossible for automobiles to maneuver around.

Another photograph in the 1906 report from the Commission on the Pushcart Problem . Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The commission supposedly reported that when “the list of goods sold [from the pushcarts] was complete we felt it would probably have been easier to make a list of things that were not sold.” (Quoted in Nan Enstad’s  Ladies of Leisure, Girls of Adventure.) The Commission also noted that although no neighborhood in the city was completely free of push-carts “the greatest congestion exist in the most crowded quarters of the Lower East Side especially in the Hebrew quarter.” The report specifies “ that in the section south of Houston street, from the Bowery to the East river, the streets are almost invariably found lined with push-carts on every block; especially on the following streets: Rivington, Grand, Hester, Stanton, Houston, Canal, Monroe, Forsyth, Orchard, Ludlow, Norfolk, Suffolk, Ridge and Pitt.”Our historic tenement at 97 Orchard Street was smack in the middle of the pushcart problem!

The most recent development in the legacy of Russ and Daughters is a delicious and lovely, sit-down cafe.

The most recent development in the legacy of Russ and Daughters is a delicious and lovely, sit-down cafe.

The commission had plenty of complaints but found that “there is no special danger to the community from the food supplies sold from pushcarts, for the wares are usually as good, if not better, than the supplies sold in neighboring stores.” In fact, some of the food sold by pushcart vendors was so delicious that their food is still being sold today. For example, Russ & Daughters, a celebrated Lower East Side staple which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, which began as a humble pushcart, and is now a renowned purveyor of appetizers most famously smoked salmon. Another pushcart alumnus is Moscot an optical shop that now resides directly across the street from the Tenement Museum. Moscot, much like Russ & Daughters began with the arrival of the patriarch. Shortly after Hyman Moscot emigrated in 1899 from Eastern Europe he began selling eye wear from a pushcart and business has been thriving ever since. Both carts earned loyalty and then financial stability from their delighted customers and have held brick and mortar shops in the neighborhood for nearly a century. Now that’s the American dream. Mazal tov!

Moscot's storefront appears all over our Lower East Side archival photographs. This picture is from the mid 1970's featuring a new incarnation of pushcart in the foreground.

Eventually the Commission’s regulations attempted to group the pushcarts to less disruptive spots, such as down under the Manhattan bridge and whether because of these measures or for other reasons the pushcart industry eventually dissolved. But don’t worry you can still grab a nosh at Russ & Daughters !

–Posted by Julia Berick

Good Neighbors: Milvi Vehik of The Henry Street Settlement

In our Good Neighbors column, Emily Gallagher, our Community Outreach Coordinator, introduces us to the Lower East Side communities she works with every day: 

Today Emily speaks with Milvi Vehik, the director of the Good Companions Senior Center for The Henry Street Settlement.

Milvi Vehik, Director of Good Companions Senior Center at the Henry Street Settlement. Photo courtesy of Milvi Vehik.

Tell us a bit about the work that your organization does.

Founded in 1893 by Progressive reformer Lillian Wald, Henry Street Settlement opens doors of opportunity by providing essential social service, arts and health care programs from 17 program sites on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Distinguished by a profound connection to its neighbors, a willingness to address new problems with swift and innovative solutions and a strong record of accomplishment, Henry Street challenges the effects of urban poverty by helping families achieve better lives for themselves and their children.

The agency serves 50,000 individuals each year through youth education and employment programs, senior services, job training and placement programs, primary and behavioral health care clinics, homeless shelters and a performing and arts training program.

The Good Companions Senior Center, one of four divisions under Senior Services, is our multilingual and multicultural senior center which has been welcoming members for over 60 years.  Building on the internal synergies provided by Henry Street Settlement, our holistic programming approach reflects a cultural tapestry of recreational, education and health promoting activities.  We are also one of the few senior centers serving lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, as well as offering a Sunday program including lunch service.

Where are you (or your family) from?

I was born in Caracas, Venezuela where I lived until the age of 16.  My father was born in Estonia and my mother in the Ukraine.  After WWII, although their countries had been on opposite sides, my parents met in an American refugee camp where they married and waited with great uncertainty for the chance to emigrate to the United States.  Although many of their fellow refugees were granted the necessary paperwork, by the time my parent’s number came up the United States’ quota for accepting refugees was filled.  The only country still offering a new opportunity was Venezuela.  So after receiving the equivalent of $10 apiece to start a new life, they set sail for Caracas where they waited many years for someone to sponsor them so they could come to the United States.  After a brief stay in Philadelphia, they moved to the borough of Queens.  In spite of language limitations and scant resources, my father worked three jobs to save up for the house they ultimately called home for the rest of their lives.  Given the diversity of our background, several languages were spoken at home and our acclimation to a new country was always interwoven with similar individuals in our neighborhood and new life, while always maintaining a supportive link with relatives who remained or scattered throughout Europe and South America. Later on, through marriage to a native Italian, another thread was woven into my heritage tapestry as my extended family expanded with new relatives in Italy.

What inspired you to get involved in the lives of your neighbors?

Thinking back on those early days in the United States, all I can remember is how my strange name, and the fact that I barely spoke English always made me feel like an outsider particularly in school. I was frequently introduced by my teachers as our “new foreign friend”.  Being left back by a year because I did not speak the language only made me more determined to excel and make up for lost time.  As the years went by and I began to achieve many of my goals, I frequently found myself both consciously and sometimes by chance,  making career choices that put me in contact with individuals  who were  “walking in the same shoes” that I had walked in years ago.  With time, as the business world become more and more of a global arena, my background became an asset.  Although I still considered myself a true representative of the melting pot that was so often referred to, I found myself gravitating toward volunteer or job opportunities where my experience could ease the transition for non-English speaking visitors or members of the community.  This was a pivotal focus when I was working toward a nursing degree in underserved, ethnic communities, and later on during many years in International Sales and Marketing both here and abroad. I could still remember some of the struggles my parents encountered as they persevered in a new environment while still intent on preserving a sense of heritage and tradition for their children.  Certainly, working in my current capacity as Program Director of Good Companions Senior Center, my background and empathy for diverse cultures has served as an invaluable asset in not only communicating but establishing a bond of relevance with the ethnic population that we serve.

When did you first come to the Lower East Side?

My first memories are of visiting the Lower East Side as a tourist – Little Italy, Chinatown and Orchard Street. In later years, I often visited some of my husband’s relatives who had come to the United States in the early 60’s.  My most recent contact with this part of the city was several years ago when I began teaching  ESL classes and Nutrition courses for organizations in the neighborhood, including Madison Street where I currently work.

What makes this neighborhood special?

Where do I begin?  From the obvious perspective, it is a historical gem.  Anyone who falls in love with New York needs to walk the streets of the Lower East Side to sense the history of this city, a particular era and the people and nationalities that have contributed to its growth, evolution, and standing in the world.  It is a veritable classroom for anyone interested in architecture, gastronomy, religion, and small industry. Even if so much has been lost or faded into the background due to progress and gentrification, occasionally you can still spot a glimpse of some faded sign or architectural detail that can transport you to another time.  Inevitably,  one  way or the other, the progress of our country will always be built on the shoulders of those who walked these streets.

–Posted by Emily Gallagher, Community Outreach Coordinator

Learning to Read Buildings

We dedicate a lot of time and energy to teaching students how to read books. I’d like to propose we also focus on learning to read buildings. Like books, buildings have stories and are subject to interpretation. Building materials and design carry information. Similarly, their use and contents are evidence of people, events, and change over time. Like learning to read the ABCs, learning to read a building takes practice. It requires skills of looking, thinking, asking questions, and making connections and interpretations.

Students from Mather High School

Students from Mather High School

The Tenement Museum recently partnered with the National Park Service and the Stephen T. Mather Building Arts & Craftsmanship High School to help incoming freshmen kick off their year with an exercise in learning to read buildings. As a new Career and Technical Education high school specializing in the building arts and landscape trades, Mather High School was particularly keen to create a foundation for its students to understand what makes a place matter. Answering this question requires the ability to do a close reading of buildings and got me thinking about how important it is to teach all students how to read and interpret the places around us.

Governor’s Island was selected as an ideal site for students to begin their instruction. Taking a field trip on the very first day the freshman students met their classmates and teachers established new parameters for what their classroom could look like. A Preservation Challenge scavenger hunt was created to introduce students to the material. Armed with maps, resources, a compass, and an iPad, students went off in small teams to take on three missions designed to get them looking and thinking about place.

Students from Mather High School visiting Governors Island recently

Learning to read buildings reinforced several lessons worth remembering as we go into a new school year:

The World Is Our Classroom
All around us are opportunities to discover, question, and make connections. Helping students to see the opportunities in their local bodega, museum, and even own homes is key to preparing them to become lifelong learners.

Be Observant
We have a tendency to go go go, but being able to pause and be observant is essential. How often do we pass something by without noticing what is happening right in front of us? The Preservation Challenge was designed to help students be attentive and give them tools for slowing down and observing their surroundings.

Ask Questions
What makes you curious about the place? What else would you like to know? The best kind of learning leads to new questions, which ultimately leads to more learning. Rewarding students for asking questions as much as answering them recognizes the importance of this skill.

Collaborate
You can’t get through life alone. While working in small teams was a challenge for some, it reinforced the different ways people see and approach problems. Being able to work together is an important skill and it takes practice.

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

Staying Cool in Our Old Age

 

Summer on the Lower East Side in 2014.

The Tenement at 97 Orchard Street may not be the oldest building in New York City (that title belongs to the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum in Brooklyn built in 1652), but it is one of the oldest buildings to be preserved in its original condition.  At the Tenement Museum, preserving our building can means preserving both the structure of the building and the historical conditions. We are devoted to making history accessible to our visitors, and this means we think about how to heat and cool our Tenement building without interrupting the visitor’s experience of stepping back in time.

Of course, this can get pretty uncomfortable, so we have invited experts at Henry & Watson Associates to visit the Museum to consider the ways in which we can make sure our visitors, and the building, stay safe and comfortable. They identify standards that codify human comfort in interior environments as ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 55-2010 Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy. Resources like the ASHRAE are compiled and updated by scientists and engineers who focus on maintaining comfortable temperatures in human environments. Architects and contractors can consult the ASHRAE  to find, for instance, that at 76.2 to 88.8 degrees 80% of people are comfortable and at 78 to 87 degrees 90% of people are comfortable.

There are a number of factors that make the visitors more or less comfortable in the building.

Women in New York across all levels of income and occupation wore much heavier clothing in the eras before air-conditioning. This photograph shows fashions from 1910. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

One of these considerations is fashion! Are our visitors wearing cool, light clothing? This freedom of dress is a relief that most Americans enjoy in the summer without thinking about it. Imagine what some of the original residents of 97 Orchard Street would have been wearing in the hottest summer months! 100 years ago, men and women wore more conservative clothing than we do today, like long skirts and full suits. Talk about suffering for fashion!

The paces at which visitors move through the building on hot days can also affect how comfortable they are in the building; minimizing physical exertion help everyone keep cool. Tell that to Jenny Levine and Bridget Moore, who carried buckets full of water up the four flights of stairs many times a day!

Modern conveniences are not always as convenient as they seem. The transition from an air-conditioned building to an un-air-condtioned one like ours (more on that later) can change the way our visitors feel. The human body is highly adaptive and visitors coming from our air-conditioned Visitor’s Center or an air-conditioned train will have adjusted to that cooler temperature; these visitors might actually be more uncomfortable than someone who has been out in the heat. This is not something the original resident would have worried about!

But what solutions can we consider to keeping 97 Orchard Street cool and historically authentic in the summer time? One obvious possibility is air-conditioning: while we are all glad to have them in our homes, window air-conditioners would look out of place in the Rogarshevsky apartment from 1910. Beyond aesthetics, air-conditioners have structural implications for the health of the building. Modern  Heating, Ventilation and  Air-conditioning systems would certainly damage the fabrics in the building and put other materials at risk. Some aspects of our old building are very sensitive to moisture and lowering the temperature with air-conditioning can increase the humidity in the building. The process of lowering the internal temperature upsets the moisture equilibrium and invites in outside moisture which could opens the building to risks from mold growth to salt accumulation which eats at our carefully preserved historic finishes.

Hand-held air-conditioning at the Tenement Museum. Cooling and well....cool.

The research that Henry & Watson conducted in the building has led them to pioneer a creative multidimensional approach to our very special considerations. Using light blocking blinds during the day kept the building at a comfortable temperature. In fact, some have said The Tenement is so Hot Its Got To Have Shades. Currently we have also installed small, but efficient, electric fans the apartments that keep air circulating through the building.So what can we do to make everyone as comfortable as possible all summer?  Their long-term plan includes a centralized climate-monitoring system allowing our educators to make up to the minute adjustments necessary to tours and schedules. Future measures will also include a new ventilation system, designed specially for the Tenement building  which will help control temperatures and humidity.  Best of all, we have a very ancient cooling system which we happily share with all our visitors – fans!

An example of ultra-modern passive architecture which attempts to exist without a carbon footprint. Photo courtesy of ArchitekturWerkstatt Vallentin via Dwell Magazine.

They say that everything old is new again, and in many ways our historic building is actually on the cutting edge of environmental technology! As engineers and architects contend with rising carbon emissions worldwide, the most creative buildings are often those which stay cool without mechanized cooling systems like air-conditioning. These buildings make use of what is called “passive design,” which mostly means being thoughtfully old-fashioned. Examples of passive design would be covering a path with white stones instead of cement, which make a building cooler in the summer, or having southern facing windows, which make a building warmer in the winter. So next time you’re a little warm in our historic building, remember we are also at the forefront of modern engineering.

–Posted by Julia Berick. Special Thanks to Henry & Watson Associates and to David Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Tenement Museum.