Summer Reading List

Last winter’s polar vortex has finally receded from memory and you’ve taken that old bathing suit for a spin here and there. It’s high season for summer reading and we’ve got a few titles to tote along on the August vacations you’ve been planning all year. We’ve asked some museum staffers for their favorite picks from our well-stocked Museum shop for wherever the summer will take you.

The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro

Robert A. Caro’s exhaustively researched biography, The Power Broker, profiles one of the most powerful unelected officials in American history, Robert Moses, New York City’s “master builder.” Caro examines the personality of the builder of two World’s Fairs, the Verrazano Narrows bridge, the United Nations, and countless expressways and parks while critiquing Moses’ rise to power and the car-centric culture he embraced. The Power Broker details Moses’ legacy as the bankrupt and fallen New York of the 1970s. This book pairs very well with Greenwich Village activist Jane Jacobs’ stinging critique of contemporary urban planning practices, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which Caro cites as his biggest influence in writing The Power Broker.

–Colin Kennedy, Advance Sales Reservations Associate

 

 Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In Americanaha, Adichie’s third novel, we meet Ifemelu – a Nigerian woman living in America – while she prepares to return home.  The story adroitly reveals Ifemelu’s experiences as she discovers who she is in each of these two worlds.  Engaging in Ifemelu’s story and struggle will force you to reevaluate the way you view the concept of immigration.  Adichie presents a poignant exploration of beauty, identity, autonomy, and racism in new and startling ways.

Just be forewarned:  you will be unable to put this book down, so I suggest taking it on vacations that involve a lot of relaxation and down time.

–Rachel Birch, Manager of Donor Relations

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

When I acquired Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I was so enthralled by the story that it took me less than two days to finish.  In this coming of age novel, set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century, Mary Francie Nolan – the daughter of Irish and Austrian immigrants – grapples with the difficulty of growing up with very little money and a father who succumbs to alcohol. The main female characters remind me of the stories we tell of the strong and independent women of 97 Orchard Street. Francie’s father Johnny Nolan – an idealist who works as a singing waiter – shirks away from familial responsibilities during hard times, while her mother, Katie Nolan becomes stronger in the face of adversity. She is employed as a janitress and saves money for the family when she can afford to. Katie is similar to Natalie Gumpertz, a German-Jewish tenant who lived in 97 Orchard Street in the 1870s. Natalie worked as a dressmaker to support her four children when her husband, Julius, disappeared. However, Francie embodies the best traits of both parents; her father’s romantic spirit and her mother’s drive. Disclaimer: keep a box of tissues by your side as you join Francie on her navigation through life.

–Alana Rosen, Evening Events Manager

 

The Tiger’s Wife by  Téa Obreht

Téa Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, will leave you longing for seconds, but don’t worry the 29 year-old  sounds like she has a trove of stories in store. Obreht was chosen as one of the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” fiction writers of distinction, largely on the strength of this stunning novel. Born in Belgrade, Obreht weaves the lore and pain of Balkan history, both recent and long-past, into the very modern tale of a young doctor tracing the question mark of her grandfather’s disappearance.  Obreht emigrated from the former Yugoslovia to Egypt, Cyprus and then the United States in 1997. Don’t be thrown by the title, this engaging story will sweep you away but in no way courts a female audience. Not quite magical realism, not quite geopolitical reality, I promise her confident melodic prose will take you across borders.

–Juila Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Five Points by Tyler Anbinder

With the cost of rent and other things, sometimes it’s awfully hard to get oneself out of the city. So you’ve resigned to do “stay-cations only” this year (and let’s be honest, for the entire foreseeable future.) You tell this to friends cheerily, although you have a shred of fear in your heart… the fear that summer in the city has a number of truly dismal qualities that just don’t hold water next to your friend’s monthlong spiritual awakening in the Andes (how DO they manage, anyway?)

When the first hot day strikes, you step out of your front door to the mind-altering smell of cooking garbage. You spend an extra five minute attempting to slam the heat-swollen door shut behind you. Waiting for the bus, legs sweating under your dress at 8 am, you begin to pity yourself as a tumbleweed of torn up fast food bags weave their way around your feet and rub a mysterious, unremovable residue on your bare calf.

But then! You pull out your summer read, Five Points, by Tyler Ambinder. Suddenly you realize that you don’t have it quite as bad as you thought.  While some aspects might sound awfully familiar (living atop a toxic waste dump is something many New Yorkers still do today) much of it will help you appreciate the struggles that occurred to make New York City cleaner and safer, even if it doesn’t feel that way.  I’m not saying you don’t have it bad. All I am saying is– you’re in good company.

–Emily Gallagher, Community Outreach Coordinator

Flapper By Joshua Zeitz

On the surface, summer reading is a bit like a flapper; easy, breezy and maybe even a little silly. Of course, looks can be deceiving. Joshua Zeitz’s Flapper:  Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern is well-researched and endlessly entertaining with a casual style will go down like a Tom Collins. Zeitz explores the people who invented and who became flappers, those cloche-hatted, raised-hemlined free spirits who gave the Roaring Twenties its teeth and changed the course of American politics and culture one jitterbug at a time. The book jumps from Zelda Fitzgerald’s Alabama to the ad agencies of New York City, the fashion houses of Paris, and everywhere in between revealing the history behind modern America. A perfectly relaxed read, Flapper may seem ditzy at first, but this accessible history has got some real brains under that bobbed hair.

–Elizabeth Tietjen, Evening Events Associate

… and don’t forget the sunscreen!

Factory Girls: Fashioning a New Identity

The picture of high fashion. This image from around 1907 shows the kind of luxurious attire to which working women aspired. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Real lovers of fashion have never doubted its importance. But you might ask where was the place for fashion in the tenements of the Lower East Side? Other than stitching and pinning the fashionable garments of the wealthy, were women in the early garment industry really able to indulge themselves in the latest trends? The answer is a resounding yes!

The same generation of young women who saved their pennies for dime novel romances also scraped together small amounts of money on their attire. Much like spending your savings in a romance novel, purchasing fine fashions at first seems like an unwise investment. Actually, for these young immigrants and second-generation factory workers, clothing helped them to tell important stories about themselves.

For the factory workers wearing, the styles they worked on in the factories was important order to feel independent from the repetitive labor. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

For the factory workers wearing, the styles they worked on in the factories was important order to feel independent from the repetitive labor. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

For these young factory workers, clothing told tales of success, both financial and cultural. With a few cents the girls could buy new trim for a dress or new ornaments for an old hat. As the fashion at the time among the wealthiest Fifth Avenue ladies was for towering hats, working-class women often just continued to pile additional ornaments on a hat they already owned. Voila: Fashion and thrift! Working-class woman often favored fashions that broadcasted their femininity. At that time working in factories, or working at all, was not considered at the time to be very ladylike. (Female factory workers would continue to carry masculine stigma for nearly 40 more years. Extensive government campaigns, including the famous Rosie the Riveter, were necessary to coax the much-needed feminine workforce into munitions factories during World War II. Shortly thereafter, the returning male workforce pressured them back into the home in the 1950s.)

Lillian Wald was a reformer and advocate for working-class women in the early Twentieth Century. However she also held opinions about their dress.

Therefore, these earlier factory workers were some of the first American woman to embrace – along with towering hats – the “French” high-heel. Three inch heels were not the only daring fashion move made by these young women. They also had quite an appetite for color, when most of the fashion called for muted tones. Lillian Wald, a well-known activist working among the tenement populations at the Henry Street Settlement House, supposedly offered to buy a woman’s shirt from her for $5 because the bright color offended her so greatly! Lillian Wald is also said to have been aghast at how intently these women desired silk petticoats. The petticoats would have been expensive and invisible. However the silk would have made a subtle, dignified rustle heard by the wearer and those in close vicinity. To the wearer of the petticoats, the sound would made her feel like a real lady.

An advertisement for silk petticoats from 1909. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The fashions worn by the working-classes were a much closer match to that of the truly affluent women in New York than to the middle classes, but in many ways were free from the standards of either group. These working-class women were probably glad to establish their own expectations after the swarm of opinions they encountered from all sides. Their mothers may have had old-world expectations for dress and behavior, while many Americans probably viewed them dirty and unrefined. They also would have received advice from well-meaning reformers with strong opinions such as Lillian Wald.

Factory workers supposedly conjured aristocratic surnames for themselves inspired by the characters in their dime novels. It is no surprise then that they conjured attire for themselves that matched their own dreams of American womanhood.

Working women in 1907 outside of the Dix building displaying their careful attention to fashion. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

- Posted by Julia Berick

Hearts and Minds: Italian Americans and their Italian Ties

It pays to stay in touch. This photo from 1943 shows a U.S. soldier from Wisconsin who found his cousins in Palermo. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is making a few special stops during his trip to Italy this summer. Some of these stops, such as meeting with Ignazio Marino, the mayor of Rome, he probably did not make when he first visited his maternal grandfather’s home town, Sant’agata de’ Goti, as a teenager in the 1970s.  Bill de Blasio’s maternal grandfather, Giovanni de Blasio, immigrated to New York from a small town near Naples .  While Giovanni was relatively comfortable financially, he left southern Italy with the same hope as many Southern Italians at that time: to make it in America.

The beauty of Italy remained not only in the minds of the émigrés but developed in the popular imagination of the rest of the United States. This travel poster for Palermo was created in 1920 around the time of the mass migration from that region. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

One of the families who lived at 97 Orchard Street was the Baldizzi family. The Baldizzis were from Sicily and were part of a similar wave of immigration to that of the Giovanni de Blasio. The Italian experience of immigration to the United States was different for northern and for southern Italians. Northern Italians immigrated earlier to the U.S than their southern countrymen. By 1870 there were about 25,000 Italian immigrants, mostly northern Italians who were escaping political turmoil and the Risorgimento, the wars surrounding Italian independence and reunification.  The wave of immigration from southern Italy and Sicily was affected by a variety of what historians call push factors:  high taxes, scarcity of fertile farmland, and several natural disasters including tidal waves and eruptions from both Mt. Etna and Mt. Vesuvius.   Giovanni de Blasio left Sant’Agata in 1905. In that same year, 7,849 citizens left that area.

Aldopho Baldizzi was from Palermo, a Scilian town that  also saw huge numbers of emigrants in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Aldolpho was a skilled carpenter. Despite his prowess, in Sicily he made only about $1.80 a week for his work and had heard rumors that carpenters in New York he could make closer to $18 a week. Aldopho had higher hopes for his young family. He was married to Rosaria  Mutolo ,the daughter of the woman who sold him eggs. He left Sicily in 1923 without Rosaria. Traveling as a single young man was somewhat common among southern Italian immigrants because,unlike some of the Eastern European Jewish families who left their homes to escape persecution, some Italian immigrants held the possibility of return in case they found they could not make ends meet in the United States. Eventually, Aldolpho Baldizzi gained a foot-hold in New York and saved enough money for Rosaria to come join him. Many Italian immigrants did however return home. Between 1900 and 1910 40% of Italian immigrants returned to Italy –  these immigrants were called the ritornati.

This photo depicts a group of Italian day laborers in 1910 under the Sixth Avenue elevated. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Italian immigrants also continued to send money, when they had it, home to families and villages in Italy. In 1896 a U.S. government commission estimated that Italians sent somewhere between $4 and $30 million annually back to Italy. Giovanni de Blasio sent chocolate and clothing back to Sant’Agata to be distributed by his brother, who was a priest. Giovanni also bought the first television in the town when he returned for a visit in 1953 and invited his neighbors to watch with him.

Rosaria Baldizzi with her goddaughter on the occasion of the goddaughter's first communion.

Josephine Baldizzi , the daughter of Adolpho and Rosaria, lived in 97 Orchard until she was 9 years old. She shared some of her memories with Museum.  One of her memories is  hearing her mother listening to Italian radio and opera constantly in the apartment: “The radio, always playing: Italian music, Italian soap operas, and my mother crying all the time (chuckles).  She used to miss her family.  She left her whole family in Italy, came here as a young girl and she never saw them again for many, many years later.”  While Bill de Blasio might not listen to Italian soap operas (he’s got other things to do!), he has managed to maintain his ties to his grandfather’s country: he practices his Italian with his barber here in NYC to main his proper southern Italian accent!

Don't underestimate the bonds between a man and his barber. This man gets a shave some time between 1910 and 1915. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

-Posted by Julia Berick

Summer Escapism, Part Two: Coney Island Dreaming

Coney Island's Luna Park, one of the Island's most popular amusement parks, photographed in 1917. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Its summertime and you want to get away from it all? You aren’t the only one. We discussed how many young women working in factories read dime novels as a kind of getaway; but Lower East Siders did make some real excursions as well. Lower East Siders often tried to find a little escape from their routines on limited means. For a time, from around 1880 to 1911, one of the most popular destinations for working-class new Yorkers was Coney Island.

In the early 1870s Coney Island was a lovely, if lonely, stretch of beach with just a few inns and bathhouses. In the later 1870’s the multiple municipal train lines finally linked the beachfront to Manhattan, which allowed visitors to pay a relatively inexpensive fare to reach the shore.  A regularly scheduled steamship arrived to shuttle visitors by 1880. When Coney Island initially developed it was as economically stratified as Manhattan.  First wealthy families settled Manhattan Beach as a season-long destination, bringing their entire households, including servants to high-end establishments Oriental Hotel and its competitors. Norton’s point, was a rough destination for men on their own, who gambled, fought and visited brothels. West Brighton became a destination for middle-class families traveling for day excursions.

By 1900 Coney Island had attracted the weekend crowd that would make it famous – as many as 300,000 to 500,000 visitors descended on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Middle and working-class families began to throng the Island, and attractions began to cater to the tastes of these new consumers. In 1896 Captain Paul Boyton collected few attractions close together for his Sea Lion Park. Sea Lion Park boasted of sea lions (naturally) and an ride called “shoot-the-chutes” among other themed amusements. The success of Boyton’s park inspired entrepreneur George Tilyou to create Steeplechase Park in 1987 and subsequently Dreamland and Luna Park attractions.

With the consolidation of the beachfront attractions into organized parks, Coney Island’s culture began to shift again. Concession stands were now largely leased out through the larger “parks,” which streamlined the experience.  The parks were suddenly pitched to attract the largest possible audience. Some establishments served soda, rather than alcohol, and heavily marketed themselves as family friendly establishments.

Visitor's enjoy the Shoot-the-Chutes attraction in Sea Lion Park. Photo courtesy of the New York Public LIbrary.

The plan worked. The parks became so wildly popular that they attracted all classes and began to erode the distinctions between the way these groups spent their leisure time. Coney Island amusements helped crumble some of the staunch Victorian insistence on middle-class conduct. Popular participation in the amusements helped to create mass culture on a whole new scale.

Another ride at a Coney, a successor to Tilyou's original Steeplechase concept featuring mechanical horses. This photograph is dated 1905. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Dreamland and Luna Park provided opportunities to do things that most people, married or single were never able to do. They could laugh, mingle, flirt, and touch the opposite sex in public! Swimming, sliding, falling and any number of other sensations were encouraged by the amusement park rides. These unfamiliar activities broke down the expected codes of conduct and put park-goers in touch with sensations society had largely taught them to bury or suppress. It seems only fitting that Sigmund Frued, pioneer of the unconscious, visited the park in 1909. One park even contained an attraction called Fire and Flames, which contained a staged disaster where firemen battled for a tenement building (covered in asbestos) that went up in flames twice a day.

Still a beloved summertime destination for New Yorkers, Coney Island has recently survived the impact of Hurricane Sandy and a boardwalk fire. Photography courtesy of New York Department of Parks and Recreation.

Eventually the Coney Island’s popularity waned. Coney never quite recovered the controlled magic it once wielded, after Dreamland itself burned to the ground in 1911. Following World War One more tangible technologies like the automobile, the airplane and eventually television replaced the park as Americans’ perfered amusements. Coney Island has survived even the immense power of Hurricane Sandy and remains a popular summertime destination for New Yorkers.

A dreamlike image of Luna Park at night. The Park's popularity coincided with the debut of electric lighting for display and public space. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Some fantasies of the old Coney Island will always survive from a time when Americans played in Dreamland.

 

-  Posted by Julia Berick

Seven Names for Eight Begechers

As we delve into research for our new exhibits at 103 Orchard Street, we’re learning more about the building’s past residents. If you explore our photo archive, you might come across these two former tenants: Ida and Lilly, Eastern European Jewish immigrants who shared an apartment with their four siblings and parents. Their family was closely-knit enough to help each other immigrate to the United States, one by one, as money allowed. But after several years in America, they no longer shared a name.

Ida and Lilly

Ida and Lilly

Ida and Lilly were born to Marcus and Sarah Begecher–but that’s just one version of their surname. According to Allen Kurtz, whose wife is the granddaughter of Ida, there have been at least 7 different spellings of the family’s last name:

  1. Boczezcer (Marcus’s ship manifest, 1899)
  2. Begecher (Marcus’s naturalization certificate, 1904)
  3. Bulchecher (U.S. Census, 1905)
  4. Buczeczer (Lilly’s marriage certificate, 1907)
  5. Buchesser (Ida’s marriage certificate and U.S. Census, 1910)
  6. Bechacher (U.S. Census, 1920)
  7. Betchesser (Tombstones of Marcus and Sarah, 1923 & 1924)

Sarah Begecher

The evolution of the family’s names didn’t stop there. Here are the six children’s birth and chosen names:

Ruchel:  Rose Begecher
Schema: Sam Begecher
Chaya: Ida Begecher
Liebe: Lilly Schesser
Mendel: Max Schesser
Schnerza: Jack Schwartz

It’s not uncommon for immigrants to change their names upon arrival in the U.S., but why the significant differences between surnames chosen by family members? By the time Marcus and Sarah died in the 1920′s, their death certificates listed their last name as “Schesser” (though their tombstone carried another misspelling of Begecher), so perhaps they officially adopted this change later in life. It’s possible that this second revision of the family name, which is arguably easier for English speakers to pronounce, was never taken on by the older children who were already making lives for themselves as “Begechers”. But another question remains: why did Schnerza [later known as Jack] adopt ‘Schwartz’ as his surname?

Jack Schwartz

Noting that the name Schwarz derives from a Germanic word for “dark”, Allen says “As for Jack Schwartz, nobody knows. My wife has suggested, half-jokingly and half serious, the it may (emphasis on may) have been because he was of slightly darker and more swarthy skin and when teased, embraced the name as his own.”

We’ll never know the real reason, but Allen muses that immigrants in those days “…were less wedded to their names than we are, living as we do in an age where identity is important. The correct spelling of a name seems less important than it does today. Names were malleable.”

Lots of fascinating food for thought, all from one family! As we discover more, we’ll share further stories about the history of 103 Orchard Street.

- Posted by Kira Garcia

Factory Girls and Dime Novels

The Rogarshevsky's sitting room was also where some of the family slept and ate. The two books on the buearu, in the back corner of this photograph, may have been the best escape for Bessie and Ida.

One of the families who lived at 97 Orchard Street were the Rogarshevky’s.  The two oldest Rogarshevksy daughters, Ida and Bessie, were 17 and 16 in 1910, the year the family moved to Orchard street. Unlike most American teenagers today, Bessie and Ida worked full-time to support the family. We believe that they worked long hours in a garment factory during the day and that they slept together on a folding cot in the kitchen. Their routine would have been tiring and would have left little time, or space, to escape their responsibilities. No wonder they wanted a little romance in their lives!

Contemporary romance heroine, Carrie Bradshaw of the TV show Sex and the City, once claimed that when she first moved to New York, she spent her money on Vogue rather than dinner because “it fed me more.”  This fictional comparison at first seems an unlikely one but in some ways this is exactly what these factory girls did. By skipping lunch or performing small errands for their co-workers to save money  the girls managed to scrape together the ten cents necessary to carry them into the fantasy world of the romance novels in which their daydreams came true.

A view of the kitchen of the Rogarshevky's apartment and the cot which Bessie and Ida shared.

There are two books on the bureau in the corner of the sitting room of the restored Rogarshevsky apartment. These books might seem innocuous to us, but to Ida and Bessie’s mother, Fannie who probably could not read English, they might have seemed like an invasive species. These books are actually  “dime novels” – so called because they cost ten cents- today we could classify them as romance novels.

Ten cents was a lot of money for the young women who were only making around $5 or $6 a week and who were expected to turn most of this money over to their mothers to help keep the family afloat. Young women like Ida and Bessie would have relished small opportunity to participate in American culture through reading and discussing these dime novels with the other woman in their factories. Ida and Bessie had been living in the United States for about 9 years before they moved into 97 Orchard. They would have perhaps begun to feel much more like American than their mother would have liked.

Jewish factory workers in New York City photographed around the time of the dime novel's popularity. While factory work was taxing it did allow some socializing among the workers. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

By reading the books, the young women in the factories  could learn about American trends, habits and idioms. The stories were tailored just to suit the hopes of these working girls. The stories often told of a poor girl who was noticed and romanced  by a wealthy man and then married to him to live happily ever after.  Young women read these stories during their short breaks at the factory. In contrast to the mindless, repetitive tasks they were forced to perform, the comparatively intellectual task of using their relatively new English Language skills to read and analyze a story was a great treat. Many of the girls used these novels as an incentive and a tool in learning English. So many of the young women working in factories read the novels that they would spend as much of the day as possible discussing the plots, characters and outcomes just like actual gossip.

A 'romantic' portrait of Laura Jean Libbey (1862-1924), a prolific author of the kind of popular dime novels read by young factory workers. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Historian Nan Enstad in her volume Ladies of Leisure, Girls of Adventure, makes clear just how important these characters were, “[Dorothy] Richardson worked in factories but had a middle class background [...] When the fact that she has never read a dime novel romance was revealed one worker cried in surprise and disgust, ‘Oh, mama! Carry me out and let me die!’ Another clutched her throat and cried, ‘Water! Water! … I’m going to faint!’ At this point both workers gave way to laughter at Richardson’s expense. They later hastened to help her overcome her deficiency” (57 Ensted).

Next time you find yourself discussing the plot of Downton Abbey, or Sex and the City, with your coworkers just imagine Ida and Bessie trying to save up pennies to catch-up on American culture and participate in the “dreaming” part of the American dream.

- Posted by Julia Berick

Whose Project?

 

Influential, postwar urban planner Robert Moses, right, tours a future public housing site on August 9th 1956 with Mayor Robert Wagner, left and Frank Meistrell, center. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I live in a housing project. Recently a blogger blasted my project’s landlord for trying to pass off the project as luxury housing. Apparently a housing project is a low-class place to live, no matter how hard you try to make it attractive to young professionals through landscaping and amenities.

 

But let’s turn back the clock. What did America think about the housing project after World War II? As it turns out, the housing project wasn’t always synonymous with crime and poverty. Indeed, for a few years midcentury the housing project provided stiff competition to the bedroom suburb with its detached, single-family homes and white picket fences.

 

This poster from 1938 created by the New York Housing Authority offers housing projects as as hygienic solution to infant mortality. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Imagine you’re a returning war veteran in 1946. You grew up in an aging tenement sharing space with your siblings, struggling to earn enough to one day support a family. You return from combat and into a colossal housing crisis. Even after you land a good, steady job, you wonder how you’ll ever afford a better place to live.

But this being the 1940s, you know who to turn to for help: the government! After all, it was the government that steered the country through the Great Depression and a world war. Surely the government can also solve the housing crisis.

And that’s what the government did. First, it encouraged suburbanization by insuring mortgages and investing in highways. But it also encouraged urban renewal by loaning cities money to clear-cut tenement neighborhoods for housing projects.

 

This 1941 photo illustrates the beginning of decades of slum demolition, making way for housing projects. This photograph courtesy of the LOC.

A housing project isn’t necessarily a home for the poor. It isn’t even necessarily government-owned. A housing project is nothing more than a group of apartment buildings (and occasional townhouses) designed, constructed, owned, and managed as one unit, with the buildings and the surrounding land creating a (hopefully) harmonious whole. A typical housing project includes playgrounds, walkways, greensward, parking lots, and access roads. Residents easily flow from one space to another. Garbage collection and sewers are designed for maximum cleanliness and efficiency. Buildings are typically T-, L-, X-, or Y-shaped to that every apartment is a corner unit with optimal air circulation. In a housing project all the problems of the tenement district – all the mess and grunge and danger of urban living – would be expelled by design, and residents would finally reach their full potential as Americans and as human beings.

 

Although some housing projects were built for the poor, most were built for other classes. Lincoln Towers, the housing project behind Lincoln Center, is a luxury housing project. And although the government often owned the low-income housing projects, middle- and upper-income projects were privately owned. My housing project is Stuyvesant Town, built in 1947 by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

A view from 1951 of the fountain and other landscaping details in Peter Stuyvesant Village, the author's housing project. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

In no city was the housing project as widely embraced as in New York. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers of all classes and in all five boroughs still live in these projects, most of them built in the quarter-century after World War II.

 

When they were new, these housing projects represented a better, modern future. But by the 1970s the projects had fallen into ill repute. To find out why, take a walk down Grand Street on the Lower East Side.

 

As you head toward the East River, you’ll find yourself sandwiched between two very different housing projects. On your right, the Grand Street Co-op, a middle-income, owner-occupied housing project built in 1957 by labor unions as a way to provide improved and affordable housing for unionized blue-collar workers and civil servants. On your left lies Seward Park Extension, a low-income, city-owned housing project begun in 1973 and never finished. Why didn’t the City finish building Seward Park Extension? Look again to your right.

 

For most of its existence, Seward Park Co-op has been predominantly white and Jewish. But by 1973 the poorest New Yorkers were predominantly African-American and Puerto Rican. The residents of Seward Park Co-op did not want the crime and social disorder of the urban poor across the street from their middle-class project. African-American and Puerto Rican New Yorkers, however, were no longer willing to live in the shockingly decrepit, overcrowded tenements, and they resented what they perceived as the Jewish community’s attempt to “close the door behind them” as they moved out of poverty and into the middle class. As the two sides battled each other in court, in the press, and in City Hall, construction of the rest of Seward Park Extension stalled. Eventually the City abandoned all plans to finish this low-income housing project, leaving much of the land a vacant lot for 45 years.

 

This image of a housing project in Red Hook Brooklyn is a more bleak version of 'hygienic' planned housing. This photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Racial and class divisions shaped the suburbs, too, but the government’s role in suburban development was indirect. Developers didn’t need much government help buying and clearing cheap farmland for suburban development. Independent realtors, not a centralized Housing Authority or corporate landlord, handled home sales. Banks, developers, and realtors could create all-white suburbs with little oversight or opposition.

In the city, by contrast, everything was out in the open and highly politicized. The long-standing racial- and class-based residential segregation, much of it illegal, is much easier to address when the government builds housing projects, but does the government want to address this segregation? It’s an emotional and contentious issue, so it makes more sense to avoid it by pulling the plug on housing projects, which is exactly what government did in the 1970s. By the 1980s low-income housing projects were suffering from rising crime and crumbling infrastructure, while wealthier New Yorkers increasingly sought homes in the “reclaimed” tenements, lofts, and brownstones of gentrifying neighborhoods.

Today the housing project has an unsavory reputation, but not because of anything inherently unsavory about the housing project. It’s just another model for the urban built environment, and in my experience a great one to inhabit. The problem isn’t the housing project; it’s our own inability or refusal to solve the problems of racism and poverty in America.

 

- Posted by Adam Steinberg, Senior Education Associate

A Star-Studded Perfomance for the Fourth of July

The real star of this year's Fourth of July celebration? This photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge was taken in 1915. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Not that we’re biased, but the Lower East Side Tenement Museum is very much looking forward to having the Fourth of July fireworks back on the East River this year.

 

The magic of the Fourth of July fireworks brings together a star-studded performance by four of New York’s most renowned institutions. One star performer is Macy’s; one of the nation’s first department stores and a major New York landmark. Italian and Portuguese immigrants are also important actors. These men and woman are often credited with making fireworks an essential celebration ingredient in American celebration.  The Brooklyn Bridge and the East River are also major players this year and the site of the main fireworks display.

An 1906  image of Macy's Hearld Square location. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A New York success story, Macy’s has long been an important landmark. Once a dry goods shop on the corner of 14th street and 6th avenue Macy’s has been a shopping haven and a NY attraction since its Herald Square location opened in 1902. Macy’s has been hosting the Fourth of July fireworks since 1976. Its safe to say – it’s a hit.

 

The pyrotechnics will be launched from the Brooklyn Bridge, perhaps New York’s most beautiful bridge. It was designed and built by a German born engineer, John A. Roebling, whose son oversaw its completion in 1883.  Its stunning Neo-gothic towers have been a source of poetic devotion since its inception. Writers from Hart Crane to Marianne Moore to Jack Kerouac have expressed their admiration in verse.

 

The Brooklyn Bridge spanning the East River in around 1910. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

While the “East” River is east of Manhattan this tributary actually runs through the center of the five boroughs. Many New Yorkers may have murkier associations with the East River the riverfront first began to suffer when maritime activity did. Slowly docks and piers were replaced with factories, coal yards and slaughterhouses. The myriad of factories along the shores even altered the shape of the city itself! The space that they took up created a landfill that extended past the original footprint of the island. Pearl Street is actually the original shoreline of South East Manhattan.

The Manhattan bank of the east River also suffered the attentions of NY architect Robert Moses who conceived of FDR Drive but also imagined the pedestrian paths we enjoy today. During World War II rubble from blitzed England was brought back in the holds of American convoys as ballast, after they had delivered their goods to England. The rubble was then dumped largely between 23rd Streets and 34th Streets. Despite a history of pollution from the four power plants and six sewage plants along its banks, the East River is making an ecological comeback, most interestingly manifested in the resurgence of oyster beds, benefiting the aquatic ecosystem.

 

The descendents of the Grucci family with their world-famous explosives. Image courtesy of Grucci.

While it was the Chinese who originally invented fireworks, Italian residents of the Lower East Side would be proud to know that it was mostly like an Italian immigrant, Angelo Lanzetta from Bari, Italy who helped pioneer the popularity of fireworks displays. The big names in fireworks in the US today, Pyro Spectaculars By Souza, Constantino Vitale’s Pyrotecnico, Zambelli, and Fireworks By Grucci are all family businesses of Italian or Portuguese descent.

Angelo Lanzetta and his family became one of the most popular fireworks manufacturers in the US. In 1870 Lanzetta, formerly an apprentice at a fireworks company, immigrated to New York and brought the trade with him. In 1920 he was followed by his nephew Grucci Sr., bringing the Grucci name to a now famous fireworks company, which still has its headquarters in Brookhaven, NY. While Grucci is not behind this particular display, they did provide a centennial display on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1983. This July 4th the fireworks are going to be presented by another family run company, descendants of Manuel de Sousa immigrants from Portugal to San Francisco in 1900 who originally created fireworks displays for Portuguese Saint Days.

Be sure to be keep in mind all this New York history as you are watching the fireworks this year- oh and the nation’s history too… Happy Independence Day!

Celebrate with style ! This is the July cover of Harper's from 1894. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

 

Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Appetite for Knowledge

The sun never sets on the Lower East Side. Okay sometimes it does, but the fun continues!

New York is truly the city that never sleeps – ride the subway at any time of day, 4 pm or 4 am, and you’ll see people coming and going from work or play, all bright eyed and bushy tailed (depending on how hard they played). The Lower East Side is an integral part to this urban insomnia.

While the Tenement Museum closes at 6 pm most nights, Thursdays are set aside for the night owls of the city. Now that the nights are getting warmer and the sun is setting later, the Museum is proud to announce that we will be offering a neighborhood walking tour on Thursday evenings-Outside the Home! As we inch closer and closer to the height of summer, the evenings will provide a perfect (cooler) time to explore the Lower East Side. You can experience the nocturnal neighborhood, and see how it lights up once the sun goes down. This tour strolls past several neighborhood landmarks, each one pivotal in the evolution of the LES as we know it today.

Good clean fun, visitors enjoy the Seward Park Reading Room. Seward Park was the first municple playground in the U.S. and is one stop on our Outside the Home tour. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

All of these stops will allow visitors to understand how residents would have spent their own evenings, at the Lowe’s Canal Street Theater for instance, or on the blocks of Hester and Grand Streets formerly home to pushcart peddlers and a block once the site of 19th Century German Beer Saloons. Of course, one might get a little thirsty and hungry after learning so much fascinating history at dinner time. Thankfully our friends at Top Hops Beer Shop, which Travel and Leisure Magazine called one of America’s best beer bars, are ready and willing to take care of your post tour appetites. Top Hops is offering 15% off your entire order if you show them your ticket to any of our Thursday night tours! And don’t worry if you’re footsore after your tour, Top Hops is right across the street from 97 Orchard.

While the prices have changes slightly over the years, Top Hops fills a familiar place on Orchard Street.

While you chow down on Top Hops’ local charcuterie and sample their more than 600 craft and imported beers, you can take comfort in the fact that you are participating in one of the Lower East Side’s most honored traditions – drinking beer! In the mid-1800’s, the Lower East Side was known as Kleindeustchland, or “Little Germany,” and was the 5th largest German-speaking area in the world. The German immigrants who settled in the area brought with them a love of and appreciation for good beer and saloon culture.

An image of a drinking saloon from around 1854. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

To the German immigrants, saloons were a place to meet other immigrants, speak German, listen to German music, eat German food, and of course, drink German beers. They could get advice about life in America, ask for work, or just relax for a moment, to have a familiar bite to eat and remember their homeland.

Tenement staffers participate in history Kleindeutschland style, but also responsibly.

These saloons were very popular in the middle of the 19th century – there were over 500 saloons in the neighborhood. On the block of Orchard Street between Delancey and Broome, there were three saloons, including one in the basement of 97 Orchard, and 94 Orchard Street, where Top Hops is today.

The tradition of the saloon and beer drinking went a bit by the wayside once the Lower East Side became a predominantly Eastern European Jewish neighborhood, as the new residents favored hanging out in coffee shops rather than saloons. Thankfully, beer culture and appreciation is making a comeback in the US today, and as always, the Lower East Side is at the forefront of the newest trends – blending the old and the new to create something that is quintessential to the neighborhood. And we think that our walking tours followed by a bite and a brew make a delicious combination!

-          Posted by Lib Tietjen, Evening Events Associate

Historically Ever After

Students of PS15M getting ready to bring Tenement History to life. Photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.

I often wonder how a visit to the Tenement Museum impacts the students who visit. What happens when they go back to school and home for night? Does the visit extend back to the classroom and to their family life?

More actors in "Scrubberella." Photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.

While I aim for each student who visits to leave with new understandings, curiosity, and questions that fuel further thinking, rarely do I get the opportunity to talk with the student months later and hear how the experience has impacted him/her.  As such, the invitation from Class 202 at PS15M, Roberto Clemente to attend their school play was particularly exciting.

Publicity shots ! The cast of "Scrubberella" smile for the camera. Photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.

The 2nd graders had visited the museum back in December for our Meet Victoria school program. During the program, the students met a costumed interpreter playing the role of Victoria Confino, a 14 year old immigrant living in 97 Orchard Street in 1916. The experience ended up having a huge impact on their learning – so much so that it inspired them to make Victoria a central character within their classroom, and the star of their school play.

Some of the cast of "Scrubberella." This photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.

The teacher, Sarah Strong, whose patience and talents were amazing to see, explained that the students spend the second semester studying fairy tales and exploring Cinderella stories from around the world.  Together with the enthusiastic support of Shawn Shafner, their drama teacher from Arts for All and their dance instructor from Mark DeGarmo, the class created their own Cinderella tale. The students chose to adapt the Cinderella story to Victoria Confino and included key details about her life and times in the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century.  Shawn describes how this evolved, “when I came in, students regaled me with the story of Victoria and their time at the Tenement Museum. As an educator, any time you see that learners are naturally excited about something, you jump on it. And thus Scrubberella, as Victoria would be cruelly called by her step-family, was born.”

 

The students getting into character with the help of Shawn Shafner, their drama teacher from Arts for All and their dance instructor from Mark DeGarmo. Photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.

The students transformed Victoria into a super hero with the power to save herself through ingenuity, creativity, and baking skills. It was amazing to sit in the school auditorium and see how their Tenement Museum visit motivated further research and fueled imaginations. It was also interesting to reflect on how the historic Victoria Confino became a prominent figure in the classroom in 2014 just a short walk from where she resided nearly 100 years ago. The experience was a powerful indication of the important role that the arts play within learning.

Not only did our visitors get to meet Victoria but by making her a main character of their play, they made her story their own. Photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.

As the students activated Victoria’s story with their sounds and movements, I couldn’t help but think about what the real Victoria Confino would have thought about this development. I am pretty sure she would have liked their adaptation and cheered along with the rest of the audience.

The cast of Scrubberella takes a well-earned bow. Photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.

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Arts for All’s mission is to offer accessible artistic opportunities to children in the New York City area who face socio-economic, physical, or emotional barriers to exploring the arts. Through Arts For All, professional artists work with youth organizations to build self-confidence, self-expression, teamwork, resilience, and creativity in children.

Mark DeGarmo & Dancers/Dynamic Forms Inc is a not-for-profit organization committed to enlivening bodies, shifting perspectives & changing lives. MDDF works in yearlong, multiyear partnership programs with NYC schools, including public school students & communities under-served in the arts, dance & aesthetic education.

– Posted by Miriam Bader, Director of Education