The Once and Future Penn Station: Part II

Penn_Station_LIRR_concourseYou may have seen the pictures of Penn Station before it went down. In fact, rushing through its windowless corridors,  you may have seen the posters mounted just below the low paneled ceiling of the old, grand station.  In a daze you might stand there, as your train leaves the station, wondering about what might have been: that the Penn Station of the past is in pieces in a land fill in Jersey.

David Dunlop of The New York Times points out that the fate of the station was sealed long before it was demolished in 1961.  He asserts that the death knolls could be heard when Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed over? $1.5 million for new highways, or in 1946 when the Pennsylvania Railroad posted its first operating loss.

But the trains weren’t failing from some sudden breach of oversite. The American landscape was changing and so was travel. Dunlop cites the Federal Aid Highway Act as the first true harbinger of doom for New York’s Penn Station. Signed by FDR in 1944, the bill directed $1.5 billon to new highways…etc Even before the war was won, FDR and his advisors where envisioning the rise of the automobile. With highways came motor lodges, and the American tourist was suddenly, overwhelmingly a motorist. In 1945, intercity railroad traffic fell below 50%. In 1956, construction of interstates began to “pick up steam”. But the railroads had problems beyond cars; in 1958, a National Airlines domestic jet traveled across the country in 5 hours. And in 1958, the pink granite and miles of skylights were fading. The original Penn Station  was difficult to maintain, and with shrinking funds the management applied a stopgap. Penn Station was modernized with electronic ticketing in a “clamshell” hovering within the existing Penn Station. The $2 million addendum/bandaid was designed by architect, Lester Tichy and was almost universally despised, in part because the ticketing system, which was meant to make ticket purchasing instantaneous, actually could take hours.

The other attempt at modernizing the existing station was to punctuate the interior with advertising. Dunlap quotes the famous architectural theorist and critic Lewis Mumford in saying, “One suspects that the subversion of McKim’s masterly plan was due simply to the desire to make the whole design an immense advertising display.”  There were billboards and new clocks sponsored by Coca Cola, although immense timepieces had already been built into the original design. One especially punishing advert called out to train travelers to consider a Dodge.  When plans to pull the station down finally became public in 1961, there was a surge of polite protest, but as some would note, it was about 20 years too late. Ada Louise Huxtable, one of the most outspoken critics of mid-century architecture in New York bemoaned, “Our own times could not only not produce such a building, but cannot even maintain it.”

The only benefit of  to demolishing such a glorious building was perhaps only that it strengthened the resolve of historic preservation. Grand Central Station also was doomed to destruction, but with the help of the national mourning of NY’s Penn Station, with significant and graceful assistance from  of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who helped draw much needed  attention to the station’s plight.
Which brings us to the current plans. Cuomo is flirting with changes that will move the Amtrak ticketing hall from the current Penn Station across the street to the former Post Office building – also designed by the architecture team McKim, Mead & White. The issue is that currently Amtrak makes up only 7% of daily traffic to and from Penn Station and that the Amtrak platforms cannot also be moved, creating a longer and perhaps unnecessary schlep. The new plans also include a ground floor renovation, but critics have noted that maintaining the upper floors of Madison Square Garden while construction crews gut its supporting levels is an engineering feat which would cost around $1 billion. At these prices, owners of the current Garden could relocate it. Not likely, though a new location would finally open the air rights associated with Penn Station, which are not currently being utilized to their best potential.

The number of commuters is projected to double in the next decade. With quarters already cramped in the current station, can we hope for a better fate?

–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

A Monument to Impermanence: The Death and Life of New York’s Penn Station

It  was lavish, grand, spectacular. It was marble and granite built in the classical style but it wasn’t a hotel and it wasn’t  a mansion. It was a train station and everyone was welcome. Every generation gets the Pennsylvania Station it deserves. The original grand NeoClassical Penn Station was torn down in 1961 to make way for Madison Square Garden with commuter and train platforms in its bowels.

So far the jury is out as to which station this generation will receive. The debate currently swirls as to what, if any changes will be made to the current Penn Station, the much bemoaned addendum to Madison Square Garden Stadium a venue for music and sporting events and more.

Pennsylvania Station, mostly referred to as just Penn Station, is not in Pennsylvania. New York’s Penn Station is at 34th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues roughly.  Roughly: because, as anyone who has tried to catch a train there knows, the labyrinthine  corridors slither off far from the orginal site. The Penn in the name refers not really to Pennsylvania so much as to the Pennsylvania Railroad company, once the leading railroad company in the United States. Penn station, though it now serves all manner of confusing semi-governmental entities as Amtrak and the New Jersey Path commuter train  was the sole creation of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Original station was an amazing feat of almost hubristic proportions and somewhat noble, populist undertones.


Penn President, Alexander Cassett had just returned from Europe in 1901. Among other grand European monuments, he had seen the impressive Gare d’Orsay in Paris and had, accordingly, been impressed. At the Gare d’Orsay, stunning metal constructed balustrades and beaux-arts style  benefited from extensive tunnels through which ran electric trains.  Electric trains as much as any flourish struck Cassett. It was the electricity which was missing from his own plans for a station. He needed a means of connecting the Island of Manhattan with the main arteries of his extensive network. At the time many trains still ran on coal and there was a constant danger of asphifixiation when the trains passed through tunnels. Electric trains would make possible the tunnels under the Hudson and the East River for which Cassett had long hoped. Let me footnote the tragic trajectory of this blog by mentioned that the Gare d’Orsay, so impressive in 1901, is still impressive. The grand station encountered a moment of uncertainty in the midcentury. It is now safely and magnificently converted to the Musee d’ Orsay. You can visit any time.

After his hopes for collaboration with other railroad companies were crushed, Cassett realized Penn Railroads would have to shoulder the costs alone. The bill for the tunnels and station would run up to $100 million project. The Penn railroad company began building the station the way a behemoth in the early 20th century might, buying up property in New York’s tenderloin neighborhood. The area intended for the station was a poor one, and Penn sent 3rd party negotiators with wads of cash to buy low-income residents out of their homes. By the time the station was built construction had displaced hundreds of families. When thinking about the drawbacks of the current Penn Station, darkness and ugliness, primarily it is important to remember that the first station, though lovely came also at a cost.  The further human cost of Penn Station came from the tunnels. Sandhogs as they were called were a markedly diverse group of laborers who together dug the tunnels under the Hudson. It was an epic undertaking and much has been written about the men who accomplished the task.  When the crew tunneling from the Manhattan side met the crew tunneling from the Jersey side the tunnels were only misaligned by a fraction of an inch.

The station when it opened was also a resounding success. After 4 years, 27,000 tons of steel, 500,000 cubic feet of granite, 83,000 square feet of skylights and 17 million bricks it was clearly a monument. Based on the public Roman baths of Caracalla, the architects McKim, Mead and White borrowed the majesty of a triumphant public place. The Station was meant to serve everyone and by all accounts it did. Visitors to the original station speak of the pride they felt at belonging in such a regal place. It felt like a gift from the gods and it was meant to last forever. But you know the saying, the lord giveth and the lord taketh away. Well…

As Time Goes By: 1935 on the Lower East Side

In many ways, the year 1935 was the end of an era for a tenement building at 97 Orchard Street on New York City’s Lower East Side.  After almost a century of acting as a threshold to the New World, the building was condemned when the landlord was unwilling or unable to incur the costs of mandatory structural updates.  This is not to say that the building was completely empty; as recently as the 1980’s there were various storefronts that continued to operate on the ground floor. This story was repeated all over the Lower East Side, keeping the neighborhood in business: literally. The communities who once lived in the neighborhood continued to run businesses and shop the area maintaining a vibrant immigrant hub. As a community of immigrants, Lower East Side has been especially impacted by global events, and though 1935 saw the shuttering of 97 Orchard Street, it also saw enormous changes across the country and around the world.


Although the world was on the brink of a second world war, some of the news from 1935 still seems innocent from the vantage of 2016. It was in 1935 that airplanes were banned from flying over the White House. Franklin Delano Roosevelt banned airplanes, based not on the security concerns but because they were interrupting his sleep. It seems almost as naïve to think that Presidents are entitled to sleep as that airplanes were a danger only to a good night’s rest. Today it seems that the ban did indeed buttress national security. President Roosevelt had a lot on his mind with the Great Depression and in 1935 devised a perhaps the most brilliant remedy of his presidency: the Works Project Administration (WPA).


Designed to provide employment and income to Americans who had lost their jobs and businesses in the economic collapse, the Works Project Administration would eventually employ 8.5 million Americans supplying an average salary of $41.57 a month. (One of those recipients was Adolfo Baldizzi, a former resident of 97 Orchard Street). Harry Hopkins, a man of “modest means,” was the director of the administration. Perfectly embodying the project’s philosophy, he once noted: “Give a man the dole and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both his body and his spirit.”  In the hostile environment of the Dust Bowl, this teach-a-man-to-fish philosophy was the answer to a national need.


We often speak at the Tenement Museum about the difficulties of industrial occupations. But the Lower East Side was not unaffected by the devastation of U.S. agriculture during the thirties, which reached its peak in 1935. While not responsible for the Great Depression, it sure did make matters worse. The Dust Bowl was the name given to the disastrous drought which ravaged the land and the farms of the Midwest. The disaster got its name in 1935, when Robert Geiger of the Associated Press used the unforgettable phrase, “Three little words achingly familiar on the western farmer’s tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent – if it rains” . The drought affecting the Midwest was only made worse  by treacherous dust storms which choked the air with the dust of a parched landscape. Devastated farmers moved west hoping for help and work, but often found more scarcity. This tragic migration was in turn made infamous by John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath.



While 1935 had its challenges domestically, the situation was sinister abroad. In Germany, a nation suffering from its own economic crisis, 1935 also saw the passing of the Nuremberg Laws which institutionalized some of the most toxic Nazi ideology. The laws excluded Jews from German citizenship, government positions, and from receiving degrees as doctors and professors.  The laws ignored ‘religious’ grounds for Jewish faith, using genealogy rather than faith to determine who was Jewish. All Germans with three or four Jewish grandparents were affected.  While making life hostile at home, the Nuremburg Laws also made emigration difficult for Jews, levying taxes which stripped Jews of property and savings as they left the country.


In 1935, some Jews were hoping to find refuge in British controlled Palestine. The previous year saw record Jewish immigration to the region, but as a harbinger of gathering tension, the British government moved to limit Jewish immigration to appease Palestinian residents. Some Jewish Germans were able to join the extant Jewish community of the Lower East Side, though they in turn would struggle in the privation of the Great Depression.


It goes without saying that the story of immigration on the LES didn’t end with the shuttering of 97 Orchard Street. The “Golden Door” remained open to immigrants on the eve of World War II and changing immigration policy was about to alter the landscape of this already diverse neighborhood.

The Rent Is Due: A History of Rent at 97 Orchard Street

Visitors to the Tenement Museum often ask about rent. How much did the Moores pay in 1869? How about the Levines in 1897 or the Baldizzis in 1935? Rent is something many of us can identify with, so knowing a family’s rent can bring their story to life for our visitors.

Alas, it’s far easier to ask than answer this question. As Jared Day notes in Urban Castles (1999), his history of tenement landlords in New York City, written leases did not become standard until the 1920s, so we have few written records for what any tenement residents paid in rent before that decade. What’s more, records from the 1920s are hard to come by, and we don’t have them for the later tenants of 97, such as the Baldizzis.

Although we don’t have leases, we do have Lawrence Veiller, a 19th century housing reformer. For his groundbreaking exhibit about tenement housing, he recorded the rent paid by every family living on the block bounded by Canal, Bayard, Chrystie, and Forsyth Streets in 1900.[1] According to his records, a three-room apartment on the first floor of a tenement rented for $12-$13/month (about $4/room), while the same apartment on the 4th floor rented for $9.50-$10/month (about $3/room). As you can see the closer to street level, the higher the rent tended to be.[2] Because 97 Orchard is so similar to the tenements in Veiller’s study area, we assume that our building’s tenants paid similar rents. If the Rogarshevskys lived in a three-room apartment on the third floor, as resident Josephine Baldizzi later remembered, they likely paid about $11/month when they moved into 97 Orchard in 1901 – though rent likely spiked after the landlords spent $8,000 to comply with the 1901 Tenement House Act. According to a later study, families in pre-Old Law tenements like 97 Orchard were paying $10-$15/month in 1907 – about a dollar more than before the 1901 Tenement House Act.[3]

Can we infer earlier rents from these numbers? Not so easily. The U.S. Government did not adopt the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which economists use to calculate inflation, until 1919 (retroactive to 1913), so we have no easy way to chart inflation and deflation before World War I. However, because of the boom-and-bust economic cycles that defined the U.S. economy before WWI, it makes sense that the Moores and the Gumpertzs also paid roughly $10/month on their apartments in 1870. It’s only been since World War II that repeated inflation with no deflation has led to a decades-long increase in the CPI (including rents).

Do we have any similar data about the Baldizzis’ rent? Indeed we do. According to James Ford’s Slums and Housing (1936), tenement households paid on average about $6.60 per room per month in 1928 and again in 1932, so the Baldizzis might have paid around $20/month on rent during their stay at 97 Orchard. (Note that rent did not drop much during the early years of the Great Depression, even though household income fell considerably. As a result, rent as a proportion of family income actually rose from 20% to 30% between 1928 and 1932.) But it’s more likely that the Baldizzis paid a good deal less than $20/month: By 1935, 97 Orchard represented the cheapest and lowest-quality tenement housing on the market.

In short, we can never know for certain what anybody paid for rent in 97 Orchard, for the following reasons:

  1. There were no written leases before the 1920s, and few written leases survive from the 1920 and 1930s.
  2. Rents varied by floor, and we don’t know which apartments most tenants lived in.
  3. Rents likely fluctuated for all sorts of reasons, including:
    1. Landlords sometimes cut rents during economic depressions, recognizing that no one could pay their old rents when jobs were scarce;
    2. Landlords sometimes cut rents for struggling families, either out of sympathy for their travails or under pressure from a local church or synagogue;[4]
    3. Landlords sometimes increased rent on certain families, for example, adding 50 cents a month to rent for each child born to a tenant family.[5]

That said, there are a few things we do know about immigrant families paying rent on the LES:

  1. They typically took in boarders and put children to work to cover household expenses, including rent. (According to a 1908 study, 1 in 4 immigrant families had at least one boarder living with them.[6])
  2. Many of them became homeless during economic depressions because they could no longer pay rent.


So when a visitor asks me about rent, I say, “Rent was typically a third of the family’s total wages, but the ‘family’ in ‘total family wages’ included children and boarders. With no job security and no written leases, these families often lived in constant fear of homelessness, and they would sacrifice almost anything they had, including their privacy and their children’s education, to pay the rent.” This might not be as simple an answer as “Ten dollars a month,” but it does a better job of bringing these families’ stories to life, which is what our visitors are looking for when they ask about rent.

 – Post by Adam Steinberg, Senior Education Associate, at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

[1] De Forest, R. & Veiller, L., eds. (1970). The Tenement House Problem, Volumes 1 & 2. (Arno Press: New York).

[2] Dolkart, A. (2012). Biography of a Tenement House in New York City, 2nd edition (pp. 44-45). (Center for American Places at Columbia College: Chicago).

[3] Hopkinson, D. (2003). Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York, 1880-1924 (p. 29). (Orchard Books: New York).

[4] Naison, M. (1986). “From eviction resistance to rent control” (pp. 94-133). In R. Lawson, ed., The Tenant Movement in New York City, 1904-1984 (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ).

[5] Joselit, J. (1986). “The landlord as czar; Pre-World War I tenant activity” (pp. 39-50). In R. Lawson, ed., The Tenant Movement in New York City, 1904-1984 (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ).

[6] Hopkinson, D. (2003). Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York, 1880-1924 (p. 38). Orchard Books: New York.

Looking back at THE COMMITMENTS: 25 Years Later with author/co-screenwriter Roddy Doyle

Last year the prominent Irish author Roddy Doyle wrote a beautiful essay for Intelligent Life Magazine about his favorite museum to visit: the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. This year, we have decided to turn the tables on Mr. Doyle and interview him about one of his best known works, The Commitments.

Originally written as a novel in 1987 and then adapted for the screen by director  Alan Parker (with a screenplay co-written by Doyle) in 1991, The Commitments tells the story of the rise and fall of a young, working class soul band in Dublin. Featuring covers of classic American soul songs such as “Try A Little Tenderness” and “In the Midnight Hour”, The Commitments is a massively entertaining, often very funny film featuring music that is to die for.

While a modest hit here in the United States, The Commitments was a huge hit in Ireland.  In a 2005 poll, it was voted the best Irish film of all time and is credited with launching a generation of Irish musicians and actors (one of the band members in the film is played by Glen Hansard who found great success a decade later with the film Once). Indeed when casting the film, the filmmakers were looking for individuals who could both act and sing or play an instrument. In 1996, several of the actors in the film were featured – in character – on an Irish postage stamp. In 2013, the novel was adapted into a musical for the London stage.

We thought 2016 would be a particularly good year to ask Roddy Doyle about The Commitments as the film adaptation of his novel will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer. Mr. Doyle was kind enough to be able to answer some questions we had about the history of his novel and film.

TM: It has been 25 years since the movie version of The Commitments was released. How do you feel about the film?

RD: I haven’t watched the movie in a long, long time.  But I was very happy with it when I first saw it at a cast and crew screening in Dublin, in 1991.  And I still am.   I think it captured the spirit and energy and humour of the novel very well.

TM: How did you come up with the idea for the novel?

RD: I wanted an excuse to bring a large group of young characters together.  I was a high school teacher at the time, and I think listening to my students all talking at the same time, all trying to be heard, had a big influence on me.  Also, I loved music – going to gigs, reading about music, the history, and the personalities.  I’d just read two books that had a big impact: Peter Guralnick’s SWEET SOUL MUSIC and Gerri Hirshey’s NOWHERE TO RUN – both of them brilliant books about soul.  Those two books nudged me towards creating a fictional soul band on the Northside of Dublin.

TM: The novel was written in 1987., How was it received initially?

RD: I seem to remember that the response was quite positive.  Reaction to my work, I was to discover over the years, has often been wildly enthusiastic or wildly dismissive – if such a thing is possible.   And reaction to The Commitments, in Ireland, was like that.  One review, while generally positive, said that the book would be of little interest to anybody not living in Dublin.   I remember that one quite fondly.

TM: How soon after publication was it until it was optioned for a film adaptation? Was director Alan Parker always attached to it?

RD: The book was published in the U.K. in the spring of 1988, and I met and spoke to the film’s co-producer, Lynda Myles, a few days after publication.  I don’t recall when Alan’s name was mentioned to me first – a year or eighteen months later, I think.

TM: You also wrote the screenplay for the film. Did you always insist on being a part of the film adaptation? How hard was it to adapt your own novel? Did you have to cut elements of the book that you were upset about? Are there any significant differences between the novel and the final film?

RD: I co-wrote the screenplay, with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.  When I met Lynda Myles in 1988, we agreed that I’d have a stab at writing it. I was keen to give it a go but I didn’t insist on it.  It was hard because I’d never written – or even read – a working script before.  But Lynda was a brilliant teacher and I gradually got the hang of it.  I think, because of my lack of experience, the script I produced needed more work.  So, Dick and Ian took it and worked with it.  It ended up being co-written, even though we never sat at a desk and worked together.  They wrote on top of what I had written.  I’ve adapted several of my books now for screen and stage and I’ve never been precious about cutting chunks of the book.   It’s inevitable – and necessary.  What often gets overlooked is that it’s an opportunity to put new situations and dialogue into the story.  The biggest difference between the film and book, I think, is the ending.  At the end of the book, Jimmy, the protagonist, is already forming a new band.  It works in the book but would have been a crummy ending to the film.

TM: The story behind the casting of the film is fairly well known. You had to find actors who could actually sing and/or play an instrument. How hard was this process? Were you involved in it?

RD: I wasn’t involved in selecting the cast.  It would never be my job.  There were open casting sessions and the music clubs and venues of Dublin were scoured for likely candidates, but I wasn’t there.  But the film became well known in Dublin long before shooting actually started.

TM: The soundtrack for the film was enormously successful (I remember listening to it on my drives with my parents) with most of the songs being remakes of classic American soul songs. Were there any songs you wanted the band to sing that you couldn’t get the rights for?

RD: I’d have liked some James Brown songs but they weren’t available.  Before filming started, Alan Parker sent me a cassette of all the songs he had to choose from.  It was the best tape I ever had.  I played it for months – until it snapped.  The choices were Alan’s and they were great.

TM: The music of Wilson Pickett plays a crucial role throughout the film. Did the filmmakers try and get Mr. Pickett involved in the film at the time? Did you ever hear from him on whether he saw the film and his thoughts on it?

RD: I don’t know if Wilson Pickett was approached.  Or, if I did know, I don’t remember.  I don’t think it would have been a good idea.  I think it works better with him off-screen, or behind dark glass.  I’ve no idea if he saw, or liked, the film.

TM: For that matter after the film was released, did any legendary musicians reach out to you about the film?

RD: Not that I remember.

TM: Since all the actors in the band can actually sing and play instruments, has there been any attempt at getting them together to play a concert?

RD: Some of them continued to play as The Commitments.  I didn’t – and don’t – like the idea.  The Commitments were fictional and are better left that way, I think.   There were some reunion gigs around Ireland four or five years ago.


TM: Finally, what do you think the legacy of The Commitments is?

RD: No living, working author should ever pause at the word ‘legacy’ and give it serious thought.  Someone else can answer that question – after I’m dead, and I don’t have to read it.

TM: Thank you!

–          Post by Jon Pace, Communications Manager at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Jack Kirby: Superhero Creator of the Lower East Side

The Fantastic Four on "Yancy Street" quite similar to DELANCY Street near where the comic's creator Jack Kirby grew up

Did you know that Captain America is from the Lower East Side? It’s true. So are Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men. All of these characters were co-created by Lower East Side native, Jack Kirby, one of the most important and prolific storytellers of the 20th century.

Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg to Galician Jewish immigrants on Essex Street. Most of Jake’s childhood was spent on Suffolk Street, where he lived an external life with his buddies filled with handball and street fights, and an internal life filled with the Old World stories of his elders, newspaper comic strips, movies, science fiction pulp magazines, and drawing. You can see how all of these elements converged in his later comic book work.

Jack found a respite from the tough street life in the early 1930’s when he joined the Boys Brotherhood Republic, a local organization at 290 E 3rd St that put boys in charge of their own destiny. Instead of just hanging out on the streets, the boys learned boxing and other sports, published newspapers (of which Jake was an editor and cartoonist), maintained a government, and more. The BBR is now the Boys & Girls Republic, part of the Henry Street Settlement.

Jake changed his name to Jack Kirby just around the time he and his partner Joe Simon had their first great success with Captain America in early 1941.  The cover of Captain America Comics #1 was somewhat controversial, as it featured an image of the Stars and Stripes clad hero punching Adolf Hitler in the face several months before Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II.  But Kirby’s dynamic fight scenes and action sequences brought a unique storytelling language to the new cartoon long form of comic books.

Jack Kirby

Soon, Simon & Kirby created two other successful comics,  Newsboy Legion and Boy Commandos. These stories drew on their youths, with Kirby’s experiences on Suffolk Street and in the BBR at the forefront. Both teams consisted of boys from diverse  backgrounds who bickered among themselves while guided by an adult mentor. The Newsboy Legion had Suicide Slum as its base of operations, no doubt the L.E.S. was one of its inspirations.

Kirby didn’t think fondly of his youth on the Lower East Side. He felt it was dehumanizing and tough. In a 1983 interview with Gary Groth, Kirby said  “I hated the place because I… Well, it was the atmosphere itself. It was the way people behaved. I got sick of chasing people all over rooftops and having them chase me over rooftops. I knew that there was something better.”

He never wanted to visit the LES after he’d left, but was probably inspired by the mentorship of Harry Slonaker at the BBR to be a mentor to many young artists and comic book fans. He and his wife Roz (nee Goldstein), maintained an open door policy, especially in the latter half of his life in Thousand Oaks, California. Fans were welcome to call and come by almost any time. Kirby was also instrumental in making key suggestions to the fans who created the convention that we now know as the San Diego Comic-Con, the largest pop culture gathering in the world.

But, it’s Kirby’s work for Marvel Comics’ editor-scriptor Stan Lee that stands tall to this day. Before they were billion dollar movies and pop culture sensations, Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and the Avengers were all comic books that came from Jack Kirby’s drawing table. The character The Thing in the Fantastic Four even hailed from a neighborhood known as Yancy Street, and was comically bedeviled by a never-seen-on-the-page “Yancy Street Gang.” These larger than life characters were humanized with personal failings and romantic problems even as they fought off otherworldly menaces like monsters, aliens, and demons. Without Jack’s background on the Lower East Side, the dreams wouldn’t have been as big, the fights wouldn’t have been as engaging, the humanity wouldn’t have been as touching.

Jack Kirby died in 1994, leaving behind a legacy of work unmatched in popular culture. It’s possible that no single artist of the 20th century has had a more significant impact on entertainment than Jack Kirby, with characters that he created or co-created currently appearing in blockbuster movies, television shows, video games, and, of course, comics still published every month by Marvel and DC. All of this because he used his pencil and imagination to draw his way out of a rough neighborhood on the Lower East Side.

– Post by Randolph Hoppe, Acting Director of the Jack Kirby Museum & Research Center




For Richer or Poorer: A Brief History of Charity & Immigration in NYC

In the sparsely-furnished front room of the Gumpertz apartment at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, in between the windows, sits a small, black Singer sewing machine.  In the wake of the panic of 1873, with jobs hard to come by and with four children to feed, Nathalie Gumpertz would not have been able to afford such a major purchase on her own.  Instead, the sewing machine, which allowed Nathalie to support her family in the face of economic hardship, was most likely purchased with money from (or even donated by) United Hebrew Charities, whose ledgers record Nathalie as a recipient.

Gumpertz sewing machine

Many of the immigrants who passed through 97 Orchard Street received aid of various kinds in times of crisis from their friends and neighbors, mutual aid associations, local parish churches, political machines, and even the occasional government program.  More established or earlier-arriving immigrants have historically offered some financial support for newer settlers from their communities.  The Jewish communities in New York are a perfect example of this trend. For Jewish immigrants, charity had always been a core value of Jewish life; the biblical ideal, tzedakah in Hebrew, translates to “righteousness” or “justice,” and connotes “obligation” to give money and material to support others, rather than seeing it as an optional kindness.  But those who gave to the United Hebrew Charities saw their work as more than just fulfilling an obligation to help other Jews in need.  Concerned with what their neighbors Uptown might think, these early American Jewish philanthropists often gave money to “maintain Jewish families,” hoping to discourage men from abandoning their families, women from engaging in prostitution, and parents from neglecting their children.  They knew that a Russian Jewish prostitute or a Polish Jewish gangster was just a Jewish criminal to the upper classes, who made no such distinctions.

Natalie Gumpertz, former resident at 97 Orchard Street

Although the Gumpertz family did not arrive in New York until the mid-19th century, about the same time that United Hebrew Charities was founded, American Jewish philanthropy had its roots in the early colonial era. As American Jewish mythology had it, Jews were allowed to settle in the U.S. on the express condition that they provide for their own poor, and never allow them to become a burden on the non-Jewish community. As a result, American Jews created their own sectarian aid institutions, which quickly turned to the material relief and vocational training of new immigrants to the U.S.  By the time that Nathalie received aid, she was among the last major generation of German immigrants to get help from United Hebrew Charities and similar organizations.  By the turn of the 20th century, most Jewish charities were meant for new Eastern European and Russian immigrants, funded and run by the Americanized German Jews whose ancestors had immigrated decades earlier. As the Jewish community in America became more diverse, these newer immigrants sought to become philanthropists themselves, sending aid to relatives and friends in their former hometowns. They frequently created landsmanshafn, organizations of families who had emigrated from the same city or village, to serve as mutual aid societies and as fundraising organizations for projects and charities in their former homes.

By the 20th century, charity meant much more than a simple donation to the United Hebrew Charities.  Rich, poor, immigrant, or not, Americans were all of a sudden faced with hundreds of causes and organizations competing for their charity dollars.  The decision of where to donate became a way to vote with dollars, demonstrating political, religious, and social commitments.  For newer immigrants, the very ability to send money overseas to friends and relatives who depended on it was empowering; though many of them struggled to make a living in the U.S., their pennies had disproportionate influence in their hometowns, especially when combined with those of the other immigrants from their region.  Ultimately, philanthropy helped even poorer immigrants to create a new identity for themselves in America: the donor with the power to choose how his money was spent.

For those giving money to support causes they cared about, donations also promoted a new kind of unity, one that helped to create a feeling of communal responsibility amongst Americans, old and new.  Without a welfare state or official church to provide medical care and housing for the needy or to feed the hungry, Americans had to step in to support those around them.  Despite differences in origin, religion, language, and ideology, extending a helping hand created mutual responsibility and community.  By participating in private philanthropy – a uniquely American tradition – they helped to create an American identity for themselves.

Ultimately, while the donations themselves had a profound impact on those they were meant to help (Nathalie Gumpertz remained an upstanding citizen!), they also had a profound impact on those who were doing the giving.  Donations and charity work helped to link disparate communities together and to give newcomers a political voice.  In America, giving has always been form of self-creation, a way for the giver to make a statement – about who you are, what you value, and what kind of world you envision.

Post by Rachel Feinmark, Manager of Strategic Communications at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum

The advent of social media-driven fundraising campaigns has only made this more true today.  This Tuesday, the Tenement Museum invites you to make your own statement – donate to our #GivingTuesday campaign and tell us about the kind of change you hope to see in the world.

HOLIDAY GIFTING MADE EASY: Tenement Museum Gift Guide Holiday 2015

1. For the Nosher

Maybe you have someone on your list who is always feeding others… or maybe you have someone on your list who is always feeding themselves. Everyone knows a nosher, and we’ve got their perfect gifts right here.


Bagel tray

Gift this bagel tray to someone who needs it. Perfect for balancing Sunday morning bagels and shmeer or Friday night Chinese take-away, this 6.5″ x 14″ melamine tray is exactly the thing for the snacker in your life.-$14.99



Wine Bottle Stopper

Perhaps this Chrysler building bottle stopper is the show stopper for your urbane recipient. For some folks, a bottle of fine wine is enough of a holiday treat, but why not top it off with this timeless, proper stopper? – $19.99


2. For the New Yorkers

New Yorkers come in all shapes and sizes, and perhaps the only thing they have in common is that they are hard to please. In fact, the myriad tribes of New York are one of the many joys of living here, and we’ve got something for everyone.

For the Brooklynite

Everyone’s got one – a Brookylnite that is. The borough has always meant a lot of different things to different people. Today, it also means taste. Whether they live in Pittsburg, or Tallahassee, or somewhere in Brooklyn-proper, farm-to-table craft beer enthusiasts with a penchant for fancy coffee can be found on everyone’s holiday list. Give them this Brownstone everyday tote bag. Perfect for trips to the farmer’s market, supermarket, or perhaps the stock market.  -$19.99



The Sophisticate

It was once thought that truly “sophisticated” New Yorkers only lived uptown – and then there was everyone else.  But today we know better. New York-style sophisticates live in Chinatown, Elmhurst, just off the Grand Concourse, and in Kansas City. Treat the classiest folks on your list to this lovely stationary by French artist Martine Rupert. Rupert’s stationary renders Manhattan elegantly in India ink and collage, speaking to those with discerning sensibilities. -$15.95


The Wise Guy

One of the most quintessential of all New York characters is the Wise Guy. Not always a guy, this New York fixture gives it out as good as she takes it. Send this NYC trivia game to the person on your list who knows everything. This pack includes cards, score keeping materials, and a whole lot of payback. – $19.95

3.       For the Next Generation

Turn off the television, power off the iPad, and open up to some creativity. Give the little one on your list these gifts that don’t require electricity.

Let’s Make Some Great Art

For children 8 years and older, gift this art activity book. Filled with great ideas, this book opens the door to even more fun. -$19.95


Bashful Reindeer

This plush reindeer is just looking for a naptime companion and a partner in crime. What could be better than a newcomer from Lapland just in time for the holiday season? This bashful reindeer is nondenominational. -$21.99


Dear New York, I love You

Some people become New Yorkers, others are born New Yorkers. Get this I Love New York onesie for the little one you know is destined for all the delicious food, wild traffic, and serious street credentials that comes with being a lifetime New Yorker. -$24.99


Lil’ Mib

Lil MIB is Lo-Fi fun for the folks on your list who grew up on pocket computers. Lil MIB is a precious little ‘bot who does only four things and none of them is surf the web. MIB records a message, distorts it (if you’d like) and plays it back to you or, if you raise the message flag, to a recipient of your choice. Handmade in Brooklyn. – $68.00

4. From Your Pet


Catmus Carols AND Jewish Songs for Cats

Of course they are part of the family, but they haven’t totally mastered the MasterCard yet. If you are going to do a little purchasing on behalf of your pets this holiday season, try these funny twists on holiday classics. Catmus Carols are traditional Christmas carols sung from the perspective of your favorite feline and Jewish Songs for Cats takes the same concept and curls a tale around it for traditional Jewish songs.  – $9.95 each


Worst Gift Ever Socks

But how good are animals at giving gifts? Does your chocolate lab have good taste? Of course not! Sparky might pick out a pretty bad gift – maybe even these “Worst Gift Ever” socks. These socks in men’s sizes are just the thing to come from a creature who loves you for what’s on the inside… or what you feed him. -$14.99

5. For Full-on Nostalgia-sufferer 

Here at the Tenement Museum you’d think we’d be free of this particular bug – the bug of nostalgia that is… We have a team of people who love learning about the past, but we are also here to inform the public about some of the challenges of living in New York before modern plumbing. We know all too well about people who are wistful for days gone by, and we’ve picked out a few gifts for those folks on your list.

 NY Transit Token Necklace

Everyone knows someone who loves to remember the good old, bad old days. We call that golden age thinking and we’ve got just the thing. This New York transit token necklace harkens back to another era in the history of New York (before Uber).  -$40.00

Sunday Football Socks

For another nostalgic loved one, pick up a pair of these men’s Sunday football socks. The retro look of these socks will take the wearer and the gifter to a simpler time in football’s history. -$14.99

Magnifying Glass Necklace

Gift a closer look for the friend who is always looking back. For the reader of historical fiction, for the Ken Burns aficionado, for the companion who always reminds you about pre-modern plumbing, this magnifying glass is the perfect gift. On a lovely long chain, this magnifying loop necklace says I know this will look gracious with your pinafore-inspired dress. -$28.00

6. The Planner

You know them. They may not have brought the most laughs to the party, but they organized it! Get something special for that person in your life who made sure you didn’t miss your dentist appointment, your anniversary, or your dad’s birthday.

New York 2016 Wall Calendar

This 2016 calendar will keep someone you care about up to date next year, but the beautiful vintage-inspired prints are totally timeless. -$21.95

Tenement Museum 2016 Desk Calendar

Help someone special keep track of major events and daily appointments with the Tenement Museum calendar. Visit a new Lower East Side scene every month; time flies when you are looking back at the neighborhood’s past.-$14.99

 Big Apple Mini Sticky Note

Even the most organized person sometimes needs to jot a note.  You could gift these to the students on your list, a bride to be, or anyone with several things on the brain. This sweet packet of NYC-themed sticky notes brings a hint of vacation to the more mundane of tasks… “RENT CHECK!” -$5.99

8. For Your Auntie, Titi, Tanti, Abuela, Noni, Nana, Bubie, Oma, Halmuni

You know she has been planning your holiday gift all year, so it is high time to stockpile a few special things to honor that woman in your life who is always bringing you cheer. Maybe she’s really your auntie or maybe not – it hardly matters when it comes time to say Happy Holidays!

Multi Colored Square Beaded Bracelet

Even those in traditional New York black need a little punctuation. This beaded bracelet provides some seriously low-key style. Give a special lady this elastic banded bracelet; comprised of multicolored glass beads, it provides the perfect pizzazz. -$14.99

Boutique Coin Purse

Not so long ago, a cup of coffee cost 10 cents in New York City. Now you are lucky if you can get one for $2.  Still, saving your pennies can get you somewhere even if that somewhere might just be a candy bar. Gift this coin purse to someone who remembers the value of small change. -$9.99

Oy Vey Sticky Notes

Everyone has an Oy Vey moment. Make remembering the little things a little more fun when you give someone these Oy Vey sticky notes.  Never has a trip to the grocery store been so expressive. -$4.99

There’s is so much more to see and gift on the online shop – open 24 hours a day!

Delancey: Deal or No Deal?

The Storefront for SIDNEY'S UNDERGARMENT at 97 Orchard Street

The time is upon us once again to embark on those treacherous missions all over town to wait in never-ending lines to ensure we find those ‘perfect gifts’ for the ones we love. Or is it?

For many people, holiday shopping has been a leading cause of stress during the months of October to December.   Battling for bargains and scoring ‘sale’ items is not specific to the Holiday season, and it’s no task for the weary. Generations of immigrants here in New York City have mastered this art form right here on the front lines of the Lower East Side.

Flash back to the mid-19th century when single-family homes were superseded by multi-family tenements. Immigrants began to flood the streets, and so did their trades, products, and specialties. The ability to immigrate to America, speak no English, and open your own business inspired still more hopeful arrivals. This influx of immigrants to New York City, more specifically the Lower East Side, sparked unprecedented demand for supplies and amenities to keep the city’s workforce clothed, fed, and able to survive in this strange new land.

Merchants began to sell their goods out of baskets, which evolved to pushcarts. Pushcarts dominated the streets of the Lower East Side until they were outlawed in the 1930s, but this was not the end of retail on the Lower East Side. Markets opened by Mayor LaGuardia provided a haven for a few lucky pushcart vendors exiled from the streets.  Throughout the neighborhood’s history, vendors with means had opened basement shops in the tenements themselves.


The shops on Orchard Street

But the neighborhood continued to grow. More immigrants brought more demand, and more potential for success. Max Feinberg, a local business man, purchased 86 Orchard Street in 1928 and began participating in a retail tradition still in evidence today. Feinberg provided ready-to-wear children’s clothing, and sold them at wholesale prices on the ground floor of his building, while holding his office on the 2nd floor and storage on the 3rd. This practice became increasingly prominent in the neighborhood as these family businesses grew.

Many immigrant-owned shops were successful in the neighborhood and have been passed down within families for generations.  A mutual understanding and respect between merchants formed a balance between their short-term interests with the long-term interests of the entire neighborhood, creating harmony that kept competition between vendors in check. New Yorkers flocked to the Lower East Side, knowing that their haggling skills could get them the best prices in the city for all of their family’s needs.

In the 1930s, as residents started moving out of the tenements, these shopkeepers remained, keeping Orchard Street and the Lower East Side vibrant with visitors to the neighborhood. The storefronts remained vital, keeping the neighborhood’s streetscape and the buildings alive.

Flash back to the present.  The Lower East Side is not the bustling bargain-hunting battlefield it once was, but independent boutiques are sprouting up on every other block, catering to new customers who are coming to shop in the neighborhood. Family-owned businesses that once ruled the neighborhood continue to line the sidewalks of Orchard Street (the city offers a trip down memory lane every Sunday, as it blocks off the street to cars, and opens it up to deal-seeking shoppers).

Even as the neighborhood continues to change, shoppers themselves are changing the way they purchase goods; while some prefer to frequent stores that can solve all of their shopping needs under one roof, others watch their shopping carts fill up as they ‘click’ the day away.  But for those shoppers who prefer a more intimate shopping experience, the Lower East Side is still a shopper’s paradise, changing with the times while somehow still staying the same.

–          Ryan Jensen,  Evenings Events Coordinator at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum

A Backstage Pass to Deaf West’s Production of Spring Awakening

A production of Spring Awakening which incorporates American Sign Language into the the performance is reaching all Broadway audiences .

I’m a huge fan of Broadway. Even before I started living in New York City, my favorite thing to do was going to see a Broadway show. I’ve been seeing a lot of plays coming back as revivals that I saw while I was in college. For some of those productions, I don’t feel that a revival is necessary. However, when I heard Spring Awakening was returning, I was thrilled. I have been hearing about this production since it started out in Los Angeles. This production is unique because the entire show is understandable to both hearing and Deaf members of the audience. I knew I had to see this revival when it came to Broadway not only because of the work that I do as the Education Associate for Access at the Tenement Museum but also because my colleague Alexandria Wailes is part of the production. Alexandria is our educator who is Deaf. About once every other month she leads a tour at the Tenement Museum in American Sign Language only. She was also involved with Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening in Los Angeles and is involved with its current run on Broadway as an associate choreographer. Additionally, for a handful of performances Alexandria is going on as Marlee Matlin’s understudy. I went to see Alexandria and the rest cast of Spring Awakening last Tuesday and I couldn’t have had a better time.

The production seamlessly incorporates actors of all abilities while creating an extremely moving performance. There were lines and situations that I had heard in the original production that had not made an impact on me. For example, when Wendela, played by Sandra Mae Frank (who signs the part) and Katie Boeck (who speaks and sings it), performed the line: “It seems to me what serves each of us best is what serves all of us best,” I gasped and practically started to cry. That, to me, is the whole powerful and crucial message of the way this show is being done and it was always a part of the script. I was in awe.

Alexandria giving a tour in American Sign Language at the Tenement Museum.

Another exhilarating part of this experience for me was getting to see a colleague shine on a different kind of stage. Alexandria Wailes is a powerhouse when she leads tours at the Tenement Museum. Many visitors repeatedly come to the Museum to see her tell our stories. Her presence on stage was just as powerful and engaging. Earlier in the week I was able to chat with Alexandria about her involvement in this production:

Ellysheva Zeira: How did you first get involved with this production of Spring Awakening?

Alexandria Wailes: Michael Arden and I have been friends/colleagues since Deaf West’s BIG RIVER at Roundabout’s American Airlines theatre. We also did an LA production of PIPPIN. It was a given that we would always seek opportunities to work together again. When Spring Awakening came about, Michael asked me for my availability to be part of the workshop, as part of the creative team, two summers ago. I couldn’t due to commitments here in NY.
However, when the opportunity to do a production in the 99 seat venue at Inner City Arts arose, we worked out arrangements to fly me out and be involved for the last five weeks leading to opening.

They had already met and worked for about a month and half before my arrival.
The rest is history. In a nutshell, we went from a 99 seat venue in downtown LA to an upscale state of the art theatre in Beverly Hills to Broadway all within the span of a year. This is unheard of.

EZ: What has been your favorite part of the experience so far?

AW: My favorite part of this experience is tri-fold. The creative process itself leading up to opening, working with a cast with tremendous spirit of generosity, creativity, compassion and talent and being able to share this work in three different venues on two coasts!

EZ: What is it like for you to be on a Broadway stage?

AW: Being on Broadway is being home.

Tenement Education Alexandria Wailes's understudy sheet for one night's performance of Spring Awakening.

EZ: Do you find any similarities between giving a tour at the Tenement Museum and your role in Spring Awakening?

AW: The similarities between tour presenting and Broadway performances (or any other performance for that matter) is the live experience. There are always variables arising from night to night. Different audience energies, a microphone goes out, a guitar string breaks, etc. It is amazing how the company comes together to get through the shows. An ensemble in the best sense.

EZ: What kind of impact do you hope/think this show will have in the Broadway community? Do you think its impact will extend beyond Broadway?

AW: The show has already made a lot of noise and shook up people’s preconceived ideas about deafness, ASL, deaf culture and how theatre can be presented. There are talks of a nationwide/international tour. Even if we go to another country presenting this production in ASL, there will likely be supertitles with the language of that country affixed to the proscenium of the stage for audiences.

Spring Awakening is about self-discovery, awareness and the degrees of communications and how people desire to be understood- mentally, spiritually, emotionally and or physically. I believe that for this particular production, in the last two years, we upped that notion and raised the bar by thickening the ‘sauce’ with some relevant Deaf history content that underscores the entire experience of Spring Awakening.

Frank Wedekind penned this play in 1891. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik created the musical version about ten years ago. We created ours in 2014. Some light background info on what was happening in the world when Wedekind penned this creates interesting connections (however I strongly doubt that he was responding to the following). The Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf (known as the Milan Conference) of 1880 changed lives of Deaf/ deaf people all over the world. Alexander Graham Bell had a part in this. It marked the start of the ‘Dark Ages’ for the Deaf community. The biggest change was the notion that all deaf people had to learn speech/lip-reading and not sign (in fact they were prohibited from signing) in order to be considered ‘equal’ to their hearing peers. Otherwise, one was deemed an oral failure and marginalized in life. This created segregation within the community between those who could not ‘speak’ clearly and those who could. We are slowly emerging out of that, but it is not without a constant fight.

EZ: That background becomes an essential part of the world of the play and I was amazed at how seamlessly that history fit into the narrative at hand. To me, it made the story that much more powerful and relevant. It was almost like he did write it with that history in mind!

Spring Awakening is playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre from now until January 24th and it will not be extended. Do not miss your chance to see this brilliant and inclusive show. Visit for more details. You can also enter a lottery for $35 tickets which is drawn 90 minutes before show time in both English and ASL, with support from the place where I take ASL class, The Sign Language Center.

–Posted by, Ellysheva Zeira, Education Associate for Access