Good Neighbors: Katherine Chang of the University Settlement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Posted by Emily Gallagher, Community Outreach Coordinator

When Your Building is a Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Posted by Kathryn Lloyd, Education Associate

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

A pushcart story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Posted by Julia Berick

Good Neighbors: Milvi Vehik of The Henry Street Settlement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you (or your family) from?

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

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

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

When did you first come to the Lower East Side?

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

What makes this neighborhood special?

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

–Posted by Emily Gallagher, Community Outreach Coordinator

Learning to Read Buildings

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

Students from Mather High School

Students from Mather High School

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

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

Students from Mather High School visiting Governors Island recently

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying Cool in Our Old Age


Summer on the Lower East Side in 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Blaze

This cartoon from 1912 titled "New York under the Dog-Star" gives us a peek at summer time spent in heavy wool dresses and suits. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

It is summer in the city, the 79th warmest summer in 138 years to be exact. Can you believe that there are some among us who think it should have been warmer this summer? It can be easy to romanticize the dog days as long as you aren’t struggling through them. While 2014 has proven to be fairly mild, the summer of 1896 saw the deadliest heat wave in New York City history. Circumstances both atmospheric and political contributed to the deaths of approximately 1,500 New Yorkers, many of them on the Lower East Side, during a ten day heat wave. The Mayor failed to call a meeting to address the situation until the  tenth and final day.

Beginning Tuesday, August 4th officials recorded steamy highs of around 87 degrees, but this is only half the story. According to historian Edward P. Kohn, author of Hot Time in Old Town, a study of the tragedy, the instruments which recorded those “official” temperatures were mostly above street level or positioned at other locations where there was a breeze.  Everywhere the humidity held steady at 90% and temperatures at street level were much higher due to heat radiating off buildings and pavements. The worst of the heat was inside tenements just like ours. Kohn estimates the temperatures could have reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit in these overcrowded apartments.

It might be generous to assume that this miscalculation of ambient temperature was part of the reason why the heat was not taken more seriously, but the deaths were due at least in part because of  bureaucratic mismanagement and apathy. One unfortunate ordinance which could have made quite a difference prohibited city-dwellers from sleeping in parks. No one moved to lift this ban at any time during the heat wave. The heat during the evenings was almost as intense as during the day, only after the final day of the heat wave did evening temperatures drop to 70 degrees. Many deaths were the result of residents trying to sleep on roofs, or children seeking relief on fire escapes and falling or rolling to their deaths. Residents also sought respite by sleeping by the East River which offered its own precariousness as several sleepers rolled into the river.

A portrait of Bone Alley from the 1896. This former notorious slum on the Lower East Side was in the heart of the worst suffering. Photo courtesy of

Because heat stroke takes many different forms, death certificates from the ten day period do not paint a clear picture of the suffering; (Kohn offers that while many of the symptoms, such as asthma and diarrhea were recorded, however only in some cases did “heat stroke” literally appear.) However, compared to the same ten days in 1895 the number of death certificates in the city for 1896 was nearly double. As today, the very young and the very old were the most at risk but certain other professions also carried particular heat risks. The city commissioner of public works, One of the only officials to react to the heat, adjusted the schedule of his laborers allowing them to work during the coolest hours of the day and called for city workers to flush the streets with water to cool temperatures. We need only consult the SPCA to note that another group of day laborers, over 500 horses, had already died from heat exhaustion by between August 4th and August 11th.

Theodore Roosevelt as a young police commissioner. Roosevelt kept a cool head in the crisis and was one of the only officials to attend to the victims. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

One of the only other city officials to attend to the crisis was a then little-known Police Commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt. Some believe that his thoughtful responses to the heat wave helped start Roosevelt on his path to power and ultimately the Presidency. What was Roosevelt’s quick and relatively inexpensive fix? To distribute ice among the city’s poorest and hottest. Roosevelt suggested that the city buy and distribute ice and helped to supervise the distribution of 100 pounds of ice in 10-pound blocks through police precincts. In letters to his sister, Roosevelt noted police corruption even in the face of this obvious tragedy, with officers taking bribes from wealthier parents and withholding ice from some of the poorest.

This much jollier scene shows children on the Lower East Side enjoying ice on a less brutal summer day in 1912. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Eventually, the heat broke but the tragedy helped make clear the desperation of tenement living and, as Kohn believes, may have contributed to the Tenement Housing Act reforms of 1901 which addressed some of the worst health and hygiene offenses.

–Posted by Julia Berick

Good Neighbors: Joe Montano of University Community Social Services

This week Emily Gallagher, our Community Outreach Coordinator, invites us in, or rather out, to meet the Lower East Side communities she works with every day:

Since 1988, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum has scoured the neighborhood, the country and the world to connect the stories of 97 Orchard Street to the wider human experience of immigration.  As we build the 103 Orchard Street exhibit discussing the second half of the 20th century, we have also had new opportunities for research and collaboration.  In my role as Community Outreach Coordinator, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with people in the Lower East Side and beyond who work with and for the everyday communities our Museum focuses on.  It’s been really fun to meet them, learn about what inspires them, and get to examine the many ways our New York City community connects.  In this new series, Good Neighbors, I will be profiling some of our community partners all over New York City and the work that they do.

First up is Joe Montano, who is a social worker at our neighborhood organization, University Community Social Services, and helps manage their food security project, the Meatloaf Kitchen.


Tell us a bit about the work that your organization does. University Community Soup Kitchen, established in 1982, became University Community Social Services in 1997, and the name change is telling.  We are not only an emergency food program, but we have expanded and in the past 15 years we have been providing social services, computer user support, pantry distribution, clothing distribution as well as hosting health and wellness days where guests can get a doctor’s check-up, a dental check-up and eye exams. We manage to do all of this with a completely volunteer staff for over 30 years.

What inspired you to get involved in the lives of your neighbors? I had an opportunity in October of 1989 to visit Washington, DC.  My former high school teacher had switched careers and was now a social worker in the District at a place called SOME:  So Others Might Eat.  I traveled to visit him and volunteered where he was working.  I was playing checkers with one of the homeless clients and said to myself, I need to do this when I return to New York. By December of the same year, I was a weekly volunteer at University Community Soup Kitchen.

Where are you (or your family) from?

I was born in Nassau County, New York and raised in Queens.  My parents were both born in the United States, my father in Astoria and my mother in Brooklyn.  My dad’s parents emigrated from Pietrapertosa, (near Potenza), Italy around 1928 and my mother’s parents were born in the United States. My maternal grandfather whose parents were from Patti, Sicily, was raised in the East Village at East 13th Street and Avenue A.  My maternal grandmother was born on Mulberry Street, delivered by a midwife.  Her parents came from Colarmele (father) and Introdacqua (mother), (in Abbruzzo Province) and were married in Transfiguration Church on Mott Street.  My maternal great-great grandfather, (the father of the bride at The Transfiguration Church marriage), upon emigrating to the United States with his two children after the untimely death of his first wife, opened up a small Italian Restaurant on Mulberry Street. He would serve judges and lawyers from the courthouse located near Columbus Park during the day and bring the leftover food from his restaurant to Transfiguration Church to feed those who lined up at a breadline.

When did you first come to the Lower East Side? I’ve been told that my first trip to the Lower East Side was just before I was born, when my parents attended a wake at a Lower East Side funeral home, located across the street from where I would later volunteer!  After that “first visit” I returned in 1989 to volunteer at what was then known as University Community Soup Kitchen.

What makes this neighborhood special?

So many things do. First, it was the place I fell in love. I came to the kitchen and met so many wonderful guests and volunteers. I know it sounds cliché but it was a life-changing experience for me. To this very day, I emerge from the subway at 2nd Avenue feeling as if I have just taken a dive into a wonderfully refreshing pool or sea.  I at once feel energized, rejuvenated, stress-free and at home.  Second, it is a place of my maternal family roots.  I walk streets where my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and at least one great-great grandparent walked. Thirdly, it is a neighborhood which embodies the history of those who walked these streets, who faced seemingly insurmountable odds both here and abroad and yet overcame those odds to create a community, not just of survivors, but one of peaceful strength and long-lasting endurance. A neighborhood that attests to the indomitable human spirit!  

– Posted by Emily Gallagher,Community Outreach Coordinator

Getting Your Fill on the Lower East Side

I don’t know about you, but I have the tendency to get pretty hangry (“hangry” = hungry + angry) if I don’t have something to eat every 4 to 6 hours. And while the Tenement Museum offices keep a well-stocked candy bowl, this woman cannot live on Economy Candy licorice alone (though it’s never stopped me from trying)!

Thankfully I work in the Lower East Side, arguably the most delicious neighborhood in Manhattan. When that hanger strikes, the candy bowl is running low, and my colleagues begin to share a look of fear, I needn’t walk more than a few blocks in any direction to get my mid-afternoon snack fix with a historical fix!

If these noshes get you a little hangry yourself, you’re in luck, as they are all featured in our Tastings at the Tenement program, which occurs every Thursday at 6:30 pm. Busy on Thursdays? Not to worry – it can also be booked as a private event!

As gracious as nutritious, the interior of Cafe Katja is as appealing as their menu. Photo courtesy of Cafe Katja.

Café Katja – As a southern transplant, I never miss an opportunity to enjoy the splendid taste of a good potato salad. But unlike the mayonnaise drenched concoction of my youth (and, I’ll admit, my present) the potato salad at this Austrian comfort food restaurant is light and crisp. Featuring red potatoes, cucumbers, and even some pickled red onions on top, a heaping helping of this down home in Vienna side will (as my mama says) cure what ails ya!

Vanessa’s Dumplings – One of my first meals in New York City was Vanessa’s Dumplings, and I can’t imagine any other meal that could have welcomed me better! These delicious fried pork and chive-filled pockets hit the spot on cold winter nights and hot summer days (they also come boiled for the health-conscious, but once again, I’m southern – if it can’t be fried, we don’t bother with it). Vanessa’s is a perfect snack for those on a budget; four dumplings will only set you back $1.25. At that price, you might as well get two orders…. Or three… or four…

Italian delicatessens have a proud tradition on the the Lower East Side. This photo of an early purveyor is from our archive.

DiPalo’s Prosciutto – If you are of the opinion that there are, in fact, days that can’t be made better with cured meats from DiPalo’s, one of the oldest Italian delis in the city, I would be willing to bet that this thin sliced, salty sweet perfection will change your mind. Perfect with a bite of parmesan, a tear of basil, a hunk of melon, or even on its own, DiPalo’s prosciutto will never let you down.

Fou Zhou peanut noodles – Another snack for those watching their wallets, these simple and savory noodles come in a pint for only 2 bucks.  While the outside of the restaurant may not look like one of New York’s premier eateries, those who venture inside are in for one heck of a taste adventure; these noodles are like the ramen/peanut butter combination that we all attempted in college (Everyone tried that, right? Not just me?), but so, so much better. A fork-full of comfort, Fou Zhou’s peanut noodles can melt all the hanger right out of you.

There is plenty of pastry to make your mouth water at Panade Puffs & Pastries but the cream puffs are especially good. Photo courtesy of Panade Puffs & Pastries.

Panade Cream Puffs – Let’s be honest, sometimes all you need is an afternoon sugar-fix (see the above candy jar). Like a superhero, Panade Puffs and Pastries can rescue you from your slump with their selection of delicious cream puffs – each just a dollar! Light and sweet, classic vanilla and chocolate filled puffs, as well as the more adventurous green tea flavor, might be just the pick me up you need to power through your afternoon like a superhero yourself.

Of course, these are just a few of the myriad of options and countries represented on the Lower East Side’s food scene. The restaurants here span centuries and continents, and have brought New Yorkers together to the table for years. Won’t you take a seat yourself?

With the Lower East Side as your witness, you’ll never go hangry again!


To purchase tickets to Tastings at the Tenement on Thursdays, check our tour calendar. For more information on booking Tastings at the Tenement as a private dinner program, please contact Evening Events Associate Elizabeth Tietjen at

-          Written by Elizabeth Tietjen, who is no longer hangry

What Would a Tenement Museum Opening in 2064 Look Like?

If in 2064 someone were to create a museum to look at the lives of NYC immigrants in 2014, what form would it take? Is it an old tenement building on the Lower East Side? More likely it would resemble a basement apartment in Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx. Indeed, housing advocates estimate that accessory dwelling units, mostly composed of basement apartments, amount to over 114,000 units and may house as many as 500,000 New Yorkers.

Just as Manhattan no longer remains the first destination of most immigrants, and actually ranks fourth among the boroughs with regard to immigrant concentration, the tenement has now ceded its place as the characteristic immigrant dwelling to an outer borough basement. Yet the Tenement Museum remains an important site for Americans to learn the history of immigration and consider today’s immigrant and housing issues. Each year over 200,000 people visit recreated turn-of-the-twentieth century tenement apartments and empathize with the Irish, Jewish, Italian and German immigrant families who dealt with husband desertion, economic depression, grueling factory hours, and, yes, congested, dark and unsanitary housing.

The Facade of The Tenement Museum at 103 Orchard Street. Where would a new Tenement Museum be?

Visitors entering the hallway gasp when their guide switches off the light, recreating the darkness as it was experienced by nineteenth-century residents. Only the passage of the 1901 Tenement Housing Law, the guide explains, and its enforcement in 1905, brought gas-light to the tenements, along with indoor plumbing and bathrooms.

In retrospect, the 1901 Tenement Housing law seems a no-brainer. At the time, though, it was fiercely contested by landlords who had to foot the bill for the improvements. At 97 Orchard, the bill came to $8000, a not insignificant sum to the immigrant landlords who had purchased the entire building for $20,500. No wonder real estate interests fought the law in courts. Perhaps even tenement residents were cautious: what if these improvements led to higher rents?

Championing the law and housing changes were progressive reformers who lived beyond the tenement districts and had the privilege and freedom to consider the long-term importance of improved conditions and enforced standards.  Robert De Forest and Lawrence Veiller, of the Charity Organization Society, rented the tony Sherry’s restaurant on Fifth Avenue to display the tenement districts through photographs, charts and cardboard dioramas. They aimed to prove to the middle and upper classes how dire the tenement situation was, and how needed were the reforms. Veiller’s claim that human beings had a “God-given right to light and air” succeeded, and the Tenement Housing Law was passed that year, largely due to the activism of the progressive middle and upper class.

This is what the hallway at The Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard look like today? What might this hallway look like a tenement museum opening in 50 years?


Thus every day, and almost every hour, the question of what constitutes fair housing, and perhaps more importantly, the debate over who is responsible for creating and maintaining these standards, arises in our tenement. Delving into the issue of today’s basement units presents tensions that recall the debates of a century ago.

In both cases, the emphasis is on sub-standard immigrant housing. Today, the immediate players are immigrant landlords—who often live in one-family homes out of which they’ve carved cellar and basement apartments and on whose rent they depend to pay their mortgage, as well as immigrant renters, who clamor for the affordable rent (often less than $1000). Also in the mix are real estate brokers and mortgage companies who often assure prospective buyers of rental income. Finally, inspectors from the city’s Department of Buildings issue upwards of 4400 violations a year.

Observing and documenting this situation are community organizations and housing advocates like Chhaya Community Development Corporation in Jackson Heights, Queens. As part of a 2008 report co-authored with the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, they canvassed several neighborhoods, compiled ambitious studies filled with graphs and charts, and made a nuanced case for pilot studies that would relax the outright ban on basement dwellings. Whereas in 1900 Veiller and De Forest argued for the passage of a binding law to improve the conditions, Chhaya and others note that the laws are outdated, and fail to address present day realities. In fact, were this law to be strictly enforced, hundreds of thousands of lives would be disrupted.

Instead, housing advocates, some elected officials and community groups grasp how important these units are precisely because they are affordable in an increasingly unaffordable city. Rather than banning them altogether, they seek to relax the rules and test conversions of the units in order to develop a more flexible standard. In suggesting low-cost loans, property tax abatements and free engineering assistance to examine and improve conditions, they approach the problem in a holistic manner, hoping that these measures will ease the landlords’ expenditures to bring the units to a higher standard while offering affordable rents. Their proposition to pilot these programs seems a nuanced way to begin to find solutions to what otherwise remains an intractable problem.

In a recent visit, Seema Agnani, Director of Chhaya, emphasized the difficulty of launching the pilot or making any change because of the number of stakeholders involved. The mayor of New York, Agnani emphatically stated, would need to be behind this effort. In May, Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan pledged “to work with the relevant stakeholders to examine how best to bring these units into the regulated housing system.”

Theodore Roosevelt, then Governor of New York State, delivered the opening speech for the Tenement House exhibit at Sherry’s in February of 1900. He noted how both individual citizens and the government needed to join forces to improve housing; he also observed, “Of course, struggle as we may to improve conditions, those who come after us will have to struggle too.” As the de Blasio administration addresses this issue, the Tenement Museum assumes its role as a connector between past and present, and offers its nighttime program arena as a public square. We invite the key players and the broader public to explore the issues, and continue the struggle.

Imagine: in 2064 a museum of immigration headquartered on a block of two-story homes in Jackson Heights, Queens. Schoolchildren, European and Asian tourists, and New Yorkers in search of history line up for educator-led tours that delve into the well-researched family histories of the Bangladeshi and Pakistani families who settled into these homes as landlords and renters. As they enter a doorway leading to a basement apartment, the educator describes how a 2014 debate brought together an array of advocates, agencies and a progressive mayor to improve the day-to-day lives of the families on this block, and many throughout the boroughs.

- Dr. Annie Polland, the Senior Vice President of Programs & Education at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum