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 etietjen@tenement.org

-          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 

Fanny and Granny: My Connection to Immigration

You know the feeling you get when someone asks you a question and really wants to hear your response, your unique perspective? At the Tenement Museum, visitors experience this daily.

Educators at the Tenement Museum understand that everyone has a story to tell. In the words of one educator, “Every visitor is a primary source.” During Tour and Discussion, the museum’s dialogue program, visitors share their stories and explore contemporary issues while learning about the residents 97 Orchard Street. It’s amazing the connections people make.

Recently I was participating in a Sweatshop Workers Tour and Discussion when the educator-facilitator asked the entire group, “What’s your connection to immigration?”

I didn’t know what to say. No one had asked me that before. Born and raised in Baltimore to parents who had never lived further than an hour from the places their parents (also native to Baltimore and one Wisconsin transplant) raised them―no one had expected me to have a personal connection to immigration.

The educator knew better. The incredible staff at the Tenement Museum understands that immigration is an issue that continues to have a profound impact at global, national, local, and personal levels, therefore everyone has something to say. Furthermore, when visitors connect personally to the broader history and issues being discussed, their perspectives on both the past and the present can change. My perspectives certainly did.

“What’s your connection to immigration?”

I can’t remember how I answered the educator, but I do remember that throughout the tour the following image kept coming to mind.

The author's grandmother and grandfather.

Standing in the bar they owned, my great-grandmother, Josephine, pours a beer and smiles for the camera, while behind her, her husband guards his drink: my connection to immigration.

Josephine immigrated to America from Poland, married a nice Polish boy, moved back to Poland, then immigrated to America again. However, my family never talks about Josephine as an immigrant. Instead, she’s remembered as the all-powerful matriarch. At a family reunion today, you would be sure to hear how when Josephine caught her son, Eddie, illegally crabbing in the protected waters around Fort McHenry, she forced him to wear a dress to school as a punishment.

Josephine and her family lived near Fort McHenry, the famed fort that defended Baltimore from the British during the War of 1812, where Francis Scott Key noted, “our banner still waved.” By 1939, the Fort was a national monument, which meant protecting the land for posterity and protecting the water from fishermen and crabbers (but apparently not my great-uncle). Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In all the years of hearing and repeating that story, I had never once considered what it meant that Josephine was an immigrant. The Tenement Museum changed that.

On that Tour and Discussion program, we visited the Rogarshevsky apartment and discussed what the matriarch, Fanny, would have thought of her daughters’ modern “American” lifestyle, complete with dime romance novels and trips to Coney Island.

As I stared at Fanny’s picture I saw my great-grandmother—a woman facing similar trials and tribulations. I wondered, what were Josephine’s relationships with her children like?

To the left, Fanny Rogarshevsky stands on the roof on 97 Orchard Street. To the right, my great-grandmother.

I was reminded of the story of Eddie and the dress.  What was Josephine really punishing Eddie for? Simply disobeying the law? For disrespecting the country she’d chosen to live in (twice)? Was it because he was challenging the “American” image of her family she wanted to create? Or perhaps threatening an image she was fighting to preserve?

Participating in Tour and Discussion, I was able to push past a nostalgic image of my great-grandmother to see Josephine—the woman, the immigrant—and the issues she faced. Through the reflections of my fellow visitors, I was reminded that these stories did not stop with Fanny and her daughters, nor Josephine and her sons, but continue today. Everyone on the tour’s connection to immigration was different, but together our stories complimented and complicated each other—allowing us to understand the complexity of immigration and emotions tied to our perspectives.

All this because an educator asked “What’s your connection to immigration?”

–Posted by Amelia Grabowski, Education Intern Summer 2014

Visitor of the Month: Wallpaper Memories

In July we had a visitor whose immigrant experience was so not far behind her.

Pamela visited us from Princeton, New Jersey, by way of Germany where she now teaches English. She was traveling with her daughter to look at colleges.

This is a photomechanical print of the SS Konig Albert, a German ocean liner. Of course, Pamela would not have traveled to the U.S. by steam ship, much less this one, which was taken by the Italian army during World War I, used as a hospital ship, then scrapped in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Pamela emigrated to the United States in 1986 when she was 14, although she has since moved back to Germany, and more than once she thought of her own immigrant experience during her visit to the Tenement Museum.

She obliged us by answering a few questions about her visit!

What surprised her most during her visit was how small and dark the apartments were. Pamela thoughtfully observed this dark environment must have had an impact on the moods of the residents as much as well as being an inconvenience.

Children's laundry sharing some of the very limited space in the Levine's recreated apartment.

When asked if she could imagine herself in the historic Lower East Side, Pamela said that she could easily imagine what it was like to live in the Levine apartment. She could conceive of all the space constraints and all the children close by. She mentioned she had enough trouble finding space while being nine months pregnant nowadays, so she could only imagine what it was like for Jenny Levine with so may children and workers underfoot.

What would she miss most about 2014 if she were to wake up tomorrow as a member of the Levine household? Answer: Fresh air and running water!

Though she immigrated to the United States in 1986, Pamela wasn’t able to get her citizenship until 2001! She noted that it was an incredibly long and frustrating process.

Wallpaper in one of the unrestored apartments in 97 Orchard Street.

 

In fact, when asked if there was a person with whom she wished she could share her visit, Pamela said she would share her trip with the members of her family who are no longer with us. She said that she wished she could convey how authentic the experience felt, especially a few little details, like the wallpaper in 97 Orchard Street. Pamela recalled how the first place she lived had wallpaper with patterns just like those we recreated from salvaged layers found the walls in the Tenement.

Thanks Pamela, for adding your layer to the stories of immigration here at the Tenement Museum!

–Posted by Emma Cohen and Ben Wigler. Julia Berick contributed reporting.

Summer Reading List

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

The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro

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

–Colin Kennedy, Advance Sales Reservations Associate

 

 Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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

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

–Rachel Birch, Manager of Donor Relations

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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

–Alana Rosen, Evening Events Manager

 

The Tiger’s Wife by  Téa Obreht

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

–Juila Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Five Points by Tyler Anbinder

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

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

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

–Emily Gallagher, Community Outreach Coordinator

Flapper By Joshua Zeitz

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

–Elizabeth Tietjen, Evening Events Associate

… and don’t forget the sunscreen!

Factory Girls: Fashioning a New Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Posted by Julia Berick

Hearts and Minds: Italian Americans and their Italian Ties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Posted by Julia Berick

Summer Escapism, Part Two: Coney Island Dreaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

-  Posted by Julia Berick

Seven Names for Eight Begechers

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

Ida and Lilly

Ida and Lilly

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

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

Sarah Begecher

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

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

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

Jack Schwartz

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

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

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

- Posted by Kira Garcia