Looking at the Great Migration

The first panel of Jacob Lawrence's Great Migration Series. Each panel features a caption written by Lawrence. This panel reads "During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans." © 2008 Estate of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. This image courtesy of MoMA.

There is one tale of American Migration that is so different from the rest, that it seems at first to bear no relation to the stories we tell at the Museum. This is the Great Migration, the immense movement of African Americans from the rural South to the cities in the Northern and Western United States, including, of course, New York City. Unlike the other newly-arrived New Yorkers we discuss, these new arrivals were not immigrants. However, they left a place where their personhood was at risk and traveled hundreds of miles to a place where they hoped their American dreams would come true. Some of these migrants had their hopes realized, while others’ hopes were deferred and are still.  As one of the largest demographic shifts in American history, the Great Migration is an essential chapter in the history of our cities and our country. What can we learn about this unique movement that can also help us understand immigration and the face of our cities today? Continue reading

The Tenement Museum Top Sellers List

The Tenement Museum Shop at 103 Orchard

The Tenement Museum Shop, located at 103 Orchard Street, is always hopping with shoppers. And one thing is clear: our shoppers are big readers. The shop has a particularly strong literary selection that includes books about the museum, immigration, New York history, and even popular fiction. With that mind, we thought we would check in with the shop to find out what our visitors are reading. So without further ado, here are the Top 10 bestselling books for the past year at the Tenement Museum:

1. How the Other Half Lives   

2. Tenement Museum Book Bundle

3. A Tenement Story: The History of 97 Orchard and the Lower East Side

4. 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Families in One New York Tenement

5. The Historical Atlas of New York: A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City’s History

6. 97 Orchard St, New York: Stories of Immigrant Life

7. Biography of A Tenement House in New York City: An Architectural History of 97 Orchard Street

8. Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

9. New York City (Boardbook)

10. Five Points

So even though Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives was first published in 1889, it still is attracting readers more than 125 years later. Sometimes you just can’t beat a classic. All of these books can also be purchased online at the Tenement Museum Shop.

- Post by Jon Pace

A Door to the Past: the Photographs of Roy Colmer

A shot of Hester Street between Essex and Ludlow Streets in a series capturing the odd numbers doors. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.



















If government research can be respected as art, can respected art become social research? Recently, we took a look at the life and work of Lewis Hine, a photographer who used his gift to document child labor in the early 20th century for the United States government. This week we talk about Ray Colmer,  an artist whose work was not intended to be a historical document but can become one for urban observers today. Colmer was an artist who worked in painting, graphic design and film. His major project, however was a photography project, Doors NYC. Doors NYC  captured  over 3,000 doorways in Manhattan. Though the images are straight forward -each photo depicts a door on a city street- his project is semi-abstract. Colmer’s work teaches the viewer to look for sameness as well as variation. His efforts were as an artist first, but because his work meticulously captures Manhattan streetscapes, his pictures end up serving as a record of the city in the 1970s. Continue reading

Recipes for Remembrance: Victoria Confino’s Passover Seder

Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is the ultimate food holiday. Unlike so many Jewish holidays celebrated in synagogue, Passover is observed at home, twice, by gathering around the table for a special ceremony, the Seder (literally meaning order), and enjoying a festive meal. The Seder is laid out in a book called the haggadah, which tells the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt and provides prayers as well as explanations for some of the practices and symbols of the holiday. Intended to connect the Jewish people to the Jews of centuries past, the Seder encourages us to remember and to reenact the story of Passover with the indispensable help of several foods, mnemonic devices that symbolize everything from enslavement to sacrifice, freedom and renewal.

For the immigrant families of 97 Orchard Street and throughout the Jewish Lower Eastside, Passover Seders must have been especially meaningful. The themes of sacrifice, new beginnings, and freedom must have hit especially close to home for those who had recently left their own homes and all that was familiar in order to begin again in New York City. The meals that followed the service were likely more abundant than they had been in their home countries, but the tastes would have been bittersweet, reminding them not only of the Passover story, but also bringing back memories of homes they’d left behind.

The Confino Seder Plate

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Tenement Reflections: The Tales of a Tortured Tenant

Woman crossing Astor Place with home-work. Photo Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

While many new immigrant families arrived in America seeking different opportunities than what their native land could offer, many were struck by the hardships of living in 19th century New York. Krysta O’Pharrow provides a fictional perspective of a German tenant residing in 97 Orchard Street.

August, 1880

It’s not what it’s all cracked up to be. I find myself slumped over, knees to chest, quietly sobbing as the children rest. Hands blackened with splinters caused from scavenging all afternoon for wood and coal for our stove. I close my eyes tightly for a few moments to escape our harsh realities. Counting the days until we can save enough to remove ourselves from these rackety pits. Maintaining my sanity, reminding myself today’s hardships would become memories of a tortured past. I recount and replay my fantasies as a child, longing to escape to the greatest city in the world. Tales of starting a new life in the land of the free consumed me. I look at my children sweating profusely as they all gather under our parlor windows gasping for air as they sleep. The wind blows a horrendous smell of manure. Endless chatter fills the walls with voices of patrons, tenants, and workers, waiting in our communal rear yard for water and toilets. Constant sobbing lingers through our bedroom of a neighbor’s child suffering from swill milk poisoning. Our connecting fire door somehow reflects an ongoing nightmare. I stare daily at our wallpaper, it often fills me with joy as it is vibrant with color and designs and somehow eases the burdens of life. It allows my family to escape the ugliness lying outside our doors. Fighting back watering eyes caused from the soot accumulated throughout our quarters. A useless broom full of twigs lies near our stove full of dirt and dust, in need of a harsh beating. The thought of chores means another treacherous adventure outside these walls. Each step becomes another reminder, another trip down four flights of stairs, which seem to lead to perdition.  My body cries in agony, the daily torture of battling my way through a hallway full of chaos. Each floor is a purgatory of dreams, each dreamer ultimately waiting for their imminent resting place. Struggling to handle items half of my body weight results in endless blisters on my chapped hands. Sleepless nights occur daily when I lay my head to rest. The aches and pains condemn my body to constant tossing and turning. Comfort is a luxury my family just can’t afford as my husband works tersely. Before Sunrise with the children already awake, I can see in his weary eyes, he’s on the brink of defeat. Freedom results in frequent visits to Schneider’s Saloon, a time capsule to our native homeland. We work relentlessly to keep our family values and children sheltered as this life is all they know. Cornered, isolated, and confined to Kleindeutschland, where culture and our native tongue lives. The loud voices of neighbors, crying babies, and the gaudy commotion in our halls wake me from my wretched daydream. Prompting, I cease these thoughts and disregard the aches piercing every limb in my body. The sun is almost set, within moments darkness will present itself. I must gather the lanterns and prepare for night. The children are waking from their naps and the chores await me. My realities are one of choice as I escaped to this country for a better life.  I trekked across the retched blue seas to live the dream for those I’ve left behind. America is now our home and so is 97 Orchard Street.

- Posted by Krysta O’Pharrow, Evening Events Assistant




Picturing Child Labor: Lewis W. Hine


A child at a North Carolina cotton mill, captured by Lewis W. Hine. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Once you have seen a photograph by Lewis W. Hine it is hard to forget it. Though Hine himself is largely forgotten, his work, which documents child labor in early 20th century United States, continues to haunt lawmakers, photographers and civilians alike, as an arresting example of the power of the photograph. Continue reading

The Lower East Side: Not Just for Tenements!

What was once called "The Jewish Quarter" now the Lower East Side. Sociologist and photograph by Lewis W. Hine in 1912. Photograph courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The American Institute of Architects, in its Guide to New York City, has this to say about the Lower East Side: “Far more significant historically than architecturally, this area harbors the legions of tenement buildings that warehoused the wave of homeless, tempest-tost immigrants who arrived here from the 1880s up to World War I.”

Oy. Where to begin.

First, there were many immigrants (and tenements) on the Lower East Side before 1880. Our tenement at 97 Orchard Street, for example, was built in 1863, and it isn’t even the oldest tenement on Orchard Street!

Second, immigrants are not inventory, and their homes are not warehouses! Despite the typical tenement’s (many) design flaws, tenements were still home for the tens of thousands of immigrants who have passed (and continue to pass) through this neighborhood. Indeed, the surfeit of detailing on these buildings, though mass-produced, spoke to the aspirations of these immigrants: They wanted to live in buildings that mimicked the look of middle-class homes in other neighborhoods.

And third – and this is what really drives me nuts – there’s so much more to the Lower East Side than just tenements. For example, walk with me down Grand Street and sit by my side on one of the benches in front of one of the tall apartment buildings near Ridge Street. Crane your neck and look at the building behind us. This is one of three apartment towers built by Grand Street Guild in 1973 as affordable housing for low-income neighborhood residents. The buildings may seem nondescript, but the story behind them is not.

Bulidings of all kinds on the Lower East Side. This shot was taken of Houston Street in 1999. Almost every block has seen changes in the past decade. Photograph by Dylan Stone courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Here’s that story: In 1962 this was a neighborhood in turmoil. Government bulldozers had demolished block after block of aging tenements, row houses, and cast-iron commercial buildings in the name of urban renewal. Neighborhood residents – often poor, often minority – were displaced by the thousand. In the middle of this devastation stood the church to our left, St. Mary’s, one of the oldest and most storied parishes in New York City. Its pastor, Thomas J. Keogh, saw in this devastation an opportunity. His parish had been shrinking as a result of urban renewal, but if he could marshal his parish’s considerable human resources, maybe together they could build new housing for some of the displaced neighborhood residents. Msgr. Keogh, along with dozens of other neighborhood volunteers, founded the Grand Street Guild Corporation to sponsor the construction of the housing behind us today. Initially they wanted to build a mix of low-rise apartments and townhouses.

Grand Street Guild and St. Mary's Church, a stop on our new tour.

After the City took back much of the land for a public housing project, they settled on the three towers around us today. These towers were never “Catholic-only,” but Msgr. Keogh hoped that the connection between the church and the towers would encourage at least some neighborhood Catholics to remain on the Lower East Side and involved with St. Mary’s Church. The connection to the Catholic Church continues to the present: Catholic Charities New York was instrumental in winning a $50 million grant from the federal government for the full renovation of these towers last year. In exchange for this federal grant, Grand Street Guild promises to keep the towers affordable for another 40 years (not that they would ever do otherwise).

At the Tenement Museum we believe that every immigrant’s story is worth telling. An immigrant’s story doesn’t matter less just because she was poor or didn’t speak English or never became a celebrity. Similarly, a building’s story doesn’t matter less just because its architect wasn’t influential and nobody famous slept there.

And we don’t embrace these stories just for storytelling’s sake. Every generation reshapes its built environment in its own image. We demolish or alter some old buildings while preserving and restoring others. Some plans get built, others are shelved forever. When we discover the stories of these old buildings, we’re also uncovering truths that empower us to better shape the built environment we want for ourselves and our children.

An aerial view of the Lower East Side from 1910. To see how the landscape has changed and how it has stayed the same book yourself a spot on our Building on the Lower East Side walking tour. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

That’s why I’ve created the Museum’s newest walking tour, Building on the Lower East Side. It’ll be an architectural walking tour, but the focus isn’t on Federal versus Greek revival, or Beaux-Arts versus Neoclassical. This tour visits many different buildings on the Lower East Side, including the Grand Street Guild towers, the soaring glass Blue condominium, the old Anshe Chesed synagogue, and much more. But we’ll also discuss the people who shaped these places — people like Msgr. Keogh and his many church volunteers, people who wanted to build a Lower East Side they would feel glad to call home. A building is just brick and mortar, steel and wood, glass and iron – it’s the stories behind these buildings that make them relevant and even revelatory.

–Posted by Adam Steinberg, Senior Education Associate

Luck of the Irish: Not Always a Good Thing

A St. Patrick's Day greeting card from the early 20th century. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Though it is forgotten annually by legions of young people celebrating in green,there was a time when Irish immigrants were once a group despised and derided upon their arrival to the United States.  Unlike some chapters in the history of U.S. immigration, the story of Irish discrimination is both more complicated – and actually simpler – than it first appears.

What can prompt a nation to discriminate against a group of people who look more or less like they do? Who speak mostly the same language and read the same alphabet? The answer is, in part, religion and in part circumstance. The story of the Irish in the United States is actually two stories.  The Irish had actually been immigrating to the United States since the 18th century from Ulster County – what is now Northern Ireland. This population was much more likely to be protestant and reached a New York with which their community had long traded wool and linen. These emigrants were leaving a country complicated by the struggles of colonialism and a fading linen trade. However, this was nothing compared to the poverty and starvation that would face their Catholic countrymen who were to come. The first wave of Protestant immigrants were more likely to be middle class and become part of an upwardly mobile middle class fairly soon upon reaching the U.S.

Irish citizens departing for what they hoped would be better opportunities in the United States. Etching from 1989 courtesy of the NYPL.

The largest influx of Irish immigrants arriving in the United States occurred  around the Irish Potato Famine beginning in 1845. The Famine resulted from repeated waves of blight which struck potato crops across the country. The rural poor had especially relied on potatoes as their main source of food. It is estimated that around a million and a half people died of famine related causes in Ireland. Part of this famine is thought to have been fueled by unfair colonial rule and regulations. Immigrants from Ireland between 1846 and 1855 were part of the largest immigration of the 19th century.   Immigration to the United State was another harrowing event.  Desperate travelers crowded into steerage class cabins on ships where germs swept through this already weakened population. Another 9% of travelers would die on board these ships.

The interior of the Moore apartment. This apartment has been carefully restored the the condition it would have been in when the Moore family lived at 97 Orchard in 1869.

Visitors to the Tenement Museum going on the Irish Outsiders tour can walk into the home of the Moores, an Irish family who lived at the 97 Orchard Street around 1869. The Lower East Side was a diverse neighborhood even then. The Moores were an English-speaking, Catholic family, who lived in a building mostly of German-speakers. Their neighbors would be of all nations and denominations of religion.  Some of the German immigrants who were considered much more reliable laborers would have been Catholic as well as Jewish.  So why did  Irish immigrants face such discrimination in job searches and from employers? The differences in their religious practices may have gotten swept up in the desperation of their poverty and in the sudden increase in their numbers.  A common refrain Irish applicant faced in their job searches was “no Irish need apply.”  No strangers to hardship, the Irish poor in New York were able to use song and music to create support in their community. Songs were created to bemoan and satirize the difficulties of discrimination and the public health dangers they encountered when living in the slums of New York.

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Of Irish descent, Kennedy was the first Catholic President of the United States. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Library. Photo credit Rowe, Abbie.

The Irish Catholics only marked the beginning of a range of immigrants with whom Americans found fault ( but that is another story). Anti-Catholic sentiment was slow to fade. In 1960, then Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy addressed the swirling controversy about the influence of his faith on his actions and ideas. Even as late as 1960, voters feared that he would be taking direction from the Vatican. Kennedy won the Presidential election and became an American icon.  So as you curse the drunken revelers on your street this St. Patrick’s Day, think instead of the shouting and tiny green hats as an example of a nation’s ability to overcome discrimination.

–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Guest Blogger: Emily Spivack

Emily Spivack has some major accomplishments under her belt, and you can be sure that belt was carefully chosen. Among other things she is currently the creator and writer of Threaded, the Smithsonian’s only fashion history blog.  In 2010 Emily began collecting what became Worn Stories, after a series of other projects confirmed Emily’s belief in how important clothing can be. Worn Stories is a collection of tales about how a piece of clothing can be become much more meaningful than just covering. Published in 2014 by Princeton Architectural Press, Worn Stories is a New York Times Best Seller and a compelling look at the items we put on every day. Emily Spivack will be visiting Museum for our Tenement Talks Wednesday, March 11th joined by Brain Pickings creator Maria Popova and two of the book’s contributors,  artist Andrew Kuo and designer Debbie Millman.

Emily has allowed us to share a scrap of Worn Stories here on the blog :

Greta Gerwig

Young love: understood. The shirt that became very special to Greta Gerwig. Photo by Ally Lindsay, photo courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press.

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Learning Through Lunchtime

What can a school lunch teach you about immigration? A lot, according to Lower East Side middle school students! This past Friday, the Eighth Graders at the Manhattan Academy of Technology served a lunch that spanned the globe and connected them to their families’ stories of immigration. The lunch was hosted as part of the school’s Cultural Diversity Celebration, which I was lucky enough to attend on behalf of the Tenement Museum’s Education Department. An afternoon of cuisine, dance, and song, the celebration was the culminating event of a semester’s worth of learning that began with the students visiting the Tenement Museum for our Foods of the Lower East Side walking tour!

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