Get in Touch: Another Kind of Tour at the Tenement Museum


Many of the tours at the Tenement Museum take place in 97 Orchard Street. The Building is 152 years old and we usually ask visitors to be mindful of the peeling wallpaper, delicate doorframes and antique furniture. Most tour groups are asked to keep food, drinks and gum outside the museum. It may have caused some surprise then to see a tour of visitors touching objects in the museum with four dogs in tow. But this was no ordinary tour.

An educator prepares for the touch tour by working with the 3-D model of 97 Orchard Street.

On July 14th the Tenement Museum  held a touch tour for visitors who are blind or have low vision. The group was a total of 15 people and four guide dogs. The tour was offered in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act which was passed in 1990. This tour was slightly different from tours given on a daily basis at the Museum. Tenement Museum tours are constructed to be as accessible as possible for a wide audience. The Museum is committed to the idea of universal design for learning, planning and anticipating the needs of a wide audience. At the museum educators give tours to groups of individuals that want to visit the museum. Educators incorporate different teaching styles and methods to try to engage everyone in the group and can adapt as necessary. In this way a person who is blind or has low vision can come on any tour at the museum.  An educator can also combine these strategies with other tools such as touchable historic objects and braille transcriptions of key historic documents to enhance the experience further if a visitor requests them.

Additionally, if booked in advance and schedule permitting, the Museum can offer a brief orientation session to visitors who are blind or have low vision to orient them to the museum’s historic tenement building, 97 Orchard Street where the tours take place. With raised line drawings and a 3-D model of one floor of 97 Orchard Street, visitors can use their sense of touch to understand the building’s layout before they hear about family stories inside the building. The Tenement Museum is pleased to welcome anyone on our daily public tours but the experience is wholly different when the group is entirely comprised of visitors who are blind or have low vision.

This tour on July 14th began with visitors participating in the orientation session as a group, guided by the Education Associate for Access, Ellysheva Zeira. They used a raised line drawing of the façade of 97 Orchard to understand the framework and makeup of the building. Then the group used two 3-D models of one floor of the historic tenement to conceptualize the dimensions of an apartment and how one apartment fits into a floor where it is one of four. The group then started to use replicas of decorative elements to explore the unique hallway in 97 Orchard Street. Due to improvements made throughout the building’s residential life from 1863 through1935, the hall boasts some impressive features such as; ceramic tile floors, painted burlap on the walls, raised plaster decorations, and pressed metal ceilings. Each of these elements has been replicated for visitors who are blind or low vision so that they can experience these impressive features of the building. After the orientation the group was split in two and led through the Hard Times tour.

The tour focused on verbal descriptions and handling objects more than a public tour. Summer tours can be hot and the tour on July 14th was no exception but everyone involved had a great time. The Tenement Museum in the past offered these tours but had not done so in quite some time. Bringing back a tour of this nature for this audience was a wonderful way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and we hope to host more tours of this nature in the future.

–Posted by Ellysheva Zeira, Education Associate for Access

Reading E.L. Doctorow in the Old Neighborhood


The author, E.L. Doctorow brings New York of the past to life like no one else. This photograph shows the lights of Time Square in 1920. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

“I was facing the wall of my study in my house in New Rochelle and so I started to write about the wall. That’s the kind of day we sometimes have, as writers. Then I wrote about the house that was attached to the wall. It was built in 1906, you see, so I thought about the era and what Broadview Avenue looked like then: trolley cars ran along the avenue down at the bottom of the hill; people wore white clothes in the summer to stay cool. Teddy Roosevelt was President. One thing led to another and that’s the way that book began.” – E.L. Doctorow

Who makes history? Though it is old, 97 Orchard Street is just a dwelling; it has been home to more than 7,000 people. Though we have been able to track their names and occupations, they were mostly ordinary people. This means they may not show up in the history books as being especially good at business, singing, or waterskiing. No matter. History is not made just by the few holders of wealth or beauty. Immigrants moved to the Lower East Side from all over Europe, Puerto Rico, and from China. Some of them notable, all of them namable- someone’s brother, daughter, uncle.  They brought us housing reform, vaudeville, and Kung Pao chicken.  When Doctorow died last week at the age of 84, he was mourned on the front page of the New York Times, yet he is famous in part for his thoughtful and colorful imaginings of the smaller moments in history, and his reimaging of the fireworks moments we all know well.

A map including Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx. Doctorow grew up in the Bronx and many of his novels touch down in his old neighborhood including Billy Bathgate, named for the street. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was like our residents on the Lower East Side and also – not. His grandparents had arrived from Belarus in the 1880s, and he was raised on Eastburn Avenue in the Bronx. The Doctorow story was not immediately one of success; Doctorow’s parents struggled for financial security- his father worked at a failing music business in the old Hippodrome building in Manhattan. Doctorow’s uncle was apparently much wealthier, and, as a result, Edgar experienced a bifurcation of wealth which he later wrote about with such timelessness. Doctorow attended the prestigious Bronx Science but was already distracted by tales. As a student, he famously fabricated a much-lauded “interview” with a stage doorman at Carnegie Hall. He was chastised when he admitted the truth, but this was just the beginning of Doctorow’s ability to bring to life stories that might not often be told.

Another piece of old New York: the Hippodrome building where Doctorow's father ran a failing music business. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

Doctorow’s books have reached the Civil War, the Wild West, and contemporary America, but as lovers of Lower East Side history we are particularly attached to Doctorow’s unforgettable novel, Ragtime. The novel imagines the space and conversations around many of the headlines of the early twentieth century: Freud visits America. Harry Thaw shoots Stanford White. Ragtime perfectly demonstrates Doctorow’s ability to write about grand historic figures, such as Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, and Emma Goldman with as much flexibility and realism as the more pedestrian figures he invented himself. When interviewed at the 92nd Street Y about documenting real versus imaginary figures, Doctorow admitted, “Actually, if you want a confession, Morgan never existed. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit: all of them are made up. The historical characters in the book are Mother, Father, Tateh, The Little Boy, The Little Girl.”

The beautiful Evelyn Nesbit, or Evelyn Shaw, is leading lady material but only plays a supporting role in Doctorow's novel. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

An author for whom real history resides in the unnamed and the anonymous? Emma Goldman would be proud.

Noah’s Arc: Diversity aboard New England’s Whaling Ships

A famous New England whaling ship, the Charles Morgan. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Everyone has their great white whale, that distant dream that forever eludes capture. For me, this whale was actually a whale, okay a whale tale, Moby Dick, the mother of all whale metaphors.

Despite my various literature degrees, no syllabus had included it and no professor had encouraged it. Digesting this American epic seemed a responsibility like jury duty: time-consuming but ultimately rewarding. And with the idea of summer reading still lingering in my subconscious, I decided to begin immediately and finish that august story by the end of the season.

No one said it was going to be easy… but it is! Moby Dick is swimming with unexpected pleasures and revelations. Moby Dick, a novel published in 1851 about the whaling industry, superficially has nothing to do with Lower East Side tenements, but diversity is one of the major surprises of the story.

Herman Melville takes the reader almost directly to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where whaling has created the Lower East Side in miniature – an immigrant hub.  New Bedford was already relatively diverse; the Wampanoag Native Americans had called the area home for 300 years, and in the golden age of whaling (during which Moby Dick is set), runaway slaves and freedmen also gravitated toward New Bedford because of its relatively tolerant Quaker ideology.  The whaling industry also brought new citizens to New Bedford, especially from the Azores, an archipelago 800 miles off the coast of Portugal. The Azores were the first port of call for many whaling vessels and ships, which would stop there to acquire supplies and more sailors.

Big game. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Talk about group bonding! Whaling expeditions have nothing on your intermural softball club. Trips at sea could last some three years, and the ships would travel from pole to pole, circumnavigating the globe in search of enormous, intelligent mammals to slaughter for their fat. Life on a whaling ship on the high seas was dangerous enough, even before you and your buddies lowered into a little 30 foot whaleboat to row up to a whale twice the size of your boat to stick it with a sharp piece of iron.  If all went according to plan, it was merely messy and terrifying. If anything went wrong, it was deadly.

Sailors would join the crew from Africa, South America and Asia. While some would join only to disembark at the next port, others became important members of the whaling community. Surprisingly, the stratifications aboard the ship were mostly dictated by a sailor’s seriousness and his  commitment to the voyage, more than  his nationality.  One of the pleasures  of reading Moby Dick is the joy and equanimity with which the narrator observes the spectrum of humanity on board the Pequod. Sure Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, deploys all manner of racial slurs of the era, but his observations always conclude that, superficial differences aside, there is more in common between men than incontrast. Over and over, Melville’s Ishmael finds dignity in men he has been raised to find “savage” or “uncivilized.”  Melville’s work however, somewhat highlights the hypocrisy of the time. Despite all of  Melville’s tolerance and respect for the rainbow of ethnicities he represents on the Pequod, the tales are not entirely rosy. Records do show that it was hardest for African American sailors to rise in the ranks, even in the egalitarian world of a Quaker whaler.

Crew member of a whaling ship, probably seniors in rank. Photo courtesy of the Public Broadcasting Service.

Working intensely in life-threatening situations and living intimately in close quarters must have forced many white Americans to come to similar conclusions. Unexpectedly, whaling ships may have served as the kind of melting pot that usually occurs on crowded city blocks.

After the wane of the whaling industry (and wane it did when petroleum, an alternative to whale oil, was discovered), the textile trade continued to bring immigrants to New Bedford. Immigrants from Portugal continued to emigrate, encouraged by older whaling connections who were forming communities not unlike those here on the Lower East Side. Except of course, for the tales told around the fire on winter nights.

–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

with much research support from

The New Bedford Whaling Museum


The PBS program “Into the Deep: American Whaling and the World”


A year and a half ago – before I started working at The Tenement Museum – I spent a day as a poor working-class woman in the Lower East Side in the year 1900. I was a background actor – also known as an “extra” – for Steven Soderbergh’s Cinemax show The Knick.

After applying to be a background actor for the show, I was called in to have a fitting with the wardrobe department. I was to be a lower-class working woman, and they dressed me up in what a poor woman would have worn in the year 1900. This look included a plain beige blouse, a long brown wool skirt, an apron, dark leather boots and a handkerchief wrapped around my head.

When I got to the set, which was, fittingly, right around the corner from The Tenement Museum, at the intersection of Broome and Orchard, I was blown away by how much the set decorators had transformed the area to the way it probably would have looked over a hundred years ago. The paved roads were covered with dirt, cars were moved out of sight and instead there was a carriage being pulled by horses. Signs advertising little shops were put up and dozens of extras filled the area dressed as pedestrians, from the working-class poor, like me, to upper-class citizens, dressed in fashionable dresses and snazzy suits. And of course, lots of pushcarts led by peddlers, filled with goods and food that people back then depended upon.

Me - in character - on the set of The Knick

I was given a basket with some vegetables to make it look like I was going food shopping. The Assistant Director told me to act interested in buying a chicken from a chicken cart on the street.

When director Steven Soderbergh yelled ‘Extras!’ we would start doing whatever we had been told to do in order to set the scene.   When he yelled ‘Action!’ the main action of the scene would occur. For other shots they set up, I was to cross the street, from one side of Broome to the other.

In those moments, when everyone was acting and setting this turn of the century scene in the Lower East Side, it really felt like I was in another time.  Surrounded by children playing in the street, watching peddlers sell their goods, I really felt like I was checking out the best chicken to buy.  It was easy to feel like a woman living at the turn of the century. This was as close to time travel as it could get.  

The Knick’s first season aired in the summer of last year, and I eagerly awaited and watched the series, and was not let down.

The Knick focuses on Dr. John W. Thackery (played by Clive Owen) and the other staff at a fictionalized version of the Knickerbocker hospital in New York in the year 1900, but a place dealing with realistic problems and medical innovation.

The Knick’s staff is operated by pioneering surgeons who struggle to overcome the limitations of the period’s medical understanding and practice. But medicine was just in its infancy then, and mortality rates were terribly high. Dr. Thackery (whose character is based on Dr. William Stewart Halsted – an innovating surgeon) is the newly appointed head of surgery, and battles his cocaine and opium addictions as well as feeds his ambitions for medical discovery. Just as legislation was about to be passed in 1901 mandating electricity and plumbing be installed in the tenements of the Lower East Side, the first episode of The Knick depicts the momentous installation of electricity in the hospital.

It was crucial for the show’s creators to get the time period accurate. In fact, Dr. Stanley Burns, founder and CEO of The Burns Archive, was brought in to serve as the on-set medical advisor and works closely with the production to make the hospital scenes as realistic and authentic as possible  

The show is currently in production on the second season and will air in the last quarter of the year.

- Arielle Grinshpan 

Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act!

Alexandria Wailes, a Tenement Museum educator who is Deaf, leads a walking tour in American Sign Language.

The Tenement Museum is proud to be participating with organizations all across New York City this July to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990 by President George H. Bush. It was and is a piece of landmark legislation guaranteeing civil rights for people with disabilities. It prohibits discrimination because of a disability. It also created legal incentive to hold businesses, institutions, and public entities accountable for removing barriers that prevent people with disabilities from fully participating in society. Two years after the ADA was passed the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (LESTM) opened its doors for the first time. As a small museum in a very delicate historic structure, ensuring that the museum was and is accessible to all visitors over the years has been challenging.  The strategies the Museum has used to accomplish this goal has gone through many changes and improvements influenced by the ADA.  While the Americans with Disabilities act legally drives institutions to become accessible, the benefits to working towards access for all greatly improves all aspects of the museum experience for any visitor. Incorporating accessibility into the museum experience also extends the reach of our message, and helps us focus on our visitors’ experiences. The Tenement Museum’s stories are ones we are excited to share with all visitors regardless of background or ability. The museum is dedicated to making that a reality by continually offering accessible programs when possible and improving all programming to be as accessible as possible.

In honor of this legislative milestone the museum has scheduled a Hard Times Touch Tour for visitors who are blind or have low vision on July 14. Also scheduled is a Storefront Stories Walk the Neighborhood tour in American Sign Language on July 22. Both of these tours start at 5:30pm, have limited availability, and are free of charge.  Additionally, we are pleased to offer a select number of free tickets for our wheelchair accessible tours: Shop Life and any of our Walk the Neighborhood Tours. To find out more about these three offerings and for information on reserving tickets visit the upcoming events portion of our Accessibility page.

The Tenement Museum also has accessibility options for visitors every day on every tour including assistive listening devices for visitors with hearing loss. If you are visiting the Tenement Museum feel free to contact us to discuss how to make your visit an enjoyable one. To find out more about our accessible options offered every day please visit the Accessibility Page of our website.

The scheduled tours and free tickets this month at the Tenement Museum is only a small part of the New York City celebration of the 25th anniversary of the ADA. There are many celebration events happening throughout New York City in the month of July and beyond. To find out more, visit the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities ADA 25 website.

–Posted by Ellysheva Zeira, Education Associate for Access

The All-American Hotdog? A Group Effort


Foreign food with Dick and Jane? These children enjoy hotdogs at the 1939 NY World's Fair. Photograph courtesy of the New York Public Library.

On the Fourth of July,  America’s Independence Day, millions of Americans take a good hard look at our nation’s heritage, and think about the kind of legacy we might like to have… or maybe not. The Fourth of July is overwhelmingly a time for everyone to celebrate the country we live in, in whatever way we’d like. Independence Day could look like salmon tandoor on the grill, or lamb burgers as this reporter notes. Of course, the most popular food on July 4th is easily the hotdog. As American as it gets, you say? As American as the open road, baseball, and Arnold Schwarzenegger? Well, think again.

You might know that hot dogs are really “frankfurters,” so named for their city of origin: Frankfurt am Main in Germany. Traditionally, this German-style sausage is a mixture of pork and beef. Arguably, the frankfurter was made popular in the United States by a Polish immigrant named Nathan Handwerker, whose frankfurter recipe was created by his wife, Ida. Nathan opened his stand – aptly called Nathan’s Famous , though Ida’s Famous might be more accurate  – at the Coney Island amusement park in 1916, and the crowd went wild. Nathan’s Famous soon moved to a brick-and-mortar location and continues to bring happiness to millions of visitors a year.

An "international habit" alright but one with international origins. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

But wait! Most red, white, and blue-blooded Americans call these special sausages  “hot dogs” not “frankfurters”!  So where did the term “hot dog” come from? That name actually predates Nathan’s Famous by 24 years.  Fred Shapiro, a research librarian at Yale, traced the first instance of the word “hot dog” to Paterson, New Jersey.  One man, Francis Xavier Morris, began offering “hot dogs” to the citizens of Paterson as they gathered to skate, go to festivals, or for many other reasons. They were a huge hit. Francis Xavier Morris was Caribbean. He emigrated to the United States and later traveled Europe with his wife was European. Perhaps it was his European encounters with the frankfurter that gave him an edge on the trend. His creative and hugely successful naming of the food – that may have been all his own.

Okay, so immigrants had a lot to do with bringing hot dogs to the United States. But at this point, they are now in the hands of born and bred Americans, right? Well, yes and no.

American Coney Island in an early photography. Photo courtesy of National Public Radio and Grace Keros.

“The Coney” is perhaps one of the most popular iteration of the hotdog. Its story is a classic immigrant tale. In the early twentieth century there was a huge burst of Greek immigration to the United States. For all the reasons immigrants congregate in one area – security, language assistance, cultural support –  Greek immigrants tended to gather in Detroit. However, before heading to the Motor City, most of these immigrants came through New York. Any number of these immigrants could have brought hot dogs to Detroit, but two brothers, William “Bill” Keros and Constantine “Gust” Keros, were the first to really start the Coney –style hot dog – at least in its early incarnation. Not to be confused with a regular hot dog, “the Coney” is a special combination of a hot dog with chili sauce, mustard, minced onion, and a steamed bun. At the time, Detroit was the place to be. The Ford Motor company reportedly paid their workers $5 a day in the 1920s (almost a month’s rent here on the Lower East Side). The Keros brothers saw the market for a quick lunch. They opened American Coney Island on the corner of Mission and Lafayette, where it still sits today.   Despite their immense success, the brothers soon had a falling out, and in 1936, Bill opened Lafayette Coney. The rivalry continues and so does the empire.  As Greek families moved into the suburbs of Detroit, so did the Coney franchises. The Keros family still owns Coney franchises all over the state.

So the story of the hot dog is undeniably American, but only in that the American Dream is truly one of immigration.

Eat up kids! That is the taste of American opportunity. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.


Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Outdoor Voices: The Long History of the Essex Street Market

This year the Essex Street Market is celebrating its 75th anniversary.  75 years is a long time, but  depending on how you measure it, the market has actually been around even longer than that. The vendors who now call the market home, were once part of a long tradition of pushcart venders on the Lower East Side.  This was especially the case in the early 20th century, when the Lower East Side was the densest neighborhood in Manhattan. As a result the hard-working immigrant populations mostly catered to themselves. Pushcarts sold everything from meats to sweets and spectacles. Some of the LES’s most popular institutions, including Moscot, Russ & Daughters and Katz’s Deli all started on the street as pushcarts. Jewish immigrants coming from Eastern Europe did not have a lot of capital,  because they had been forbidden to own land in many of their nations of origin these Jews did have experience in peddling… so peddle they did.

An arrest among the Lower East Side pushcart vendors in 1906. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The pushcarts stayed open late and lined the streets in what was then called “the Jewish Quarter.” As the city modernized and car and truck traffic increased, Mayor LaGuardia did what he could to sweep this side industry off the streets. LaGuardia’s concerns were health and hygiene but probably also appearances.  LaGuardia created the Essex Street Market and three other  indoor markets to consolidate street vending in neighborhoods where it was prevalent:  the Arthur Avenue Market in the “Little Italy” section of the Bronx, The Moore Street Market in Brooklyn, and the La Marqueta in the Spanish Harlem section of Harlem. All of these markets are still in operation  today!

A simplified and fictionalized version of the struggle of pushcart owners has been memorialized in the children’s book titled (what else?): The Pushcart War.  In this story it is the trucking industry which serves as the villain. Written from the vantage of the near future, the book is a faux-historical account of urban underdogs. The book ardently supports the peddlers as they fight the trucking companies with pea-shooters, protests, and sheer hubris.  The book was actually written in 1964 and was likely more of a response to urban development of the West Village, where moves by urban-planner Robert Moses almost unraveled the strong community of independent shops there.

The Essex Street Market attracts all kinds of shoppers from grandmothers to gallery owners. Photo courtesy of the Essex Street Market.

Today the Essex Market is a surprisingly harmonious blend of necessitates for a variety of cultures. For instance there are stacks of cactus, salt-cod and aged gouda.  Now, however, it is the market which needs preserving, just as the pushcarts did in the 1930s. The current market and some of the real estate surrounding it will be part of a new development called Essex Crossing. Do not fear! The current market occupants will have stalls waiting for them in the new buildings and will be able to stay in their current location until their new space is available.  The move may prove a challenge for some but, after all, the merchants have already survived several incarnations.  Here’s to 70 more years !

The King of Pastrami: Looking Back at Katz’s Deli

One of the most iconic businesses in the Lower East Side is Katz’s Deli located, at 205 Houston Street. Like Russ & Daughters Café, it’s a frequent stop for visitors of the Tenement Museum before or after their tours. Remarkably, Katz’s Deli has been serving their famous pastrami sandwiches to the public since 1888. That’s a lot of pastrami over 125 years. And while the Lower East Side has gone through many incarnations since then, Katz’s Deli remains a vestige of a time and neighborhood that is all but gone. It would be a mistake to dismiss Katz’s as simply a popular spot for tourists and celebrities, so this week we will look back at the restaurant’s history to see how it all began.

Katz’s Deli was first established in 1888 as Iceland Brothers, a small kosher deli on Ludlow Street owned by two brothers with the last name Iceland. In 1903, they took on an additional partner, Willy Katz, and changed the name to Iceland & Katz. In 1910, Willy’s cousin, Benny, would join the business, and the two men would buy out the Iceland brothers, officially creating Katz’s Deli. A few years later, in 1917, they would take on another partner, their landsman named Harry Tarowsky.  In those days the Lower East Side was a town unto itself, home to a population of largely Yiddish speaking Jews. United by their immigrant backgrounds and similar traditions, this insular neighborhood became a tight community every town needs a square and in the early 20th century, folks would gather at Katz’s to plan, gossip, and eat. It became a tradition on Friday nights for hot dogs and beans to be served to the locals.

Ted Merwin, author of Pastrami on Rye: an overstuffed history of the Jewish Deli, writes that delis were most important not to the first generation populations who opened them, but to their children. In reality, the second generations where the first group with enough money and leisure time to treat themselves to a meal out , but not outside of their comfort zone.

Katz’s Deli was originally located across the street from its current location. However it was forced to move into its present location as a result of the subway that was being constructed in the Lower East Side at the time. According to Katz’s website, “the vacant lot on Houston Street was home to barrels of meat and pickles until the present storefront façade was added between 1946 and 1949.”

With the emergence of the Yiddish theater in the Lower East Side during the 1930’s and 1940’s, Katz’s Deli would also become a common meeting place for the entertainers. Even as the Yiddish theater scene waned, Katz’s continued to draw celebrities. If you visit Katz’s today, you will notice the walls are covered with famous faces from all fields and industries that have come by to chow down.

In 1989, Katz’s Deli probably achieved its most wide-spread recognition when it was used as the backdrop of the famous “I’ll have what she is having” scene between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in the film, When Harry Met Sally. The scene is so well known that the table the two actors sat at now has a sign hanging from the ceiling to identify it.

It was during World War II that the restaurant coined its famous slogan, “Send Salami to Your Boy in the Army,” as a result of Katz’s owners sending food from the deli to their two sons serving oversees. The slogan was actually created by the Tarowsky family.

The 1980’s saw a lot of change for Katz’s Deli in terms of ownership. After Willy Katz died, his son Lenny took over, however, in 1980, both Lenny Katz and Harry Tarowsky died, leaving the store to Lenny’s son-in-law and Harry’s son. With no offspring of their own, the two families decided to sell the business to longtime restaurateur Martin Dell, his son Alan Dell, and Martin’s son-in-law Fred Austin in 1988. The Dell family still operates it to this day.

More than 125 years after the Iceland Brothers opened up the small kosher deli, Katz’s Deli is still packed on a daily basis. They serve around 15,000 pounds of pastrami each week. The Lower East Side keeps on changing, but Katz’s Deli is showing no signs of going anywhere.

- Post by Jon Pace

Walter Matthau: Remembering A Lower East Side Legend

Walter Matthau

Over the years, there have been many actors from the Lower East Side who have gone on to achieve great fame and success: James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Robert De Niro, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Rosario Dawson are some of the most well-known. One actor in particular, whose roots in the Lower East Side are similar to many of the stories we share here at the Tenement Museum, is Academy Award winner Walter Matthau. Despite not having traditional movie star looks, Matthau, with his memorable but craggy hangdog face, would go on to become one of the most respected actors of his generation.

Walter Matthau is probably best remembered for his role as Oscar Madison, opposite frequent co-star Jack Lemmon’s Felix Unger, in Neil Simon’s 1968 feature film, The Odd Couple (Matthau also played the role in the original Broadway production). But beyond The Odd Couple, Matthau’s filmography features lead and supporting performances in many great films that include Charade, The Fortune Cookie (the role that won him an Oscar), Charley Varrick, The Sunshine Boys, The Bad News Bears (NOT the Billy Bob Thornton remake), and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (NOT the Denzel Washington/John Travolta remake), among others. He was still a box office draw in his seventies, when he and Jack Lemmon co-starred in the 1993 hit Grumpy Old Men, which spawned a sequel, Grumpier Old Men, in 1995.

Yet, before he was a household name, Walter Matthau was born Walter John Matthow on October 1, 1920 in New York’s Lower East Side. He was the second child of Melas (aka Milton) and Rose Matthow, who immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine and Lithuania. Rose was 14 years old when she first came to America. When asked why she ultimately left Lithuania for the United States, she said: “Because I came from a village, and there was nothing to do there.”

It made sense that Matthau’s parents would settle in the Lower East Side, as by the early 1920’s more than half a million Eastern European Jews settled in this neighborhood.  Milton, who worked as a street peddler, abandoned his wife and two sons before Walter turned three. Needing to make money to care for her kids, Rose would find work in sweatshops, where she sewed ladies undergarments.

The Matthow’s would reside in various tenements throughout the Lower East Side during Walter’s youth. They were probably similar to the tenements we feature at the museum so they may have been approximately 325-square feet. Walter would attend Public School 25 in the neighborhood followed by Junior High School 64. Walter did not have fond memories of his youth growing up in the poverty-stricken Lower East Side. He has admitted that his childhood was “a nightmare, a dreadful, horrible, stinking nightmare.”

Yet, the immigrant culture of the Lower East Side is also what was responsible for Walter Matthau becoming an actor. With a large Yiddish population in the neighborhood, there was a strong desire for old-country entertainment, and as a result, Yiddish stage productions began to flourish in the Lower East Side with Second Avenue becoming known as the Yiddish Great White Way. Matthau attended many of these shows, and the actors he saw made a great impression on him. He would say, “I got to see many of the leading Yiddish actors, like Julius Nathanson, Herman Yablokoff, and Michael Rosenberg. I watched the way they worked. The idea of becoming an actor was lurking somewhere in my head.” Shortly thereafter, he began playing bit parts on stage. An actor had been born.

Matthau in the latter half of his career

After serving in World War II, the GI Bill enabled Walter to enroll in acting classes at the New School where he started to really hone his craft. It was also around this time that he changed his last name from “Matthow” to “Matthau,”. He found work in theater and film throughout the 1940’s, 50’s, and early 60’s. He was a working actor. However, his big break came in early 1965, when the playwright Neil Simon cast him as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple. The play was a smash hit, and Matthau went from character actor to superstar. Matthau worked consistently for the next four decades until he passed away on July 1, 2000 at the age of 79.

In his lifetime, Walter Matthau had won a Tony and an Academy Award, had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and garnered a legion of fans that spanned numerous generations. Not bad for a poor kid who grew up in the tenements on the Lower East Side.

Much of the information for this blog was found on the outstanding website for The Matthau Company which is led by Walter’s son Charles Matthau. You can visit the site to read more about the Matthau family at:

- Post by Jon Pace



caribBEING in June

Visitors and fans of the Tenement Museum know that, up until now, we have been committed to telling the stories of 97 Orchard Street, a building that shuttered as a residence in 1935.  However, as time has progressed, this end date has become increasingly frustrating for us as an educational enterprise.  While 1935 was a practical year for landlord Moses Halpern to close 97 as a residence, it is an inconvenient year for us as an institution that wants to discuss the ongoing experiences of immigration.  To continue our commitment to the shared experiences of immigrants through American history, we are embarking on several new projects, including an upcoming digital exhibit called, “Your Stories, Our Stories,”  that collects personal object memories from modern day immigrants and migrants to NYC.

The exhibit will eventually be open to user submissions, but for now we are reaching out to our friends all across New York City to contribute stories.  One of our great collaborators is caribBEING  a Caribbean culture, arts and heritage organization whose mission is to illuminate the Caribbean experience in NYC. caribBEING operates out of Flatbush, Brooklyn, where a large population of West Indian immigrants and their descendants have settled.  The Caribbean Diaspora includes immigrants from Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua-Barbuda, Grenada, St. Vincent, Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago,  Guyana, and Cuba to name a few.  Like so many immigrant groups, there are a wide variety of languages, cultures and traditions coming from this region, but they have a long history in NYC.

Yves Daniel Lundy, not one to take things sitting down, especially not Kompa.

I went to Midwood Senior Center to interview some of these community members at an event sponsored by caribBEING.  One of the people I met was Yves Daniel Lundy.  When I asked him what object or item made him remember Haiti, where he came from at age 14 in 1966, he didn’t miss a beat.  “Kompa, the Haitian folklore [traditional] music… I came here in 1966, but deep down in my heart, I still think about home.  Every time I hear my music, Kompa, I cannot see myself sitting down.  I have to get up, be in the front and dance.”


When I returned home from Flatbush that afternoon, I knew I had to check out Kompa music.  I found a great webpage devoted to it, and I feel like it means so much more to me now that I can imagine my new friend Yves Daniel dancing to it.  I’m ready to dance to it, too!  Check it out:

Don't miss the opportunity to celebrate Caribbean Heritage Month with caribBEING.

If you are interested in music like Kompa, dancing, Carnival, Caribbean food, or what it’s like to be a West Indian immigrant, you should check out caribBEING’s events!  If you are interested in how that community fits into NYC in general, you should come to the Tenement Talk we are co-hosting with them this June 10th. June is Caribbean Hertiage Month so keep a look out for plenty of ways to celebrate.

“Your Stories, Our Stories” is a powerful project.  In the many people I’ve interviewed so far, I’ve seen glimpses of so many triumphs and heartaches.  Our belongings remind us not only of where we’ve been, but how we’ve become who we are.   If you have a story you’d like to contribute, whether you are an immigrant or the grandchild of one, I do hope you’ll reach out to us at .


–Posted by Emily Gallagher, Community Outreach Coordinator