In Vogue: a quick history of the Garment Industry and the Lower East Side

Two styles of dress collars from 1863, hours hand work for the lace and stitching. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

September can be the herald of a fresh beginning. For students, September brings the start of a new school year, for Jews, it brings the New Year, and for the sartorially inclined, it brings  a flurry of fresh fashion fodder and furious Instagramming all for New York Fashion Week. Continue reading

Singing the Unsung: Ben Shahn and Labor in United States

One of many lingering images by Walker Evans for the Farm Securities Administration. This image is of Allie Mae Burroughs an Alabama sharecropper, taken in 1935 or 1936. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Farm Securities Administration isn’t exactly the place you would think to look for art. In 1935, when the Farm Securities Administration was created to provide support for the rural poor, the Administration set out to prove that there was poverty that required immediate ministration. No problem there. In much the same way some Government agencies use auditors and statistics, the FSA deployed artists and photographers to document both the work of the Administration and the continuing need for its existence. Though the subject was bleak- or perhaps because it was –  some of America’s finest artists, Jacob Lawrence, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn did some of their best work for the FSA. In the field, rather than lose faith in the U.S. laborer and the farm, many of these artists developed a new respect for those who had been stricken by disasters both economic and natural. Though some of these artists were born and raised in the United States, growing up with the lore of America’s  strength and endurance, Ben Shahn was actually born in Kaunus, Lithuania. He became one of thousands of his generation who learned to love his new homeland with an articulation almost rivaling his American-born peers. Continue reading

What Should We Remember?

Frankfurt Castle

How do you manage the enormity of the past? I grappled with this question while on a fellowship with Germany Close Up and Classrooms Without Borders. Germany contains fairytales and castles alongside nightmares spanning centuries of wars, government, and evolving concepts of who belongs. I saw ancient city walls dating back to Charlemagne and parts of the Berlin Wall that divided an East and West Germany until 1989. There were countless memorials to Prussian royalty as well as to the Holocaust. Every corner I turned, juxtaposed the past with the present. Continue reading

Passport to Lunch

New York City: The Melting Pot of America. But what exactly is in that pot? And how did it get there? More importantly, how does it taste? Continue reading

Tea Time: The Story of the Nom Wah Tea Parlor

On the horizon are those halcyon days of fall. The days are warm, the nights are crisp, and the crowds and the smell of garbage slowly ebb.

It is the perfect time to visit a piece of New York’s past. No, I don’t mean the Tenement Museum! There are plenty of corners of the city that have hidden away from the passage of time. Take a trip to Chinatown to visit the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which first opened its doors in 1920 and remains the oldest dim sum spot in the City. Continue reading

Brewing Bustelo: the unlikely story of how a Cuban flavor captured the attention of New York and then the Nation

The Cuba of the U.S. imagination as captured in 1904. Photograph courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Bustelo Coffee should be pretty self-explanatory. It is a beloved Cuban-style coffee which became a serious staple among Cuban immigrants in New York City and then charmed its way into the homes of immigrants from Puerto Rico and  the Dominican Republic, and then everyone else. Now try walking into a bodego (corner store)in any of the 5 boroughs without passing by a brick of vacuum-sealed, brilliantly-colored Café Bustelo. This one-time family roaster is about to hit the world stage, or at least the national stage. But let’s start at the beginning. Continue reading

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.

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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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading


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. Continue reading