All the Right Notes: A History of Hazel Scott

Hazel Scott poised, as always behind a piano. Photo courtesy of WQXR.

Hazel Scott poised, as always behind a piano. Photo courtesy of WQXR.

In honor of Black History Month, we are paying tribute to Hazel Scott, one of the most talented pianists of the 20th century. An immigrant, born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, Hazel moved with her mother and grandmother at the age of three to meet her destiny in New York. Though born abroad, Hazel’s talent, resolve, and dignity led her to break through the barriers of expectation for a woman of color in the United States. Continue reading

Shop Around the Corner: A Tale of Rising Commercial Rents

A photo collage of the East Village in the Early 1990s by Bill Barvin. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

A photo collage of the East Village in the Early 1990s by Bill Barvin. An apt method of portrayal for a mosaic of a neighborhood. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

One marker of New York’s changing neighborhood is the closure of the East Village haunt, St. Mark’s Bookshop…. Or is it?

The end of St. Mark’s Bookshop is an easy harbinger of doomsday from a certain perspective: if an independent bookstore cannot survive in what was once one of New York’s edgiest neighborhoods, then the independent spirit of urban culture is done for. Small shops represent the kind of niche identity that was once a marker of urban life. In a city of around 8,491,079 why not have a shop specializing in just vegan cosmetics, or just rubber stamps.  New York observers have stressed the grim news that these smaller shops are closing due in part to rocketing commercial property values. Continue reading

Love At The Tenement

 We found love at 97 Orchard. Well, we found a love letter. “Nobody can keep us apart,” it reads and it’s signed, “Your own, only-est.”

The museum discovered the pieces of the handwritten note in 1993. The letter, which instructs its reader to pack a suitcase and listen for the “usual whistle,” and continues with plans for running off to elope, was likely written in the 1910s or 20s. We don’t know who wrote it or whom it was for, but what is clear is the author was crazy about their object of affection.

This Friday night we open the Tenement Museum to tell the stories of how our former tenants found and experienced love in our Love at the Tenement program. Love letters, courtship and dating rituals, and marriage traditions give us a clearer picture of their relationships. Whether it was love at first sight or a matchmaker’s delight, the program explores love in its many forms. Continue reading

The Once and Future Penn Station: Part II

The bandaid that wasn't enough. This image shows the "clamshell" designed by architect Lester Tichy in 1956. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The bandaid that wasn’t enough. This image shows the “clamshell” designed by architect Lester Tichy in 1956. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

You may have seen the pictures of Penn Station before it went down. In fact, rushing through its windowless corridors,  you may have seen the posters mounted just below the low paneled ceiling of the old, grand station.  In a daze you might stand there, as your train leaves the station, wondering about what might have been: that the Penn Station of the past is in pieces in a land fill in Jersey. Continue reading

A Monument to Impermanence: The Death and Life of New York’s Penn Station

The graceful balustrades and soaring ceiling of the original Penn Station, designed by the architecture firm, McKim, Mead & White. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

The graceful balustrades and soaring ceiling of the original Penn Station, designed by the architecture firm, McKim, Mead & White. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

It  was lavish, grand, spectacular. It was marble and granite built in the classical style but it wasn’t a hotel and it wasn’t  a mansion. It was a train station and everyone was welcome. Every generation gets the Pennsylvania Station it deserves. The original grand NeoClassical Penn Station was torn down in 1961 to make way for Madison Square Garden with commuter and train platforms in its bowels. Continue reading

As Time Goes By: 1935 on the Lower East Side

The evolution of New York Streets is thrown into stark relief in this image from 1935 taken by Berenice Abbott as part of the Federal Art Project. Courtesy of the NYPL.

The evolution of New York Streets is thrown into stark relief in this image from 1935 taken by Berenice Abbott as part of the Federal Art Project. Courtesy of the NYPL.

In many ways, the year 1935 was the end of an era for a tenement building at 97 Orchard Street on New York City’s Lower East Side.  After almost a century of acting as a threshold to the New World, the building was condemned when the landlord was unwilling or unable to incur the costs of mandatory structural updates.  This is not to say that the building was completely empty; as recently as the 1980’s there were various storefronts that continued to operate on the ground floor. This story was repeated all over the Lower East Side, keeping the neighborhood in business: literally. The communities who once lived in the neighborhood continued to run businesses and shop the area maintaining a vibrant immigrant hub. As a community of immigrants, Lower East Side has been especially impacted by global events, and though 1935 saw the shuttering of 97 Orchard Street, it also saw enormous changes across the country and around the world. Continue reading

The Rent Is Due: A History of Rent at 97 Orchard Street

Visitors to the Tenement Museum often ask about rent. How much did the Moores pay in 1869? How about the Levines in 1897 or the Baldizzis in 1935? Rent is something many of us can identify with, so knowing a family’s rent can bring their story to life for our visitors.

Alas, it’s far easier to ask than answer this question. As Jared Day notes in Urban Castles (1999), his history of tenement landlords in New York City, written leases did not become standard until the 1920s, so we have few written records for what any tenement residents paid in rent before that decade. What’s more, records from the 1920s are hard to come by, and we don’t have them for the later tenants of 97, such as the Baldizzis.

Although we don’t have leases, we do have Lawrence Veiller, a 19th century housing reformer. For his groundbreaking exhibit about tenement housing, he recorded the rent paid by every family living on the block bounded by Canal, Bayard, Chrystie, and Forsyth Streets in 1900.[1] According to his records, a three-room apartment on the first floor of a tenement rented for $12-$13/month (about $4/room), while the same apartment on the 4th floor rented for $9.50-$10/month (about $3/room). As you can see the closer to street level, the higher the rent tended to be.[2] Because 97 Orchard is so similar to the tenements in Veiller’s study area, we assume that our building’s tenants paid similar rents. If the Rogarshevskys lived in a three-room apartment on the third floor, as resident Josephine Baldizzi later remembered, they likely paid about $11/month when they moved into 97 Orchard in 1901 – though rent likely spiked after the landlords spent $8,000 to comply with the 1901 Tenement House Act. According to a later study, families in pre-Old Law tenements like 97 Orchard were paying $10-$15/month in 1907 – about a dollar more than before the 1901 Tenement House Act.[3] Continue reading

Looking back at THE COMMITMENTS: 25 Years Later with author/co-screenwriter Roddy Doyle

Last year the prominent Irish author Roddy Doyle wrote a beautiful essay for Intelligent Life Magazine about his favorite museum to visit: the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. This year, we have decided to turn the tables on Mr. Doyle and interview him about one of his best known works, The Commitments.

Originally written as a novel in 1987 and then adapted for the screen by director  Alan Parker (with a screenplay co-written by Doyle) in 1991, The Commitments tells the story of the rise and fall of a young, working class soul band in Dublin. Featuring covers of classic American soul songs such as “Try A Little Tenderness” and “In the Midnight Hour”, The Commitments is a massively entertaining, often very funny film featuring music that is to die for. Continue reading

Jack Kirby: Superhero Creator of the Lower East Side

 

The Fantastic Four on “Yancy Street” quite similar to DELANCY Street near where the comic’s creator Jack Kirby grew up

Did you know that Captain America is from the Lower East Side? It’s true. So are Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men. All of these characters were co-created by Lower East Side native, Jack Kirby, one of the most important and prolific storytellers of the 20th century.

Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg to Galician Jewish immigrants on Essex Street. Most of Jake’s childhood was spent on Suffolk Street, where he lived an external life with his buddies filled with handball and street fights, and an internal life filled with the Old World stories of his elders, newspaper comic strips, movies, science fiction pulp magazines, and drawing. You can see how all of these elements converged in his later comic book work.

Jack found a respite from the tough street life in the early 1930’s when he joined the Boys Brotherhood Republic, a local organization at 290 E 3rd St that put boys in charge of their own destiny. Instead of just hanging out on the streets, the boys learned boxing and other sports, published newspapers (of which Jake was an editor and cartoonist), maintained a government, and more. The BBR is now the Boys & Girls Republic, part of the Henry Street Settlement. Continue reading

For Richer or Poorer: A Brief History of Charity & Immigration in NYC

In the sparsely-furnished front room of the Gumpertz apartment at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, in between the windows, sits a small, black Singer sewing machine.  In the wake of the panic of 1873, with jobs hard to come by and with four children to feed, Nathalie Gumpertz would not have been able to afford such a major purchase on her own.  Instead, the sewing machine, which allowed Nathalie to support her family in the face of economic hardship, was most likely purchased with money from (or even donated by) United Hebrew Charities, whose ledgers record Nathalie as a recipient. Continue reading