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: http://matthau.com

- 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: http://www.haitianmusic.net/popular-haitian-music/kompa/

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 103objects@tenement.org .

 

–Posted by Emily Gallagher, Community Outreach Coordinator

Don’t Doubt the Immigrant: Frank Capra and the Love of the Adopted Nation

Elysian Park, Los Angeles: where fantasy and reality jockey for followers. This postcard was created in 1904, around the time when the Capra's moved to L.A. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

A friend of mine from back East moved, for college, to the west coast. Stalled in miles long traffic on a L.A. freeway she stepped out of the car along with the drivers in front of her, looked at the sun setting into the smog-swathed LA basin, sighed, and said “Converts are the worst.” What she meant was that faced with the all the horrors of freeway traffic, she still felt nothing but affection for her newfound home.

Sometimes, especially for immigrants, an acquired home can be beloved in the way natives could never imagine. During the course of his forty year career, Frank Capra directed some of the most iconic American films of all time that include It’s A Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. It may come as quite a surprise that Frank Capra, a director known for some of the most classic “American” movies of all time, was born in Palermo, Sicily. Not only did Capra make beloved movies about the American dream, but he was also a devoted director of war propaganda for the United States War Department during World War II. Now that is patriotism.

Looks beautiul from a distance. An image of Palermo, Sicily: a city of intense beauty and a history of crippling poverty. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

Frank Capra was born on May 18, 1897 in Palermo Sicily to illiterate parents. When he was six, he travelled with his family to the United States, settling in Los Angeles. Like so many other Sicilian immigrants in 1903, the Capras travelled steerage, the cheapest possible class.More than merely survive, Capra was inspired to rise above poverty from an early age. He worked from elementary school onward, beginning as a newspaper boy. Reportedly, he was competitive and struggled with the other newsboys for the best possible spot from which to sell papers. Hardworking, Capra won a scholarship at the California Institute of Technology while still working several jobs. After graduation in 1918, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and taught mathematics, a role he would later revisit in an unexpected way.
After leaving the army, Capra was unmoored for a time until he convinced someone in San Francisco he had directorial experience. He had none. The short film, however, got him hooked. He worked his way carefully back up the production ladder, learning from the bottom first as a prop man, a film cutter, an assistant director, a title-frame writer, and then a gag writer. Eventually Capra came to work for Columbia Pictures, which was at the time a lesser studio. Thanks in no small part to Capra’s string of hits; Columbia soon became a leading studio.

Part of what made, and makes, Capra’s movies such a success is their depiction of the America Americans wanted to believe in. Many of the main characters are optimistic and idealistic almost to a fault. Strong individuals often exercise their rights for the sake of those less fortunate than themselves. Some of his films, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, simultaneously mock and critique corruption in U.S. politics and dare Americans to do better by their democratic system.

Frank Capra in uniform again, this time supporting the War Department in their propaganda efforts for WWII. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

When Capra first saw Leni Rienfenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, The Triumph of the Will, at the Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 1942, he was horrified. The film was so powerful and so captured the myth of German Nazism that Capra remembers thinking, “We’re dead. We’re gone. We can’t win this war.”
Fortunately, Capra fought the only way he knew how. He joined the War Department and in collaboration with several prominent directors, including John Huston, John Ford, began to direct and develop War Propaganda. He quit his Hollywood job to commit solely to this project. The result was the arresting seven-part series, “Why We Fight.”

Capra’s story is hardly unique; the Baldizzis, who lived at 97 Orchard Street, were also born in Palermo and became devoted to FDR can but it is a highly visible example of how a person who is born in another country and into another culture can become devoted the one in which she grows up. The optimism and idealism in Capra’s films did not always coincide with the realities of American life. When the Great Depression turn into the Second World War and Americans were less moved by Capra’s perpetual happy endings Capra stood by his ideology. It was no marketing gag, he really believed in the power of the American Dream, and why not? For Capra it was a dream come true.

Il Maestro. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

If You Can Make It Here: Becoming American through the Homestead Act

 

A photograph of Daniel Freeman's homestead, the first homestead secured through the Homestead Act. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It began as just your average New Year’s Eve party in Gage County, Nebraska Territory. With the Civil War raging on elsewhere, the folks in Gage County were trying to ring in 1863 in relative peace; However Daniel Freeman had another idea. Scheduled to leave Gage County as a Union scout, Freeman did not want to miss his opportunity to file his claim for land via the newly legal Homestead Act. At the New Year’s Eve Party, Freeman managed to convince officials in attendance from the Metropolitan Land Office to open the office a little earlier than normal  so he could file his papers before shipping out.

Just after midnight Daniel Freeman became the first participant in the Homestead Act that apportioned public lands to private citizens. Continue reading

A Century Apart, Deadly Earthquakes Bring a Diaspora Together

A image from 1908 of the "Little Italy" section of New York. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On December 28, 1908 one of the worst earthquakes in Europe’s history tore into the Messina Strait in Southern Italy. The devastating earthquake was subsequently followed by a Tsunami which pounded the adjacent coastal regions. The devastation was incomprehensible; an estimated 200,000 people were killed. Southern Italy was already a place with high instances of poverty. Many families were already leaving the region in great numbers to seek better opportunities in the United States. One such envoy was a group of about 500 Italians, who were on board a ship called the Germania when the earthquake hit. The steamer was not equipped with a wireless system, and while the officers and Captain were aware of what just happened, they purposely maintained a code of silence for fear of pandemonium among those traveling in steerage. The grief among the travelers when the ship finally reached U.S. shores was nearly as terrible as feared.

While time has passed and technology has transformed the world, unfortunately there are still echoes of the Messina earthquake in 2015. Last month, an earthquake that registered a 7.8 on the Richter scale killed more than 8,000 in Nepal and left many bereaved Nepalese immigrants here in New York. Continue reading

Bringing up Baby

 

Last Christmas, after dinner, I had a baby. What followed was the longest, fastest three months of my life. And while babies do not come with instruction manuals, parenting experts, mommy bloggers, family, friends, bystanders on random street corners, are all too quick with (often contradictory) advice on how to raise an intelligent, independent, compassionate, and socially-conscious individual.

This Mother’s Day, we salute moms who, for more than a century, have sifted through the fog of information, from the benign to the absurd. Continue reading

Ruined, but not Destroyed: The Beauty of Disuse in an English Castle and our New York Tenement

The 'interior' of 13th century Astley Castle. Gutted by fire, neglect, vandalism both natural and man-made, before the preservation. Photo courtesy of the Landmark Trust.

 

And we thought our tenement was old… what does a 13th-century castle have in common with our Tenement Museum in New York City’s Lower East Side? There is a lot to be learned from decay.

For some Museum guests, it is not the Tenement’s restoration but the deterioration that is the most exciting part of the visit. There are some spaces in 97 Orchard Street which the Museum has elected to maintain as “ruins” – spaces that have been kept pretty much as we found them when the building was discovered in 1988, after standing empty for around 50 years. For some visitors, these ruined spaces can say as much as the restored apartments about the hardship and joys of the former tenants, the importance of memorials, and the passage of time. Continue reading

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