Historically Ever After

Students of PS15M getting ready to bring Tenement History to life. Photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.

I often wonder how a visit to the Tenement Museum impacts the students who visit. What happens when they go back to school and home for night? Does the visit extend back to the classroom and to their family life?

More actors in "Scrubberella." Photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.

While I aim for each student who visits to leave with new understandings, curiosity, and questions that fuel further thinking, rarely do I get the opportunity to talk with the student months later and hear how the experience has impacted him/her.  As such, the invitation from Class 202 at PS15M, Roberto Clemente to attend their school play was particularly exciting.

Publicity shots ! The cast of "Scrubberella" smile for the camera. Photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.

The 2nd graders had visited the museum back in December for our Meet Victoria school program. During the program, the students met a costumed interpreter playing the role of Victoria Confino, a 14 year old immigrant living in 97 Orchard Street in 1916. The experience ended up having a huge impact on their learning – so much so that it inspired them to make Victoria a central character within their classroom, and the star of their school play.

Some of the cast of "Scrubberella." This photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.

The teacher, Sarah Strong, whose patience and talents were amazing to see, explained that the students spend the second semester studying fairy tales and exploring Cinderella stories from around the world.  Together with the enthusiastic support of Shawn Shafner, their drama teacher from Arts for All and their dance instructor from Mark DeGarmo, the class created their own Cinderella tale. The students chose to adapt the Cinderella story to Victoria Confino and included key details about her life and times in the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century.  Shawn describes how this evolved, “when I came in, students regaled me with the story of Victoria and their time at the Tenement Museum. As an educator, any time you see that learners are naturally excited about something, you jump on it. And thus Scrubberella, as Victoria would be cruelly called by her step-family, was born.”


The students getting into character with the help of Shawn Shafner, their drama teacher from Arts for All and their dance instructor from Mark DeGarmo. Photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.

The students transformed Victoria into a super hero with the power to save herself through ingenuity, creativity, and baking skills. It was amazing to sit in the school auditorium and see how their Tenement Museum visit motivated further research and fueled imaginations. It was also interesting to reflect on how the historic Victoria Confino became a prominent figure in the classroom in 2014 just a short walk from where she resided nearly 100 years ago. The experience was a powerful indication of the important role that the arts play within learning.

Not only did our visitors get to meet Victoria but by making her a main character of their play, they made her story their own. Photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.

As the students activated Victoria’s story with their sounds and movements, I couldn’t help but think about what the real Victoria Confino would have thought about this development. I am pretty sure she would have liked their adaptation and cheered along with the rest of the audience.

The cast of Scrubberella takes a well-earned bow. Photo courtesy of Ms. Strong.


Arts for All’s mission is to offer accessible artistic opportunities to children in the New York City area who face socio-economic, physical, or emotional barriers to exploring the arts. Through Arts For All, professional artists work with youth organizations to build self-confidence, self-expression, teamwork, resilience, and creativity in children.

Mark DeGarmo & Dancers/Dynamic Forms Inc is a not-for-profit organization committed to enlivening bodies, shifting perspectives & changing lives. MDDF works in yearlong, multiyear partnership programs with NYC schools, including public school students & communities under-served in the arts, dance & aesthetic education.

– Posted by Miriam Bader, Director of Education

June’s Visitors of the Month

Our visitors are what make the Tenement Museum the thriving and growing place that it is today. Since we appreciate our visitors very much, every month, we’ll give a shout out to a special visitor (or visitors) to the Tenement Museum! It’s our Visitor of the Month. If you’d like to be one of our Visitors of the Month, just ask your friendly Tenement Museum Staff Member.

June’s visitor of the month are actually two visitors:  Mr. and Mrs. Zev Lazar.

Much to their surprise the Lazars found a very personal story inside one of the books in our giftshop.

The Lazars were actually visiting us shortly before June, on Memorial Day, Monday 5/26/14.

Their story is a wonderful example the strong community of the Lower East Side and how you can find yourself in the past just by stepping into The Tenement Museum.

While in the gift shop they picked up Rebecca Lepkoff’s book, Life on the Lower East Side, and randomly flipped through. To their surprise, they came upon a picture of Mr. Lazar’s father, the Rabbi Dr. Meyer Lazar. Rebecca Lepkoff also grew up on the  Lower East Side where she lived at 60 Hester Street. The Tenement Museum held an exhibition of her remarkable photographs of life in the neighborhood and her book includes more of these dynamic shots, including it seems, a familiar photograph of Rabbi Dr. Meyer Lazar.

The photograph in Lepkoff's book of Mr. Lazar's father, Rabbi Dr. Meyer Lazar, center, under the sign with Rabbi Moses Feinstein.

The picture is on page 122 and captures the senior Lazar (in the center back under the sign) along with the Rabbi Moses Feinstein (the bearded man in the foreground), who was the dean of the Lower East Side’s Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem and was “regarded by many as the de facto supreme halakhic authority for Orthodox Jewry of North America” and was a prominent member of the community.

Mr. Lazar’s father was in the very first ordination class in America offered by the venerated Rabbi Moses Feinstein, clearly a source of much pride for the Lazar family.

The picture depicts rabbinical figures preparing to celebrate Sukkot. They have it framed on their wall at home, but were surprised to find it published in a book here.

Rebecca Lepkoff's book


To take a peek at Lepkoff’s book or to see what you can find out about your past, come visit !

Thanks to the Lazars for visiting and for sharing their coincidence with us!

- Posted by Julia Berick


Crime on the Lower East Side


An illustration of a group of Bowery Boys, a street gang that terrorized the Lower East Side in the mid 19th century. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.


People often ask us if 97 Orchard Street was ever the scene of any crimes, and the answer is yes! We know of a few crimes committed here, including an 1894 report of “gambling” (sadly, there is no record of who was doing the gambling). But outside of the walls of 97 Orchard Street, the Lower East Side was a tough neighborhood; prostitution and gang activity was high.

Prostitution was a pervasive part of immigrant life on the Lower East Side. One street over, Allen Street stood as the neighborhood’s most notorious area for prostitution, most of which took place in tenements. One observer remarked that in “broad day light you can see [prostitutes] at their windows and calling to passers by at night. They are so vulgar in front of their houses that any respectable person cannot pass without being insulted by them.”

Allen Street at Division Street, undated. Prostitutes often frequented Allen Street because of the darkness that the above ground train provided. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

Another resident lamented that neighborhood women could not walk the street after dark “without becoming a victim to the because of the paramours who hang around corners awaiting the proceeds of their concubines.” Little could be, or was chosen to be done about the problem as the very police who were supposed to curb the crime were often customers of the prostitutes.


Many local criminals stole handbags and lifted watches, but in the early 20th century violent crimes became more rare, especially in the predominantly Jewish tenth ward. “East Side Jews are the most peaceful people I have ever come in contact with,” observed James Reynolds of the University Settlement. Historian Jenna Weissman Joselit writes, “…on those occasions when Jews were indicted for murder, the Jewish community was simply astounded and found the association between Jews and violence to be ‘without precedent…in the whole course of Jewish history.’”


When violence did occur, it was often rooted in ethnic tension and conflict. Youth gangs frequently battled over territory in their respective parts of the Lower East Side. A Jewish gang known as the Black Hand would demand a tribute from residents, and if that tribute was not upheld, the gang would poison the horses of those they were extorting.  An Italian gang also known as the Black Hand ruled Avenue D, robbing people at knifepoint.

The New York Times recounts a street gang who demanded extortion money from a group of tailors on 104 Orchard Street in 1897.

While prostitution, robbery and extortion, murder and rape, and gang violence played a role in the daily lives of Lower East Siders during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, residents were much less likely to come to harm than outsiders. Lower East Siders better understood the unwritten geography and social order of the neighborhood—which areas to steer clear of, which people to avoid.

Indeed, residents of the neighborhood during the 1920′s and 1930′s remembered a general feeling of safety when walking the streets at night. Knowing where not to venture and who not to cross no doubt mitigated residents’ likelihood of falling prey to crime and violence.

- Posted by David Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Hebrew Technical Institute Research Fellow

Business Senselessness

The Lower East Side has a long history of family owned and operated businesses, many of which are passed down from generation to generation as time passes. As with most families, sometimes things aren’t always smooth sailing – siblings fight, grandchildren are jailed or sue their own families, and sometimes banks collapse and a mob forces someone from their home. At least that’s what happened to the Lower East Side’s Jarmulowsky family.

Russian born Sender Jarmulowsky was a character as large as his skyscraper; called “The East Side J.P Morgan,” Jarmulowsky was a banker, Talmudic scholar, and man of the people. He founded a bank on the Lower East Side in 1873, and moved to the current location of the Jarmulowsky Building in 1878. At the time, private banks provided services to immigrant neighborhoods and served as middlemen for steamship tickets and provided loans and savings accounts to neighborhood residents.

Sender Jarmulowsky. Photograph, Museum at Eldridge Street Collection.

An honest and conservative businessman, Jarmulowsky grew very wealthy but remained a great philanthropist, who was instrumental to the founding of the Eldridge Street Synagogue and served as its first president. In 1912 Jarmulowsky erected a magnificent 12 story building at Orchard and Canal Streets, which has been called  “the first strictly high-class tall bank and office building” in the area, that is “equal in every respect [to] the highest grade banking buildings throughout the city.”

The Jarmulowsky Bank Building in 1939. New York City Department of Taxes Photograph.

Unfortunately, Jarmulowsky died less than a month after the building was completed. Even more unfortunately, his bank failed only two years later, leaving thousands of its depositors penniless. Jarmulowsky himself had little to do with the bank’s downfall. His seemingly risky business practices – granting loans to clients based on personality rather than financial standing – proved successful.

The top floors of the Jarmulowsky Bank Building. Note the beautiful masonry. Photo courtesy the Landmarks Preservation Committee.

It was two of Jarmulowsky’s sons, Albert and Meyer, who caused trouble, making bad real estate investments and mismanaging the institution they had inherited from their father. As World War I raged in Europe, crowds of Lower East Siders rushed to withdraw money for family across the Atlantic. Having squandered the bank’s funds, the Jarmulovskys couldn’t make good on their clients’ deposits.

On October 31st, 1914, a crowd of over 3,000 angry customers gathered on the corner of Orchard and Canal Streets to demand their savings. Five hundred people stormed the house where Jarmulowsky’s son Meyer lived, forcing him and his family to flee over the rooftops. Shortly after the State took over the bank in May 1917, the Jarmulowsky sons were indicted for banking fraud and the bank closed. The building, however, still remains.

An advertisement for the Jarmulowsky Bank, now operated by Sender's sons.

It seems as if Sender Jarmulowsky’s descendants were as prone to scandal as their ancestor was successful. Not only were sons Albert and Meyer indicted for fraud after forcing their father’s bank to close, but a third son was sent to Bellevue’s psych ward. And then there was a grandson who was jailed for stealing $1,625 from a jewelry store manager, and (perhaps the strangest of all) a granddaughter, Bertha Clark, whose elopement to a linen salesman in 1911 dragged her family into a messy lawsuit. When the couple was kept apart for 17 days by Clark’s furious parents, the groom demanded $100,000 in retributions.

The most lasting symbol of the Jarmulowsky, the 12 story building in the heart of the Lower East Side, has also had a rather interesting fate. After the Jarmulowsky Bank closed, the building became another bank, and then another. However, the floors above the first and second (where the bank offices were) had a myriad of different manufacturers working inside the large and sunny lofts.

According to the Landmark’s Preservation Committee, “tenants in 1929 included the American Art Manufacturing Company, a maker of lace curtains and scarves; a manufacturer of flannel nightgowns; the Perfect Hemstitching Company; the Public Overall Company; and the Rosebud Housewear Corporation.” In 1945, the building was bought by H.W. Perlman Corporation, a piano manufacturer, who remained until the 1960′s. Beginning in the 1970′s, many of the names of the businesses in the building reflected the East Asian population of the neighborhood. After being vacant for many years, the newly restored building will be a boutique hotel.

The Jarmulowsky Bank Building in 2007. The top portico was removed in the 1990's and will be restored with the new hotel. Photo courtesy the Landmarks Preservation Committee.

The Jarmulowsky remains one of the Lower East Side’s most notable buildings – you can see it for yourself on our “Outside the Home” walking tour. Starting July 17th spend your Thursday evenings with us. Outside the Home becomes an evening walking tour!

- Posted by Lib Tietjen


The Many Faces of 103 Orchard

Although the opening our new exhibits at 103 Orchard Street is still a few years away, we’ve been hard at work learning as much about the history of the building as we can!

103 Orchard Street in the 1980's. Photo courtesy the NYC Municipal Archives.

In 1888, the wood-frame dwellings at 103, 105, and 107 Orchard Streets were replaced by three separate, individual dumbbell tenements, each with 18 individual apartments, but today, the single structure has only 14 apartments. How did that happen? The answer is perhaps more complicated than you might imagine.

The original 1888 construction of 103, 105, and 107 Orchard Streets.

103, 105, and 107 Orchard Streets were constructed according to requirements of the 1879 Tenement House act, known also as the “old law,” which required property owners to build airshafts into their tenements to increase access to light and air for interior rooms. Airshafts were intended to end the dark, dank interior rooms of pre-old law tenements (like 97 Orchard), but they too soon became burdened by their own problems. Just eight years after being built, 105 Orchard Street was included in a list of buildings that received notice from the Board of Health that they would be forcibly vacated if  “not put in better sanitary condition within five days.”

In 1903, Delancey Street was widened as an approach to the newly built Williamsburg Bridge. In this widening, the tenements at 109, 111, and 113 Orchard Streets as well as 83 Delancey Street were demolished. In 1906, Joseph Marcus, founder and president of the Bank of the United States purchased the three tenements and commissioned major alterations that turned what had been constructed as a tenement in the middle of the block at 107 Orchard into a corner building. The alterations to 103, 105 and 107 Orchard Street cost about $10,000.

The buildings with a widened Delancey Street.

The 1906 alteration was only the first of a series of major alterations that occurred at 103, 105, and 107 Orchard Streets during the first decades of the 20th century; the most far-reaching of these occurred in 1913. In that year 103, 105, and 107 Orchard were combined to create one building! A description of alterations reads, “Rear part of all the buildings and southerly building to be removed; lots to be reapportioned and buildings altered so as to make one corner building. All stairs to be removed and new fireproof stairs erected. Partitions to be altered and bathrooms installed.”

The 1906-7 alteration to 107 Orchard Street eliminated an air shaft.

When alterations were completed, the new building at 103 Orchard Street had a total of 16 individual apartments, or four apartments on each of the second, third, fourth, and fifth floors. No residential units existed on the first or ground floor after 1913, as this level was dedicated commercial space. Sometime between 1913 and 1917, one apartment on the second floor was turned into a dentist’s office. In 1938, another apartment on the second floor was discontinued and used for storage. From 1938 to the present,103 Orchard Street has had a total of 14 individual residential apartments.

103 Orchard Street (in the shaded box) as seen from Essex Street in 1907. Photo courtesy the NYC Municipal Archives.

The removal of the backs of 103, 105 and 107 Orchard Streets created enough space to  build the six-story Bank of the United States Building next door on Delancey Street. Conveniently, Joseph Marcus, owner of 103 Orchard, was the bank’s president and the architect for the bank was Samuel Sass, the same architect responsible for altering 103, 105, and 107. Hmm…

The truncated 103, 105, and 107 Orchard Streets, with the Bank of the United States in yellow.


Part of the 1913 alterations to these tenements also entailed severing a part of the each structure’s rear end. Tenement rear yards played an important role in the everyday lives of immigrant residents on the Lower East Side. Although indoor running toilets and running water had come to 103 Orchard Street by 1913, the construction of the bank building eliminated the rear yard as a space for children to play, women to hang laundry, and men to socialize.

We’re learning more about 103 and the community every day. We’ll keep you posted !

- Lib Tietjen, Evening Events Associate


Hearst History and Our History

A Backstage Visit to Hearst Castle

By Sarah Litvin, Tenement Museum Educator

On my recent vacation to San Francisco, California, I took a day trip down the Pacific Coast to visit a historic house museum: Hearst Castle, the West-Coast home built by the media mogul William Randolph Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan, between 1919 and 1948.


The "Castle" on the San Simeon Estate of William Randolph Hearst in the mountains of central California. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.


The “Casa Grande,” as the castle’s main house is called, covers an area of 68,500 square feet, and includes 38 bedrooms, 30 fireplaces, 42 bathrooms, and 14 sitting rooms.

magine what the Confinos would have thought of the Hearst's home. This room from the Hearst home in Washington D.C. displays the lavish proportions of all the Hearst properties. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.




As you might imagine, the living quarters for guests at Hearst Castle were a bit different than those for residents at 97 Orchard Street in the 1930s. In our building, each family shared 325 square feet, and every toilet was shared by two families.


These are the family living quarters for the Confino family, one of the families our costumed interpreters bring to life.





Like the Tenement Museum, Hearst Castle visitors purchase tickets to the tour (or tours) that most interest them, and a guide leads each small group up and down stairs through a series of rooms. Hearst Castle offers a Living History Program as part of its Evening Tour program. Docents, who are trained volunteers, dress in historically accurate 1930s period garb and portray generic household staff members and guests of William Randolph Hearst.  Docents add a visual, third person interpretive element to the tours and help bring the castle to life.



Though the program is not offered during the summer, I was lucky enough to have an insider’s connection. A few years ago, when I was doing research to create the character and costume of Rosaria Baldizzi for the Tenement Museum’s Live! at the Tenement program, I contacted Mary Stephenson, Supervisor of Living History Programming. She was a huge help in recommending where to source 1930s costumes back in 2011, so I reached out to her again. She not only remembered me, but offered to give my parents and me a backstage tour.

Sarah Litvin and Mary Stephenson, Front Entrance





Sarah Litvin and her dad at Hearst Castle.





Mary led us into the Living History office, which is inside one of the castle’s original guest houses, Casa del Sol.

Right away, it is clear that the staff enjoys spending time with each other in this space. On the wall of their lounge, there is a collage that one of their staff members created. From a distance, it looks like Hearst Castle. When you get close, you can see it’s made up of tiny photos of the Living History docents and their support staff!

Mary with the staff collage, lounge area.

Everything was beautiful…and beautifully researched and organized. Mary showed us the hats, ties, and jewelry collections, as well as amazing binders full of 1930s dress patterns that she and her support staff of 18 part-timers, plus dozens of volunteer docents, have put together (and created) since the program launched in 1990.

Mary showing men’s hats and ties.


Sarah’s mom admiring the jewelry collection.





Ladies’ hats in the Hearst Collection.

She even showed me samples of 1930s handbags that would be appropriate costume pieces to add to our own 1930s collection.

1930s handbags.

Just like the Tenement Museum, Hearst Castle’s staff has a Living History Wish List!

The wish list of the costumed interpreters at the Hearst Estate.

At the Tenement Museum, we feature first-person interpretation, and interpreters portray people who really lived at 97 Orchard Street. Our 1930s characters are Rosaria and Adolfo Baldizzi, who lived at 97 Orchard Street with their two children, Josephine and Johnny, from 1928-1935.

Rosaria Baldizzi and Costumed Interpreters portraying Rosaria Baldizzi at 97 Orchard.

Come meet Rosaria, Adolfo, and other residents of 97 Orchard, on our Live! at the Tenement program, which takes visitors on a whirlwind adventure through three different time periods in the building. We are offering three special public programs over the coming months: June 15th (Father’s Day), July 4th, and September 28th, from 10-11:30am.


A Special Thanks to Mary Stephenson and The Hearst Castle®/California State Parks.

The Decline and Fall of Kleindeutschland

You have to be pretty diligent to see the remains of Kleindeutschland in the Lower East Side today.  Kleindeutschland was once a thriving community, and while most discussions of Manhattan real-estate don’t mention it, the General Slocum Disaster made as dramatic an impact on the Lower East Side as, for instance, the High Line is making to the Meatpacking district.

The early waves of German immigrants were for the most part welcomed to the Lower East Side as they were seen as a 'clean teutonic' people. This woodcut from a 1874 issue of Harper's shows a boat departing Hamburg for New York. Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress.

The General Slocum disaster was the single deadliest in New York prior to the 9/11 attacks.  The event is named after the steamboat S.S. General Slocum which launched on June 15, 1904 carrying mostly women and children from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on 6th street to the North Shore of Long Island for a summer outing.

Records suggest that about 1,350 people would have been on the Slocum, including crew. The boat was steaming up the East River towards Long Island when it caught fire. It had gone only about as far as 97th Street. The boat was made mostly of wood: white oak, locust and yellow pine. More than a thousand people died as the ship burned from the deck down to the water line in less than 15 minutes.

Though a fire inspector had recently deemed the vessel safe, the hoses on board were rotten and burst when the crew attempted to use them. What life preservers were onboard also turned out to be rotten and utterly useless. Few of the passengers knew how to swim and most likely the fashions of the time did little to aid their efforts.

The fire is thought to have been started accidentally but controversy persists as to whether the Captain could have brought the ship to shore sooner, thereby saving more passengers. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The outing had been chartered by the St. Mark’s church for $350, which today would be close to $9,000. This number means nothing in the face of the lives which were lost, but this can help us understand how economically stable and unified the community once was. Kleindeutschland, home to 150,000 people of German descent, was at one time the third largest “German city” in the world after Berlin and Vienna.  With a thousand people lost, few families in this close community escaped the tragedy.  Funerals went on for several weeks after the tragedy, so many funerals occurred that for a time, there was said to be a funeral every four minutes.

The dock at E. 26th Street was made into a temporary morgue to accommodate the 1000 casualties, some of whom were never identified. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.


The community was so unilaterally affected that depression became endemic in the survivors, mostly men, fathers, brothers, and uncles who had been at working at the time of the excursion.  In the wake of the disaster, there were several suicides and many residents moved away from the Lower East Side to distance themselves from a neighborhood which was so infected by grief.  The disaster became a very emotional push factor for what at first seemed a thriving community. In reality there were a few other contributing factors to the dissolution of Kleindeutschland. By the late 1880s some of the second generation of German immigrants, with their greater command of English, were beginning to settle in other neighborhoods and cities. This period also saw the beginning of a marked increase in Jewish and Italians immigrants, who actually began moving to this neighborhood shortly before the Slocum disaster.

As Immigrant communities often provide support and comfort for countrymen outside of their homeland, it is hard for us today to imagine a disaster disturbing enough to undermine the reassurances of shared language and custom. German speaking communities did gather again in other parts of the city, and of course in other states, but Kleindeutschland became a thing of the past.

It is interesting to consider how strong the German community might have remained in the Lower East Side had it not been for this disaster. Here children of German descent practice a German dance in a N.Y. public school. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.


- Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator.

The Lower East Side and Chinatown

After last night’s Tenement Talk with Jack Tchen, co-author of the book Yellow Peril! We’ve been considering contemporary anti-Asian discrimination and its repercussions.  In this week’s blog Tenement senior educator Adam Steinberg brings us some text and context for the history of the Asian populations in the Lower East Side:

This novelty postcard is a apt metaphor for New Yorker's early conception of Chinatown. This postcard portrays an exotic perception of the New York neighborhood. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

“When did the Lower East Side become part of Chinatown?”

For many visitors to the Tenement Museum, the Lower East Side is – or, at least, was – a Jewish neighborhood. When they think of the Lower East Side, they envision bialy bakers and tallis makers. But then they visit our neighborhood and see store signs in Chinese, not Yiddish, and shops selling dumplings, not pickles. What happened?

I always try to steer people away from thinking of the Chinese as “taking over” the Lower East Side. No neighborhood belongs to any one group, and a wide variety of communities has staked a claim to this corner of Manhattan over the years. In my head, I can hear the Germans in 1880s revisiting their old neighborhood and asking, “What happened to our beloved Kleindeutschland? Where did all these Jews come from?”

In fact, the Chinese were in Lower Manhattan longer than most anyone. Before the Civil War, increasing trade with China brought a small group of Chinese immigrants to Five Points, the neighborhood that once stood north of City Hall. But it was the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 followed by increasing violence against Chinese immigrants throughout the Western United States that brought a surge of Chinese migrants to New York City.

Perhaps Chinatown, as it came to be called, would have continued to grow much as the Jewish Lower East Side did, but in 1882 the U.S. government, under pressure from organized labor and Western politicians, passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law all but banned immigration from China to the United States. It remained in effect until 1943, when, as a sop to our new ally in our war with Japan, the federal government replaced it with a yearly Chinese immigration quota of… 105 people.

Finally, in 1965, the federal government replaced the national quota system with our current immigration system, setting up New York for a surging influx of Chinese (and many other) immigrants.

For the Chinese immigrants arriving after 1965, Chinatown made perfect sense as a first home in America. The tenements, though overcrowded and often substandard, were close to jobs and Chinese cultural institutions. Although it was not the cheapest neighborhood in the five boroughs, immigrants have long paid a premium to live near each other. Few experiences are more disorienting than being a new immigrant in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language or understand the culture. If I found myself immigrating to a foreign country, especially if I had no money, I’d do whatever it takes to live among people who speak English, at least at first.

Chinese language signage has long been an indication of Chinatown's parameters however, Kleindeutschland could once have been measured the same way with German language signs stretching as far north as the Ottendorfer Library off East 8th Street.

Although the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened the doors to these immigrants, two events in Asia would enable Manhattan’s Chinatown to spread far beyond its traditional borders.

First, the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China decided to experiment with capitalism. Starting in 1979, the central government opened up China region-by-region to outside investment and private property ownership. Formerly agricultural societies were transformed, and millions of young people began migrating to large cities throughout the world looking for work. Many of these immigrants ended up in Manhattan’s Chinatown, swelling its population.

Second, in 1985 the British government signed an agreement with China ending British control of Hong Kong in 1997. Successful entrepreneurs in Hong Kong, fearful of what a new Communist government might do to their assets, began looking for places to invest their money. And as has been true for more than 200 years, few investments are considered as safe or as profitable as Manhattan real estate. These Hong Kong entrepreneurs naturally gravitated to Manhattan’s Chinatown, where potential tenants shared their language and culture. As they bought up surrounding properties, they tended to rent to the growing number of Chinese residents and shop owners.

This historic view of Pell Street was photographed in 1899. While Pell Street is still within today's Chinatown, many areas of historic Chinatown are now being developed for high-cost condos and galleries. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.


What does the future hold for Manhattan’s Chinatown? Despite its prominence, it may be past its peak. With property values in Manhattan continuing to rise, more and more newly arriving immigrants find their first home in the new Chinatowns of Brooklyn or Queens, not in Lower Manhattan. And many of the businesses that once served the Chinese immigrant community in Lower Manhattan have been replaced by shops catering to the tourist trade or even the growing population of “hipsters” eager for artisanal foods, boutiques, art galleries, and coffeehouses. Perhaps in a few more years, visitors to the Tenement Museum, walking past Lacoste boutiques and Michelin-starred restaurants, will ask, “When did Chinatown become part of SoHo?”

- Adam Steinberg, Senior Educator.

Want more insight?

Also check out our video of Adam’s walking tour. Or take a tour of your own

Family Foods

Wednesday night, June 11th, writer Laura Silver will come to the Museum to discuss her book Knish, wherein she goes on a round-the-world quest to discover the origins and modern-day manifestations of her ancestral pastry.

This got us wondering, what dishes remind you of childhood or your family history?

We asked some of our Tenement Staff which tastes bring them back, and here are their answers:

Biscuit recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, which is memorized by this point.

“I grew up in Alabama, where biscuits are basically a sacrament. Biscuits are fluffy chameleons that can (and should) be served with every meal – covered in white gravy for breakfast, with plenty of butter and honey for lunch, and used as a cold sop alongside a heap of pulled pork for dinner. Mix a little sugar into the dough, and you’ve got a cobbler topping for dessert! This recipe from Better Homes and Gardens is basic enough to cover all your needs. And because every Southerner has their own special biscuit process, I suggest not touching cream of tartar with a ten foot pole and I prefer cold butter or lard to vegetable shortening.” – Lib Tietjen, Evening Events Associate


Another mother looking out for her child's taste buds. This mother offers her son a bite of a hot dog at Coney Island in 1938. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“My mother has five daughters. Consequently, she spends days before family gatherings preparing the favorite foods of each of her children. Mine has always been the same: dumplings. As a child, I watched my mom spend hours hand-making her dumplings, which involved a process of chopping, sautéing, mixing, squeezing, straining, and seasoning. Then we would sit at the table together, and she would help me hand fold the dumplings. She would immediately fry up a few for me to eat and freeze the hundreds of other dumplings we would make that day. As an adult, my tastes have changed a bit (rarely do I eat a dumpling), but it’s still the only food I ask for when I go home.” – Tricia Kang, Marketing Manager

Readers today can search online for images of Western Norway. This image is a cigarette card from 1919 as part of a series of exotic locales. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.


“When we visited my grandparents in a small town on the western part of Norway, my grandfather made sandwiches of rye and pumpernickel bread together with Norwegian goat cheese, which is brown and sweet and it’s an acquired taste… like peanut butter.

And my grandmother had huge bowls of yellow raspberries, which are my favorites to this very day.” – Arnhild Buckhurst, Director of Operations




“When my Great Aunt Laura makes me Mandal Bread it never lasts long. I’m barely saved by the injunction to let them harden for a few hours before or I gobbled them up. My Aunt Laura learned the Mandelbrodt recipe from her mother. She explained they were Jewish Biscotti and a little research showed they may indeed be a Eastern European relation of those “twice baked” Italian cookies. The ingredients are flexible and the cookies are crunchy.

Julia spoke to her Aunt about their family history and while her kitchen now is full of modern convenience some of the Bericks passed through tenements in New York with kitchens just like this one photographed in 1935. Photo Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

My favorite addition is chocolate chips. What’s better than when the new world meets the Old? My Aunt Laura has traveled all over the globe and the best thing is to sit at her kitchen table with a pile of mandel bread, a cup of tea, and hear all about it .” -Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator



- Posted by Lib Tietjen, and the Tenement Staff

May’s Visitor of the Month

Our visitors are what make the Tenement Museum the thriving and growing place that it is today. Since we appreciate our visitors very much, every month, we’ll give a shout out to a special visitor (or visitors) to the Tenement Museum! It’s our Visitor of the Month. If you’d like to be one of our Visitors of the Month, just ask your friendly Tenement Museum Staff Member!

Meet Erica Simmons, May’s Visitor of the Month!

Erica is a historian who lives in Toronto. She studies the history of urban childhood and is currently working on the history of urban playgrounds. Along with the Tenement Museum, she is visiting Seward Park, Tompkins Square Park, and Hamilton Fish Park, all of which are among the first purpose-built municipal playgrounds.

Children play in a Lower East Side playground, 1910's. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

She started studying urban playgrounds while learning about an American women’s organization that did social welfare work in pre-Mandate, turn-of-the-century Palestine. It was a visiting nurses’ settlement based on the work of Lillian Wald (whose work we profiled on our blog late last year) here on the Lower East Side. They offered medical care to Jewish women in Palestine, as the Christian hospitals and doctors required conversion to Christianity before they would see a patient. They also built NYC-style playgrounds and pasteurized milk.

Boys being boys in a New York City playground, 1901. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

This is only her second visit to the Museum in twenty years – she participated in the Meet Victoria program on her first visit. Even though she has only been the Museum once before, Erica told us, “I send everyone I know here,” because of the Museum’s commitment to telling the social history of urban immigrant life.

A playground on East Broadway in the Lower East Side, 1910's. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

Today she took the Irish Outsiders building tour and was fascinated by the privies and the state of ruin of the building and what our Museum Founders saw when they first set foot in 97 Orchard Street in 1988.

Layers of history: the wallpaper samples in one of the Museum's 'ruin' apartments.

Check out Erica’s fascinating blog, Inventing the Playground.

Thanks to Erica and all of our visitors for their continued support!

- Posted by Colin Kennedy