Picturing Child Labor: Lewis W. Hine


A child at a North Carolina cotton mill, captured by Lewis W. Hine. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Once you have seen a photograph by Lewis W. Hine it is hard to forget it. Though Hine himself is largely forgotten, his work, which documents child labor in early 20th century United States, continues to haunt lawmakers, photographers and civilians alike, as an arresting example of the power of the photograph. Continue reading

The Lower East Side: Not Just for Tenements!

What was once called "The Jewish Quarter" now the Lower East Side. Sociologist and photograph by Lewis W. Hine in 1912. Photograph courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The American Institute of Architects, in its Guide to New York City, has this to say about the Lower East Side: “Far more significant historically than architecturally, this area harbors the legions of tenement buildings that warehoused the wave of homeless, tempest-tost immigrants who arrived here from the 1880s up to World War I.”

Oy. Where to begin.

First, there were many immigrants (and tenements) on the Lower East Side before 1880. Our tenement at 97 Orchard Street, for example, was built in 1863, and it isn’t even the oldest tenement on Orchard Street!

Second, immigrants are not inventory, and their homes are not warehouses! Despite the typical tenement’s (many) design flaws, tenements were still home for the tens of thousands of immigrants who have passed (and continue to pass) through this neighborhood. Indeed, the surfeit of detailing on these buildings, though mass-produced, spoke to the aspirations of these immigrants: They wanted to live in buildings that mimicked the look of middle-class homes in other neighborhoods.

And third – and this is what really drives me nuts – there’s so much more to the Lower East Side than just tenements. For example, walk with me down Grand Street and sit by my side on one of the benches in front of one of the tall apartment buildings near Ridge Street. Crane your neck and look at the building behind us. This is one of three apartment towers built by Grand Street Guild in 1973 as affordable housing for low-income neighborhood residents. The buildings may seem nondescript, but the story behind them is not.

Bulidings of all kinds on the Lower East Side. This shot was taken of Houston Street in 1999. Almost every block has seen changes in the past decade. Photograph by Dylan Stone courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Here’s that story: In 1962 this was a neighborhood in turmoil. Government bulldozers had demolished block after block of aging tenements, row houses, and cast-iron commercial buildings in the name of urban renewal. Neighborhood residents – often poor, often minority – were displaced by the thousand. In the middle of this devastation stood the church to our left, St. Mary’s, one of the oldest and most storied parishes in New York City. Its pastor, Thomas J. Keogh, saw in this devastation an opportunity. His parish had been shrinking as a result of urban renewal, but if he could marshal his parish’s considerable human resources, maybe together they could build new housing for some of the displaced neighborhood residents. Msgr. Keogh, along with dozens of other neighborhood volunteers, founded the Grand Street Guild Corporation to sponsor the construction of the housing behind us today. Initially they wanted to build a mix of low-rise apartments and townhouses.

Grand Street Guild and St. Mary's Church, a stop on our new tour.

After the City took back much of the land for a public housing project, they settled on the three towers around us today. These towers were never “Catholic-only,” but Msgr. Keogh hoped that the connection between the church and the towers would encourage at least some neighborhood Catholics to remain on the Lower East Side and involved with St. Mary’s Church. The connection to the Catholic Church continues to the present: Catholic Charities New York was instrumental in winning a $50 million grant from the federal government for the full renovation of these towers last year. In exchange for this federal grant, Grand Street Guild promises to keep the towers affordable for another 40 years (not that they would ever do otherwise).

At the Tenement Museum we believe that every immigrant’s story is worth telling. An immigrant’s story doesn’t matter less just because she was poor or didn’t speak English or never became a celebrity. Similarly, a building’s story doesn’t matter less just because its architect wasn’t influential and nobody famous slept there.

And we don’t embrace these stories just for storytelling’s sake. Every generation reshapes its built environment in its own image. We demolish or alter some old buildings while preserving and restoring others. Some plans get built, others are shelved forever. When we discover the stories of these old buildings, we’re also uncovering truths that empower us to better shape the built environment we want for ourselves and our children.

An aerial view of the Lower East Side from 1910. To see how the landscape has changed and how it has stayed the same book yourself a spot on our Building on the Lower East Side walking tour. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

That’s why I’ve created the Museum’s newest walking tour, Building on the Lower East Side. It’ll be an architectural walking tour, but the focus isn’t on Federal versus Greek revival, or Beaux-Arts versus Neoclassical. This tour visits many different buildings on the Lower East Side, including the Grand Street Guild towers, the soaring glass Blue condominium, the old Anshe Chesed synagogue, and much more. But we’ll also discuss the people who shaped these places — people like Msgr. Keogh and his many church volunteers, people who wanted to build a Lower East Side they would feel glad to call home. A building is just brick and mortar, steel and wood, glass and iron – it’s the stories behind these buildings that make them relevant and even revelatory.

–Posted by Adam Steinberg, Senior Education Associate

Luck of the Irish: Not Always a Good Thing

A St. Patrick's Day greeting card from the early 20th century. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Though it is forgotten annually by legions of young people celebrating in green,there was a time when Irish immigrants were once a group despised and derided upon their arrival to the United States.  Unlike some chapters in the history of U.S. immigration, the story of Irish discrimination is both more complicated – and actually simpler – than it first appears.

What can prompt a nation to discriminate against a group of people who look more or less like they do? Who speak mostly the same language and read the same alphabet? The answer is, in part, religion and in part circumstance. The story of the Irish in the United States is actually two stories.  The Irish had actually been immigrating to the United States since the 18th century from Ulster County – what is now Northern Ireland. This population was much more likely to be protestant and reached a New York with which their community had long traded wool and linen. These emigrants were leaving a country complicated by the struggles of colonialism and a fading linen trade. However, this was nothing compared to the poverty and starvation that would face their Catholic countrymen who were to come. The first wave of Protestant immigrants were more likely to be middle class and become part of an upwardly mobile middle class fairly soon upon reaching the U.S.

Irish citizens departing for what they hoped would be better opportunities in the United States. Etching from 1989 courtesy of the NYPL.

The largest influx of Irish immigrants arriving in the United States occurred  around the Irish Potato Famine beginning in 1845. The Famine resulted from repeated waves of blight which struck potato crops across the country. The rural poor had especially relied on potatoes as their main source of food. It is estimated that around a million and a half people died of famine related causes in Ireland. Part of this famine is thought to have been fueled by unfair colonial rule and regulations. Immigrants from Ireland between 1846 and 1855 were part of the largest immigration of the 19th century.   Immigration to the United State was another harrowing event.  Desperate travelers crowded into steerage class cabins on ships where germs swept through this already weakened population. Another 9% of travelers would die on board these ships.

The interior of the Moore apartment. This apartment has been carefully restored the the condition it would have been in when the Moore family lived at 97 Orchard in 1869.

Visitors to the Tenement Museum going on the Irish Outsiders tour can walk into the home of the Moores, an Irish family who lived at the 97 Orchard Street around 1869. The Lower East Side was a diverse neighborhood even then. The Moores were an English-speaking, Catholic family, who lived in a building mostly of German-speakers. Their neighbors would be of all nations and denominations of religion.  Some of the German immigrants who were considered much more reliable laborers would have been Catholic as well as Jewish.  So why did  Irish immigrants face such discrimination in job searches and from employers? The differences in their religious practices may have gotten swept up in the desperation of their poverty and in the sudden increase in their numbers.  A common refrain Irish applicant faced in their job searches was “no Irish need apply.”  No strangers to hardship, the Irish poor in New York were able to use song and music to create support in their community. Songs were created to bemoan and satirize the difficulties of discrimination and the public health dangers they encountered when living in the slums of New York.

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Of Irish descent, Kennedy was the first Catholic President of the United States. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Library. Photo credit Rowe, Abbie.

The Irish Catholics only marked the beginning of a range of immigrants with whom Americans found fault ( but that is another story). Anti-Catholic sentiment was slow to fade. In 1960, then Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy addressed the swirling controversy about the influence of his faith on his actions and ideas. Even as late as 1960, voters feared that he would be taking direction from the Vatican. Kennedy won the Presidential election and became an American icon.  So as you curse the drunken revelers on your street this St. Patrick’s Day, think instead of the shouting and tiny green hats as an example of a nation’s ability to overcome discrimination.

–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Guest Blogger: Emily Spivack

Emily Spivack has some major accomplishments under her belt, and you can be sure that belt was carefully chosen. Among other things she is currently the creator and writer of Threaded, the Smithsonian’s only fashion history blog.  In 2010 Emily began collecting what became Worn Stories, after a series of other projects confirmed Emily’s belief in how important clothing can be. Worn Stories is a collection of tales about how a piece of clothing can be become much more meaningful than just covering. Published in 2014 by Princeton Architectural Press, Worn Stories is a New York Times Best Seller and a compelling look at the items we put on every day. Emily Spivack will be visiting Museum for our Tenement Talks Wednesday, March 11th joined by Brain Pickings creator Maria Popova and two of the book’s contributors,  artist Andrew Kuo and designer Debbie Millman.

Emily has allowed us to share a scrap of Worn Stories here on the blog :

Greta Gerwig

Young love: understood. The shirt that became very special to Greta Gerwig. Photo by Ally Lindsay, photo courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press.

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Learning Through Lunchtime

What can a school lunch teach you about immigration? A lot, according to Lower East Side middle school students! This past Friday, the Eighth Graders at the Manhattan Academy of Technology served a lunch that spanned the globe and connected them to their families’ stories of immigration. The lunch was hosted as part of the school’s Cultural Diversity Celebration, which I was lucky enough to attend on behalf of the Tenement Museum’s Education Department. An afternoon of cuisine, dance, and song, the celebration was the culminating event of a semester’s worth of learning that began with the students visiting the Tenement Museum for our Foods of the Lower East Side walking tour!

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History Repeats Itself : Inspect & Protect Your Tenement

An unusable bathroom at 159 Suydam Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Credit: Jake Naughton for The New York Times.

Relics in our present often spark an intriguing interest to look back into our past. This is the framework that makes 97 Orchard Street such a compelling place to visit. Known today as the Tenement Museum, this repository of memories of New York’s humble past was the home to nearly 7,000 working class immigrants. Dated back to the early 19th century these tenement buildings were not just buildings five to six stories high but they were buildings associated with poverty, overcrowding and working-class families.  Before building codes and housing laws existed, these buildings were burdened with a lack of  lighting, central heating, running water or indoor plumbing. The poorest corners of New York City became infected with a housing crisis unimaginable to those who live in apartments today. These severe living conditions would eventually lead to reform as the city could no longer avoid the indisputable proof. Continue reading

Spicing up the Tradition of Chinese Food in NYC

Chinese restaurants have long since become a New York classic. Here is an interior from early 1900. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

For many Americans Chinese culture is Chinese food. Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous in America. More common than McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King combined, Chinese food has frequently adapted to American tastes. (Join us April 1st as reporter Jennifer 8. Lee follows this story further). Continue reading

Playing With History

As a child, Oregon Trail was my first foray into the wonderful world of historical video games. It was a thriller set in year 1848 with a choose-your-own-adventure format. The stakes were high and survival was not assured. My fellow 5th grade classmates all worked diligently to earn a coveted spot at our single classroom computer where we could play the game and guide our covered wagon through the harsh realities of 19th century pioneer life. It’s from Oregon Train that I learned about hunting and hunger, and diseases like cholera and typhoid. Most importantly I learned how impactful my choices are to the survival of my family and community. Continue reading

In Northern Ireland, a Resiliant Jewish Community

The Albert Memorial Tower in Central Belfast. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The history of Northern Ireland is infamously complex but no one can dispute the importance of religion in the region. Which is why it’s all the more fascinating that Belfast welcomed a Jewish community that remains to this day. Continue reading

Dance to the Music of Time: One Building’s Many Lives in the East Village

“…he’d left Chicago and come East in a fashion that rather took your breath away: for instance, he’d brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest. It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that…”

The Great Gatsby, that infamous chronicle of roaring 1920′s wealth, describes the heir Tom Buchanan with his string of polo ponies. Tom brought his own polo ponies from the Midwest. The less fortunate families of New York , the Vanderbilts, the Delanos, the Belmonts,bought their horses at auction houses in the city. At the turn of the century alternatives arose to literal horse power. Elevated trains and automobiles, especially for the wealthiest New Yorkers, decreased the dependence on horses and increased their value as luxurious pastime.  Auction houses became increasingly grand buildings for beautifully bred animals. These buildings required grand internal halls to host processions of horses from which customers could choose. The last of these auction houses known to exist in New York was saved just last year, largely by the efforts of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. The building was declared a landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in November 2014.

A beautiful polo athlete, and his rider. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.


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