Reading, Writing, Architecture

What does a school look like? If you envision a big building with big windows and tall ceilings, a building whose classrooms are bathed in light and fresh air, then you have C.B.J. Snyder to thank.

C.B.J. Snyder in his office, about 1900.

Before Snyder became chief architect of the New York public schools in 1891, school buildings – especially in immigrant neighborhoods like the Lower East Side – were infamous for their poor ventilation and cramped quarters. Snyder wanted to fix that. His schools would be massive, with the biggest windows and highest ceilings he could get away with. Although his schools often covered most of a city block, they were full of airshafts and indentations, ensuring lots of air and light for every child in every classroom.

Snyder had a thing for air and light.

DeWitt Clinton High School in the West Bronx, designed by Snyder. Photo courtesy NYC Department of Education.

But then, so did most reformers back then. Tenements were dark and fetid, and middle-class reformers feared that these grotesque living conditions would stunt the physical, mental, and moral development of young immigrant children. For Snyder, schools were not just for learning. They were also a cure for the evils of tenement living. The more time a student spent in these new school buildings, the better his or her health would be – and the better an adult he or she would become.

Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts on West 114th Street, Manhattan, designed by Snyder. Image courtesy the NYC Department of Education.

Today, Snyder’s schools look elegant and imposing, and some are even landmarked. But how did the students and their parents see these schools?

Students and parents, it seemed, were ambivalent about these schools. The schools made no attempt to respect the native culture of these families. Lunches were not kosher, much to the chagrin of some Jewish parents. All students were required to sing Christian hymns, much to the chagrin of both Jewish and Catholic parents. And teachers made no attempt to ease the transition to an all-English curriculum.

A class of Caucasian and Chinese students inside a public school, circa 1910. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

Newly arriving students were sent straight to kindergarten until they spoke English well enough to join their peers in their proper grade. Imagine you’re a newly arrived 10-year-old immigrant child, sitting in a kindergarten surrounded by children half your age while the teacher speaks in English, a language you don’t know. Meanwhile, you do know that you could be getting a job and making money to help support your family. What do you do? And if you’re that child’s parent, desperate to feed all your children, what do you tell your child to do? Many parents demanded that the city build more of Snyder’s schools in their neighborhoods, but others would yank their children out of school and put them to work shining shoes or sewing clothes.

PS 42 on the corner of Hester and Orchard Streets, designed by Snyder. Phot courtesy the NYC Department of Education.

These big, imposing, scientifically designed schools were a huge improvement over the older schools, but it would take more than a few big buildings with lots of light and air to ensure that all the children of the Lower East Side got a school-based education. For many of these children, “school” was a sweatshop or the streets, not a clean, light-filled classroom in a big, modern building.

Erasmus Hall Educational Campus, Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, designed by Snyder. Photo courtesy the NYC Department of Education.

Today’s public schools are very different from schools of an earlier era. Whereas Snyder wanted to bathe his students in light and fresh air to compensate for the unhealthy tenements, today’s school designers focus more on building “smart” classrooms where students can use the Internet or learn through multimedia presentations. And whereas Snyder designed his buildings to be like factories through which students passed from classroom to classroom, like automobiles on an assembly line, today’s schools are more likely to support much more intimate education, with repeated interaction among students and teachers. Indeed, New York City has divided many of the older, factory-like schools into smaller magnet or bilingual schools, each one catering to a different group of students.

Students in a public school classroom, circa 1910. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

Perhaps the biggest difference between today’s schools and Snyder’s schools is in the attitude of the students. A hundred years ago, many immigrant children saw the schools as an impediment to success. Far better, they reasoned, to devote themselves to work. Although today’s students are by no means immune to apathy and cynicism about school – a particular problem for adolescent students – few would deny that a good academic education, when attainable, is the key to success.

The question we face today is not how to convince immigrant children to complete their education. It’s how to ensure that they get the education they deserve. With a new mayor focused on education, perhaps now is a good time to ask ourselves what we want 21st century schools to look like, and what we want taught there.

- Posted by Adam Steinberg

A Confino Family Reunion

On our “Meet Victoria” program, visitors meet and talk with a costumed interpreter portraying Victoria Confino, a 14-year-old girl who lived at 97 Orchard Street in 1916. On March 1st, our Victoria had a very special guest – her great-granddaughter, Celia, who is the granddaughter of real-life Victoria’s son Lenny Cohen. Celia’s Girl Scout troop came all the way from Virginia for a visit to the Tenement Museum. Education Assistant for Costumed Interpretation (and Victoria interpreter) Jess Varma sat down with Celia and Kim, Celia’s Girl Scout Leader, for a few questions afterwards.

The Confino apartment in the Tenement Museum

Jess: So, you never met your great-grandmother?

Celia: No, she died when my mom was my age.

Jess [Looking over recipe for Victoria’s Passover spinach pie that Celia brought with her]: You know, your family’s stories about what these Sephardic recipes actually taste like, and what’s in them are so useful to us because there’s no book that says ‘This is what’s in this.’

Celia: I don’t know who wrote those down, maybe my grandmother? I don’t think my grandfather cooked…When I knew him, he died last year, he never really cooked from what I remember…

Jess: What was your grandfather like?

Celia: He was always very funny. He always made us laugh; singing songs, making jokes.

Jess: He was a physicist, right?

Celia: Yeah, one of the tour guides was mentioning that one of Victoria’s children went on to work at NASA, and I was like “That’s him…”

Jess: That’s something that I think about a lot, is that Victoria herself only went to school for two years, and her son, your grandfather, Became a physicist for NASA.

Celia: It’s incredible.

The kitchen in the Tenement Museum's Confino apartment, where we imagine there would have been plenty of spinach pie being made.

Jess: What do you think about the fact that there’s a program in a museum about your family?

Celia: Every time I tell my friends that I’m coming to New York… I tell my friends that the museum, the tenement, was my great-grandmother’s, and they say ‘That’s so cool!’

Jess: The point of this museum is that all of us have stories. Any of the girls in the troop, their great-grandmothers did something that was a part of what makes us who we are today. You’re 14, so you having kids is in your future, but what would you want to pass on to your kids about your family?

Celia: Definitely taking them on this tour, and making sure that they care and are involved. I know that my mom really cares, and wants me to be involved, so I don’t want my kids to be like “Yeah, whatever” and just let it go. I want it to stay in our family.


Victoria and her friends, 1917. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum photographic collection.

Jess: Why is that important to you? What about it?

Celia: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s history and it’s family, and it’s cool! I love [Victoria's] accent.

Jess: Do you know Spanish? Do you take Spanish at school?

Celia: No, I take French. No one in my family really speaks Spanish.

Jess: Well, you know what’s really interesting is that Victoria’s dad spoke French. Her older brother Joseph would have had to go to Salonika, which was the next big town from Kastoria, to go to a school that was run by these French Jewish philanthropists, so he spoke French. And there’s French in Ladino, because it’s this mishmash of all these different languages, so one thing we think Victoria may have said when she answered the door was ‘Bonjour.’ And she says ‘merci mucho’ when she wants to say thank you. And apparently, Victoria, when she was older, loved going to restaurants and speaking to the wait staff using Spanish words from Ladino, and they were like ‘Who is this old Jewish lady who speaks Spanish?’

Kim: And did she speak Yiddish?

Jess: Not that we know of. The only reason that she would have spoken Yiddish is if she picked some up living here in this building because Sephardic Jews don’t speak Yiddish. It’s kind of funny, because in a lot of ways, I know more about your family than I do about my own family. It’s really interesting and kind of moving to meet you and think ‘oh, [Victoria] was a real person. She got older and had children, and those children had children.’

Kim: She’s your tangible tie… It’s very exciting. Like she was saying how there were thousands of people here, and your family was smart enough to remember and put together those memories so this place could use that. I think that’s really cool.

Celia: When I was younger, before we came the second time, we came when I was like two, so I don’t remember it. My mom would tell me about the tour and I would tell my friends that my great-grandmother is famous, and they were like ‘That’s not true.’ They wouldn’t believe me! And I was like ‘No, it is!’

Jess: It is true! She’s kind of a superstar. I sometimes get recognized by school kids in New York. I’ll just be walking down the block by a school, and they’ll be like ‘It’s Victoria!’ So yeah, she’s famous.

Jess Varma, Elly Burke, the interpreter who played Victoria, and Celia, Victoria's great-granddaughter.

Celia’s mom, Yael, also told us a little about Victoria and the Confino legacy: “Victoria died in 1989, when I was 21. My Dad’s [Lenny, Victoria's son] health declined over the last 6-7 years. By the time [Celia] would’ve asked questions [about Victoria], as a family we were focusing on how he was doing. About the cooking; growing up, my dad did do most of the cooking. I don’t think anything was written down until my mom nudged him to, so my brothers and I could have copies. Celia was too young to remember him cooking. I don’t think she remembers Passover Seders at the family home in Greenbelt, MD, where we all squeezed in, including grandchildren.”

The parlor of the Confino apartment in the Tenement Museum.

Thanks so much for coming, Celia! 

- Posted by Jess Varma

Lives Gone in a Puff of Smoke

About 3:45 am on the morning of March 14, 1905, Isidor Davis noticed a glare. Davis was a wine maker in one of the two basement stores of 105 Allen Street. The glare was coming from the sink in the other basement storefront, a restaurant owned by Stanifols Lisnik; it was a fire in a painters funnel. Davis took off his coat and attempted to lift the funnel out of the sink and extinguish the fire in the back lot, but as he lifted the funnel, the flames shot through his coat and he dropped it. He ran to his apartment to warn his wife and children and grabbed a quilt to snuff out the fire, but the quilt only caught fire as well. Within minutes, the whole hallway was engulfed in smoke and flames.

The fire would spiral out of control and become a two-alarm blaze that would kill more than 20 people, many of them children. One entire family was killed in their apartment, and there was not one of the twenty families in the building who did not experience a loss or injury. Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.

The New York Times headline about the fire on March 15, 1905.

Even in 1905, two alarm fires could generally be contained quickly or escaped from safely, so what made this blaze so deadly? The building was a death trap; the fire escapes were boarded up and blocked with garbage and debris and the door to the roof was locked from the outside, preventing escape. Most of the victims were found near these useless openings.

From the New York Times, March 15, 1905.

The police were notified minutes after the fire began, and two policemen, Dwan and Quinn, woke tenants and dropped a baby to safety from the fire escape. Officer Dwan even ran through the building, his clothes on fire, with a little girl clinging to his neck. He fell from the fire escape, but landed so that the little girl was safely on top of him. Dwan was treated for a broken shoulder, fractured hip, possible internal injuries, and cuts and burns; he lived to receive a medal from the people of the East Side.

105 Allen Street after the fire that killed more than 20 people and injured more than a dozen.

The fire shocked the city, with Mayor McClellan promising to investigate why the fire escapes were unusable despite the fact that the Tenement House Department inspections for 105 Allen Street always came back as satisfactory. The Tenement House Department said that the landlord, Celia Leiner, and the tenants would clear off the fire escapes, only to block them again.

Crowded fire escapes remained a danger for tenement dwellers, as this 1930's poster shows us. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

On March 25th, a jury found Mrs. Leiner guilty of gross negligence for locking her skylights from the outside and censured the Tenement House Commission for failing to properly inspect the building, which was unsanitary and had lighting violations.

Other than that, nothing changed.

The quickly melted fire escape from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

It wasn’t until 1911, when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Washington Square and the Dreamland amusement park fire in Coney Island, Brooklyn signaled the beginning of modern fire codes – outward opening doors, longer ladders for firemen, and other laws. Both of these conflagrations continue to capture the modern imagination as a time when in New York, a new country, young people often risked their lives in order to make their family’s better.

In The Museum of Extraordinary Things, the most recent novel from Alice Hoffman, Coralie Sanders and her star-crossed lover Eddie Cohen experience this chaotic time in New York’s history, and two of its most influential tragedies.

Firemen extinguish the last embers of the Dreamland amusement park with a roller coaster in the background. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

Ms. Hoffman will be at the Tenement Museum on March 26th at 6:30 pm to discuss her new book. More information is available here.

- Posted by Lib Tietjen

A Parade of Irish Traditions

March is National Irish Heritage Month, where we celebrate the approximately 36.3 million Americans who are descended from Irish immigrants.

Jane Moore Hanrahan, daughter of Bridget and Joseph Moore, Irish immigrants who lived at 97 Orchard Street in the 1860's. Lower East Side Tenement Museum Photographic Collection.

It’s no coincidence that St. Patrick’s Day is in the middle of Irish Heritage Month. The Feast of Saint Patrick commemorates the arrival of Christianity to Ireland in 5th century. Traditional methods of revelry included feasting, and a céilidh, or a Gaelic gathering of friends often with music and dancing. Perhaps the Moores, an Irish immigrant family who lived in 97 Orchard Street, would have invited friends over for food, drink, and conversation.

The parlor of the Moore apartment inside the museum. Perhaps the Moores entertained guests here during the Feast of St. Patrick.

Traditions that have lasted through the centuries include wearing green – although St. Patrick’s color was originally blue – and three leafed shamrocks, which may have been what St. Patrick used to explain the Holy Trinity to the polytheistic Irish. Of course, modern celebrations center around the parade, of which New York City’s is the world’s biggest. (Watch the parade live starting at 11:00 AM Eastern Time here!)

An image of the St. Patrick's Day parade in 1874. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

St. Patrick’s Day is the most popular Irish tradition in modern America; but did you know that the Irish have shaped American culture in ways that we don’t even think about today?

Catholicism, which many Irish immigrants practiced, was looked upon with scorn in the 19th and early 20th centuries; today is practiced by over 20% of Americans.

An anti-Catholic cartoon which shows Brother Jonathan (a proto-Uncle Sam) being besieged by Pope Pius IX and five other bishops. This cartoon reflected the natavist views that Catholicism would overtake the United States through Irish immigration.

The terms “paddy-wagon” and “shenanigans” come from derogatory slurs against the Irish, who were made out to be drunks and thugs who would often be arrested.

Of course, on the flip side is the American icon of the Irish cop or fireman. This tradition has deep roots that run nearly 150 years; by the turn of the 20th century, over 80% of the New York City Police Department was of Irish descent.

An Irish American NYPD Officer in 1942. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

Traditional Irish music played an integral role in the evolution of American folk and country music. The Scotch-Irish, people from Ulster, moved to the “back country,” (what is now called Appalachia) and brought fiddle music with them. The music intermixed with hymns, English ballads and African-American blues, and eventually became American folk music, and later, contemporary country music.

Hanging a wreath of holly and singing carols during Christmastime began as Irish traditions. Even leaving milk and cookies for Santa comes from Ireland – called “The Laden Table,” families would leave a pitcher of milk and some sweet bread out after the evening meal of Christmas Eve. They would then leave the door unlocked so that Mary and Joseph (or any other travelers) could rest in their home. Of course, today the guest we invite in has reindeer and presents.

Caroline, 6, and her mother, Marie, as they watch the St. Patrick's Day Parade in 1953. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

So this St. Patrick’s Day, we’re all a little Irish! Erin go Bragh!

- Posted by Lib Tietjen


The Power of the Purse

Something about the Lower East Side definitely brings out strong women, whether they be mothers, students, nurses, shopkeepers, rioters, laborers, activists, hagglers, or a bit of all of the above! Since March is Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating all women who have graced our neighborhood with their affection and audacity. Today we’re talking about the thousands of women who made an impact on the neighborhood where it really counted – the economy.

Nathalie Gumpertz, who lived in 97 Orchard Street in the 1880's, raised three daughters on her own (after her husband left for work one day and never came home) and made a living as a dressmaker.

In the early 20th century, most of society, including the scientific community, agreed that women were inherently weaker and less intelligent than men (in 1870, a retired Harvard Medical School professor wrote that women who went to college and spent significant time on rigorous study could impair their ability to conceive children). Prejudices against African American and immigrant women were even stronger.

At the same time, however, women were considered to be the moral and emotional center of the family – they were to have as many children as possible and raise them to be upstanding Americans. Because of the consensus that women were incapable of taking care of themselves or of higher thought, most working class women, like those who would live on the Lower East Side, often could not make their own choices about their education, living or working conditions, romantic partners, reproductive rights and medical treatments, and other vital aspects to their lives and had no say in national or local politics.

A 1914 Puck magazine cartoon highlighting the plight of women in the home. Anti-suffragists said that a woman was "The Queen of the Home," but as Puck says, she was nothing more than a slave to the stove. Image via the Library of Congress.

The one thing that many working-class ladies of the Lower East Side could control, however, was the family finances. According to historian Gail Collins, in her best-selling and riveting book America’s Womenhusbands of all ethnic backgrounds gave their wives full control of their paychecks, saving just enough for lunch, taxi fare and entertainment. Even men who had controlled finances in their home countries gave up their paychecks to their wives in America. Not only did women manage their husbands’ (and daughters’) finances, but they also managed the money that boarders brought in! In 1900, over half the households in 97 Orchard had at least one non-family member living in the apartment, and the wife acted as a mini-landlord to the boarders.

Controlling the cash flow was a great responsibility for women, as they had to be vigilant for every cent: “The wife saved up and paid the rent, bought the food, and allocated money for other expenses,” as well as learn to budget. Monthly rent was something completely alien to many immigrants, who had come from farm life in Europe, and putting a little money aside every week for rent was often difficult. “When money ran short,” writes Collins, “the wife had to placate creditors, scrounge money from friends and relatives, or talk storeowners [sic] into allowing her to run up a tab.”

Despite their lack of rights, many immigrant women controlled the family finances. This included making a budget and doing the shopping for food, as these women are doing on Hester Street in 1898.

Women also had a hand in controlling how those store owners set their prices. Women had the very potent power to boycott a store out of business, or even worse, to directly attack the store, like the Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902 that happened right here at 97 Orchard Street! Women, furious over the rising price of Kosher meat, took the streets in protest, throwing meat and bricks through butcher shop windows. The Kosher Meat Boycott, which took place over 3 weeks in May, succeeded in lowering the price of meat in the neighborhood. The boycotts even extended to the Bronx and Brooklyn, with women all across the city assaulting shopkeepers, customers, and police. Despite what science, and often their husbands said, these women dared to be heard!

A New York Times headline on May 16, 1902.

This “power of the purse” extended to the workplace as well. Young immigrant women made up the vast majority of all textile workers in the early 1900′s, and when they came together to fight, they threatened the multi-million dollar industry enough to get them to concede. In November of 1909, 20,000 workers, most of them young Yiddish-speaking women, went on an 11 week strike of the garment industry; the largest strike in American history. Called the Uprising of 20,000, the strike centered around low wages and long hours, dangerous workplace conditions (that often resulted in fires, like the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911), and what we would today call sexual harassment. The companies hired prostitutes and local gangsters to abuse the strikers, both physically and verbally, and the police and courts were largely unsympathetic.

Two striking workers pose for the camera during the Uprising of 20,000. It's hard to know whether the men behind them were there to support or to harass them. Photo taken February 5th, 1910, towards the end of the strike. Image via the Library of Congress,

After 11 weeks of strikes and legal battles, the Uprising of 20,000 ended, not a complete victory, but with some concrete accomplishments. According to the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia, “Out of the Associated Waist and Dress Manufacturers’ 353 firms, 339 signed contracts granting most demands: a fifty-two-hour week, at least four holidays with pay per year, no discrimination against union loyalists, provision of tools and materials without fee, equal division of work during slack seasons, and negotiation of wages with employees. By the end of the strike, 85 percent of all shirtwaist makers in New York had joined the ILGWU” (International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union).

Striking garment workers. Image between 1909 and 1916, via the Library of Congress.

This month, we remember not only the women whose names have gone down in history, but the thousands of women who made it without any intention of doing so – they were just trying to make new lives here in America.

- Posted by Lib Tietjen


Dinner Table Conversation with Sarah Lohman and Anya von Bremzen

Anya von Bremzen, a James Beard Award winning food writer and author of the best-selling Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking and Sarah Lohman, a historic gastronomist and friend to the Museum, both recreate historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past. They took some time to talk turkey (okay, more like chebureki) in honor of Anya’s Tenement Talk on Wednesday March 19th at 6:30. Tickets to the event are free! More information here.

Sarah Lohman: Out of curiosity, do you still live in Queens? In the book, you mention your mother does. I’ve lived in Queens as long as I’ve lived in New York, and what I love the most about it is he incredible ethnic diversity of food. How has your Queens connection influenced your cooking and interest in food? Any restaurant recommendations?

Anya von Bremzen: Yes, I lived in Jackson Heights, Queens, two blocks from my mom. Jackson Heights is said to be the most multicultural community in the US, and when we moved here over two decades ago, it suddenly felt fine and empowering to be an immigrant, it became positive part of our identity. My previous books are about global cuisines: Latin American, Asian, Spanish, etc., and it was great top be able to find any ingredients I wanted right on my doorstep. I like La Portena Argentinean restaurant, and Chao Thai in Elmhurst.

Image from a classic Russian cookbook. Image courtesy The New York Times.

Americans are very interested in Russia right now, since the Olympics just wrapped, and with the revolution in the Ukraine. But of course, this isn’t the first time – after reading your book, I feel like we’ve spent a long time gazing across the ocean at each other. How do you think the Olympics went? Do you feel Russia was accurately portrayed in the US media – or that Russia accurately portrayed themselves?

Well, it was some of the most politicized Olympics – and with good reasons, since it drew attention to Putin’s out-of-scale affirmation of Russia’s might and the corrupt expenditure involved. And though technically the Games went well, Russia was back in the negative spotlight for what it was (an imperialist bully) immediately after with the start of the Ukraine events.

Is there a food from your childhood in Russia that you crave? Are you able to recreate it here, and if not, why? 

I actually crave chebureki, fried meat pies that happened to be a Crimean Tatar dish. And now with the events in Crimea, the dish acquires a political pathos. In Moscow of my childhood (and even today) it was a ubiquitous street food that people didn’t make at home. But one can get decent version at Cheburechnaya in Rego Park, Queens.

Freshly fried chebureki. Photo courtesy

Have you or your mother blended Russian cuisine with American styles of cooking, or any of the other ethnic groups here? Or when you cook Russian–is it “pure”?

No cuisine is ever pure–emotionally–when transplanted across an ocean. That said, my mom cooks Russian dishes pretty much the way she did in Moscow.

What do you think are the greatest challenges to an immigrant coming to New York today? Is food an important part of the immigrant journey?

New York, especially hoods like Jackson Heights, might be a more welcoming place for an immigrant than many other American cities. You can always find your own community, there’s less of a culture shock. And yes, being able to find foods from your homeland helps ease the pain. We emigrated in 1974 to Northeast Philadelphia, a typical American suburbia where we couldn’t find the flavors we craved. But when a few years later we moved to New York, we felt finally at home.

Russian immigrants at Ellis Island in 1906. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

I just bought the English translation of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food. Could you explain a little about what that book is? Any recipe recommendations?

That book was truly the totalitarian kitchen bible. First published in 1939 under Stalin, it went through over a dozen editions, and is still popular. The original “Stalinist” editions – from 1939 and 1952 – has a ton of ideological sermonizing, then gradually the book got depoliticized keeping mostly the recipes. Try the recipe for kharcho, a Georgian meat and rice soup, or some of the salads from the appetizer chapters.

Hearty kharcho. Image courtesy

Thanks to Anya and Sarah! See more information about Anya’s Tenement Talk here.

- Posted by Lib Tietjen

Long Distance Relationships of 97 Orchard Street

For our first Tenement Talk of the 2014 season, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will come to discuss her new novel Americanah, in which Ifemelu and Obinze, a couple from Nigera with a complicated romantic past, experience unique challenges in the countries to which they immigrate – the United States and Great Britain.

In our modern age of video chatting like Skype, international texting services like WhatsApp, and even smartphone apps made just for long distance couples, having a relationship, romantic or platonic, with someone who lives in another city, country, or continent is easier than ever! (Having a relationship with someone in another borough remains nearly impossible, however.)


Photo courtesy

The couples and friends of 97 Orchard Street didn’t have it quite as easy when one member immigrated to the United States, leaving the other behind. Many families at 97 Orchard Street immigrated to the US in stages – first the husband, then the wife and the children (sometimes even the children came on their own). Immigration policy often dictated that an immigrant would need someone already living in the United States to be there to greet them, or sponsor them, so the husband was sent first to get settled and become that sponsor.

"The pens" in the Main Hall at Ellis Island. These immigrants passed their first mental examination and are waiting for more. One qualification for coming to the United States was to have someone already living here who could help you integrate. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.

However, this means that friends and lovers would be separated for years at a time.

Once the husband had arrived, he would generally rent a room to himself, or perhaps be a boarder with another immigrant family in their small tenement – in 1900, over half the households at 97 Orchard Street had at least one boarder living with them. He would save as much money as he could to send back home to his family or to save for their eventual passage to the United States. Some ‘single’ men, worried that they couldn’t properly budget their money in order to responsibly save for their family’s passage, gave their paychecks to a friend’s wife so that she could take care of the finances for him.

A sign, "Fully Furnished Rooms for Rent" hangs outside this small apartment building in 1936. Photo taken by an inspector from the Tenement House Department and courtesy the New York Public Library.

Often it would take the husband months, if not years, to save up enough money to send for his family. We can only imagine how lonely it must have been for both the husbands and wives as they waited for a letter that might not arrive on regular intervals. Communication wavered somewhere between sporadic and nonexistent. Transatlantic letters had to be sent on ships and could take up to a few weeks to get to Europe. In the early 1900′s, couples could send telegraphs, but they were expensive might not be available in the home country.

The Harbor boat service. Mail being sent by ship. Date unknown. Photo courtesy the New York Public Library.

One of the couples of 97 Orchard Street who immigrated to the US in this manner was the Baldizzi family, from Italy. According to Dave Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Museum, it was especially common for Italian men to come to the US before the rest of the families, and then either go back for or send for the wife and children to come to New York. Adolfo Baldizzi, a cabinetmaker, left his young wife Rosaria in Palermo and stowed away on a ship for America in 1923. He didn’t see her for a year, when he had saved enough for her voyage to the Lower East Side, where they lived for years.

For all the anguish that the distance and loneliness must have caused, we can imagine, even today in our Skype-filled world, the joy that families must have had when they finally embraced on the shores of Manhattan.

 - Posted by Lib Tietjen

February’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!

Jack Intrator is a “dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker” who grew up in Forest Hills, Queens and now lives in Manhattan. Jack has been coming to the Museum for years; his first visit was when the Visitor Center was still at 97 Orchard Street! He has since taken all of our tours multiple times – he loves hearing the different perspectives different educators bring to the same tour: “I love this place because it’s educational – you’re not tour guides; you’re educators.” He loves that we maintain awareness of what took place here, because so many Americans trace their roots through this neighborhood.

The clogged streets of the Lower East Side in the 1890's.

Jack enjoyed our newest walking tour, Storefront Stories, especially because he honed his negotiating and haggling skills here in the neckwear shops when he would come down on Sundays in the 1970′s.

Sunday shopping on the Lower East Side was a tradition for many New York families. Here, a woman gets a great bargain on some underwear.

He is also Greensward Guide for the Central Park Conservancy and shared with us some knowledge from Central Park that has particular relevance to our Irish Outsiders tour: the Central Park Dairy was constructed as a response to the swill milk crisis, so that the city could distribute fresh, safe milk to city children.

The Central Park Dairy, date unknown. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Thanks to Jack for his knowledge and dedication to the Tenement Museum!

 - Posted by Lib Tietjen

Sojourner Truth; Abolitionist, Suffragist, Lower East Sider

February is Black History Month! While we’re in favor of broadening our collective understanding of history to incorporate more people of color all year round, we’re also excited to celebrate one amazing African American woman who once made her home on the Lower East Side.

Carte de visite of Sojourner Truth, who once lived at 74 Canal Street. Image courtesy the NYPL.

Using an amazing new interactive tool called MAAP (Mapping the African American Past), we’ve discovered that Sojourner Truth–one of the most influential African American thinkers of the 19th century–lived right in our backyard!

MAAP is a joint venture from Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL), Creative Curriculum Initiatives (CCI), and Teachers College (TC), overlays historic points with a contemporary map of New York. You can check it out online here.

The MAAP program shows Sojourner Truth's home.

Born into slavery in Ulster County in upstate New York as Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth was sold three times by age 12. She escaped slavery in 1826 with her infant daughter, then took her owner to court in order to claim her son, who had been sold illegally to an owner in Alabama. She won, making her the first African American woman to ever win a court case against a white man. Truth then moved to New York City in 1829, where she lived in a small wooden house at 74 Canal Street (the site is now home to a brick tenement building and a laundromat).

74 Canal Street today. Image from Google Maps.

While in New York City, Truth worked as a housekeeper for Elijah Pierson, a preacher. She soon met Robert Matthews, the leader of a religious group popular in New York in the 1830’s. When Pierson suddenly died, both Matthews and Truth were tried for stealing from and poisoning Pierson, but both were acquitted.

Canal Street near Centre Street, approximately 1863. This is what Canal Street would have looked like when Truth lived there. Image courtesy the NYPL.

Truth became a devout Christian after escaping slavery, and preached at the Mother AME Church on 137th Street for 14 years. In 1843, she had a revelation and began to travel the country spreading her gospel of equality between the races and sexes. She spoke from New England to Kansas, moving audiences with her passionate rhetoric. According to the MAAP site, Truth was an expert at quieting her hecklers:

“As one there remembered it, the hecklers were hissing but, ‘At her first word there was a profound hush.’ When one man called women ‘weak,’ Truth looked him in the eye and in her low voice said, ‘I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear the lash as well — and ain’t I a woman?’”

Truth became a celebrity during her lifetime; she was close friends with William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony and even bent the ears of Presidents Lincoln and Grant.

A drawing of Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth during their 1864 meeting. Lincoln is showing Truth a Bible that was presented to him by the African American citizens of Baltimore. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

During the Civil War, Truth worked to recruit African Americans for the Union Army, worked to improve living conditions for African Americans across the country, and helped to force the end of segregation on Washington D.C. streetcars.

When Truth died in 1883 in Battle Creek, Michgan, it is reported that 3,000 people came to her funeral; the biggest event Battle Creek had ever seen.

Sojourner Truth's home on the corner of Allen and Canal (then called Walker) Street from an 1831 atlas. Image courtesy the NYPL.

While Truth never lived in New York City again after 1843, she did speak at the Broadway Tabernacle on 93rd Street in September of 1853. Truth’s women’s suffragist speech was constantly interrupted by men who hissed and disrupted her, to which she said, “You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can’t stop us, neither.”

Today we remember Sojouner Truth, a Lower East Sider who fought for justice!

- Posted by Lib Tietjen

A Standing Ovation for The Jewish Rialto

These days, film and television shoots are a common occurrence on the Lower East Side (the Tenement Museum offices were given quite a makeover this fall to shoot The Knick), but the lights of Broadway have always felt like another world compared to the neighborhood.

A film shoot for "The Knick" transformed Orchard Street into the early 1900's in November of 2013.

But did you know that one of the world’s most thriving theatre districts used to be right outside the door of 97 Orchard Street, and one of its actors lived inside?

Jacob Burinescu, a resident of 97 Orchard Street, and members of his acting troupe in the early 20th century. Lower East Side Tenement Museum Photographic Collection.

In the early 20th century, the Lower East Side and neighboring areas made up the Yiddish Theatre District, the center of the Jewish theatre scene. The area hosted countless traditional Jewish plays, Shakespearean performances, vaudevillian acts, comedies, original plays, musicals, operettas, and burlesque shows, just to name a few!

A Yiddish Theatre on East 12th and 2nd Avenue, date unknown. Second Avenue, the center of the Yiddish theatre scene, was nicknamed the Jewish Rialto. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Begun in Romania in the 1870’s, Yiddish theatre in New York City got its start in 1882, when then 13 year old Ukrainian immigrant Boris Thomashefsky convinced his saloon owner friend to rent a hall on 4th Street and put on a play. Two accounts of the play exist – one suggests that the play was a total disaster, and the other, from Thomashefsky’s memoir, says that it was a smashing success, despite attempted sabotage from the Germans in the area.  At the time, Yiddish theatre was not well received by the mostly German speaking population in the neighborhood, who considered Yiddish undignified. Yiddish theatre grew and grew in popularity and in 1904, Russian-born star, Jacob Pavlovitch Adler, built the first theatre specifically for Yiddish productions, the Grand Theatre. By the First World War, the Jewish Rialto was one of the busiest theatre districts in the world, with its theatres (11 in 1927) showing 20 to 30 plays a night!

An 1897 poster for the Thalia Theatre at 46 Bowery (now a seafood restaurant). Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Famous alumni of the Yiddish Theatre District include composers/songwriters George and Ira Gerswin; but the actor that hits closer to home for the Tenement Museum is Jacob Burinescu.

Former resident and actor Jacob Burinescu in the early 20th century. Lower East Side Tenement Museum Photographic Collection.

Jacob Burinescu lived at 97 Orchard Street with his wife Sarah (the first female resident of 97 Orchard Street to vote!) and their children. Jacob was a Romanian immigrant who came to the United States with the dream of being an actor. When he wasn’t acting, ran a cleaning business out of 92 Orchard Street. But acting was never far from Jacob’s life; his cleaning business often cleaned theatre costumes.

A business card from Jacob Burinescu's cleaning business at 92 Orchard Street. Lower East Side Tenement Museum Photographic Collection.

In a 2009 interview with Jacqueline Burinescu Ricther, Jacob and Sarah’s daughter, when Jacqueline was asked if her father was an actor, she responded, “He would have liked to be!” She said that he had acted in Romania, but when he moved to the United States and began a family, he needed to steady job to support them. Jacob’s granddaughters, Judy and Marcia, said that Jacob had some kind of problem getting his SAG card, and couldn’t receive benefits that SAG provides actors.

Sarah Burinescu, Jacob's wife, with her grandchildren in 1939. Sarah was an active socialist and suffragette. Lower East Side Tenement Museum Photographic Collection.

While we don’t know specifically what kind of plays or musicals Jacob acted in, judging by these photos of him and his friends, we can assume that they were real wise guys!

Jacob Burinescu (top center) with his friends in a park, early 20th century. Lower East Side Tenement Museum Photographic Collection.

Jacob’s acting dreams were cut short in 1918, when he died in the Influenza Epidemic that killed millions of people around the world. His granddaughters say that he contracted the flu while he was nursing some of his actor friends who were ill.

After World War Two, the Yiddish theatre district waned – Yiddish speakers were getting older, and their children weren’t as interested in the theatre. Most of the theatres are now closed, but the tradition of Yiddish theatre lives on with the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, in operation since 1915, in New York City.

- Posted by Lib Tietjen