When Josephine Baldizzi was a little girl, she and her family were evicted from 97 Orchard St, along with the rest of the building’s tenants in 1935. Despite this, she had many fond memories of her time inside her family’s tiny apartment, which visitors can view on our “Hard Times” tour. While standing in her recreated kitchen, visitors can listen to an audio recording of Josephine talking about growing up on Orchard Street, about the games she used to play with her father, and about her mother’s fastidious cleanliness. “‘Shine ’em up Sadie’ they used to call her,” Josephine says in the recording.
Josephine Baldizzi, with her brother Johnny, on the rooftop of 97 Orchard
The oral history adds another vivid contextual level to the tour, to hear in her own words what life was like, growing up a first-generation American during the Great Depression. Her story is one that lingers in the minds of many visitors once they leave the Tenement Museum. Visitors like Gertjan Van Hellemont and his brother, Sem.
Gertjan and Sem head up Douglas Firs, a Belgian indie band. They had been in Montreal earlier this year when they hopped on a bus to visit New York City for the day. It was their first time in the city, but the Tenement Museum was on their to-do list. “We’d heard from a friend it was a go-to museum,” said Gertjan, “with interesting stories.”
Interesting enough to write a song, it seems. Last Friday, Douglas Firs released “Shine ‘Em Up Sadie,” a catchy new song inspired by the story of Josephine Baldizzi’s immigrant experiences.
“Looking back on the period when she’d lived there, sharing her memories, what really struck me was the amount of happiness and melancholy she felt about this period in her life,” Gertjan said. “She had been really happy there! It made me and my brother think about the importance of a sense of community, friendship,… In combination with having a dream and trying to realize this, and on the other hand, the lack of importance of material things, despite the huge struggle it must have been.”
Gertjan has been playing music for most of his life. Douglas Firs have been playing together for about eight years now, and they are currently working on releasing their third album.
“I think with this song I wrote about the Baldizzi family,” said Gertjan, “it’s actually the first time I wrote about something that far removed from my own life, to really do some research and write about something from an outsider’s perspective.”
Gertjan feels the stories of people like Josephine are as relevant today as they’ve ever been. “There’s a refugee crisis going on and most of the time, I find it scary seeing people respond to this with a sense of fear, short-sightedness and even a lack of basic humanity, sometimes,” he says. “I can lose a little bit of hope when I think about this for too long, but I tried to put the opposite feeling into my song. I think people will always reconnect to that sense of community, solidarity, sticking together, the things I felt in the story of the Baldizzi family who lived on Orchard Street.”
Check out the video for Douglas Firs’ “Shine ‘Em Up Sadie” now!