Staffers and Neighbors is a three part series where we turn our blog over to three members of the Tenement Museum family who were raised on the Lower East Side. Our first post is from Tihela Feit. Tihela was born on the Lower East Side and has lived here her entire life and couldn’t fathom leaving for college, so she enrolled in CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College at Lehman College. She now works at the Tenement Museum as the Development Coordinator.
The New York Times recently published an interactive article about regional dialects, and it got me thinking: how do you know that you’re a New Yorker? For me the answer is simple: how do you pronounce “Houston Street?”
Tihela (the baby on the left), her sister, and her grandparents, Manny and Frieda, on the Lower East Side, circa 1989. Tihela, a born and raised New Yorker, knows that Houston St. is not pronounced like a city in Texas.
In describing the Lower East Side, I think it’s fair to say that most people would say iconic, classic or historic. For me, it’s simply home. I’m a third generation Lower East Sider; my mother came to New York on May 28, 1949 aboard the S.S. Marine Jumperwith her parents, Holocaust survivors. They settled on the Lower East Side and never left.
The SS Marine Jumper, the WWII troop carrier that brought Tihela's mother and grandparents to New York in 1949.
There’s a lot of nostalgia attached to the neighborhood, but for me, someone who can only remember the area since the early 1990’s it represents both the past and present combined. When I think of my neighborhood, I think of buildings.
Tihela as a very small New Yorker in 1988.
My two favorite buildings are Seward Park Library and BLUE. The buildings are complete visual opposites – a Renaissance Revival building built in 1909 and a modern building built in 2007 – together they are my Lower East Side. Seward Park for me is more than just my local library; it was the place I would go after Pre-K on Fridays to play or to pick out books.
The Seward Park Library in the early 20th century.
Most people hated BLUE when they first saw it; I loved it. It’s a break in the skyline dominated by tenement and brown brick Superblock apartment buildings. When each of the buildings were built they were statements and investments in the future of the neighborhood. They stand now, together, capturing the past and present and the endurance of the neighborhood.
BLUE, a condominium building.
What makes me so proud of being a third generation Lower East Sider is that my identity is worn into the streets that are the foundation of my grandparents and mother’s process of Americanization. While some of the streets of my Mother’s childhood no longer exist, we share landmarks like the East River Park—I remember riding my bike along the river with my Dad (a Jersey boy who crossed the Hudson when he married my Mom)…
Tihela after a bike ride along the East River.
or fishing in the River with my grandfather; my mother remembers going to the Amphitheater with her parents in the summer. Or Gus’s pickles, my mother bought five-cent pickles from Gus; I remember when Gus’s moved to Orchard Street.
Tihela's mother, left, and aunt, right, on the Lower East Side in 1959.
At the Tenement Museum, we tell the stories of immigrants who pursued their American dreams on the Lower East Side. When I give a Sweatshop Workers tour, I feel as though the Levines’ and Rogarshevskys’ stories are my own family’s story – a few centuries later. When do you become a New Yorker – along the way, but I don’t really know.
Tihela's grandparents, both Czechoslovakian immigrants, outside their East River Co-Op. Date unknown.