The Stories of 103 Orchard Street

Over its 127 years as a residence, 103 Orchard Street was home to more than 10,000 people who reflected the diverse immigrant and migrant populations of the Lower East Side. Built in 1888, 103 Orchard Street was originally three separate tenement buildings, each with 18 apartments. In 1913 construction began to transform the three separate buildings into one that would house 16 apartments. The families that resided in the tenements from 1888-1916 were European immigrants and their children, primarily from Germany, Ireland, Austria, and Russia, and shifted as demographics evolved to become home to more children and grandchildren of immigrants, as well as residents from Puerto Rico and China.

After World War II, the Lower East Side’s changing landscape reflected a shift in housing and immigration policies that were taking shape on the national level. The Johnson Reed Act of 1924, which restricted Southern and Eastern European migration, contributed to the Lower East Side’s diminishing Jewish community. The reduction in immigration coincided with an increase in internal movement, mainly Puerto Ricans to the mainland United States and African Americans from the South. In 1965, the Hart-Celler Act removed the race-based quotas of 1924 and opened America’s doors to newcomers from other parts of the world, including Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa, and saw the strengthening of Lower East Side communities like Chinatown and Loisaida.

The Under One Roof guided tour at 103 Orchard Street shares the stories of newer families who came to the Lower East Side after World War II seeking a new chapter in their lives. These contemporary stories of migration reveal an evolving American identity and explore how neighbors lived alongside one another in a mixed neighborhood like the Lower East Side.

1947-1961

Kalman and Regina Epstein

After World War II, the United States had a strict immigration quota that prevented newcomers from entering the country. However, in 1945, a presidential directive authorized 1,000 visas for Holocaust survivors. Arriving in New York in April 1947, Regina and Kalman Epstein were among the first World War II refugees to be allowed into the United States.

The 1947 ship manifest showing Kalman and Regina Epstein aboard
A group at the Zeilsheim Displaced Persons Camp

The Epsteins found a new beginning in America free from the horror of the concentration camps and free to practice their Jewish beliefs. By the time the Epsteins moved to 103 Orchard Street in 1955, Kalman was working in the garment industry and eventually took over ownership of his uncle Jacob’s dress shop.

Bluma and Bella in matching outfits, holding hands and smiling on the sidewalk.

Regina and Kalman would go on to become parents of Americans–two daughters, Bella and Bluma.

The Epstein family seder in the 1950s.

While living in America allowed them freedom to observe and celebrate Jewish faith and tradition, it also introduced them to many immigrants from all different cultures and backgrounds. The Epsteins owned the first television in the building, of which their Italian and Jewish neighbors would gather to watch wrestling matches with Kalman. Bella befriended her Italian neighbor, Rosetta; played checkers with Barbara, an African American; and, enjoyed sugar cane treats from the Puerto Rican grocers in the neighborhood.

1969-2011

Saez / Velez Family

Close to a half million Puerto Ricans migrated to New York City between 1940 and 1960. Many of these newcomers moved into the recently-vacated apartments of Eastern European Jews and Italians, and into the recently-vacated chairs in front of sewing machines.

Ramonita Saez on the phone and next to the TV in her living room at 103 Orchard Street

Ramonita Rivera Saez, 26, was among these migrants. In 1956, she came to America with her two young sons, Andy and Jose Velez, and found work in a garment factory.

Living room inside apartment 15 at 103 Orchard Street

While the majority of Puerto Ricans settled in East Harlem, the Bronx or Brooklyn, Ramonita chose to join a growing community of Puerto Ricans in the Lower East Side. They made their way to a series of apartments on the Lower East Side and, in 1964, she and her sons moved into 103 Orchard where the family resided for over 40 years.

Ramonita worked as a seamstress in the garment industry for over 30 years. Although she worked long hours, she was very proud of her work and was active in her union, Local 23. She marched alongside her colleagues in parades and safeguarded the Honorary Lifetime Membership Card she received upon her retirement. Both of Ramonita’s sons would contribute to the family, cooking dinner and working. Like their mother, Andy and Jose, cultivated a sense of pride and identity in work. Both would serve as stewards of all of 103 Orchard’s apartments.

Andy and Jose Velez

Though only 15, Jose applied and was selected to be the superintendent of 103 Orchard Street shortly after moving into the building. Drafted into the Air Force, Andy served in the Vietnam War and returned to work in the neighborhood after his service. He took over as superintendent of the building when Jose and his wife moved to Puerto Rico in 1982. Andy and Ramonita called 103 Orchard Street home until 2011.

A couch inside the recreated living room of the Saez-Velez family apartment at 103 Orchard Street

The Saez/Velez family story runs through some of the country’s most challenging and dynamic times, touching on the ways the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War affected the neighborhood


1968-2014

The Wongs

Just a few years after the 1965 lifting of legislation that prevented Asians from entering the United States, Chinese residents are listed as living at 103 Orchard Street. Mrs. Wong arrived in New York from Hong Kong in 1965 with her two daughters, Yat Ping and Alison. Their arrival reunited the family, as Mr. Wong immigrated to the United States in the 1950s. In 1968 the Wong family moved to 103 Orchard Street, a place Mrs. Wong would call home through the 20th Century.

Mrs. Wong and her daughter Yat Ping

By the 1960s, New York’s garment industry was in decline as manufacturing was commonly outsourced overseas.

However, Chinese entrepreneurs seized opportunity to create a niche market for “quick-time” garment production in New York and opened shops in Chinatown. By 1980, Mrs. Wong was among 20,000 Chinese women producing sportswear for brands such as Anne Klein and Liz Claiborne. She worked long days to support her family.   

A diverse class photo of 31 students and one teacher at PS42

The Wong children attended school at PS 42 with many of the other children who lived at 103 Orchard. Though the school reflected a diverse student body including Puerto Rican, Chinese and Dominican populations, English was the common language among many students. 

The Wong children at 103 Orchard.

Mrs. Wong encouraged her children to study hard, go to college and get good jobs. Through hard work and savings, the Wongs sent all their children to college and each went on to successful careers. 


Visit 103 Orchard Street

Experience the Under One Roof Tour

Learn about the Epsteins, the Velezes, and the Wongs.

The Stories of 103 Orchard Street