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 has gone through several changes – both in its construction and its demographics – that reflect the many ways in which New York City itself has transformed over the decades.

While tours in 97 Orchard stop at 1935 when the building was shut down, our tours at 103 Orchard Street share 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.

Graphic for 103 Orchard Street website with a sectioned collage of pictures from 1950s, 60s, 70s

The Stories of 103 Orchard Street
A Special Digital Storytelling Experience

Explore the changing community through videos, photos, documents, and oral histories in this dynamic digital storytelling experience. See how the Lower East Side in the 1900s, Loisaida in the 1960s, and Chinatown in the 1980s overlapped and get a glimpse of the families and cultures that defined the neighborhood.


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.

1947 ship manifest showing Kalman and Regina Epstein aboard the "S.S Marine Perch" arriving from Bremen, Germany
Group photo of the first refugees, all ranging in age and gender, to arrive at the Zeilshem Displaced Persons Camp in 1945

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 dresses, 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 in the 1950s gathered around a set dining table, with the children sitting and the adults standing behind them

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 and enjoyed sugar cane treats from the Puerto Rican grocers in the neighborhood.


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 in a pastel green dress with a beehive hairstyle stands next to a TV while speaking on the phone.

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.

Color photo of the Saez-Velez family's living room with pictures hanging up on floral wallpaper that matches the plastic-covered couch

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.

Two photos. (Left) Jose Velez blows out the candles on his birthday cake. (Right) A headshot of a smiling Andy Velez in military attire

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.

Alternate view of the Saez-Velez family living room where two photos hang on a patterned wall above a dark blue, plastic-covered couch and a TV

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


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.

Black and white photo of Ms. Wong and Yat Ping. Ms. Wong wears skirt suit and pearls, and Yat Ping wears a collared dress

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

Black and white photo of a seamstress working at a sewing machine station while a young child plays in the background

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 of 31 students and one teacher. A sign in front reads, “Public School 42, Manhattan 1976-77, Class 6c-501.”

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. 

Split image. (left) Alison stands in front of a TV. (Right) Kevin stands in the same spot. Both are wearing dressy outfits and smiling.

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. 

The Stories of 103 Orchard Street