Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Tenement Museum + Immigration Study NYC Walking Tour

We have been studying the mass migration of immigrants from Europe to the United States.
Between 1880 and the mid-1920'smore than 23 million immigrants came
to the United States and made their homes here, raised their families here and contributed to the society.  Both my mother's parents and my father's mother's parents were part of this massive immigration.  We have been learning about the experience of immigrants in the United States during this time period.

One of the things I wanted to do as part of this study was to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.  I had hoped to do this in the fall, but between weather and illness and other plans, it just never happened.  Fortunately we got a nice, warm day in late November and our family took a ride into the city.

We began our tour at Battery Park, the very Southern tip of Manhattan.

Growing up here, seeing the statue often, I have taken this view for granted.  But for many immigrants, especially during the mass migration, this was their first view of the United States.  They felt they had made it.  This was the New World, promising Liberty to every resident.  It's very powerful.  My Nauna always told me she knew she could relax when she saw "the statue".  

You can see both the Statue ofLiberty and Ellis Island from this vantage point.
We have been to Ellis Island twice before and I considered going again, but read on the website that the building sustained a lot of damage duringHurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy and it was only partially open, so we decided not to make that trip again until it is completely reopened.

We did, however, go to Castle Clinton,
In the mid to late 1800s, prior to the opening of Ellis Island, Castle Clinton (Castle Garden) served as the immigration landing depot.  At the time of the mass migration, when many, many immigrants were coming to New York from other countries, Castle Clinton, whose name had been changed to Castle Garden, was too small to handle the crowds and Ellis Island was erected.

It was a pretty fascinating place.
Originally Castle Clinton was built as an Army Barracks on a man-made platform in the sea.

When there was no longer a need for an Army Barracks, the name was changed to Castle Garden and more land was added to surround and access the site and it became a place for entertainment, with "serious operas" and performances.

As the city became more established and theaters were built and there was a need to document the many immigrants who were coming from far away lands, answering the advertisements major corporations were posting in Europe about work opportunities in America, Castle Garden became the main receiving point for many immigrants.

Once Ellis Island was built, Castle Garden served as the New York City Aquarium for close to 50 years.

My great-grandmother on my dad's side (my Grandma's mother) came here at 16 to be a nanny for a family friend.  That family friend never showed up to "claim" her.  She had three days to wait at Ellis Island before she would be deported back to Poland.  On the third day, a friend of the family friend showed up to claim my Nana because the family friend was sick.  She was hours from being deported back to Poland, 16 years old, alone, in a strange country where she did not speak the language.  It must have been terrifying.

From Castle Garden, we headed North, as many immigrants would have done.  In Sweet America, we read how Tony's family comes from a small village in Italy and how shocking and disconcerting the streets of Manhattan were.  I asked the girls to imagine having been on a boat, in steerage--the lowest, dirtiest, darkest part of the boat where you would feel the waves swishing - for two weeks without enough toilets where many people are sick with dysentery and then being ushered into a place where you were scrutinized to make sure that you did not carry a disease.  A place where you did not understand the language.  Then, when a family member or friend who sponsored you in the New Country came to get you, you were made to walk up noisy, crowded streets in a city that would have seemed huge in comparison from where you came, where you didn't know your way, couldn't read the street signs and didn't speak the language.

We headed up to the neighborhood of Little Italy that featured prominently in several of the books we have been reading, such as When I Dream of Heaven by Steven Kroll and Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix.  We were excited to find businesses that have been around for over 100 years, businesses many of these immigrants would have walked past.

I LOVE the old buildings. There is just so much history, so many people who lived in these buildings, so many stories that occurred in these buildings.  I LOVE it!

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Hester Street was an open air market, with stores spilling over on to the sidewalks.  Immigrants found that they could find a lot of the food items and things they were familiar with from their homeland here.  Since there was no refrigeration, people shopped daily.  It was a place to congregate.  I had printed out several photos of Hester Street from the 1800s, which had been hanging in our dining room for weeks.  It was neat to compare them to what the street looks like today.

looking down Hester Street, compare to the photos in my hands in the photo above

I screwed this up.  We had read about Mulberry Bend or Five Points and how the dangerous tenements had been torn down and in their place, a park was established.  When we saw a park on Mulberry Street, I wrongly assumed that it was the park, not remembering that Five Points was not ACTUALLY IN the neighborhood we had read so many stories about.  The actual park, Columbus Park, is a few blocks over.  I do hope to get to see it next time we are in the area.

We read 3 books that were set in this neighborhood, so to see the streets and imagine the lives of the immigrants was really cool.
The waves of immigrants coming to America today are not from Europe, but are from Asia and India and South America.  These immigrants live in a similar fashion to the European immigrants that settled in this area a 150 years ago.  Vendors sell foods native to their homelands.  I know people who live near me in New Jersey who trek into the city periodically to stock up on imported goods from their homeland that they can't find at our local markets.

if those walls could talk....

entrance to the Manhattan Bridge
We stopped in a cool custom leather shop.  It was teeny tiny, but I could tell from the street that I wanted to investigate the walls and the floor more closely.  I love this kind of thing.  I had, at one point, thought of being an architect and maybe I should have pursued that and maybe I could have worked at restoring these amazing old buildings.  I quite like the scratched up way this building looks now, though.

I can not get enough of these buildings.  I am thinking of making a collage wall of photo prints of old New York City buildings.
Finally, we made our way to the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street.  Different ethnic groups had settled in different areas and so, Manhattan is made up of different neighborhoods.  My grandmother had settled in Greenwich Village, which was an Italian area at the time.  The characters in the books we read lived in Little Italy.  The Tenement Museum is only a couple of blocks from Little Italy, in a neighborhood where a lot of German and Polish Jewish people had settled. This neighborhood was known as The Jewish Lower East Side.

 Most of the residents from this area were from Poland or Germany and they spoke the universal language of Yiddish.  Even the street signs were in Yiddish.  My great-grandmother, who came from Poland at 16 and was Catholic (not Jewish) spoke Yiddish.  We saw in the Museum that coupons and circulars, programs and advertisements were in Yiddish and/or Italian.  Many Americans - myself included - are frustrated that America does not have an official language and sometimes this makes it difficult to communicate with other Americans (particularly in stores or if you are a librarian).  But the idea of printing things and signage being in other languages is not new.  The difference, our tour guide pointed out, was that things are mass marketed now, whereas then it was just a circular from a local mom and pop business where the owners spoke Yiddish and the customers in the neighborhood spoke Yiddish and they printed their circular in Yiddish and it circulated just in the neighborhood, whereas now circulars and coupons and things are have a more widespread circulation.  

Interestingly, my mother told me after we visited the museum, that my Nauna always said she learned to speak Yiddish before she learned English because so many of the people she worked with in sewing factories spoke Yiddish.

We had the wonderful experience of taking The Sweatshop Workers Tour and participating in the discussion before and after our tour, where we got to hear other people's family stories of immigration.

Looking up at the museum, which is a tenement apartment building.
The girls and I read 97 Orchard Street: Stories of Immigrant Life and I read and made several recipes from 97 Orchard Street: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York City Tenement.  (I highly recommend both books, but especially the second for anyone interested in the history of New York City.)  So we knew the stories of some of the families that had lived in this building.  We knew the building had been built in 1863 and was five stories and had 20 apartments, 4 on each floor.  We knew that when it was first built, the only running water would have been in the yard behind the building and that there were 3 outhouses which had to be shared by all of the residents.  We knew the average number of residents per apartment was 12, which means 240 people shared 3 outhouses and later, 6 outhouses.  We knew that the neighboring buildings had similar facilities and that the women also hung their clothes to dry on lines near these facilities and the stench was something we don't want to think about.  Nor do we want to think about the possible health implications of these conditions.

The Tenement Museum does not allow photography, but they said that I could take photos from their website to use on a blog post.  This is the staircase on the first floor.  The building was occupied from 1863-1935.  In 1935, a law was passed that landlords had to bring building up to fire code and add one indoor bathroom per apartment.  The owner of this building decided to JUST rent out the bottom two floors, which were businesses and to close up the apartments.  The apartments were vacant for 50 years until two historians found the building and decided to open the museum.

Don't you just love that tile floor?

We learned in the books we read that the decorative work on the walls was created by putting plaster in a pastry bag and piping it on the walls in lovely designs.

Some of the apartments look like this, just like they did when the historians bought the building.  These walls are untouched.  The stories are right there on the surface.

Other apartments have been recreated to look like they may have looked when the residents lived there.

The historians did their homework.  They found people who had grown up in the building and moved out as children when they building closed and they interviewed them.  These former residents donated family photos and memoribilia, which makes the museum that much more authentic.  Although much of the artifacts have come from estate sales or are reproductions.

I had the unique and awesome experience of having seen the tenement where my grandmother lived on Thompson Street when I was a child.  It was similar to this in size.  You walk into a kitchen, very much like this one (although when I visited that apartment the sink was bigger and more modern; also, just the design of that apartment that my grandmother lived in, the sink was on the opposite wall where the china cabinet is but the stove is in the same spot).  The apartment my Nauna lived in had a front room as well, similar to this.  However, there was another room off of the kitchen in that particular apartment and the door to that room was on the wall where the sink is in this picture.

The apartments at 97 Orchard also have three rooms, but in these apartments the other room is on the opposite side of the kitchen, next to the door from the hall.

The girls also pointed out the similarities between 97 Orchard and the apartment in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

After the Tenement Museum, we were torn between going to Katz's Deli or going for a good Italian dinner.  Since I don't eat meat, the Italian dinner won out.  There, we discussed the museum and our reaction to it.  We all decided that we wanted to go back, that we loved it, that we were fascinated by it, that we would do it every weekend if we could.  We called to see if we could get a membership, but it was too late.  So, next time we will get a membership.

After dinner, we headed Northeast a few blocks to the Asch Building.
We had read Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and we also watched a movie about this event in which 146 people lost their lives because the doors were locked on the floors and the fire escapes were not safe or adequate.

This building is just a block from Washington Square Park.  I had known it was there.  I have walked past it many times.  Greene Street is still cobblestones outside this building and to stand on those stones and think of the many lives lost, people jumping out of windows to was very emotional for me.

The girls and I walked the perimeter of the building, remembering the lives lost, paying homage to them.  They probably walked through this doorway that fateful Saturday morning.

I have been asked by many people WHY I am doing this study with my girls, WHY this is the focus of our history and don't I think my girls would be better served by learning about World History just like so many other children their age.  And the answer is that we have read about World History and we may very well do that again.  My girls are familiar with World History and while they may not remember all the facts, just as I don't, they can pull up information on their devices now if they can't recall it, just like I do.  I am more interested in personalizing history.  

I think we are more likely to remember things when we engage with them and when they mean something to us.  I think because my girls had an interest in learning more about the history of New York City and their family experience, they are more engaged and will remember these books and movies and experiences.

But more than anything, what I am hoping to give them is something similar to what I had growing up and sitting with my Nauna while she sewed and listening to her stories about when she was a young girl coming to America.  I know I can't recreate that entirely, but it is important to me to keep those stories alive.  I want my girls to know those stories and I hope one day they can tell their grandchildren about their grandchildren's great-great-great grandmother's experience as an immigrant here.  And that, to me, is more worthwhile than anything a history book can teach.