Published: April 29th 2012April 26th 2012
We wanted for years to see the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, and today was the day. It’s a block or two from the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge, Delancey Street, and the Bowery.
Entry is by guided tour only. We bought our tickets in advance for two tours, and were glad we did because they all sold out. The museum is an actual five-story apartment building at 97 Orchard Street, built in 1863 when the area was German. There was even a German beer garden in the basement at the time, which is currently being restored. Most of the visitors thought the apartments were very small, but they were bigger than I had envisioned. The tour guide said that visitors who have lived in NYC don’t find them particularly small, compared to other NYC apartments.
The tours centered around various families who lived in the building over the years. One was the Moores, who emigrated from Ireland in the 1860s, probably due to the Great Hunger. When they moved in they were the only Irish in the building among the German families. The tour reviewed the death of their child in 1969 and her subsequent
Williamsburg Bridge, 1919
Photo from Joseph Brennan's Abandoned Stations, Columbia U
wake in the house, and featured an audio of a woman “keening,” a wailing that sent cold shivers up our backs. We learned of their sanitation facilities – basically none, until about 1900 – a central privy outside near the water pump. Water had to be pumped into buckets and carried upstairs. Garbage was tossed out the window into the street to pile up with all the other garbage, dead horses, broken-down carts, and whatever else. Various other bits about the family were pieced together from public records and descendants’ sharing their memories with the museum.
The other tour focused on 1890s-1900s sweatshops, a term that originally referred to apartments where people, mostly men, sewed in the family’s parlor. We visited the Levine family’s apartment, where Mr. Levine worked the sewing machine six days a week, year-round. The finished clothes were picked up regularly and he was paid meager wages, out of which he had to pay his assistants. Making clothing requires ironing, and ironing required that the stove be kept going all day, six days a week, regardless of the weather. This was a tough way for a family to live. I have never felt as
Williamsburg Bridge Approach Today
photo from www.bridgeandtunnelclub.com
uncomfortably hot anywhere as in NYC summers. As machinery improved, factories as we know them started being built, hiring mostly Jewish immigrant women and girls who worked in unsafe, uncomfortable conditions, and the term sweatshop began to refer to those places. We visited another apartment, where the Rogarshevsky girls worked in these factory-based sweatshops.
Reform was prompted by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. There's more about that in our blog entry for April 19. The Tenement Museum tour guide was excellent for the most part, but she may have oversimplified the owners’ actions by implying they purposely locked the doors to prevent the workers from escaping the fire. Not being able to open the doors, some of the workers hurled themselves out the windows to their death on the pavement below.
Once the women who were buying those garments realized the horrible conditions under which they are made, things started to change. An interesting point the tour guide made is that sweatshop labor reform morphed into the NYC area’s women’s suffrage movement, and was headed by many of the same people.
Another fact that interested me was that after her husband died in around 1919,
Mrs. Rogarshevsky changed her name to Rosenthal, a German name. Among immigrant Jews, Germans apparently enjoyed a higher status than Russians. This contrasts with the trend away from German names in the rest of America and England after WWI.
One of the Jewish widows lived in that building until it was shut down in 1935 due to new fire codes. The granddaughter of a gentile family who lived in the building told the museum that the widow would summon her, by waving across the airshaft, to light the Sabbath candles. Children who performed such tasks for their Jewish neighbors were known as “Shabbat goys.” The tour guide didn’t mention it, but was considered a significant favor for which the Jewish family would reciprocate in some way.
It was early evening by the time the tours ended. Gracie and I popped up to 22nd
St and 6th
Ave to a good-sized Trader Joe’s. Earlier, I mentioned being taken aback by the Home Depot in an old building, but all the chains represented in NYC are in the same kind of buildings, because that’s what’s available. Chains weren’t as endemic back in the 1950s and 60s: Union Square had the
97 Orchard Street
world’s only Macy’s and Gimbel’s for example. We shopped at S. Klein’s on 14th
St, E.J. Korvette’s, Alexander’s in Rego Park: one-off stores or small chains. Today housed in traditional NYC buildings are The Children’s Place; Staples (lots of them); Best Buy; and many others, along with the traditional upscale stores like Barney’s and Bergdorf’s.
Sidebar: Manhattan currently has 182 Starbucks, despite the island being smaller than 23 square miles. In comparison, the area I cover for my job, Eastern Washington, is approximately 40,000 square miles. The whole state of Washington State averages only 1 Starbucks for every 100 square miles, despite it being a Seattle company and our reputation for being hard-core coffee drinkers.
Back to Astoria, a trip that took maybe 15 minutes by subway from Madison Square to our front door.
There are more photos below