Well, my ill-timed sinus infection is being treated with what I'm told is a form of penicillin called Augmentin. While it instantly kicked my sore throat and cleared my sinuses pretty well it unfortunately had the same effect on my intestines. It tore... me... up. The sinus infection has been the least of my troubles for the last 24 hours. (Brace yourselves for TMI) I was trapped in my room all day until I found a stash of Imodium. I popped those pills, waited 30 minutes then RAN down to Duane Reade (again) for more. I realize this is WAY more info than you need but I wanted to share so you could appreciate how desperate I was to get out of my room today. I'm pretty much sure I've now consumed illegal amounts of Imodium. I really wanted to make it to my last two appointments of my trip this morning so I skipped my Augmentin pill this morning. It helped but I was in no shape to do any jumping jacks.
My meetings went well but I was feeling a little "precious" so I came back to my hotel room where I had yet another bowl of matzo ball soup. It was such a pretty day and I still wanted to get out. I cautiously waited for my lunch to settle then headed downtown. I picked up a friend in a cab where we shopped in Soho. But that's not the good part. The good part of my day was the rare opportunity to take a spare hour and spend it on a tour of The Tenement Museum. Have you heard of The Tenement Museum? Do you really need to know anything more than the name to be completely sold?
First of all, the lower east side is where so much of the flavor of New York comes from. I learned all about it today. It's where China Town, Little Italy and German Town where all found, to name a few neighborhoods. Immigrants settled there because it was close to the harbor where they first arrived in America before Ellis Island was created. They would typically hand a slip of paper with their name on it to a dock worker who would point them in the direction of the area where their language was spoken. If they were lucky they had family or friends expecting them. This is the type of scene that welcomed them:
The word "tenement" was not a negative word until much later. Tenements where simply affordable multiple family dwellings built to accommodate the immigrants coming to the US. Wars, poverty and famine brought on an onslaught of immigrants to the lower east side neighborhoods that eventually turned the tenements into the dark, crowded, oppressive slums we now associate the word with.That street scene pictured above? That's Mulberry Street but it gives you an idea of what life was life in the lower east side at that time. This is what those streets look like these days:
The tour begins in a gift shop where the tour tickets are purchased. There were tons of fantastic books in there but I resisted and instead went to the back of the shop to take in a short film on immigration in America. Soon a tour guide announced our tour was about to begin. About 15 of us gathered on the sidewalk where the tour kicked off.
I chose the tour about a German-Jewish family and an Italian-Catholic family. In the first apartment we heard the story of a German-Jewish woman named Josephine who came to America most likely in search of a husband. She found one, named Louis, and they moved into the apartment on Orchard Street where they had 4 children. Soon after the Panic of 1907 Louis vanished. (Which is when I mumbled under my breath "We HATE Louis!") At the time, some men would just abandon their families, others were murdered for their wages while others committed suicide. Times were tough. The museum has done tons of research on the tenement families but they still do not know what exactly happened to Louis. Our friend Josephine was left alone to fend for her family. She had to find work ... fast. She could have become a prostitute (the red light district was literally on the street behind her tenement) or a factory worker or a street vendor or any number of tough jobs on the street. In the end we learn that she chose to borrow money from a relative to rent a newfangled sewing machine. She worked from her home repairing and sewing clothing for those in her neighborhood. Josephine was soon making more money than Louis ever had. (Which is when I mumbled "Well, she had one less mouth to feed!" and another lady said "Right on!" Was that rude? I couldn't help it. I was still mad at Louis.) One day a telegram arrived from Germany stating that Louis had inherited $600 from his father. (Damn you Louis!) The only way Josephine could collect the inheritance was to have Louis finally declared dead. She did and she got the money. (We know this because the tour guide showed us the legal document they found signed by Josephine and witnessed by her landlord... cool! It mentions Louis' disappearance which is how we know that he vanished.) Josephine took the $600 and moved uptown. (Yee haw!) I was surprised at how emotional I became when we were saw pictures of Josephine's great-great grand children. Seeing her descendants really got to me. Because of that tough, tenacious broad there is a whole family line thriving in this country. Seeing those modern day smiling faces got to me.
I pulled it together enough to get to the next apartment. Here we learn about Sadie and Al from Sicily. They had a daughter and a son and lived in their apartment from 1928 to 1933 when it was condemned. The daughter eventually moved to Brooklyn but came back to her old neighborhood often. One day in 1988 she saw that the building of her childhood home suddenly had some interesting activity going on. She inquired within and learned that it was being turned into a museum. She was thrilled to hear the news and shared her memories with museum founders. The tour guide played an audio clip from the hours of interviews they have with her. She described how her mother would cook for them and they would sit around the kitchen table playing checkers and listening to the radio. Her father loved riddles and would write them down for the family to figure out. She described many happy memories of their tenement home. Mostly I loved that due to her parents spirit she had no idea how hard times were for them. She remembered getting government cheese during the depression and once getting a box of clothes from the government. She needed shoes for school and vividly remembered getting her government box home where he opened it to find men's size nine shoes inside. She had no choice but to stuff the shoes and wear them to school. Poor thing! Otherwise she didn't seem to have bad memories of not having much. I suppose nobody had much back then so it didn't occur to her that times were hard. (I loved her and now I can't even remember her name!) I adored seeing he picture of her at the 1992 opening of the museum with her family.
There are several tours offered by the museum but I chose the the one with German/Italian stories. My tour told the stories of single families living in the apartment. I did not get the story of 25 people living in tiny spaces. I'm sure those stories are also offered but I didn't see those. I will say that a family, even a small one, living in a 325 square foot apartment is unbelievable to experience if even for an hour. indoor plumbing, ventilation and gas heat didn't exist when Josephine lived in her apartment. Those conveniences were around for the second family dwelling I saw and it made quite a difference. If I had to choose one I have to say I'd want ventilation above all. I'd have thought I'd want indoor plumbing but indoor plumbing without ventilation is something I'm not interested in.
I wish more of the country could experience the tour I took today. I think it would impact how we view the immigrants of today. Their stories have not changes much. The only thing that has changed is what it takes to become an American. When Josephine came to New York she only needed to want to be an American to become one. It was tougher from our Italian family and even tougher today.
Cameras are not allowed in the museum. If you'd like to see more you may do so here. I hope you get a chance to visit this amazing museum very soon.