A Walk on New York’s Lower East Side

Note: I normally don’t believe in coincidences but when I sat down last Friday to write a new story, I had no idea it was the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on New York’s Lower East Side. If you’re not familiar with this event, here’s a link to an excellent article from Time magazine on this horrific incident in American history.  I mention the anniversary because the story I’m posting is about the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Although the LESTM today is a place to learn about the lives of America’s immigrants at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, a century ago tenements like it were home for many of the 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. So I like to think that I was destined to write this article on March 25, 2011, in memory of all the victims, but especially the dozens of teenage girls whose lives were taken from them entirely too early. 

New York, New York
November 2002

A window in a windowless room. The guide explained how windows were added to tenement apartments to give residents the illusion of more space, the pretense that their homes were not as dark and dank as they truly were. Although New Yorkers today complain about the size of their apartments, the lack of space, they only need visit the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side to learn the true meaning of a closet size apartment, prior to safety, health, and sanitary regulations being the norm. 

After stepping off the F train, we headed a few blocks over to Orchard Street, which was and is still considered to be the heart of the Lower East Side, especially during the immigration heyday around the turn of the last century. Covering a total of eight city blocks, it contains from end to end, the stereotypical low-rise brick tenement buildings, complete with the iconic fire escapes. The Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard was no different. 

At the start of the tour, we learned how the Lower East Side was originally known as Kleindeutschland (Little Germany) due to the large number of German immigrants who had settled there. 97 Orchard itself was constructed by a Prussian immigrant in 1863. I remember from a book I had read on the Lower East Side that as the dawn of the 20th century approached, German immigrants fled the slums of the Lower East and moved uptown, thus making room for the mass wave of Eastern and Central European immigrants. 

Like most neighborhoods today on the island of Manhattan, the Lower East Side is a testament to the regentrification that is taking place. Although a few store awnings still bear signage in non-Roman alphabets, it’s decidedly modern day New York, complete with a Starbucks on the corner of Delancey Street. 

But having seen enough pictures and reading enough, I could just imagine what the streets on the Lower East Side once looked like, pushcarts crowding the streets with vendors hawking their wares, boys running down the sidewalks, girls playing while their mothers chatted on the stoops, anxious to be out of their cramped apartments. 

When we first entered the building, the tour guide purposely left the lights off. He said he wanted us to see what life would have been like for the tenement residents prior to the introduction of electricity and even gas lighting. The stairwell upstairs to the other floors was set enough back from the street that once the sun went down, residents would return to a dreary haven of darkness. 

Before heading upstairs, the guide also pointed out the bathrooms, two toilets per floor, each being used by more than 20 people. This was only after indoor plumbing had been mandated inside the tenements. For most of 97 Orchard Street’s history, outhouses in the back were what its residents had to use. 

The first apartment we toured had been the home of a German-Jewish  immigrant family towards the end of the 19th century. Although the three rooms were small and cramped, unfathomable to think that a family of six lived there, it still exuded a sense a home- the lace tablecloth, the loaf of challah set out in preparation of the Sabbath, the clean wash hanging over the stove to dry. 

The guide explained how during the Panic of 1873 (nowadays it is referred to as the Depression of 1873), the patriarch of the Gumpertz family never came home one night. I immediately thought of a beloved children’s book of mine, Dreams in the Golden Country by Kathryn Lasky. In the book, the father of the protagonist’s friend mysteriously disappears. Later on, the protagonist runs into him uptown, seeing that he has taken on a new life and a new name, one without his wife and four children still living on the Lower East Side. Although we’re told that the patriarch was never found, dead or alive, it still made me wonder. Had he met a sad end, his death forever remaining a secret, or had he abandoned his family like so many other immigrant men of his time had?

His wife, realizing the dire straits she and her daughters were now in, opened a dress shop in her own home. When we stepped into the room that served as the shop I immediately felt sad, for this particular room was the only one with windows, the only one that received natural sunlight coming in from Orchard Street. And yet it was completely taken over by sewing machines and mannequins. Not a place where a family could relax with fresh air and natural sunlight. 

Before leaving the Gumpertz apartment we’re told that luck eventually found Mrs. Gumpertz, as she was able to claim an inheritance that had been left to her husband. Although she had to finagle the courts to make them believe her husband was dead and succeeded and was able to move her daughters uptown to a newer, ritzier, and less crowded German enclave, what is today the Upper East Side. I was glad for this even though I knew most immigrant families were not so lucky. I thought of my own immigrant ancestors. Although they had not settled on the Lower East Side, my paternal great-grandparents had come to the United States from the Ukraine at the turn of the last century. They had settled in a small city in northeastern Pennsylvania that was home to one of the largest steel mills in the world at that time. Like many others of their situation and class, they made their American home in a community that was known as Little Ukraine, never learning English save for the few requisite words one needed to get by. Although the city of Bethlehem was nowhere near as crowded as New York’s Lower East Side was at the height of the immigration boom, the homes near the mill would not have been much better than New York’s tenements. They too would have been small, dank, and cramped, inhabited by those with limited means. 

The second apartment we toured took us forward almost fifty years to circa 1935. The Baldizzi family lived at 97 Orchard Street at the height of the Great Depression. Although it looked to be about the same amount of space as the Gumpertz apartment, the Baldizzi apartment didn’t seem as dark or stifling. It truly seemed more sunny and open. 

The guide said that when 97 Orchard Street first began its transformation into a living history museum, one of the Baldizzi children heard about the work and was able to assist firsthand with the recreation of her family’s former home and how the building itself looked in the 1930s. I could imagine my grandparents in a home like this, as they would have been around the same age as the Baldizzi children at that time, their mothers using the same laundry suds, eating the same cereal. 

I was saddened to hear how, rather than continuing to modify the building in order to keep up with city laws, the landlord evicted the tenants in 1935. Progress happens but it always comes with a price for some. 

For 72 years, 97 Orchard Street was home to more than 7000 immigrants and then for half a century it laid vacant. The guide described that during the restoration when workers began removing the wallpaper, they literally removed multiple layers, each layer of course representing a time in the tenement’s history. I found this amazing, that by simply stripping something off of the wall, history is passing before your eyes. 

I found the tenement tour to be a fascinating experience for after all, New York City is the place that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of America’s immigrant history. It was the starting point for many, the place where so many assimilated into American society. For decades it was the melting pot of European cultures and today it is the melting pot of most other cultures and ethnicities in the world. I enjoyed it so much that years later I would go on another one. (The Tenement Museum offers multiple tours, all highlighting different immigrant experiences.) It’s truly that worthwhile.

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  • Reply
    March 31, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    What a great story! How neat! And I am familiar with the fire, how awful.

  • Reply
    The Frisky Virgin
    April 1, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Beautifully written. It was such a tragedy. I would love to visit sometime, though I’m sure I would be quite emotional. 🙁

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    April 1, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    Owoosh-Thanks!! 100 years later I still can’t fathom the greed and inhumane nature of the owners of the factory. Believing they had done no wrong by making the working conditions of their employees dangerous & inhumane.

    TFV-Many thanks for the compliment! I’m not sure if you are aware but New York University actually owns the building where the factory once was (I believe they’re classrooms or labs). I can’t imagine having class where such a tragedy took place. I’m with you as I feel it would indeed be quite emotional.

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