Welcome to the America That
By JEFF MILLER
© St. Petersburg Times
ith a slight smile of fond remembrance, the 97-year-old Ukrainian man spoke directly into the camera: "After I passed the physical, I was given apple pie and milk . . . something I had never eaten like that in Ukraine."
He had been 17 at the time, and it was his first experience as an immigrant entering the land of opportunity and promise. Soon, however, his dreams would meet the harsher realities of tenement life in New York City's Lower East Side.
When the short film of immigrant stories was over, the 12 visitors were ushered back into the Lower East Side Tenement Museum's entrance/gallery to meet tour guide Steve Long, director of the museum's resource and study center. Before crossing the street to enter the actual museum, the group got a quick overview.
Begun in 1988 by founder and president Ruth J. Abram, the private, non-profit organization is dedicated to preserving the history of America's urban working-class immigrants -- "urban pioneers," as Abram calls them. The museum offers weekend walking tours of historic Lower East Side, photographic and art exhibits, media presentations and dramatic readings from immigrant literature, plays, films and lectures.
The group's focal point is the tenement building at 97 Orchard St., which is now a National Historic Landmark. After extensive research and work, two apartments have been restored and re-created to reflect the lives of actual tenants: the Gumpertz family, German Jews of 1878; and the Baldizzi family, Italian Catholics of 1935. By early 1998, two new families will "move" into the tenement: the Rogashevsky family, Eastern European Jews of 1918; and the Confino family of Kastoria, Turkey (now Greece), who will be hosts of a new "hands-on" family apartment.
My group of visitors was led across the street -- voices calling in an Asian language reminded us that immigration here continues -- and we crowded into the narrow, dingy, high-ceilinged entrance hall of the tenement. Long told us that in 1863, German immigrant and tailor Lucas Glockner built the six-story, 20-unit apartment building for $8,000 on a plot allocated for a single-family dwelling.
"When first constructed, the building had no indoor plumbing, no central heating or central lighting," Long said. The hallway light was flicked off to show us what it must have been like. I hadn't thought the hall could get much more depressing, but it did.
"Before you start calling Glockner a slumlord," Long cautioned, "keep in mind that he lived here himself in those early years."
From 1863 until 1935, when the apartments were boarded up, the building saw numerous changes, as Long pointed out in the hallway. Gas jets were added for light. A decorative pressed tin ceiling served to protect the wooden building from the gas flames. A tiled floor covered worn wood planks. Later, each floor got two toilets.
As our group went single file up the narrow, creaky stairs, Long explained that as many as 10,000 German, Italian, Irish and Eastern European immigrants from 20 countries may have lived in the building in its first 72 years. "Comparing the censuses from 1890 and 1900," he said, "we learned that during that span of time, the building held 18 wives who had 100 children -- 60 of whom survived (at least) 10 years."
To give us perspective, he first led us into an unrestored apartment, one that had not been touched since 1935. Rust, dust and neglect had taken their toll -- faded and peeling wallpaper, an uneven floor and broken cabinets were cast in heavy shadow by a single bare bulb.
Each apartment, we learned, was just 325 square feet -- divided by two walls to make three rooms. In 1900, rent was about $12 to $15 a month, as much as 30 percent of a family's monthly wages. On average, six to eight people lived in each apartment but during the height of immigration, as many as 10 to 12 people might have been crammed in, living in round-the-clock shifts.
Although the outer room had two large windows, little light reached the back room because of the interior walls. "And remember," Long said, "there would have been another multistoried tenement right next to those windows, cutting off much of the light. And between the buildings were the outhouses." We came closer to understanding when Long introduced us to Nathalie Gumpertz. She, her husband and four children had lived in the 1878 re-created apartment we crowded into. After seeing the decayed unit, the Gumpertz apartment was downright homey -- albeit tiny. Period decorative wallpaper, curtains, pots, pans and dishes, as well as a few pieces of furniture gave the space meaning and life.
Nathalie's story, however, wasn't as neat and tidy. One day her husband left for work and never returned. She took on responsibility for raising and providing for the children. The front room became a workplace where she sewed dresses all day and long into the night. The middle room was the kitchen, while the dark back room was where the entire family slept. The austerity of the place spoke of determination.
Walking down the hall and more than 50 years ahead in time, our group entered the Baldizzi apartment -- re-created to moving day, 1935. The crowded space was a lively jumble of cans, pans, furniture and suitcases.
The time difference between the Gumpertz and Baldizzi apartments was evident in such features as the linoleum floor, electric lights, radio, gas stove and a large window that had been put in one of the interior walls following tenement reform.
Long passed around black-and-white photos of the Baldizzi family. They were provided by Josephine Baldizzi, who had lived in the apartment as a young girl. Still living in the neighborhood when the museum began restoring the building, she had stopped by one day to see if she could peek into her family's old apartment. Realizing she was a valuable historical resource, the museum staff took an oral history that was used in re-creating the 1935 apartment.
"Josephine surprised us," Long said. "One of her strongest memories of this apartment -- an apartment of the Depression -- was morning glories. To make the place more cheerful, Mr. Baldizzi grew morning glories on strings strung over the windows. To us, this was a perfect example of a "survival strategy.' "
Today, Baldizzi still walks the Lower East Side streets -- past rows of tenements that are still crammed with first-floor stores, upper-story apartments and distinctive fire escapes that zig-zag across the front of buildings like geometric pendants.
Although the gritty streets might not have changed, the people walking them have. First settlement to many of America's past immigrants, the Lower East Side is today awash in a new wave of immigrants, mostly from Latin America and Asia.
Passersby have Hispanic, Asian and European faces. Bright red signs with Chinese lettering hang beside signs in Yiddish. Latino rhythms float from buildings that were once home to German and Irish immigrants. Nowhere did the circle of life seem so powerful and obvious. Jeff Miller is a freelance writer living in Denver. If you go
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum's entrance/gallery is at 90 Orchard St. and is open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. A slide and video program at the gallery is included with a ticket for the tour of the tenement building or a ticket for the one-hour neighborhood walking tour. By itself, the slide and video program is $3 for adults.
Tours of the tenement building are offered at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; and 11 and 11:45 a.m., 12:30, 1:15, 2, 2:45, 3:30 and 4:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Cost is $8 for adults.
One-hour walking tours of the neighborhood are offered at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Cost is $8 for adults.
Cost of both the walking and tenement tours: $12 for adults.
For information: Contact the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) NYC-VISIT; Lower East Side Tenement Museum, (212) 431-0233; visit a virtual Tenement Museum at their Web site (http://www.wnet.org/tenement).
Originally published October 12, 1997