Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Lower East Side

I visited the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side.  I toured through a building that exhibited the history of the immigrant song.  From 1863 until 1935, 7,000 people took sojourn in the tenement building.  The walls had been adorned by 40 layers of paint. 20 layers of wallpaper and 1 layer of newspaper.

“What do these items tell us about them?” the guide asked. 
Jars of kasha; bottles of olive oil; a flyer for First Class Chinese Laundry Service.

A tenement house is defined as 3 or more unrelated families living in the same building.  Rebranded as an apartment.  And the buildings were teeming with families. 

From 1880 until 1924, 2.5 million Jews from Eastern Europe came to the U.S.  In 1898, the area was the most dense block on earth.

And the guide spoke of the Settlement Houses, a whimsical notion of the Progressive era that you could teach these new immigrants to be good Americans by teaching them English, and teaching them to cook American food, among other socialization endeavors.  Eleanor Roosevelt taught dance at the University Settlement House- that would have been something to see.

We visited the apartment of Harris and Jenny Levin and their four kids.  The three-room apartment also doubled as the tailor’s shop. 

Looking at the 1904 census form, I asked the guide what Harris and Jenny Levin’s real names were, because Harris was definitely not his given name.  She didn’t know.

But looking at the 1896 census form, I made my own hypothesis.  The tailor shop of Harry Levin.  So Harris was Harry, and Harry was likely Herschel.
  
We visited another apartment of a later era.  The Reshefskys.  And we heard of the Reshefky girls who worked in a garment factory. 

In 1909, there was the Uprising of the 20,000.  I came to find that many of the labor strikes and the labor movement was organized by women.  This particular strike was based on the audacity to ask for a 56 hour work week, for the ability to not have to pay to work (ie renting your chair at the factory); for the right to organize.
The strike was only marginally successful   Only 1 of 7 factories agreed to the right to unionize, and none agreed to the French demands for lax working hours.
But the following year was the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and things changed.  That event led to new regulations, and the acceptance of the 56 hour work week, as well as better fire safety codes.

Today, the Lower East Side remains a haven for new immigrants.  Immigrants from Latin America and Southeast Asia are today what the Jews, Germans and Italians once were.  47 percent of the area are immigrants.

In the bookshop, I found a book on Evelyn Nesbit.  Crime of the Century.  By her 16th birthday in 1900, she was already the most photographed woman of her era.  And she was a beaut.  I had never actually seen her before.  I would kill Harry (K. Thaw) for her.

And there is Chinatown.  And in Chinatown, I get Chinese massages.  I was debating between a foot massage and a body massage, but since I am a regular at one particular parlor, they let me get both.  30 minutes foot massage, 40 minutes body massage (extra bonus for loyalty).  The masseuse was named Helen, and she had given me both a foot and body massage over the last two weeks.  Our game is English/Chinese lessons.  She massages my extremities, and we trade words in Chinese and English.  The staff laughs at my Chinese, but smiles at it.  My favorite word is wy she ma, why?  I use that word a lot.

After the kneading of my body, I ducked into Chinatown for a plate of rice noodles with peanut sauce and slivers of scallions.  For dessert, I grabbed a taro bun, and stopped in for some bubble tea (the girls at the counter laughed at my ordering the drink in Mandarin) and a water chestnut jelly square.  I sat in the top of the cafe, the only weilo gringo to be found.  A cute Chinese grandma bantered with me in Chinese as I left, laughing that I could drop a lil Mandarin.

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