Sunday, September 26, 2010

97 Orchard Street

You have to admit, there is an element of obscured "nosiness" inherent to all anthropologists and archaeologists. Perhaps we're more comfortable with "inquisitive" and "empirical," but we are, in some sense, prying into the lives and private spaces (once upon a time) of which are not our own.

At least, that's how it felt (for a nano-second, maybe two) walking into the partially restored tenements at 97 Orchard Street.

(From Left: Present day, 97 Orchard Street tenement beside parked car; Photo of Orchard St. tenements by Tenement Museum ca. 1930s)

Just this past Wednesday afternoon, I was strolling through the Lower East Side, making my way west toward Little Italy to meet with family for the San Gennaro festival. With a couple of hours to spare, it seemed like a good time to finally check out the Tenement Museum, which holds various walking tours of restored tenements that housed thousands of immigrant families from 1863 until 1935 when they were abandoned due to "unsustainable conditions" (undoubtedly an effect of the Great Depression). (Museum Pamphlet)

Knowing how small and tall present-day apartments are in the densely populated City of New York, even for the wealthiest of residents, I was anxious to see how (and how many) early struggling immigrant families settled themselves into such confined spaces. So, I picked the longest, in-depth tour the museum had to offer - the 2 p.m. 2 hour "Getting By: Immigrants Weathering Hard Times" tour. It focused on the interiors of three tenement apartments of 97 Orchard St., which were formerly occupied by the Gumpertz (1874) of German-Jewish descent, the Baldizzi (1935) of Italian-Catholic descent, and a third apartment which excited me in an unexpected way (more on that later).
Upon entry of 97 Orchard St., the year is 1863, and we are greeted by a long, narrow and windowless corridor, staircase to the right. The only source of light available is the pale daylight peeking in through the transom window above the front door. Outside, around the back of the building are the latrines (right photo), shared among six families residing in this tenement. No indoor plumbing. Water was retrieved from a pump near the latrines and carried up in pails to the apartments.

Tenement 1: The Gumpertz

Up one flight of stairs, we enter the Gumpertz' (see pictures below). The year is 1870, the tenement door opens into the kitchen followed by the parlor (the only room with widows). Flanking the other side of the kitchen is a small bedroom where Mr. and Mrs Gumpertz, along with their 3 children, sleep. As to be expected, each living space has been transformed to serve multiple functions. The parlor became a workspace (not entirely unfamiliar if you work from home, right?) for Mrs. Gumpertz who worked as a seamstress - various garments and fabrics are strewn across the floor, nailed to the walls and folded on shelves. In the kitchen, above the iron stove, is a makeshift clothesline for hanging the wash. The stove is both an appliance for cooking, heating the house, and for ironing clothes. Efficiency is key in the city, so when one of 4 or 5 small (heavy) irons cools, Mrs. Gumpertz simply grabs the next. (See Gumpertz kitchen and parlor below.)

Gumpertz Kitchen at 97 Orchard Street The Gumpertz Parlor in the Tenement Museum

Am I the only one thinking that the size and setup isn't all that bad for poverty? I couldn't help but feel a little left wanting on the material culture front. What were their sources for these reconstructions? Where those jugs imports sold in NYC, or brought over by the Gumpertz? Why must the aspiring archaeologist in me have Skepticism sitting on one shoulder and Relief on the other? (Oh, if C.S. Peirce could see me now. If it was really 1874, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibilities and he hasn't published The Fixation of Belief yet!) On the other hand, the tour guide gave us information on what would otherwise be unrepresented in this built environment - drama, emotions and Mrs. Gumpertz frantic search for her missing husband as implied through historical census records, diaries and missives. According to our guide, missing persons is not uncommon at this time, whether by shanghaiing, suicide, hate crimes or simply running away among other possibilities.

Tenement 2: The Baldizzi

Baldizzi Kitchen The Baldizzi Kitchen and Parlor in the Tenement Museum Baldizzi family apartment at 97 Orchard Street
(Clockwise: Kitchen view 1; Kitchen view 2; Parlor with photo of FDR by mirror)

Moving on with the tour, jumping ahead to 1935, we enter the Baldizzi tenement across the hall. (It was the first time I've ever seen linoleum rugs! I embarrassed myself asking if they were mere representations of what would have been there. Oh, the dangers of interpretation.) Slightly better conditions. They had electricity, running water and even a radio to listen to Italian operas and FDR's Fireside Chats (see photo and video below). Like the Gumpertz, the kitchen served multiple functions. The Baldizzis, cooked, bathed, ate, played games and listened to the radio in the kitchen. The tub, adjacent to sink was covered by a lid on which was used as counter space.
(Radio photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society)

I strangely felt more at ease in this tenement. It looked more "lived-in" and the reconstruction was informed by the late Josephine Baldizzi who lived here as a girl. She directed the museum to "move the dresser here," "we had [portrait] FDR hanging there," and donated a lot of her families old possessions, like old photographs, candles, a packed suitcase and her father's tool box (he was a carpenter by trade) among other items.

It was particularly interesting to see what was hanging on the parlor walls of the Baldizzis. Being an Italian-Catholic family, the Baldizzis had religious prints of Mother Mary and Jesus hanging on one wall (this triggered a memory of similar portraits hung in my grandmother's bedroom), and on the opposite wall hung a small black and white print of Franklin D. Roosevelt. I'm not sure you would find the portraits of current Presidents hanging on the walls of contemporary homes (maybe a magnet of President Obama on the fridge next to your little brother's school drawing?). While our current financial crisis is described by economists as the worst since the Great Depression, what does this say about the place of important political figures in our daily lives? Television and youtube videos of the President's weekly address may have something to do with the absence of such portraits in our private spaces, or it does it?

And finally...

The Ruin Apartment in the Tenement MuseumWallpaper Layers, upper floors

The most comfortable spot in the tenement. Empty. Minimally touched. Dusty and several layers of peeling paint. Familiar. How backward is that? The tour guide noticed the gleam from my eyes and said, "Now this is home for you, isn't it?" Earlier introductions and architectural/material related questions revealed the shovel bum in me.

In a country built on immigration, this one tour of one tenement in a small section of the Lower East Side of Manhattan was a microcosm within a microcosm, within a microcosm. It brought together 6 strangers of various ethnic backgrounds, occupations, and frames of mind (and objectives) into one urban, built environment with over half a century's worth of immigrant occupation, which presently stands as one of many cultural channels around New York City.

Left: Our tour guide, Jason, and a tourist from Italy, Elena. Standing outside of Museum shop, 108 Orchard St. Tenements across the street.
The tour group I was with definitely made this an interesting experience. There were only six of us (normally 15), two couples, the tour guide and myself. One couple, Enrique and Elena, were tourists from northern Italy, and the other couple, Steve and Silvia, had great-great aunts and uncles that immigrated to NYC from Sicily around the same time as the Baldizzi family. So, while my interests were archaeological in nature, I was able to hear and see Steve, Silvia, Enrique and Elena connect with Italian-American immigrant history - mapping this experience along parallel axes, the tangible and the intangible, the material and the psycho-social, the archaeologist and the NYC tourist.



gec2112 said...

Wow April, really interesting post. I never knew that such a museum existed, and I'd love to check it out myself sometime. Really interesting, also, is the way you presented it, and the way the museum presents the layers of habitation in this building over time. Thanks for posting!

- Glenda

Gigs and Digs said...

A couple of months after I wrote this post, I volunteered some time at a retirement home and I ended up having a conversation with a gentleman, Frank, who recounted part of his childhood in the Lower East Side.

In the 1930s and 40s there used to be a lot of prejudice against Italian immigrants, and the Tenement Museum exhibited the "Italians need not apply" signs. Frank, in one of his stories, quoted that exact sign and when he did I immediately thought of this tour, and history never felt more real for me than at that moment. I'll never forget his tone of voice when he was telling his story, too.

If only we, as archaeologists, could dig this stuff up.