I visited the Tenement Museum a few weeks ago, and was intrigued by the stories I heard of life in New York’s Lower East Side during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now a vibrant and very trendy district, filled with expensive pre war apartments, boutique shops, art galleries and delicious eateries, from the 1850s until the mid 20th century, this area was jam packed with ramshackle houses and tenement buildings, and housed the majority of New York’s colossal immigrant population. In tiny three room apartments, many with just one window to the outside world, generations of families who had come to America from a myriad of European countries for the chance of a better life in the legendary ‘Land of Opportunity’ lived on top of one another, often desperately poor and struggling to survive in a country that was alien to them.
The Tenement Museum recreates the living environments of these immigrants, using a remarkable surviving Tenement of the 19th century, 97 Orchard Street, as its canvas. Several apartments have been furnished and decorated to represent different time periods and countries of origin of immigrants, and others have been left in the distressed state the building was found in during the 1970s. These untouched rooms are truly remarkable; layers of paint and wallpaper are peeled back, showing how each successive family chose to decorate their rooms; some put up floral paper, others dark, others light, others stripes, others patterned. It was an amazing sight to see. Sagging cupboards, sooty fireplaces, worn floorboards and etched names in woodwork showed exactly how well used these rooms were by successive generations, who moved on from these cramped, dark and inconvenient apartments as soon as they could afford something better. With a ‘dark room’ for sleeping (ie. no window, and no natural light or air from anywhere), a kitchen, again with no window, and a parlour, which possessed the only window out onto the street, the combined total space of which would easily fit into my apartment’s living room, each apartment usually housed at least six people. The dark, damp atmosphere, hot, stale air and cramped quarters were a fact of life for the immigrants who were forced to live here. What shocked me the most was that 97 Orchard Street was actually one of the nicest tenement buildings available at the time it was built, despite there being no indoor plumbing, one window per apartment and a backbreaking walk, several times a day, up three or four flights of stairs for most families as they lugged water up from the back yard to their apartments.
The stories of these families were often heartbreaking; work was scarce for many unqualified, linguistically challenged immigrants, forcing many of them to live on practically nothing. Children died frequently from contaminated milk, water and diseases easily contracted from the often knee high dirt and excrement gathered on the sidewalks. For the women, life was a constant struggle to keep the dust and dirt at bay, families fed, and children safely brought into the world, and the average life expectancy for these women in the most deprived districts of the Lower East Side in the 19th century was only around 35. Many husbands left their families, frustrated at not being able to provide for them. The ‘Land of Opportunity’ was, in reality, a land of struggle, poverty, despair and homesickness for many, and the only thing that kept these immigrants going was the kindness of their neighbours and the close ties forged between immigrants from the same countries and regions, who tended to stick together in their own distinct areas.
This link to their home countries was most strongly pronounced through the food the immigrants ate, and it is this facet of life in New York that Jane Ziegelman so vividly and fascinatingly explores in her book. Charting the stories of five families; the Irish Moores, the Glockners from Germany, the German-Jewish Gumpertz’s, the Russian-Jewish Rogarshevksys, and the Italian Baldizzis, Ziegelman explores the changing face of the Lower East Side as new waves of immigrants from varying regions appeared in the city, and brought their culinary traditions with them. In a strange city with often no family or friends to count upon, immigrants longed for a taste of home to comfort and sustain them. Backbreaking labour and cramped living conditions made life miserable for many, and the joy of a good meal like mother used to make could brighten a day and bring a smile to a weary face.
From bagels to spaghetti, pizza to doughnuts, and pretzels to pickles, immigrants changed the way America ate. As wave after wave of Italians, Germans, Russians, Irish and Jews arrived in New York, places to buy and eat their native foods sprung up across the Lower East Side, massively diversifying the cuisine on offer in the city. Used to chops and oysters, New Yorkers were amazed at the variety of the food the immigrants brought with them, spiced with flavours totally unknown and untasted, and completely delicious. It’s hard to imagine now a New York without pizza or bagels, but without the immigrant population, this would never have happened. Being able to procure and produce their culinary favourites was an essential factor in the immigrants’ quality of life, and Ziegelman perfectly and wonderfully describes the joy a Gefilte fish could bring to a Sabbath celebrating Jew, or the sustenance and comfort a fresh baked loaf of bread provided for an Italian labourer. Food was the chief expenditure and a rare source of pleasure in a difficult life for immigrants, and the ingenuity and diversity of the women who cooked within tiny apartments and those who opened restaurants and stalls to sell their wares and improve their prospects astounded me.
As a new immigrant myself, I can definitely understand this correlation between food and comfort. I have only been in America for three months, but already I miss English food. Finding a sandwich in this city, for example, is incredibly difficult. I can easily buy a panini, or a quesidilla, or a burrito, or a pressata, or a wrap, or a bagel, but a nice tuna and mayonnaise sandwich with cucumber and soft white bread that hasn’t had half a bag of sugar added to it? Impossible. A roast dinner, with bisto gravy, yorkshire pudding and my mum’s delicious roast potatoes? Not a chance. Things I took for granted at home have now become indulgent, wonderfully comforting pleasures; the hobnobs and teabags my sister sent me could be caviar and foie gras as far as I’m concerned; I’ve never so enjoyed a sit down and a cup of tea as I did last week when this parcel from heaven arrived! As much as I am loving my time in New York, having that little taste of home available to me gives me a sense of security like no other. I never knew how much food could transport me back to my little corner of England, and comfort me at moments of homesickness. I can well imagine with what joy the families Jane Ziegelman tells the stories of devoured their evening meals lovingly prepared by the women of the house, as each bite would take them back to the land and the people they loved, now so far away.
This book is an intriguing take on the history of New York and its immigrant population, and one I never thought to much look into before. It includes some lovely recipes as well, so that you can recreate the food immigrants would have eaten in your own kitchen. I’m not sure about some of them, but the dollar stretching soups might very well come in handy for me now I am a poor intern! What really brought this book to life for me though was my visit to the Tenement Museum. This is a real hidden gem and a museum you must visit if you are coming to the city. The recreated apartments tell the stories of the families in Ziegelman’s book, though the only annoying thing about the museum is that each apartment is a different tour, and you have to pay $20 for each one (I only saw one apartment, the Moore’s). Not a cheap day out! However, their website is fantastic, and you can experience it all quite well through the excellent information and photographs available online.