At 2 I was sitting at The Meatball Shop on Stanton. The Meatball Shop opened in 2010 and has already expanded to have 3 locations in New York. The vibe is low-key, the servers are friendly, and the menu is affordable. Best meatballs ever. We topped off lunch with an ice-cream sandwich, all made in house and yummy as heck. Jess and I walked (thank God, otherwise I would have burst) down to orchard and Delancey, window shopping as we went.
3:45 marked the beginning of our tour at the Tenement Museum. The cool thing about the museum is its interactivity and intimate tours. You choose to hear about a group’s experience, and they vary from sweatshop workers to Irish immigrants. You can do a walking tour or “meet” the immigrants, portrayed by actors. We took a tour called Irish Outsiders. On the tour,we learned about NYC in the 1860s through the story of an Irish immigrant family. The Moores had moved to the building and only stayed for a year, in 1869. They had 3 daughters, and were living in a building full of German protestants, rather than other Irish families.
The first stop on our tour was the little courtyard where the outhouses were; the wives also did the family washing there. Four stories up lived the Moores. At the time, little was understood about health and sanitation. Disease was still regarded as a punishment for sin, not a result of germs and infection. That was problematic for immigrants especially, because they were often living 8-10 people per apartment, with maybe 20 apartments per tenement, and thousands and thousands of tenements in the city. There was no such thing as street cleaning, and garbage was piled high in the streets.
Not only were health conditions poor, malnutrition was a real problem. Malnourished mothers who couldn’t breast feed their babies would turn to milk peddled on the street, which often was rotten (but sellers would add to it so that one couldn’t tell the milk was swill until much too late). The Moores lived this, and little 5-month Agnes soon fell ill and died from malnourishment and scrofula. The infant mortality rate at this time was 27%. Mrs Moore bore 8 children; only four survived past toddlerhood. Only one had her own children, and it was through these descendants that the museum procured some photos and oral history about the family. The Moores only lived in that tenement for a year.
Twenty or so years later, a family of Russian Jews has mo ed into the building, the Katz family. Now the tenement is filled mostly with Romanian and Russian Jews; Yiddish is the primary language spoken. The Katz family has 3 daughters, and although it’s not so long after the Moores had lived there, things are changing. Science had progressed far enough such that people understood the origins of disease. Instead of swill milk being sold, milk began being pasteurized and sold in chilled bottles. Children did daily hygiene checks at school. All 3 of the Katz children lived into adulthood.
What I liked so much about the tour was not only how much I learned and retained, but also how much it made me think. The public issues raised in the tour–what kind of regulation should the government be able to put on landlords, how much should be legislated in terms of garbage collection, what the role of community is in an immigrant family’s life, whether we discriminate against modern immigrants in the same way as in the past — are all still relevant today.
One thing I know for sure is that if Americans had to lug coal and water up 4 stories multiple times a day for their lives, we sure wouldn’t have an obesity problem.
If you’re ever in NYC and are interested in an informative and engaging tour, check out the Tenement Museum to see what most New Yorkers lived like in history.