My first day was a whirlwind of meeting New York City head on. I stored my luggage at the front desk of the hotel and took off down Madison Avenue heading for the Lower East Side and the Tenement Museum. The traffic, the noise, the people and general commotion of a large city made it easy for me to hide in the middle of it all. I wasn’t afraid but there was some apprehension about getting lost in the maze of unfamiliar streets. Even though I had addresses of what I was looking for on Google Maps, I still got lost several times every day. That wasn’t a completely bad thing, though, because every time I got lost I discovered wonderful bits of the city.
The nearly 3 mile walk to the Tenement Museum took almost two hours. I stopped every couple of blocks to look in storefronts or down open cellar doors to watch the activity going on. I picked up lunch along the way and decided to stop in Union Square Park to eat and people watch. This park is about three blocks long and one block wide, not huge but big enough for a couple thousand people to be there playing, walking, sitting, talking, eating, and just hanging out. It was crowded and busy and an interesting spot to people-watch. The first thing I had to do was decide where I wanted to sit and rest. Along the Park Avenue side there were lots of benches, many with open seating. I didn’t feel comfortable stopping there, though. I noticed it was men who had claimed those seats. No particular age group or ethnicity, just all men. It made me think about one of my readings last week that studied how interactions happen in public spaces and how groups tend to congregate in “their spot” every time they visit any space where they claim ownership. I didn’t want to seem like I was trying in invade anyone’s spot even though I had no way of knowing if this was indeed “their spot” or not. So, on I went until I saw a woman about my age sitting along a wall facing a wide walkway. I sat down a couple of feet away from her and started to eat my lunch. The wall wasn’t very comfortable but did give me a sense of safety in that there was someone else, very similar to me in that she was a middle-aged woman, resting in a patch of bright sunlight. It was very interesting to witness what I have been studying play out in this park with groups naturally segregating themselves into like-minded clusters and me walking until I found a spot next to someone I felt a possible bond with, even though we never spoke or acknowledged that the other was there.
So, on I walked to the corner of Delancey and Orchard Streets and into the Tenement Museum. This museum is a fascinating study of life in the Lower East Side from 1863-1935. 97 Orchard Street housed a storefront business in the lowest floor with 20 apartments above, four on each of five floors, two forward and two in the back. There were four privies and one water spigot in the courtyard behind the building. Each apartment had three rooms: a bedroom, kitchen, and parlor for a total of about 350 square feet. In the 70 years this particular building housed families, there had been over 7000 people who had called it home. The tours are an intriguing look into family and community life in the most densely populated neighborhood in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. The people who lived there were dependent upon their community for survival as many had left their extended families behind in their home countries. They were dependent on community to find familiar language and customs, to ease the feelings of loss of their homeland, and to have people with which to create new familial bonds. The neighborhood changed and adapted over the years as waves of new immigrants came to New York. What started as a mostly German enclave next became home to Eastern European Jewish families and then home to Italian immigrants.
I took three tours, two in the 97 Orchard Street building and the last called “Tenement Tastings” which was an eight course tasting menu of traditional ethnic foods that could be found in the Lower East Side. After a long day of travel, walking, and touring I was exhausted by the end of the meal. It was then that I had the great luck of meeting my first official NYC friends. They were three sisters and the mom, all talking at once, laughing, eye-rolling, teasing, and sharing the meal. They reminded me so much of evenings out with my daughters, it was fun to watch them and wonder what people thought about us when we were out. I asked them for help finding the subway back to my hotel. I told them I knew there was a train somewhere near but was completely lost as to finding it and purchasing a ticket. The oldest daughter immediately said I could ride back with her as she was going to take the exact train I needed. The rest of the family agreed that I should come along and so I did. There I was, a newcomer in Manhattan, taken in by this lovely family who helped me find the station, purchase my ticket, and taught me how to navigate the subway system. We were together for only about thirty minutes but in that short time we compared the price of rent and groceries where we lived, shared stories about our travel and families, and found similarities among ourselves even though we live very different lifestyles. We parted ways at 42nd and Madison with smiles and handshakes and wishes to have a good night. They are a lovely family and I hope they will check in on this site. I have a terrible memory so wrote down their names then promptly lost track of the paper I wrote them on. Here is their picture. They gave me the best welcome I’ve ever had and I hope I will meet them again someday. What a coincidence that the sisters lined up in age order just like mine do.