A New York City museum of everyday life

By Caitlin Kelly

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If you’ve never been to New York City, you’ve still probably heard of the Met Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. Maybe the Guggenheim.

If you’re planning a visit, I urge you to visit one that will forever change your perception of the city, and of the early immigrant experience in the U.S. — the Tenement Museum.

It is simply extraordinary, in telling the true stories of the lives of early immigrants to New York City, who lived in these two narrow buildings on Orchard Street, on the Lower East Side at the start of the 20th century.

It’s also extremely popular, with tickets selling out months in advance. 

I visited it years ago, and never forgot it. This week I was lucky enough to be able to have a quick group tour in the evening and it left me, once more, deeply moved.

I can’t show you any images as photography is not allowed.

You climb steep metal stairs into a brick building, constructed in 1863, and step into a narrow dark hallway with battered metal mailboxes set into the wall on the left-hand side.

The building stood empty from 1935 to 1988, so you’re stepping into a time capsule. The walls are cracked and the front wooden doors to each apartment still have their original panes of glass above them.

Inset into the front hallway walls are large oval paintings and bas-relief curlicues, attempts at elegance.

The steep stairs to the second floor have pressed metal treads and the banister is thick, smooth dark wood. A narrow hallway there offers one tiny public room containing a toilet — shared by all occupants of the floor’s four apartments.

We visited one apartment that had belonged to an Italian family, and which contained some of their personal belongings: a lace dresser scarf, photos, other objects.

It’s a stunning reminder what life was life for these newcomers, who left their hometowns and villages and cities many miles behind them, mostly from Europe.

They might have once enjoyed gorgeous, sweeping sunlit views of woods and farmland and fields and mountains — and now their two front windows faced east over a grimy, noisy, narrow city street lined with brick buildings in an unfamiliar city in a new country.

The apartments are very small: a front room with two windows; a middle room with a deep sink, a minuscule bathtub and a coal stove, with a window between the front room and kitchen to allow light to penetrate, and a small rear room.

The total square footage? Maybe 250 square feet, a space that held, at least, two adults and children, maybe more. (This is the size of my suburban New York living room, for context.)

No closets.

No telephone.

No privacy.

No silence.

No outdoor space beyond the steps — aka the stoop.

Thanks to simple, thin cotton curtains and other objects, the rooms feel as though their occupants have simply stepped out for a while — kitchen cupboards full, a checkers game on the kitchen table with its colored tablecloth, a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on one wall.

It’s also a so different from the exquisite, costly objects on display in most museums, remnants mostly of the wealthiest lives and their rarified tastes. This is a museum of real life, as everyday working New Yorkers lived it.

The flooring is weathered linoleum designed to look like woven textiles and beneath that you can see weathered wooden floorboards.

To stand in that space is to feel intimately and viscerally what it must have been to leave everything behind except your hopes.

Three Manhattan streets, three different worlds

By Caitlin Kelly

Manhattan, an island 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles at its widest, contains — as American poet Walt Whitman wrote in 1855 in another context — multitudes.

English: Grand Central terminal in New York, N...
English: Grand Central terminal in New York, NY Français : Vue extérieure nocturne de la gare Grand Central Terminal sur l’ile de Manhattan, à New-York (États Unis d’Amérique). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I visited three of them this week.

Midtown/49th Street:

Anchored by several iconic buildings — the New York Public Library, Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building — this is a neighborhood devoted to sober-suited commerce. GCT, opened Feb. 2 1913, is the commuters’ cathedral, thronged daily by thousands of workers streaming in on Metr0-North Railroad from the northern and eastern suburbs of Westchester, (including my husband, Jose), and Connecticut.

The station — which every tourist must see! — is a magnificent bit of Beaux Arts design, with enormous gleaming metal chandeliers, marble stairs and the famous central information booth topped with a clock.

Grand Central Terminal (Manhattan)
Grand Central Terminal (Manhattan) (Photo credit: Nouhailler)

The ceiling is a stunning peacock turquoise, studded with tiny lights and painted with gold constellations.

English: The ceiling of the Grand Central Term...
English: The ceiling of the Grand Central Terminal in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This time of year, it also contains an indoor holiday market, whose vendors are carefully vetted and chosen. I look forward to it every year, and have gotten (and received) terrific, budget-friendly gifts from them.

New Yorker Chrysler Building, oberer Gebäudete...
New Yorker Chrysler Building, oberer Gebäudeteil, vom östlichen Teil der 42. Straße aus gesehen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walk up Madison Avenue and it still feels like the 1940s, as you pass every possible iteration of elegant male garb: Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart, J. Press, Mens Wearhouse, Pink shirts, Alden shoes.

I love Brooks Brothers, and have been shopping there since my early 20s when I’d fly in from Toronto and stock up on their cotton shirts. It has  the prettiest ladies’ room I’ve ever seen. Paul Stuart clothing is mostly for the wealthy/creative crowd — network television producers or the heads of ad agencies, but it is spectacular, with shoes like these men’s bitter chocolate suede loafers ($625) or these wool socks, in 10 terrific colors, for $44.50.

A picture of a display in Brooks Brothers
A picture of a display in Brooks Brothers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those few blocks have changed dramatically, not in outward appearance, but in their inhabitants — I once worked for the magazine in what was then the Newsweek building, a venerable magazine now dead. The headquarters of Conde Nast publishing were at 350 Madison when I first met editors there; now in their own building at 4 Times Square, they will move downtown to the newly-finished Freedom Tower, (built to replace the Twin Towers destroyed on 9/11.)

This is a part of town where the powerful meet one another in their private clubs, these few blocks a tightly-knit world of wealth, power and restricted access.  Those open only to graduates of Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Cornell all lie within steps of each other.  The Harvard club spans an entire city block, north to south. Step inside its doors (if you dare!) and you’ll viscerally understand the meaning of entitlement.

But walk along West 44th. Street to marvel at the windows of the New York Yacht Club, which resemble the rear windows of a galleon.

Two landmarks face one another at 49th and Fifth Avenue — St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Saks Fifth Avenue. Saks’ shoe department even has its own zip code, and offers a dizzying array of high-priced footwear. One pair of gem-encrusted, six-inch stilettos by Louboutin were offered at $3,200. The people-watching is great, from Russian oligarchs picking up multiple bags-full to the bare-legged beauty in her leopard coat and Gucci heels.

Uptown/70th. Street

The Upper East Side is a sphere of unapologetic wealth, law firm partners who use “summer” as a verb, (on Nantucket, the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard or Rhode Island,) of gleaming black Escalades ferrying hedge funders south to Wall Street and their quiet blond children to private school and their size 2 mothers to yoga or a hair appointment.

The streets are quiet, clean, manicured, filled with elegant townhouses, including that of soon to be ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg, at 17 E. 79th.

My former school, The New York School of Interior Design, is on 70th. street, and Neil’s Coffee Shop, 50 years old, sits at the corner of 70th and Lex, a great place for a burger or a cup of coffee in a classic china cup.

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I loved NYSID. Classes were small, mostly female and the rigor of studying interior design seriously was sobering indeed. We had to memorize every floor, wall and furniture style from ancient Egypt to 1900 for a class called Historical Styles. (We, of course, nicknamed it Hysterical Styles, as we struggled to remember the difference between a cassone and a bergere.)

I whiled away a sunny afternoon among the one-per-centers — the woman calling Fed Ex to price the cost of overnight shipping her workout gear from San Francisco, the bright blond in a black mink shawl with a too-tightly-stretched face, the father and son carrying lacrosse sticks into their $114,000 Mercedes SUV, the weary sigh of a woman waiting a second too long for the valet to bring around her car.

I stopped into Creel & Gow, which sells quite extraordinary objects — like this diorama of a walrus.

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Love this description of the UES, from the blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York:

One of the things I like about the Upper East Side is that it remains so much itself. It’s not trying to be another neighborhood and it’s not trying to be cool. It’s filled with all kinds of tacky, expensive shops, and none of them are ironic. The rich people there, walking around in full-length furs, look like New Yorkers, and not like Europeans or Midwesterners trying to look like Europeans in New York.

There are also lots and lots of ancient white ladies toddling around, complaining about life, with their hands heavy with diamonds and their eyelids painted pink. They have great faces, and you can watch them go by from the window at Neil’s.

Essex Street

This is where it all began, where wave after wave of European immigrants landed in the narrow streets and crowded tenements of the Lower East Side.

Graffiti, Lower East Side, NYC
Graffiti, Lower East Side, NYC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, the LES is hipsterville, dotted with places like Babycakes, which sells vegan, gluten-free cupcakes, cookies and madeleines (made beneath the original pressed-tin ceiling) or candle-lit restaurant Dudley’s, where I perched at a curved marble-topped bar and enjoyed a tart cocktail made by a handsome red-haired bar-tender from small-town Ohio. There is even a small hotel here, The Blue Moon.

But come here for one of the city’s most moving recreations of urban life, the Tenement Museum, which powerfully explains the daily experience of the immigrants who lived here at the turn of the 19th. century.

Now that the temperature here has plummeted, the connective tissue between these disparate worlds — the status-agnostic subways and buses — is filling up with the homeless, of which New York has a shocking 50,000. They sit with their cardboard signs, pleading silently or asking out loud, apologizing or not.

In the eight years that billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg — who often weekended in the Caribbean — was in power, the number of homeless New Yorkers rose by 65 percent; 21,000 children slept in shelters in January 2013, a new and sorry record.

It has become, increasingly, a city divided.

Timbits and Poutine (Canadian food, eh?) Invade Manhattan

Canadian hockey legend Tim Horton, namesake for the donut chain
Canadian hockey legend Tim Horton, namesake for the donut chain

No, they’re not from outer space, just from north of the border, aka Canada, aka my home and native land. And, of course, they’re named after a revered hockey player who died at 44 in a car accident.

They’re small, sugary, fatty, basically really bad for you on about 28,744 levels. Timbits are as much a part of Canadian junk food vernacular and culture as a Big Mac or KFC  are for millions of devoted Americans. They’re donuts without a hole, although Tim Hortons (no, there’s no apostrophe and I have no idea why) also sells regular donuts as well. The chain has 3,400 locations, with 500 in the U.S., and until now, if you lived in New York and really wanted a Tim Hortons, you’d have to travel all the way up to Meriden, CT to get one. Now they’re taking over 13 locations in Manhattan that used to be Dunkin Donuts.

As for poutine (not pronounced like the Russian president but like routine, and if is already part of yours my question is why?), it’s French fries and cheese curds drenched in gravy,  gummy, glutinous diner food. Why anyone would choose to eat it, let alone devote a restaurant to it, is a profound mystery to me. A new eatery featuring this Quebecois obsession that has spread nationwide since it was invented in the 1950s, is due to open this week on Ludlow Street, on the Lower East Side.

Is this really what hungry hipsters crave on a hot summer’s evening?