New York City is one of the best places in the country to taste (quite literally) the
immigrant experience, particularly that of the great wave of newcomers who arrived in America at the turn of the last century. Prep for your trip with books such as Jane Zeigelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families In One New York Tenement, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, or Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives. Plan to start on lower Manhattan’s west side at Battery Park and work your way across lower Manhattan for an immigrant history “trifecta.”
First, board a Statue Cruises ferry (operating out of Battery Park) for a trip to Ellis Island and turn on your imagination. The Statue Cruises ferry out of Battery Park in lower Manhattan stops at Liberty Island first. From there, the boat stops at Ellis Island, then returns to New York City. You can choose to stop both places or just go to Ellis Island.
This small island in New York Harbor was originally part of the harbor defense system. Its size belies its importance in U.S. history; it was used as an immigration station from 1892 to 1954 and over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island. Its main building was restored after 30 years of abandonment and opened as a museum on September 10, 1990 under the management of the National Park Service.
It takes some effort to imagine these gigantic halls filled with people, but an array of tours, movies and exhibits fill in the picture. This is where steerage and third class passengers underwent medical and legal inspection. The day I went with my family to Ellis Island the weather took a nasty turn after we arrived. Awaiting our return ferry, the waves were crashing on shore and we felt like part of the “huddled masses,” so close, but yet so far.
The return trip to Manhattan offers a fantastic view of the city and you can imagine the excitement and trepidation new arrivals must have felt as they finally reached their destination. Yet, for many new arrivals, America wasn’t exactly the “land of milk and honey” that many anticipated. The Tenement Museum offers a glimpse of what life was like for Irish, Italian and eastern European families once they landed. It takes a little effort to get there and don’t look for a big museum a la MOMA. The office where you purchase tickets is at 108 Orchard. Then your tour group walks to the actual tenement building at 97 Orchard.
The Tenement Museum is one of my favorite places in New York City and provides a vivid contrast to today’s Fifth Avenue and Times Square. No Gilded Age J.P. Morgan opulence here. They’re not kidding; this is a real tenement. You can only see it with a tour (book ahead, the fill up). I visited “The Moores: an Irish Family in America.” I also spent quite a bit of time afterward visiting the gift shop, which ranges from literary to funky.
Part three of the immigrant tour brings a reward for your trek across Manhattan: food. Of course ethnic food abounds in New York, but for me a nibble in one of these lower east side establishments is an authentic way to cap off the tour. Katz Deli (205 East Houston) is just around the corner from the Tenement Museum. It’s one of the last of the delis that used to fill the neighborhood and was also the location of Meg Ryan’s famous “faking it” scene in When Harry Met Sally. The food is worth every artery-clogging bite.
Or try your hand at eating for some soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai (9 Pell Street). If you haven’t sampled soup dumplings, there’s an art to eating them which you can view in Joe’s rather lengthy “Kill Soup Dumpling” video. (Skim through it.)
Joe’s is in the heart of Chinatown, which has been a hub for numerous waves of immigrants in the city. This is the “Five Points” neighborhood, the setting of Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book The Gangs of New York and Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie of the same name. (I love the names of the Irish gangs of the era: the Bowery Boys, the Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, the Short Tails, the Slaughter Houses, the Swamp Angels.)
Not full enough? Loosen your borcht belt with a little Ukranian food at Veselka (144 2nd Avenue). You can rationalize all this eating with the fact that you’re gaining not only weight, but also a greater cultural perspective.