Tag Archives: Tenement Museum

An Immigrant Tour of Lower Manhattan: Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Reading– Part 2

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.

Great Gifts for Literary Travelers: From the Material to the Ethereal

The hottest gift for anyone who reads this year is an e-reader, be it Kindle, nook, iPad or others.  I’ll never give up printed books completely, but I’m sure to succumb to an electronic version for a lot of reasons.  If you travel a lot, you can load up on books to take with you without needing an extra suitcase to carry them all. An electronic reader is an even greater benefit if you travel to places where books in English are few and far between.  I’m leaning toward that new color version of the nook at Barnes & Noble, partly because that nice nook sales person greets me so enthusiastically every time I go to Barnes & Noble, which is a lot.

Yet, there’s a huge array of alternative and less expensive gifts for your favorite reader/traveler. At the other end of the spectrum from e-readers, Levenger.com offers a wonderful array of, as they say, “Tools for Serious Readers.” They have a great assortment of bookends. I’m particularly partial to the Winston Churchill Pig bookend inscribed with his quote:
“I like pigs: cats look down on human beings, dogs look up to them, but pigs just treat us as their equals.”

A tenement isn’t the first place you think of for buying Christmas gifts, but I got an “I Read Banned Books” bracelet at the Tenement Museum in New York City a while back and every reader I know comments on it. Also, declaring that I read banned books makes me feel like a rebel.

A lot of stores are selling really cute Kate Spade “Library Books” and “World Traveler” mugs.  You can find them online or at Macy’s, Bloomingdales and other places. Pop that together with a pound of coffee or some fancy tea and your “giftee” can settle in for a good read.

Magellan’s.com has a huge array of gadgets, gear and clothing for travelers.   Check out the book 1,000 Places to Go Before You Die and its accompanying travel journal.  Or, conversely, 100 Places Not to Go Before You Die.

Finally, if your goal is a gift for the greater good, give a copy of a book paired with a donation, for example Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn’s book  Half the Sky with a donation to one of the many charities on the Half the Sky Movement Web site.

Bundle a book about Haiti such as Isabelle Allende’s novel Island Beneath the Sea or Tracy Kidder’s non-fiction Mountains Beyond Mountains about Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti with a contribution to Farmer’s organization, Partners in Health. Or, Dr. Greg Mortinson’s book Three Cups of Tea (a lot of book club people have already read this) or his newer book Stones into Schools pairs well with a donation to his non-profit foundation, the Central Asia Institute.  He also has a children’s book called Listen to the Wind. Take a look at the video about the latter book and his work in Afghanistan.