Today began with a walking tour of China Town, beginning in the former slum of Five Points, which was where three streets intersected.   This area had been called the “foulest slum” and by 1829, blacks, whites, drunks, and prostitutes roamed the area of Five Points.  The worst block was torn down and a park put in its stead (above photo) This park and others were put into neighborhoods so that the lower classes would have a place to socialize and recreate.  Central Park was a fair distance away and had too many “rule” – people could not take off their shirts, play a game of soccer, or get rowdy and boisterous.  Lots of artifacts that had been found in the area were being examined at the World Trade Center and all were destroyed in 2001.  In the 1840’s, Charles Dickens toured this area and it was the backdrop for his book, “American Notes”.  Jacob Riis brought the plight of the immigrant neighborhoods to the light of higher society with his photography of the people, buildings, and the living/working conditions of the immigrants.  Riis said that “Disease is being sewn into the linings of our jackets.”

Katz Deli was where we dined for lunch.  The ambience was quaint.  There were men behind the counter who custom-made the sandwiches.  Your order was taken on antiquated but quaint yellow tickets.  I thought $15 – 17 for a sandwich was on the pricey side, but the food was delicious.  We also got homemade pickles, and if you knew to ask, pickled tomatoes.  The volume of people the deli could cycle through was amazing.  I would recommend this stop for anyone visiting the Lower East Side, as well as a meal in China Town.

The tour of the tenement museum was very fascinating, as the building was built in 1863 and had rooms that were basically preserved, dating back to 1935.  The Tenement Act passed in 1906 that required upgrading buildings for safety concerns but the world-wide depression of the 1030’s saw a decrease in immigration, and the cost of bringing buildings up to code was not cost effective. Seeing how people and families lived in such places was sadly amazing.  The density of the neighborhoods in their heyday must have been immense, busy, nonstop, and very hot or cold depending on the season.  Prior to 1900, families averaged six members while post 1900, the number jumped to 10-12 people living in 325 square feet, comprised of a bedroom, kitchen, and living room.  Electricity did not come to the Lower East Side until 1925, while Wall Street had electricity in 1882.  Water and outhouses were outside of each building until 1905, when indoor water and toilets were put into the tenements, with two toilets located on each of the five floors.  In today’s market, those 325 square feet would rent for approximately $2,000 a month.  The lower an apartment is, the more expensive the rent, while the more stairs to climb, the cheaper the rent.

The Garment District started in the Lower East Side, with its height of operation from 1890-1910.  Entire families would work on orders for the department stores in NYC.  The Civil War brought about the mass production of sizing in small, medium, large, and extra large.  This also saw the decline of custom made clothes and the advent of mass produced clothing for men, women, and children.  “Sweating the system” was a term that meant the pressure came from the top of the business chain, downwards to the workers, in keeping costs low and production high.

The website for the Tenement Museum offers a great array of resources for the classroom.  There is a virtual tour, lesson plans, primary sources, and photographs.  This will be invaluable for teaching about immigration and reform issues. I cannot wait to begin reading some of the books I bought about the tenements and immigration, as I weave them into lessons for my students.

After the Tenement Museum tour, rain came down, the only day I did not carry my raincoat.  By the end of the afternoon, I was frazzled from avoiding umbrellas that were at the perfect height for running into my eyes and face.  Being wet did not bother me, but dodging the umbrellas caused stress.  I did notice that the use of umbrellas gave people more of their own “space bubble” for being in such crowded environments.  Overall, I found this day to be one of the most interesting, as we walked through neighborhoods and got to see the ethnic layering that had been going on for almost 200 years, and that is still happening today.  The areas we went to gave me first hand information, sights, and sounds to bring back into my classroom.

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