Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.
– Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States
Our seventh full day in New York marked the end of our family vacation. David and the kids were going to leave the next morning, while Heidi and I stayed for the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) 2016 Biennial Conference at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Midtown Manhattan. We made our last day memorable and full. Before we left the Bay Area for vacation, David’s boss recommended going to the Tenement Museum, if we enjoyed learning about local history and immigrants. We had never heard of it, but our interest was piqued, so we added the museum to our growing list of places to see.
Talk of New York City tenements and immigrant sweatshop workers led me to recall a poem written in 1989 by poet and activist Safiya Henderson-Holmes, who grew up in the Bronx and lived in Harlem at one time. She recited it at a welcome reception for her after she had accepted a position as assistant professor in Syracuse University’s Creative Writing Program in the spring of 1990, which was my last semester there. Her poem, rituals of spring (for the 78th anniversary of the shirtwaist factory fire), introduced me to the March 25, 1911, Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire, which killed 145 sweatshop workers, most of whom were immigrant teenage girls who didn’t speak English. The tragedy lies in the fact that their deaths were preventable, given that no sprinkler system was installed, the fire hose was rotted and its valve rusted shut, and the girls were denied evacuation by locked doors, a difficult-to-access fire escape, and a single elevator that eventually broke down. With the heat and flames upon them, many girls plunged down the elevator shaft to their death. Those who took the stairwell found the door locked and were burned alive. Still others jumped to their death from the windows. The fire, which occurred on the top three floors of the Asch Building on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, near Washington Square Park, galvanized advocates to successfully fight for legislation to protect workers.
rituals of spring is too long to include here in its entirety, but I do want to entice you to read the whole poem by sharing the first five stanzas of this heart-achingly beautiful and poem. An aside, I was greatly saddened to discover that Henderson-Holmes was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999 and died at the age of 50 on April 8, 2001.
rituals of spring
(for the 78th anniversary of the shirtwaist factory fire)
from bareness to fullness flowers do bloom
whenever, however spring enters a room
oh, whenever, however spring enters a room
march 25th, 1911
at the triangle shirtwaist factory
a fire claimed the lives of 146 people, mostly women,
mostly children in the plume of their lives,
in the room of their lives
begging for spring, toiling and begging for spring
and in my head
as I read the history, afraid to touch the pictures
i imagine the room, i imagine the women
dressed in pale blues and pinks,
some without heads or arms – sitting
some without legs or waist – hovering
hundreds of flowering girls tucking spring into sleeves,
tucking and tugging at spring to stay alive
and so a shirtwaist for spring
a dress with a mannish collar, blousing over breast,
blousing over sweat, tapering to fit a female waist,
tapering to fit a female breath
sheer silk, cotton, linen
hand done pleats, hands done in by pleats
hands done in by darts and lace
colors of spring
pale blues, pale pinks, yellows, magentas, lavender, peach,
The Tenement Museum: immigrant stories come alive
With that poem in my head, I looked forward to going to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (103 Orchard Street, 212.982.8420), the destination of which was a healthy walk from our apartment. Aside from the walking tours of the immediate neighborhood, all tours are within 97 Orchard Street, a tenement apartment building erected in 1863 and home to nearly 7,000 working-class immigrants. Ruth Abram, local historian and social activist, wanted to establish a museum that honors America’s immigrants by preserving and interpreting “the history of immigration through the personal experiences of the generations of newcomers who settled in and built lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, America’s iconic immigrant neighborhood.” Abram and co-founder Anita Jacobson discovered 97 Orchard Street, which had been shuttered for more than 50 years and subsequently abandoned in the 1960s. They deemed it to be the ideal building for their museum because its interior resembled a “little time capsule,” with many artifacts left as is, “as though people had just picked up and left,” Jacobson recalled.
It took years to restore the apartments and dig through archives to create an accurate depiction of tenement life. Established in 1988, the Museum, a designated National Historic Site, opened its first restored apartment – the 1878 home of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family – in 1992. Thus far, the Museum has restored six apartments, the newest being the home of the Moores, Irish immigrants who resided there in 1869. In 2007, the Museum acquired 103 Orchard Street, which serves as the flagship building for the Visitors Center, exhibitions, classrooms, and small theater that airs documentaries.
The Tenement Museum offers five different tours with extremely knowledgeable docents. The Sweatshop Workers tour, which we signed up for, visits the Levine family’s garment workshop and the Rogarshevskys’ Sabbath table at the turn of the 20th century. The Shop Life tour highlights the 1870s German saloon of John and Caroline Schneider, and is accompanied by interactive media to bring to life stories of turn-of-the-century kosher butchers, a 1930s auctioneer, and 1970s undergarment discounters. The Hard Times tour paints a picture of how immigrants dealt with economic depressions between 1863 and 1935 by showing the restored homes of the Gumpertz family, whose patriarch disappeared during the Panic of 1873, and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family, who lived through the Great Depression. The Irish Outsiders tour introduces the Moore family. An extended tour of Hard Times includes a longer visit of the Gumpertz and Baldizzi apartments and discussion on various immigrant themes.
I’m not sure how excited the kids were about the historical tour and the museum – we also saw an excellent documentary about the immigrants into Little Italy and surrounding neighborhoods – but David, Heidi, and I appreciated the focus on immigration, which is still relevant today and elicits strong feelings in our country and around the world. With civil wars creating a spike in mass immigration, we ought to gain a greater understanding and lessons learned from what happened more than 100 years ago in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The United Nations: doing good in the world
After lunch, we also took a tour of the United Nations Headquarters (46th Street and 1st Avenue, along the East River). Once you clear security, you can conduct your own exploration, but we opted for a guided tour to gain more knowledge about the UN. We were lucky in that the iconic buildings, which were designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1952, were not too crowded and our tour group was a manageable size. The buildings comprise the newly renovated General Assembly Hall, Security Council Chamber, Trusteeship Council Chamber, and Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Chamber in the renovated Conference Building.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt first coined the concept “United Nations” in the Declaration by United Nations of 1 January 1942, during World War II, when 26 nations pledged to band together to fight against the Axis Powers. On June 26, 1945, after representatives from 50 countries met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization, the United Nations Charter was signed. United Nations Day is celebrated on October 24th every year, honoring the day in 1945 that the Charter was ratified and the United Nations officially came into existence.
According to the UN charter, the organization is tasked with five missions: maintain international peace and security through the prevention of conflict, assistance to parties in conflict to make peace, peacekeeping, and the creation of conditions to allow peace to hold and flourish; promote sustainable development by developing and engaging in programs that offer prosperity and economic opportunity, greater social well-being, and environmental protection; protect human rights through legal instruments and activities in the field; uphold international law by establishing “conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained”; and finally, deliver humanitarian aid through the coordination of humanitarian relief operations in areas of need where national governments cannot cope on their own.
As a child I had seen pictures of the United Nations Headquarters – its row of country flags unfurling and its two more famous iconic buildings, the domino-shaped tower and low sloping building. Who knows – if I had toured the UN as a child I might have wanted to work for such an organization, given its missions, and, of course, to live in New York City – that would have been a grand dream. Some of the memorable moments of our trip included a real-time monitor and exhibit on the daily military expenditure worldwide. The exhibit’s title comes from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: “The world is over-armed and peace is underfunded.” At 3pm local time, the daily total starting at midnight spent on world military expenditure had topped $2,289,586,428 billion. While the annual military expenditures sit at $1747 billion, only $30 billion is spent on official development assistance to least developed countries, $2.6 billion for the UN regular budget, which covers its five missions, and $.69 billion for international disarmament and non-proliferation organizations.
Colorful panels of art, interpreting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, graced a large portion of a wall. In Paris on December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed General Assembly resolution 217(III) A as the “common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations.” This groundbreaking document identified the fundamental human rights to be protected around the world.
We also saw artifacts retrieved after the August 9, 1945, bombing on Nagasaki, including the statue of Saint Agnes which was found amid the ruins of a Roman Catholic Cathedral. The statue’s back is charred and mottled, a result of intense heat and radiation. Our guide reminded us that although the atomic bomb dropped 71 years ago, the people of Japan are still suffering from the effects of radiation, most notably in the form of cancers.
We quietly walked through sessions in progress, one of which dealt with rape as a war crime. The hashtag #norapeinwar was prominently displayed in the front of the meeting chamber. While rapes have always occurred during wartime, in June 2008 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1820, which declared that “sexual violence in conflict zones is a matter of international peace and security.” One can debate the impact that the UN is making in a seemingly more dangerous world ravaged by civil wars, poverty, terrorism, and growing immigration issues, but having glimpsed what it’s trying to do, I can only appreciate its mission, accomplishments, and aspirations – all things the world clearly needs more of. Our visit left me both sobered and hopeful. We perfectly timed the end of our tour because when we exited the United Nations Headquarters we set off for our day’s last adventure.
New York Yankees: celebrating Jacob’s 16th birthday
To celebrate Jacob’s 16th birthday, David and I took him to a New York Yankees game in the heart of the Bronx (E 161st Street). Since Heidi was in town and Isabella loathes baseball games, Heidi treated Isabella to a bus tour, and afterwards they walked home and had dinner at a neighborhood restaurant. So everybody had a good time our last night!
The original Yankee Stadium, dubbed “The House that Ruth Built,” was built in 1923. It suffered a period of deterioration and underwent restoration in the mid-1970s. In 2006, the Yankees began construction on their new stadium in the parking lot next to the existing structure and officially closed the old stadium after the 2008 season. Debuting in April 2009, the new Yankee Stadium, which boasts a capacity of 54,251, relocated Memorial Park, the Hall of Fame that honors prominent former Yankees, from the old stadium to a section near our bleacher seats in right-center field. The bleacher section is pretty spacious. We got front-row seats, with the bullpen below us, beyond the concrete wall topped with decorative grasses. Whereas the New York Mets’ Citi Park Field is steep and you look down into the playing field, Yankee Stadium is expansive and spread out – just like the Los Angeles Dodgers’ stadium.
The Yankees aren’t very good this year, and it showed in their 4-8 loss to the Colorado Rockies. Carlos Beltran made some embarrassing, lazy gaffes in right field. One good thing about the home team losing is that the stadium empties out before the game ended. We didn’t have to contend with the crowds going out as we did arriving before the game, and we had an easy return commute on the subway, which I’d say we mastered by then.
Last night in New York City
As we walked back home our last night, I realized that the bakery near our apartment was identified as the first bakery in Little Italy, according to the documentary we saw at the Tenement Museum. So I took a picture of it. I regret not taking pictures of our apartment interior, but early the next morning when David and the kids were ready to leave for the airport, Heidi had the presence of mind to take a picture of us in our 7th Floor Mulberry Street Airbnb home. We did everything I wanted to do with the kids. The only thing missing was catching a Broadway show. Next time. There is always a next time.