America 18/70

Immigrant New York – The Final Word

There is only one place to go to really get the full works on New York’s immigrant history. The Tenement Museum portrays the lives of real people who once lived in the block at 97 Orchard Street.

97 Orchard St, NY. Photo: author’s own!

Visitors take guided tours of the building to see the restored apartments and businesses of past residents. I chose the ‘Hard Times’ tour to discover how a German-Jewish family survived the panic of 1873 and how the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s. Entering the dark and dingy ‘dumbbell’ hallway was an experience I will never forget. Our guide developed each life story using documents and texts whilst we stood experiencing the authentic atmosphere of a tenement apartment. Amazing!

Later I chose one of the ‘Walk the Neighbourhood’ tours called Outside the Home. The tour included the Jarmulowsky Bank, a former Loews Theatre and the Daily Forward Building – all very significant in the social history of the community.

The Forward Building

For great interior shots of this once famous Loews theatre on Canal St, visit Uncle Google!

If this has whetted your appetite, here is the web site for the Tenement Museum.  The About Us page tells the story of its founding in 1980s – by two inspired women who were way ahead of the curve in discerning the importance of ‘history from below!’ And just to reiterate that point, I was advised by my New Yorker friend, Lisa, to book my tours months ahead as they get sold out!

Ps Have a look at the shop! I could not resist my very own ‘fire escape’ pendant.

Finally after all this urban angst, it is time to reconnect with the Swedish pioneers, navigating their way up the Hudson river…

America 18/70

Holiday Research Uncovers Real Life Horror Story!

The Triangle Waist Factory fire occurred on 25th March 1911 in the heart of the diverse community in the Lower East Side of New York. The tragedy epitomises many aspects of the realities of immigrant life. People, particularly women, had little choice but to accept the dreadful conditions of the labour market.

“The fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City, which claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers, is one of the worst disasters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

The Triangle Waist Company was in many ways a typical sweated factory in the heart of Manhattan, at 23-29 Washington Place, at the northern corner of Washington Square East. Low wages, excessively long hours, and unsanitary and dangerous working conditions were the hallmarks of sweatshops.”

Working conditions. Photographer: unknown, ca. 1900
Kheel Center image identifier: 5783pb1f3a

This information came  from the amazing resources available on this website:



Here my research comes full circle. On the website I read one of the testimonials, Days and Dreams by Sadie Frowne about life as a sweat-shop girl. Defending her choice of spending wages on nice clothes, she writes:

“Some of the women blame me very much because I spend so much money on clothes. They say that instead of $1 a week I ought not to spend more than 25cents a week on clothes, and that I should save the rest. But a girl must have clothes if she is to go into high society at Ulmer Park or Coney Island …”


America 18/70

Coney Island – New York’s Historical Pressure Valve!

A day out at Coney Island, aka ‘Bedlam by the Sea,’ provided a respite for the urban masses. The ocean and the beach were made accessible thanks to the famous Boardwalk lined with restaurants and food stands including the five-cent hot dogs from ‘Nathan’s Famous.’ Other diversions included dime museums, concert halls, dance pavilions, sideshows, circuses, firework displays, games of chance, an aquarium and the widely popular Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Three amusement parks offered ‘ten hours fun for ten cents’ where visitors could have a go on the Human Roulette Wheel, visit Dr Courney’s Infant Incubators, see the 60-ton Captive Whale and experience Dwarf City with its own Lilliputian Fire Brigade. Importantly, this recreation could be enjoyed in a more casual and relaxed atmosphere than was possible in the dreary tenements.

Writers have long held differing views about the Coney ‘experience.’ For some, Coney was a symbol of the best of America’s democratic nature, while others described it as a site of blighted dreams, urban decay and an escape valve for frustrations that would otherwise become politicised. As Lewis Mumford wrote in The City,

“The urban worker escapes the mechanical routine of his daily job only to find an equally mechanical substitute for life and growth and experience in his amusements… the Coney Islands are means of giving jaded and throttled people the sensations of living without the direct experience of life …”

Lauren Rabinovitz takes this point further, analysing the success of Coney in terms of how it acclimatised people to modernity and living in an urban-industrial society. The outrageous architecture and brilliant electrical displays dazzled and helped to win popular consent to being part of the new mass society. Aspects of the industrial age were employed to create the new forms of entertainment and the rides, chutes and wheels became more extravagant in terms of sensationalism, unreflective mental and physical reaction. This hyperstimulation was reflective of the nervous energies of New York.



It was certainly a new kind of social space combining technology, mass leisure, consumption and pleasure. Disaster shows became a playground for more and more virtual realities, spectacularising modern technology and its power to resolve problems brought about by modern living conditions. Thus ‘apocalyptic entertainment’ was a great favourite at Coney and fire spectacles were big business!

In the Fighting the Flames show, two thousand people were employed in the production. Fireman slid down brass poles, horses and machines were hitched and real people jumped from hotel bedrooms to escape the ‘real’ fire!

But imagine my consternation when further research showed just how on the mark Lauren Rabinovitz was in saying Coney’s attractions acclimatised people to urban-industrial conditions – I stumbled upon The Triangle Factory Fire 1911.