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Trip Report - Day 2 - Lower East Side - Part 1

Geelong, Australia
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Trip Report - Day 2 - Lower East Side - Part 1

Here's a link to Day 1 for all who missed it:


Day 2 - Sunday, 9th June

The best laid plans of mice and men...... THWARTED

Had no trouble falling into a deep sleep after such a long Day 1 only to wake up @ 4.00 a.m. and stay awake, quietly seething about how tired I was and what a fool I was for planning such a big Day 2.

Anywho - Up "bright and early" and straight to subway to purchase the best bargain of the trip (apart from the phone card) being my $24.00 7-day Metrocard. F train Delancy Street and found my way to the Olympic Diner on the corner of Delancy & Essex Sts for the Big Onion Walking Tour of the Jewish Lower East Side.

Whilst the crowds built, it was a new view for me from the end of the Williamsburg Bridge. 33 people in total - 2 guides. My group consisted of 1 Aussie, 3 Brits, 3 ladies from a church congregation in Brooklyn and 9 members of an extended family from Brooklyn. I was the only Gentile on the tour and mentioning that my great, great grandfather's name was Moses Joseph did not turn any heads - I was still the only Gentile on the tour! The guide was a theology student - born in Manhattan and raised in large Jewish family in the Lower East Side. The fact that she married an Aussie from Sydney showed that she had good taste.

Walked to cnr. Essex and Hester Sts. which is the site of Seward Park - named for W.H. Seward who served as Secretary of State under Abe Lincoln (and someone else). WHS was an outspoken critic of slavery and pushed bills to improve social welfare for all Americans. One of his bandwagons was to get the children off the streets which were very dangerous and crowded with traders and carts. Seward Park was the first permanent, municipally-built playground which opened in 1903 a legacy of WHS's wish to have children play organised games in public playgrounds as an alternative to playing on the streets.

This area was surrounded by tenement buildings and our guide had pictures taken from exact corners where she had us stand showing obviously Jewish and Italian immigrants carrying out every day tasks. To say that things have changed is an understatement. There are still shopfronts selling items required for day-to-day Judaic life but they are closing down rapidly and there is no sign of any Italian influence. The number of Jewish families in the area is dwindling and there is an abundance of Asian influenced stores and restaurants. Our guide (wish I remembered her name!) explained tenement living - families sharing dim, dark buildings with all the problems of chronic overcrowding. I learnt about dumbell buildings (to allow air shafts and cross ventilation) and the 1901 law which was passed making it compulsory for all landlords to ensure that all buildings have running water and at least one toilet on each floor!!!!

Moved onto Straus Square named for Nathan Straus who's family ran many stores before becoming the owners of Macys at Herald Square in 1902. Straus went on to become a philanthropist who had a passion for community and health services for the disadvantaged. Straus Square is also the site of a war memorial erected by the Jewish community to honour the war dead from both world wars and Korea, who had come from their very own community of LES.

Opposite the Square stands the magnificent Forward Building which was once the home of the Yiddish Socialist Newspaper. Overlooking the entrance are the famous faces of European Socialism - Marx, Engels, Liebknedct and ????(can't read my own notes). The building has now been converted to condos (quelle surprise) and the printing press has moved on.

Another interesting building was the site of Jarmrlowsky's Bank which was established in 1873 with all workers speaking Eastern European languages to ensure local custom. Because of fear of the unknown, many locals refused to utilise mainstream banks because they couldn't understand the employees. Mr. J knew what was required and quickly had enough customers to enable his building to open in 1912. His sons took over the bank after his death a couple of years later.

As the Jewish population has moved up and out, the area now forms part of Chinatown. The Jarmrlowsky building has since been used as a sweatshop. We received an interesting insight into sweatshop businesses and were then on the lookout for buildings which were obvioulsy being used for that purpose (boarded windows with window airconditioning units are a dead giveaway).

Walked around into Eldridge Street which houses the 1st Ashkenzi (sp) Synagogue built in 1887. This synagogue is unusual in that it was built to compete with the Christian churches which were in surrounding streets. It's frontage has a copy of a 13th Century rose window, scalloped arches, eticulles and a tripartate which in the Jewish religion represents Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but in the Christian religion represents Father, Son and Holy Ghost. One of the most famous worshippers was Eddie Cantor who lived locally and was a member of the choir. Given the dearth of Jewish families worshipping locally, the main building was closed in the 1950's and the few locals continued to worship in the basement. Space is now rented to the Chinese for a Buddhist school and for English classes for the newly arriving Asian population.

The tour ended at Shearith Israel Shephardic Cemetery which was established in 1654 for Jews of Spanish and Portugese ancestry. We heard stories of Jewish life in the area and had a respectful, quiet visit to this very small sliver of land in an otherwise bustling area.

Tour took 2 hours - cost $15.00 paid in cash on the day plus tip to guide. Extra charge of $3.00 for entry to the Cemetery but all of that money goes to the Cemetery Trust not Big Onion. Plenty of walking - not conducive to young children or elderly or infirm. To push a wheelchair would have been hard but could have been done. No stops for food, drinks or respite! Anyone interested in Jewish heritage and the lives of those in the LES, this is for you.


Hotfooted over to Lower East Side Tenement Museum for the 1.30 p.m. Getting By Tour. Walk took about 15 minutes but was easy to find. The Museum is 97 Orchard Street but the tour starts at the Visitors' Centre at 108 Orchard Street (btw Delancy & Broome Sts).

The first thing that hits you when entering the building is how dark it is and that is after some electrical lights are left on for safety purposes.

We toured two apartments - that of the German-Jewish Gumpertz Family and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family.

The Gumpertz family - husband, wife and three daughters lived in three rooms in the 1870's. In 1874 the husband went out to work and never came home - speculation about his disappearance stemmed from killed by horse to skipped to the goldfields in CA. In order to retain her three room apartment, Nathalie started sewing dresses for wealthy German immigrants and over the years established a garment business which incorporated the input of all three young daughters. In 188? she inherited $600.00 from her husband's family and moved her business and family to Upper East Side. The rooms were very small with only the front room having natural light. One can only wonder at the effects of the dim living on the families' eyesight and health.

The Baldizzi family - husband, wife and two children lived in three rooms 1928-1935. The husband struggled to find work but walked the neighbourhood every day toting his toolbox and doing any carpentering jobs he could find. His wife sewed each day and the family lived in their three room apartment, happily apparently, and often sharing space with newcoming relatives and friends. When the building was closed down by the landlord in 1935, the family moved to Brooklyn. Interesting to hear that the daughter later became a guide for the LESTM and spoke lovingly of the kitchen cabinet which her father built and still remains in the apartment. Hard to believe how families lived in these conditions - dark, dirty and dangerous and makes you give thanks for the life you have.

Tour lasted 1 hour - $15.00 - paid when booking and a tip for the guide. Small children and elderly who cannot walk up stairs and stand for any length of time - forget about it. It was very hot and stuffy and it made for an uncomfortable time for a sleep deprived, hungry, thirsty Aussie.


That brings us to 2.45 p.m. in NYC and about time I did some work in Aus. Day 2 Part 2 to follow.

Columbus, Ohio
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1. Re: Trip Report - Day 2 - Lower East Side - Part 1

Please tell me you took notes for this. Your attention to detail, from 6 weeks ago no less, is wonderful!

Ottawa, Canada
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2. Re: Trip Report - Day 2 - Lower East Side - Part 1

Helen, Helen, Helen,

What can I say but Wow! What a great trip report. I gather you did take some notes on your Big Onion tour of the Jewish Lower East Side. I wish I had taken notes on my two Big Onion tours; my memory of the information imparted is starting to fizzle and fade. In any event, you have certainly put me to shame with your lovely attention to detail.

I love your style of writing and your sense of humour – “I was the only Gentile on the tour and mentioning that my great, great grandfather's name was Moses Joseph did not turn any heads - I was still the only Gentile on the tour!” LOL!! “The guide was a theology student - born in Manhattan and raised in large Jewish family in the Lower East Side. The fact that she married an Aussie from Sydney showed that she had good taste.” LOL again!!

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum was one museum that I didn’t make time for when I was in New York but your marvellous and informative description of what you saw there and what you learned from your visit there has put it at the top of my list of things to see when I come back to Manhattan.

I am so looking forward to reading the rest of your reports; I know that they are going to bring back so many fond memories of New York and motivate me to return soon.

Nyc (Upper West...
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3. Re: Trip Report - Day 2 - Lower East Side - Part 1

Helen--very interesting report, especially for those who may want to take these tours. BTW, Nathan's brother Isador, also a Macy's owner, and his wife Ida went down with the Titanic.

Geelong, Australia
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4. Re: Trip Report - Day 2 - Lower East Side - Part 1

Thanks for your praise folks. Yes, I did indeed take notes. I know there are some spelling mistakes but I'm sure that all the dates are accurate.

Noosa, Australia
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5. Re: Trip Report - Day 2 - Lower East Side - Part 1

How very interesting. I would like to do the same Big Onion trip. What a fantastic day you had in NYC. Thanks for sharing..

New York City, New...
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6. Re: Trip Report - Day 2 - Lower East Side - Part 1

no wonder Lotuspath said you were in good shape - you couldn't help being in good shape with all the walking you did! and this is just Day 1!

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7. Re: Trip Report - Day 2 - Lower East Side - Part 1

This is great Helen, really gives people an idea if these tours are for them or not....off to find Part 2 - I've seen it lurking ;)

Durham, United...
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8. Re: Trip Report - Day 2 - Lower East Side - Part 1

Wow! I can't believe this is only part 1!

Isn't the Tenement Museum unbelievably uncomfortable in summer. Makes you feel for the people that had to live there doesn't it? We too took the Getting By tour and loved it.

Newcastle upon...
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9. Re: Trip Report - Day 2 - Lower East Side - Part 1

Hey Helen, ever though about writing a guide book? the detail is fabulous.

Canberra, Australia
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10. Re: Trip Report - Day 2 - Lower East Side - Part 1

Hi Helen

Thanks so much for this - I am definitely doing this tour next January, and I won't need to record any notes - I'll just save your trip report ;-)

Thanks for the fascinating detail.