Read 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement Online

Authors: Jane Ziegelman

Tags: #General, #Cooking, #19th Century, #History: American, #United States - State & Local - General, #United States - 19th Century, #Social History, #Lower East Side (New York, #Emigration & Immigration, #Social Science, #Nutrition, #New York - Local History, #New York, #N.Y.), #State & Local, #Agriculture & Food, #Food habits, #Immigrants, #United States, #Middle Atlantic, #History, #History - U.S., #United States - State & Local - Middle Atlantic, #New York (State)

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement

BOOK: 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement
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97 Orchard

An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement

Jane Ziegelman

For Andy

Introduction

97
Orchard
tells the story of five immigrant families, each of them, as it happens, residents of a single New York tenement in the years between 1863 and 1935. Though separated by time and national background, the Glockners, the Moores, the Gumpertzes, the Rogarshevskys, and the Baldizzis, were all players in the Age of Migration, a period of sweeping demographic change for both the Old and New Worlds.

Starting in Europe in the early 1800s, whole chunks of humanity streamed from the countryside to the cities—the continent’s new manufacturing centers—in pursuit of work. Those who could afford to embarked on a trans-Atlantic migration, lured to the United States by the promise of American prosperity and freedom.
97 Orchard
chronicles what became of those immigrants, but from a special vantage point: it retells the immigrant story from the elemental perspective of the foods they ate.

Within hours of landing, immigrants felt the keen pressures of assimilation. Before they even left Ellis Island, many had already traded in their Old World identities for new American names. Once on the mainland, immigrants found it expedient to shed their native clothing and to dress like Americans. Men quickly adopted the ubiquitous derby. Women abandoned their shawls and kerchiefs in favor of American-style coats and bonnets. The immigrants learned to speak like Americans, subjected themselves to the rigors of American sweatshops, and delighted in the popular culture of their adopted home. These same immigrants, however, went to extraordinary lengths to preserve their traditional foods and food customs. Transplanting Old World food traditions—many of them rooted in the countryside—to the heart of urban America required both imagination and tenacity. To compound the challenge, the immigrants’ eating habits oftentimes defied American culinary norms, and as the immigrant population continued to swell, concerned citizens attempted to wean the foreigners from their strange cuisine. The immigrants’ food loyalties, however, were fierce. Native foods provided them with the comfort of the familiar in an alien environment, a form of emotional ballast for the uprooted. Within the immigrant community, food cemented relationships, and immigrants turned to food as a source of ethnic or national pride. As immigrant families put down roots, it also became a source of contention between parents and their American-born children for whom Old World foods carried the stigma of foreignness.

A large part of this story takes place in the immigrant kitchen. For many immigrants, this was a small, often windowless room in a five-or six-story brick tenement. A form of urban housing that began to appear on New York’s Lower East Side in the 1840s, tenements were the first American residences built expressly for multiple families—in this case, working people. The typical tenement had an iron front stoop, a central stairwell, where children played and neighbors socialized, and four apartments on every floor. The tenement kitchen was furnished with a wood-or coal-burning stove and little else. Those at 97 Orchard, a well-equipped building for its time, were bereft of indoor plumbing or any means of cold storage aside from the windowsill or fire escape, a makeshift “ice box” that only functioned in winter. A place to cook and to eat, the kitchen was also used as a family workspace, a sweatshop, a laundry room, a place to wash one’s body, a nursery for the babies, and a bedroom for boarders. In this cramped and primitive setting, immigrant cooks brought their formidable ingenuity to the daily challenge of feeding their families.
97 Orchard
describes exactly how that challenge was met by five major immigrant groups: the Germans, Irish, German Jews, Russian-Lithuanian Jews, and Italians.

East Side children were responsible for collecting wood and coal for the family stove.

To procure the ingredients they needed at prices they could afford, immigrant cooks depended on neighborhood food purveyors. Upon landing in America, immigrant entrepreneurs quickly established networks of food laborers, trades people, importers, peddlers, merchants, and restaurant-keepers. Many of these culinary workers have since vanished and are long-forgotten. Among the disappeared are the German
krauthobbler
s, or “cabbage-shavers,” itinerant tradesmen who went door to door slicing cabbage for homemade sauerkraut; the Italian dandelion pickers, women who scoured New York’s vacant lots for wild salad greens; and the urban goose-farmers, Eastern European Jews who raised poultry in tenement yards, basements, and hallways.

The networks they established met the foreigners’ own culinary needs, but in the process of feeding themselves, they revolutionized how the rest of America ate.

A time traveler to pre–Civil War New York or Boston or Philadelphia, who happened to arrive at dinner time, could expect to encounter the following on the family table: roast beef stuffed with bread crumbs and suet, a dish of peas, and some form of pudding. This was sustenance for the professional or business class. Further down the economic ladder, generations of working-class Americans survived on “hash,” a composite of leftover meat scraps and potatoes. One food that united the “haves” and “have-nots” was pie. Apple pie, cherry pie, berry pie, lemon pie, and mince pie were eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. The habit was so pronounced that immigrants referred to their American hosts as “pie-eaters.” Another universal food was oysters. While Americans devised a wealth of oyster-based recipes, including oyster patties and stews, they enjoyed them best in their natural state, sold raw from the saloons and street stands that proliferated in nineteenth-century cities.

The immigrants that began to settle in the United States in the 1840s introduced Americans to an array of curious edibles beyond their familiar staples: German wursts and pretzels, doughnut-shaped rolls from Eastern Europe known as “beygals,” potato pastries referred to as “knishes,” and the elongated Italian noodles for which Americans had no name but came to know as spaghetti.
97 Orchard
describes how native-born Americans, wary of foreigners and their strange eating habits, pushed aside their culinary (and other) prejudices to sample these novel foods and eventually to claim them as their own.

Aside from satisfying our culinary curiosity, the exploration of food traditions brings us eye to eye with the immigrants themselves. It grants us access to the cavernous beer gardens that once lined the Bowery, where entire German families—babies included—spent their Sundays, the immigrant’s only day of leisure, over mugs of lager beer and plates of black bread with herring. It is a door into the East Side cafés where Jewish pushcart peddlers drank endless cups of hot tea with lemon, accompanied by a plate of blintzes, and brings us face-to-face with the Italian laborers who formed their own all-male cooking communities to satisfy their longing for macaroni.

On the streets of the Lower East Side, European food customs collided with the driving energy of the American marketplace. The tantalizing saga that ensued, an ongoing tug of war between culinary tradition and American opportunity, goes to the heart of our collective identity as a country of immigrants. But while
97 Orchard
is concerned largely with a single immigrant community, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the history it tells transcends that one urban neighborhood. Though on a smaller scale, comparable changes were underway in cities and towns across America wherever immigrants settled. In fact, though the actors have changed, the culinary revolution that began in the nineteenth century continues today among immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, who have brought their food traditions to this country and continue to transform the way America eats.

CHAPTER ONE

The Glockner Family

T
he Lower East Side of Manhattan, circa 1863, was a neighborhood of squat wooden row houses, shelter for a population of artisans, laboring people, and small-time tradesmen. Built decades earlier as single-family homes, by the time of the Civil War the ground floor of the typical East Side dwelling was generally taken up by a grog shop or grocery with a small apartment behind the store for the shopkeeper’s family. Two more families lived on the second floor, while the basement was rented out to lodgers. More imposing structures could be found on the neighborhood’s oldest streets. Made of stone, with peaked tile roofs, these were the former homes of New York’s merchant princes, now converted into boardinghouses and cheap hotels that catered to a mainly immigrant clientele. But the East Side was also home to a strictly modern form of urban housing: the tenement—a five-or six-story brick building with multiple apartments on every floor. Their massive size, along with their plain facades, reminded nineteenth-century New Yorkers of army barracks, and they were often referred to that way, even by the people who lived in them.

Hidden behind the dwellings, in the shadowy courtyards within each city block, were machine shops, print shops, brick-makers, furniture and piano factories, to name just a few of the local industries. Another kind of factory was concealed within the tenement itself. Here, in apartments that doubled as sweatshops (a term that had not yet been coined), immigrant workers produced clothing, lace, cigars, and artificial flowers for ladies’ bonnets, a valued commodity in the hat-wearing culture of the nineteenth century. More evident to the casual observer, however, was the neighborhood’s vibrant commercial life. In other parts of the city, people lived in private homes on relatively quiet residential streets but shopped and caroused on the noisier, more bustling avenues. On the Lower East Side, that distinction was blurred. Some kind of shop or business occupied the street level of most East Side buildings, turning the neighborhood into a single teeming marketplace. East Side shops sold a vast array of goods, from rusted scrap metal and secondhand corsets to peacock feathers and beaver-skin coats. There were shoe and hat shops, apothecaries, blacksmiths, glaziers, and tailors. Most plentiful, however, were businesses related to food. The impressive concentration of food markets and food peddlers, of slaughterhouses, brewers, bakers, saloons, and beer halls satisfied the culinary needs of the immediate neighborhood. At the same time, they played an essential role in feeding the larger city.

The people who lived and worked on the Lower East Side were predominately immigrants and, in lesser numbers, people of color—freed slaves and the descendants of slaves. Those sections of the Lower East Side that had been settled chiefly by Germans were collectively known as
Kleindeutschland
, or “Little Germany,” covering the area from 14th Street south to Division Street and from the Bowery all the way east to the river. The businesses here were German-owned; the newsboys hawked German-language newspapers, and the corner markets sold loaves of molasses-colored pumpernickel and rosy-pink Westphalian hams. This semi-discrete corner of New York, a city within a city, was the world inhabited by Lucas Glockner, his wife, Wilhelmina, and their five children. It is also the world we are about to enter.

But before we do, let’s have Mr. Glockner say a few words on his own behalf. Dead now for over a century, he speaks to us nonetheless with the help of certain official documents, key among them the federal census report. The first census in which his name appears was taken in 1850, roughly four years after Glockner’s arrival in New York. While the United States government had been counting its citizens since 1790, the 1850 census was groundbreaking in one respect: for the first time, it recorded the names of all household members, including women, servants, slaves, and children. Because of this innovation, we know that in 1850, Mr. Glockner lived on the Lower East Side at 118 Essex Street, along with his first wife, Caroline, a four-year-old son named Edward, and a baby named George, who was one at the time and would not survive. In this document, Mr. Glockner describes himself as a tailor, the leading occupation among New York Germans. According to the 1850 census, he is one of seven tailors, all of them German, living in the same small building.

1870 census record for Lucas Glockner and his family. Census records, among other official documents, provide valuable information on the lives of otherwise anonymous immigrants.

The next time we hear from him, the United States is locked in a bloody civil war, and Lucas Glockner, along with thousands of other East Side Germans, has been registered to serve in the Union Army. According to an 1864 draft record, a beautiful, hand-lettered document, he is still employed as a tailor. Other sources tell us, however, that Glockner is ready to abandon tailoring for the more lucrative career of a New York property owner. In fact, he has already made his first investment. Glockner and his two partners have pooled their money to buy up the Dutch Reformed Presbyterian Church, not for the building but for the land underneath it: a plot large enough to fit three typical East Side tenement buildings. By the time of the next census in 1870, Glockner has become a rent-collecting landlord, the owner of several East Side properties.

By 1880, Glockner is living at 25 Allen Street with his considerably younger wife, Wilhelmina. Together they have three children: Ida, Minnie, and William. Neither of the girls is attending school, which shouldn’t surprise us. If they weren’t earning money as seamstresses or flower-makers, East Side girls were generally kept at home to help with the unpaid business of housework. Fifteen-year-old William, on the other hand, is enrolled in college, a very good indication that he will go on to work in an office—as a clerk, perhaps, or a bookkeeper, the kind of job that immigrant parents dreamed of for their sons. And Mr. Glockner? Living comfortably off his various properties (he owned at least three buildings by this time), he has earned the right to a new job title. At fifty-nine years old, Glockner describes himself as a “Gentleman.” And there we have it, from tailor to gentleman, the basic trajectory of one human life. Mr. Glockner’s autobiography.

Glockner earned his fortune by investing in the kind of buildings he knew best, the multifamily dwellings known as “tenant houses,” or “tenements” for short. His first property was 97 Orchard Street, the five-story brick structure that stands at the core of our story. Built by Glockner on the grounds of the old Dutch Church, it was a compact building designed to maximize space, the mandate behind all tenement architecture. Covering a scant three hundred and fifty square feet, the Orchard Street apartments were minuscule by today’s standards, the largest room not much bigger than a New York taxi. And yet, Glockner’s building had a sense of style about it, both inside and out, a break from the tenement tradition up to that time.

Tenements, loosely defined, began to appear in New York sometime in the 1820s, many of them clustered in the old Five Points, a section of the Lower East Side that is now part of Chinatown. In colonial times, that same patch of New York had been a semi-industrial area of slaughterhouses, tanneries, breweries, rope-and candle-makers, all centered around a five-acre pond known as the Collect. In the early 1800s, the Collect was drained and filled, though not very effectively. A neighborhood of wood-frame row houses grew up on the site, but after a good hard rain, foul-smelling muck would well up from the ground, as if the former pond was reclaiming its rightful place. The terrible stench, along with the fear of disease, pushed out the old inhabitants, the merchants, and the craftsmen, making way for a less privileged class of day laborers, boot blacks, and laundresses. Desperate for shelter, they moved into old single-family homes, which had been carved up into apartments. These improvised structures were the city’s original tenements.

The appearance of the tenement coincided exactly with a sharp rise in immigration that began in the 1820s, gathering momentum in the 1830s and 1840s. In its wake, the population of New York suddenly ballooned, creating the city’s first housing crisis. City landlords quickly grasped how to profit from the situation. They bought up old houses, stables, and workshops, or converted buildings they already owned, dividing them up into cubbyhole-sized living quarters. For businessmen of the time, including John Jacob Astor, a major investor in the East Side housing boom, the tenement was a real estate windfall. Among the first purposefully built tenements was a five-story brick structure on Water Street, near the East River, financed by a New York businessman named James Allaire, owner of the Allaire Iron Works, a company that made steamship engines. Since nineteenth-century employers often supplied their workers with room and board, it seems a good possibility that Allaire’s tenement was built for his employees.

The history behind 97 Orchard sets it apart from the investments of the Astors and Allaires of New York. Where most East Side developers were “building down,” creating housing for people far beneath them in the social hierarchy, 97 Orchard was built by an East Side immigrant for people much like himself. In fact, Glockner and his family lived at 97 for the first half dozen years of the building’s existence and remained tied to it through a web of personal relationships long after they moved. The Glockners had friends at 97, like Natalie Gumpertz, the German dressmaker abandoned by her husband, and John Schneider, who ran a saloon in the building’s basement. More personal still, one of Glockner’s sons eventually married the daughter of an Orchard Street tenant and moved into the building with his new wife.

The red-brick facade of 97 Orchard is an example of nineteenth-century Italianate design, very much in fashion during the 1860s. Typical of an Italianate row house, the kind seen farther uptown, the doorway at 97 Orchard is framed by a stone arch. Curved lintels and a stone sill border the windows, while the roof line is defined by a surprisingly ornate cornice. Though made of cast metal, it was finished to resemble brownstone, a more expensive building material. In fact, all of the building’s decorative elements were much simplified, discount versions of their uptown counterparts, the best that Glockner could afford. The basement at 97, which sits just below street level, is occupied by stores, one on either side of the building’s front stoop.

On climbing the stoop, one enters the residential part of the building. The first room is a vestibule, or entryway, the walls lined with panels of white marble. On the far side of the vestibule door, a narrow hallway leads to a plaster arch. Passing under it, the hallway widens. Directly ahead is the heavy wooden stairway that runs up the center of the building.

The apartments at 97 Orchard comprise three small rooms, a parlor, a kitchen, and a windowless “dark room” used for sleeping. Despite their size, the rooms are smartly finished with light oak baseboards and chair rails that match the doors and window frames. The walls are painted in pastel shades like salmon pink and pale mint green, while the ceilings are painted a soft shade of sky blue. Each apartment has two fireplaces, one in the kitchen used for cooking, and another in the parlor with a wooden mantel and slate hearthstone.

It had taken Glockner years of saving to buy the Orchard Street real estate and put up his building, a huge investment for an immigrant tailor, and a huge risk as well. Though he still had his trade, all of his capital was now in the building, a precarious state of affairs for a man in his forties with a family to support. Despite all this, Glockner embellished his property with marble paneling, arched doorways, chair rails, fireplaces with proper mantels. All of these flourishes are representative of Glockner’s attempt to reach beyond
Kleindeutschland
and participate in the larger and more affluent culture of middle-class New York.

Though he splurged on décor, he skimped in other ways. Of all his money-saving strategies, none was more glaring than the absence of indoor plumbing. By 1863, pipes carrying fresh water from the Croton aqueduct had been laid under Orchard Street, and Glockner could have easily tapped into the underground system. Instead, he provided the building with a row of privies and an outdoor pump, both located in the building’s back courtyard. Everyone who lived at 97 felt the impact of Glockner’s decision, but no one felt it more than the building’s women. Tenement housewives were like human freight elevators, hauling groceries, coal, firewood, and children up and down endless flights of stairs. Their most burdensome loads, however, were the tubs of water needed for laundry, bathing, house-cleaning, and cooking. It was sloppy, muscle-straining work, water sloshing everywhere, soaking the stairs and the women too, a bone-chilling prospect on a cold February morning, especially since the stairs were unheated.

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