I remember the tenement museum in New York City, it was July. We were sticky with sweat and I asked if I should wear a bonnet. I talked too much and you said I was too judgmental, I stopped talking and you said I was pouting. I still don’t know what you wanted from me.

“When the sun hits”. Lower East Side, New York City.

It’s been exactly a year since I moved from the border area of Spanish Harlem in Upper Manhattan down to the Lower East Side. This photo will forever remind me of what a turning point this move was for me. My life has changed in so many ways since I moved that it feels as if my life has been divided in two parts now; life before moving to the Lower East Side and life after moving to the Lower East Side.

Having been notified that I had to find an apartment in a period of only two weeks because of a not-so-great landlord issue I spent every waking moment scouring Manhattan for a new, affordable apartment (a rarity). New York City was experiencing a dramatic heat wave at the time with temperatures in the triple digits and humidity at nearly 100 percent for days on end. On a 100 degree + (Fahrenheit) weekend, I moved into a tenement on the Lower East Side. This was no easy feat considering that my new apartment was on the 5th floor of a walk-up (it’s 76 steps up to my apartment! I have grown to love it). With no air conditioner, no fans, no internet and two extremely angry cats, I experienced the heat wave in all its glory.

I spent that memorable weekend roaming the nearby streets taking photos between ducking into places hoping to catch some relief. I would spend the rest of my time laying out ice blankets and pans of ice water for my cats because the temperature in the apartment was close to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the middle of my first week living on the Lower East Side, I decided to take a two hour tour at the Tenement Museum. Since my apartment is one of the early tenements and I am an avid New York City history buff, I couldn’t resist finally going to this museum. To say that it was one of the most incredible experiences I have had would be an understatement. Being the daughter of an immigrant to the United States (my mother came here as a concentration camp survivor of WWII when she was nearly 10 years old) and growing up in the dense cultural center of Flushing, Queens (a borough of New York City), I have always enjoyed learning about other people’s experiences with immigration to New York City and the United States.

On our tour that day, we learned all about the families who lived in the tenement apartments we toured (kept as they would have looked like when the families lived there) and viewed census records, photographs and keepsakes. At one point we listened to a short oratory recollection by an inhabitant of one of the apartments via a recording. She spoke about what it was like to live in the tenement we were standing in during the beginning of the 20th century. Being able to visually see these recollected remnants of someone’s experiences as they described them was a special experience. My group was also taken through a non-restored apartment in various stages of decay. Writing etched into crumbling walls indicated the amount of garments that had been stored in the room by tenants who would often share these tiny dwellings with their large families. Every object, every garment meant so much to them.

Since it was the two hour tour, we were able to ask a lot of questions of the historians and engage in quite a bit of spirited discussion. At the end of our tour through the early tenements, we spent a good half hour around a table in a cooled room eating cookies and drinking iced tea while listening to each other’s family histories. We cried and laughed together and when it was all over we hugged each other as if we had become a family right then and there. It was a quintessential New York City experience.

This photo for me represents the heat of that summer, the heat in my apartment that was similar to the heat felt by the tenants over one hundred years ago before there was air conditioning/reliable fans and many of the amenities we are used to in our modern living environments. It represents the heat of the hot tears that ran down my face while I cooled off that one morning at the Tenement Museum after sharing my own family’s history and listening to other people’s family’s immigration stories.

The sun hit the buildings in the most beautiful of ways that summer. The sun hits the buildings in the most beautiful of ways all year here. Because the Lower East Side is home to many of the original tenements which are shorter than modern buildings, it’s one of the neighborhoods where the sun can be seen regularly as it illuminates the fire escapes on the tenements that housed early New York City residents who carried with them many of the same hopes and dreams as those who inhabitant the same tenements today.

I wouldn’t trade the light and the heat for anything.

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Buy “When the Sun Hits - Lower East Side” Posters and Prints here, View my store, email me, or ask for help.

Photographer Jamel Shabazz will be discussing his 2001 book, Back in the Days (which chronicles New York in the 1980s) at the Tenement Museum tonight. We chatted with him this week to get the scoop on the tome’s tenth anniversary; here’s what he had to say about the photo above:

I vividly remember speaking to [the four young men] about the importance of staying in school and getting a good education, and would occasionally see them during my travels. The young man to the far left in the photograph would go on to be a highly respected hip-hop artist by the name of AZ, whose lyrics addressed social and political issues.


Tenement Museum

108 Orchard Street

New York, NY 10002

Located in the Lower East Side, the Tenement Museum tells the story of the curious building at 97 Orchard Street and its past residents. What is most peculiar is how the museum illustrates these stories by leaving certain rooms to be interpretive and depict the historic time while also leaving other rooms in an as-is condition to capture the memory of the stories.

Visit http://www.tenement.org/ for more information on the Tenement Museum

On Sunday morning, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, at Orchard and Delancey, débuted a new public program—alongside existing programs such as Hard Times, Irish Outsiders, and Sweatshop Workers—called Tenement Inspectors. Participants buy a twenty-five-dollar ticket at the museum’s gift shop, attend a half-hour talk in a lecture room upstairs, get a clipboard, a questionnaire, a stubby pencil, and a badge sticker, and walk next door, to 97 Orchard Street, a five-story tenement building, where they knock on the door and demand answers from costumed historic reënactors with strong Yiddish accents.

Some seven thousand people, from more than twenty countries, lived at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. In 1903, according to the museum, the building was on the “most crowded block in the most densely populated place on earth.” The Tenement Museum opened in 1988, after the apartments at 97 Orchard had been vacant for more than fifty years—casualties of ever-improving housing regulations that the owners could not afford to undertake, and which inspectors, like us, would have been required to enforce. The apartments in the tenement represent several eras of the building’s life; the reënactors within, who train for their roles for many weeks, portray real people who lived there.

Read the rest about the programs at the Tenement Museum on the New Yorker’s site.

Tonight: Tenement Talks with Russ & Daughters, BabyCakes, and Clinton St. Baking Co.

Join Russ & Daughters tonight for a “Tenement Talk” at the Tenement Museum. This evening’s program is: Lower East Side Eats: BabyCakes, Clinton Street Baking Company, and Russ & Daughters.

The museum wrote: “From traditional to trendy, this series of food programs is devoted to the rich edible traditions of our neighborhood. This installment features the purveyors of BabyCakes, the you-don’t-have-to-be-vegan-to-love-them bakery, Clinton Street Baking Company, voted best brunch in the city, and Russ & Daughters, New York’s premier appetizing shop—an institution run by four generations of the Russ family.”

The event is free, and includes food from each participating shop.

Lower East Side Eats: BabyCakes, Clinton Street Baking Company, and Russ & Daughters

Tuesday, May 10 at 6:30 PM

The Tenement Museum Tenement Museum Shop 108 Orchard Street at Delancey

F to Delancey; B/D to Grand

RSVP 212-982-8420; events@tenement.org


“The 1858 Brooklyn Eckfords (precursors to the Dodgers) played at Union Grounds, the first enclosed professional baseball field in history, located across the East River from the Lower East Side in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”

Read more about the Boston Red Stockings, the Baltimore Canaries, and the history of baseball in the Lower East Side’s Puerto Rican community on the Tenement Museum’s blog, Notes from the Tenement.