Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Day 47 of Nat'l Emergency: Help Save American History, The Tenement Museum

Donald Trump’s grandparents were immigrants. Melania Trump is an immigrant. So is Trump’s first wife, Ivana. Marla Maples, his second wife, is a descendant of immigrants. Stephen Miller, consigliere behind much of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, is from immigration stock, as is Steve Bannon, another of Trump’s Katie-bar-the-door claque. 

Trace the lineage of any anti-immigration exponent and you’ll find an ancestor who came to America—legally or not— from foreign soil. Regardless of what xenophobic nationalists would like America to be, we are a nation of immigrants. 

It has not succumbed to the caprice of the coronavirus, but the Tenement Museum at the corner of Orchard and Delancey Streets on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is close to being on life support (https://nyti.ms/2yvNVO9). It needs everyone’s help to survive. Please join me in contributing to this worthwhile institution dedicated to our shared history. Here’s a link to donate: 

It is during times like these, when we are barred from visiting museums, that we fully appreciate how they impart the culture, history and experiences of our forbearers. Unlike almost all other museums, The Tenement Museum commemorates the lives not of the famous and gifted but rather those of the huddled masses welcomed by the Statue of Liberty. 

The Lower East Side was a haven for freshly landed immigrants. Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, Eastern European, Puerto Rican, Chinese and more—in separate, sometimes contiguous, waves they and other ethnicities crammed into stifling apartments. They shared bathrooms down the hallways of five story tenement buildings. Orchard Street and the surrounding streets were not paved in gold, as many had been led to believe. For the industrious, upwardly mobile immigrant, however, they were springboards toward assimilation into the American experience.

No one in my family, to my knowledge, lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side. But my family is forever linked to Orchard Street, next to the very location where the Tenement Museum stands. My father, who came to America in January 1939 from Poland, rented second floor space for his wholesale lingerie business at 99 Orchard Street, next door to what became the museum’s 97 Orchard Street address. (Since the museum’s expansion and renovation over a decade ago the front of 97 and 99 Orchard Street has been replaced with a modern, mostly glass facade.) 

It must have been after Kopel Fuersetzer had been discharged for medical reasons from the U.S. Army in August 1943. He was in his early 30s. As I wasn’t born until 1949, and my brother and sister were too young to know about his Orchard Street store, I enlisted two of our older cousins for details of his business three-quarters of a century ago.  

“I can recall the store, up a flight of metal stairs and on the left side. There was a back room with a table, a few chairs and a toilet,” said Norman Latner. “The store itself was lined with shelves, stacked with cardboard boxes which contained ladies panties and bloomers, with the sizes clearly marked on the outside. Your father was a wholesaler who sold to retail establishments.  

“I remember sweeping the floors, dusting the shelves and making deliveries. Your mother was never in the store, at least when I was there.”

His older brother, Herb, filled in more about one of his first jobs. 

“I think I was about 10 years old, on summer vacation from school and looking for a job, which was almost impossible to find, as precious as gold.  My mom’s “rich” cousin Kopel hired me (in my family, anyone with a car and phone was rich). 

“He had a store at 99 Orchard Street, a few doors down from Delancey Street, and even within walking distance from home so I did not have to pay carfare. 

“It was a busy, crowded area, with many clothing stores, both retail and wholesale. Kopel’s store, like the three other stores, was wholesale. His store dealt with ladies’ undergarments. We did not refer to them as lingerie, but simply bloomers and panties. At first, I was a bit embarrassed in handling the merchandise, but I got used to it.

“There were two stores on the street floor of this tenement building and two others right above them, one flight up a long narrow metal stoop. We were upstairs, on the left side. Nearly all the storekeepers were Jewish at that time. It was a wholesale store, and we sold items only in dozen lots or more.

“It surprised me that all the storekeepers were so friendly to each other, in spite of the fact that they were in competition. It may have had to do with Kopel’s warm personality; his neighbors often chatted with him, asked his advice, and often deferred to his opinions. Even as a young boy I sensed he was a leader.

“I think I was paid the minimum wage of the time—65 cents an hour. I thought it was great and thrilled to be working. My job was to do whatever was needed. Watching the store when Kopel went out, sweeping up, packing and unpacking goods, getting coffee or lunch, or whatever I was asked to do. I remember doing it cheerfully.

“It was summer and hot and humid and none of those little stores then had air conditioning yet, so we smelled and sweated. I remember Kopel would often get us a refreshing cup of lemon ices or cold drink; he was very generous. I learned a lot about working and what was required, and had a good teacher.   

“Kopel worked hard and was ambitious. He’d boast about having as a customer Blumstein’s, a big department store at the time located in Harlem, then still a bit of a Jewish neighborhood. 

“Some days when he’d visit customers in his car he would take me with him, and I was thrilled to be riding in a car with him. Wow!

“Orchard Street was still solidly Jewish and most of the businesses were also Jewish. Sundays the area was mobbed with shoppers, with thousands of folks coming to shop for bargains from all over town. It was long before discount stores and computers. But we were closed since we were not retail but wholesale. 

“As I got older, Kopel hired cousin Ted Schreier and my brother Norm, who he’d jokingly call “Mr. Natan, what are you waitin,” after the name of a popular song of the day.”

The aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic threaten to erase many treasured locations within New York, be they bars and restaurants, theaters, local service establishments such as shoemakers or cleaners—all part of the tapestry that makes the city vibrant as a whole but personal in a neighborly way. 

It would be tragic if the Tenement Museum became a casualty of COVID-19. Please do your part to see that doesn’t happen.