Travels with Susan Spano

People, Places, Stuff


July 10, 2012

Tags: New York, Immigrants, Tenement Museum, Lower East Side

It’s fascinating to watch the focus of interest move from one gentrifying neighborhood to another in greater metropolitan New York. Once upon a time it was Soho and Park Slope, Brooklyn; today it’s DUMBO, which stands for down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, and the Lower East Side where hip shops, stylish new hotels and restaurants have replaced garment workshops and push carts selling fruit and vegetables.

Days gone by in that neighborhood--east of the Bowery and south of Houston St.--come alive at the Tenement Museum in an Orchard St. apartment house where a long chain of German Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants tried to make good in America. Tours of the building reveal how they lived from 1863 to 1935 with no electric lights, heating or indoor plumbing. Some made it out of the Lower East Side, while others who couldn’t manage to pay the rent moved to even worse neighborhoods.

The Tenement Museum also offers walking tours, one of which I recently joined. The first question I asked the guide on the pavement outside was what exactly is a tenement? I wanted to know because I live in what I assume was a West Village tenement building, characterized by its layout--two apartments in back, two in the front, on each floor--fire escape climbing the façade and a tight, narrow internal staircase. The guide elaborated on the definition, describing a tenement as a building housing three or more unrelated families, originally with exterior wooden steps linking the floors where housewives hung drying laundry.

In the 1860’s the Lower East Side was deluged with a wave of immigrants from Germany; known as Klein Deutschland, it had the 5th largest German-speaking population among cities in the world at the time. The garment industry provided jobs, along with cigar factories and push carts. At 86 Orchard St., a sign that says Max Feinberg identifies a brick building that now hosts a chichi Mexican restaurant as the former home of Majestic Hosiery.

Around the corner at 133 Allen St., where there was once an elevated train and the city is building a bike lane--back to the future, as they say--we stopped in front the Church of Grace to Fujianese. It‘s a Christian worship place for fairly recent immigrants from China’s Fuzhou Province, but before that the building served as a bathhouse for the district’s great unwashed.

More characteristic of the Lower East Side in the late 19th century are the myriad synagogues tucked between storefronts like the Kehila Kodosha Janina temple at 280 Broome St., home to a small, obscure sect of Judaism that grew up in Greece during the Roman Era, and the former Congregation Poel Zedek Anshe Ileya, now a Seventh-Day Adventist Church at the corner of Forsyth and Delancey Streets, which actually began its long life as a German Presbyterian Church complete with a rose window around 1890.

Across the street Sara Roosevelt Park, named for FDR’s mother and opened around 1930, runs in a narrow strip between East Houston and Canal Steets. The city established the park at a time when it hoped to provide one acre of green space for every 600 people. Now the ratio is more like one acre for every 12,000 in the densely-packed neighborhood and the park has welcomed serendipitous new enterprises like the Wah Mei bird garden and the M’Finda Kaluma community garden, opened in 1983 partly to commemorate an abandoned nearby African cemetery and partly to stem drug dealing that was rampant in the area.

Just east of the park at the intersection of Rivington and Eldridge Streets, we stood in front of the University Settlement, a welfare organization founded by wealthy, educated New Yorkers in 1886 to aid immigrants by providing education and social services. It continues to do so now, though the clientele has changed since the neighborhood’s German immigrant days.

The Tenement Museum walking tour which lasts for two hours covers much more ground than this. I was exhausted by the time I finished. Fortunately, places for refreshment abound in the neighborhood, from cool cafes like 88 Orchard to Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery at 137 East Houston, which has been baking authentic knishes filled with potato, cabbage and spinach since 1890.
From the first annual SPEAK UP! contest, June 23, 2018, Muhanga, Rwanda

Syracuse Archaeological Museum, Sicily

Proshyan School bathroom with water tank

Takar and Kataro are my favorite Armenia reds

School time in Armenia.

Garni Temple, Armenia

Big Sur from Soberanes Point


Artichoke Pickers by Henriette Shore

On the way to the beach

Jalama Beach, CA

Hello, little sea urchin!

Famous Jalama Beach Burger

Three by Peter Hessler

Spring time on the Big Sur Coast


Jalama Beach, CA

Motya Charioteer. Image from

Laboratory for Atmospheres, NASA

Homesick for Rome

Therme Vals in Switzerland

At Vogelsgang

National Socialist Party poster from Vogelsgang

Palm Springs

Image courtesy of Tylas at English Wikipedia

Vintage Naples Historic District

From Palm Cottage

Borobudur frieze; Buddha's life

Borobudur at sunrise

Shikellamy State Park in Pennsylvania

Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Image courtesy of Politics and Prose

Image courtesy of John Wehrheim.

Lotusland in Montecito, CA

Ganna Walska of Lotusland

Image courtesy of Flickr user ViaMoi.

Conques Church. Image courtesy of Flickr user Seligr.

Weiming Lake, Peking University. Image courtesy of Flickr user ImGump.

The Coral Casino at the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel near Santa Barbara

Agrodome, Rotorua, New Zealand. Image courtesy of Flickr user _gem_.

Vandalized images at Painted Rock

Painted Rock, Carrizo Plain National Monument

Mesa Verde National Park. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons user BenFrantzDale.

A map of Chicago, Illinois, imprinted in 1913 from the United States Geographical Survey’s historical topographic map collection. Image courtesy of the USGS.

Image courtesy of Flickr user hattiesburgmemory.

Cristo Redentor, Rio de Janeiro. Image courtesy of Flickr user alobos flickr.

Image courtesy of Flickr user joiseyshowaa.

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Selected Works

Nonfiction, Travel, Human Interest
A new collection of travel essays by Susan Spano
Tracking Colette in Paris and Burgundy
A draught sinks Lake Powell, revealing lost wonders of Glen Canyon
Rome's Most Roman Neighborhood
Studying Mandarin in Beijing
Around the world and back to New York
Nonfiction Book
Divorce. Why do we do it? And what does it do to us? fourteen prominent writers have pondered these questions and have set down heir thoughts and personal stories, in this gathering of sometimes irreverent and always intelligent essays. "A disarmingly candid, invaluable collection." --Publishers Weekly
"Anyone who doubts that men, too, suffer in divorce should be required to read this." --Glamour Magazine "A rare, unusually focused anthology of original essays that both entertains and instructs." --Publishers Weekly

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