Immigration commemoration

The immigrant experience – revisited through the lens of Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum.

July 2, 2010 16:17
The tenement at 97 Orchard Street today.

nyc tenement 311. (photo credit: Keino Niwa for LESTM)

New York City offers an excuse to explore two museums that celebrate the immigrant experience: One is a large national shrine – the Ellis Island Memorial. Forty percent of all Americans have an ancestor who passed through Ellis Island. The other is a small public-spirited enterprise operated by a public trust, the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum. In 1900, three-quarters of all New Yorkers lived in tenements.

Ellis Island – official and untold stories

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In 1892 Ellis Island became the main inspection station for immigrants to America – part of the transfer of authority for immigration from the states to the federal government, and efforts to regulate and reform, set eligibility criteria and eliminate exploitation of “green” immigrants. During the heyday of mass immigration between 1892 and 1924, some 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island, 16 million by the time it closed in 1954.

After 1924 geographic quotas cut the flow of immigrants to a trickle, and a visa system transferred eligibility issues to American diplomats abroad. Ellis Island continued to operate for another 30 years, but largely in name only. Finally, it was abandoned after 62 years, an expensive and underused dinosaur in the age of air travel.

In fact, Ellis Island’s role in immigration was sandwiched between two other functions – neither celebrated by the Park Service. From 1824 to 1839 it was dubbed “Gibbet Island.” It was here that America hanged pirates. Later, it served as a detention and deportation point for “troublemakers” – first, radical labor organizers and a handful of anarchists, like Emma Goldberg, during the Red Scare in 1918-1920 (following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia), then again for alien “Commies” – real and imagined, at the height of McCarthyism in the early 1950s.

These roles are mentioned, but Ellis Island’s mandate is to commemorate immigration. Exhibits document conditions in steerage during the two-week passage. Steamship companies raked in huge profits from ferrying thousands of steerage passengers in packed holds at $30 to $40 each. What about first and second class passengers who paid $80 to $90 a ticket? Ah, they demanded services and staff that made them less lucrative customers.

The dreaded medical inspection

The central motif at Ellis Island – and rightly so – is the medical inspection process that left an indelible mark on the immigrant experience. What makes a visit such a moving experience are poignant written and verbal eyewitness accounts that accompany the vintage photographs and occasionally artifacts encased in glass – a human touch, at the press of a button. (Visitors can rent audio tours that include a choice of material for adults and children.)

Unknown to immigrants, the inspection process designed to weed out “undesirables” began as they checked their baggage on the first floor. Officials searched for any newcomers limping or out of breath, perspiring or otherwise looking anything but robust as they trudged up the double flight of stairs leading to the Great Hall where 3,000 to 7,000 persons were processed per day.

In six seconds, doctors sized up each immigrant in line and rendered a verdict. Those suspected of being deficient in some way – some 20 percent of the newcomers – were marked with blue chalk on their coats for closer inspection – L for a limp, E for an eye problem, Ft for feet, N for neck, G for goiter, Sc for scalp (ringworm), X for feeblemindedness, an X with a circle for those with clear mental issues and more. One testimony relates how a young woman slipped in – avoiding further scrutiny for warts on the back of her hand after a sympathetic official told her to turn her silk-lined plush coat inside out, to hide the incriminating chalk mark.

The most traumatic stage of the medical inspection was the eye examination that every immigrant endured: A doctor looking for telltale signs of trachoma used a buttonhook (designed to button fashionable high-top laced shoes) to lift and invert the eyelids of every newcomer. Nearly two-thirds of those rejected on grounds of “loathsome or contagious diseases” were excluded due to trachoma, some 25,000 between 1904 and 1914. This experience remained etched in the minds of those who went through Ellis Island much in the way dusting immigrants with DDT upon disembarking at Haifa came to symbolize the aliya experience for newcomers who arrived during the mass immigration in 1949-1952.

The Immigrant Act of 1907 raised intelligence bars: “Feeblemindedness,” not just retardation, became grounds for exclusion. Crude intelligence tests included counting backward by twos – leading some arrivals, perhaps still dazed from the ordeal of the passage but far from dim-witted, to wonder if these uniformed officials were serious or ridiculing them.

Gateway of hope or island of tears?

Ellis Island has been called both a Gateway of Hope and an Island of Tears – depending on whether one focuses on the overwhelming majority who got in or the small number who did not.

Eighty percent were on their way to a new life within a matter of hours, others only after a nerve-racking and at times lengthy appeal – aided by immigrant aid organizations. Some faced forced hospitalization on the island.

Some patients were cured and allowed in, others dispatched back to their port of departure. All told, an estimated 2% of those who reached Ellis Island were rejected and deported – some 14,000 in 1910 alone. University of Massachusetts academic Vincent Cannato in American Passage, a “biography” of Ellis Island released in June 2009, throws light on facets of the selection process not covered in the Park Service narrative. Two percent is only part of the story, says Cannato. At least another 6% of would-be émigrés were rejected before they boarded ship – weeded out by steamship company doctors. In 1906 alone, some 68,000 people were refused steamship tickets at five major European departure ports. And this figure doesn’t include those turned back by German border guards before they even reached major ports of departure like Hamburg or Bremen.

Minors, gender bias and shotgun weddings

The exhibit tells the poignant tale of unescorted minors, caught in vintage pictures, dazed and staring at the camera, hoping someone would come to collect them – marked with tags with huge numerals “like marked-down merchandise at Gimbel’s” in the words of one eyewitness who’d been just such a child. American Passage doesn’t cover only changing attitudes, policy and policy-makers; this is paralleled with the saga of actual individuals whose fate hinged on changing eligibility standards, stored at the National Archives in Washington. Cannato also sheds light on excesses, from profiteering to sexual harassment. One of the most piquant aspects of immigration policy was “moral turpitude”: Evidence or suspicion of premarital and extramarital sex could spell deportation. Unescorted women had to be signed over to the recognizance of a male relative or an immigrant aid society.

Free at last?

Inspection climaxed at the other end of the Great Hall, where clerks perched on high stools validated information on ship manifests and checked that newcomers had the requisite $25 in cash deemed sufficient to ensure they would not become public charges. Behind them lay the Stairs of Separation.

Immigrants were directed down the stairs to one of three identical doors separated by railings: on one side, a door for those detained for legal reasons, the other for those detained for medical reasons. Both led to interrogation and examination rooms, austere detention dorms or hospital wards. Detainees could be left in limbo for hours, days, months, even years during the world wars.

The middle door held the key to America – leading to the canteen and ferry and train ticket offices and the ferry slip. At a pillar near the exit turnstile, dubbed “the kissing post,” unescorted women and children were delivered into the hands of relatives, summoned by postcard.

There was a ferry to the New Jersey shore railroad station – non-English speakers sent on their way with a ticket and address pinned to their coats. Another ferry line transferred immigrants to the docks in Lower Manhattan – only a stone’s throw from the tenements of the Lower East Side where most such ferry passengers were headed.

The Tenement Museum – reliving the Lower East Side

The Tenement Museum retells the immigrant experience through the lens of a handful of the 7,000 tenants who lived in the 97 Orchard Street tenement throughout its history (1863 to 1935).

Even if one grew up on stories about the Lower East Side’s “railroad flats,” including dreadful memories of the shared toilet in the hall – it’s impossible to envision the real size of these three tiny rooms strung out like railroad cars – 36 square meters in all, often with six or even 10 occupants. The front room or parlor with windows faced the streets, linked to two dimly lit, airless and windowless back rooms by doors – a kitchen dominated by a mammoth coal-burning stove and deep iron sink on legs with an interior window cut in the wall to the parlor. The cubby-like bedroom was barely large enough for a narrow double bed.

Stumbling on a ‘lost’ tenement

In 1935 the landlord of 97 Orchard Street had evicted his tenants and boarded up the five-story building’s 20 flats rather than comply with stricter building codes. The tenement sat untouched – except for commercial use of the basement level – for more than five decades.

In 1988 a group of public-spirited New Yorkers who dreamed of a Lower East Side museum discovered it by chance when they sought to rent the storefront and asked where the bathroom was... and the landlord led them into the untouched interior of an honest-to-goodness tenement. They purchased the building in 1994 for $750,000 – including 20 layers of peeling vintage wallpaper and artifacts such as an uncashed $10 check dated June 18, 1935, still in the mailbox.

The museum’s life-size tableaux

Scores of former tenants were tracked down through birth certificates, voting records, court records, marriage announcements. Input from in-depth interviews led to restoration of six apartments as tableaux of the lives of actual occupants, each reflecting a different period. The Tenement Museum offers a series of intimate tours (for details see the Tenement Museum’s Web site at – each focusing on a different facet of tenement life.

Original 1860s-vintage tenements were firetraps with wooden staircases and unlit halls, rooms illuminated by candles or kerosene lamps and heated by coal stoves. Water was hauled up five flights from a spigot in the yard, which also housed several privies and laundry lines. But such masonry apartment buildings, including the one at 97 Orchard Street built in 1863, were an improvement over the two-story wooden hovels they replaced.

The oldest restored apartment portrays this period. It was refurnished as it looked when occupied by the Gumpertz family in the 1870s. Natalie was a seamstress whose husband disappeared in the fall of 1874. She was left destitute with four young children to feed – one who would die of dysentery that first winter. In fact 40% of the children born at 97 Orchard Street never made it to adulthood.

Experiencing sweatshops in august

The 1890s décor of Harris and Jennie Levine’s flat portrays the lives of garment workers eking out a living doing piecework at home – their and their five children’s home doubled during the day as a factory.

Visiting the tenements in late August – the building is neither air conditioned nor heated – museum visitors experience firsthand just how unbearable life must have been for the occupants. There is no need to explain why these makeshift workshops – domestic and commercial – were called sweatshops. A pedal-operated sewing machine sits near the window for light. The small room, fabric and half-finished dresses everywhere, was shared with a hired baster and a finisher hand-sewing in the dim light, while the kitchen with its coal stove worked full blast even in the summer, heating the heavy irons used by the presser, removing wrinkles and flattening seams.

The advent of gas lighting and toilets

Another flat is the Confino family’s – Sephardim from Kastoria, Greece, who arrived in America in 1914. Their saga is told by a professional actress in period dress and accent who impersonates 14-year-old Victoria Confino. The apartment’s furnishings vividly depict the cramped conditions – a crib crammed into an already crowded kitchen, a front room that served as a makeshift bedroom at night with siblings and others sleeping on a line of chairs or crates or on the floor. Yet, by the time the Confinos moved in, conditions had improved: There were gas lighting fixtures, and in 1901 landlords had been required to install flush toilets in the hallways to meet new building codes – one for every two families.

Victoria Confino answers the questions of those participating in the tour, who are asked to imagine they are new immigrants eager to get the lowdown on life on the Lower East Side. Two blond and blue-eyed elementary school-age lads avidly ask what games Victoria’s younger siblings play (marbles and stoop ball) and where she does her homework in such cramped quarters (the cookstove doubles as a desk). They turn out to be a Jewish family from London – four of the museum’s 130,000 annual visitors who, in fact, hail from all 50 states and 33 foreign countries.

The changing face of the Lower East Side

In addition to this series of hour-long tours (limited to 12-15 participants each and well worth the $20 adult fee) the Tenement Museum offers a 90-minute walking tour of the neighborhood, led by a historian well-versed in the times and tempo of the neighborhood who points out vestiges of its past, enhanced by social history.

Landmark facades stand among signs for Chinese electronic wholesalers, Latino second-hand restaurant equipment suppliers and cut-rate suitcase outlets and cheap clothing stores and a Vietnamese shrine, shoulder-to-shoulder with a growing number of upscale renovated 36-square-meter former tenements that can rent for $1,600 a month and new buildings that mark the gentrification of the neighborhood in the last decade.

According to Temple University professor Morris Vogel who led the walking tour (Vogel took over as president of the Tenement Museum from founder Ruth Abram in 2008), spiraling real-estate values threaten to change forever the ongoing role of the Lower East Side as a gateway for immigrants, even to this day. Whatever the future holds in store, the Tenement Museum plans to continue to tell the story of the Lower East Side that at its zenith teemed with humanity, horses and no fewer than 15,000 pushcarts.   

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