Thursday, December 3, 2009


LK booked us into a tenement on the Lower East Side for our stay in New York City. No kidding.

We're at the Blue Moon Hotel, a lovely, renovated tenement house in the neighborhood made famous by so many movies about immigrants first arriving in America. After so many years of Intercontinentals and Ritz Carltons on business trips, it's fun to discover these boutique hotels in parts of town that almost never see a business conference.

This is the neighborhood of the movies "Crossing Delancey" and "Hester Street" and "The Gangs of New York". We seem a million miles from the upmarket midtown of Manhattan.

The hotel doesn't number its 22 rooms. Instead, each is named after a famous performer from the first half of the 20th century when it actually functioned as a tenement. We're staying in the Ella Fitzgerald room, right next to the Frank Sinatra room. When we checked in and the clerk asked if I had ever heard of Ella Fitzgerald, I was able to tell her that I had her on my iPod. I thought it was pretty impressive. Linda assured me no one was impressed.

The hotel is two doors away from the Tenement Museum, and we checked it out today. They have a variety of tours that show you what life was like in the New York tenements of the 19th and early 20th centuries. We chose a tour called The Moores, which looks at the apartment of an Irish family that immigrated to America in the mid-1800s.

Our chief concern in booking the tour was that it required us to walk up 63 stairs to the fourth floor of the old building. I am particularly aware of how difficult it would be for them to carry me down steep stairs should my body suddenly decide the exertion is all too hard. I was especially concerned because our guide - excuse me, our educator - was 75, and I didn't want to show how hard it was for me to keep pace with a really old guy! (Just kidding, Mom and Dad!)

The good news was that my Wii Fit training worked fine and they had the good sense to have us all sit down and watch a presentation when we got to the top floor. I was only breathing a little bit fast when we got up to walk through the building 10 minutes later.

They wouldn't let us take pictures in the tenement, and I cannot quite understand why. There was nothing much that could have been damaged by flashbulbs. In fact, as you can see from this picture from their web site, the rooms were pretty much bare and sparse. There were a few artefacts and pieces of furniture, but nothing that couldn't be photographed.

By the way, what you are looking at with this picture is 2/3rds of the apartment that would typically house 6 or 7 people - and around 11 during the Great Depression. There was only one other room - a very small bedroom which could sleep as much as the two parents and three or four of the younger children. You just had to hope no one wanted to turn over during the night.

More than 7,000 families lived in the building during its lifetime. All of them were poor, many of them lost children to the unsanitary conditions - conditions which were due in part to the fact that people didn't even know there was a connection between cleanliness and health until the 20th Century. (Thanks to our educator, Gerry Lemmon, for that tidbit.)

At one point this part of the Lower East Side had more people per square foot than any other part of the world, including Calcutta. It was where the Irish and Germans came, followed by the Poles and Russians and Italians. Later the immigrants from Central and South America arrived.

Even for new immigrants, the American dream was alive - move to a better place, get a better job, get your kids a better education. It was virtually everyone's desire to get out of this area as fast as they could. This was the starting point of their great life's adventure. After today, I think it's kind of cool that so many people are coming back here to make sure that time is not forgotten.

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