Step into the former apartment of Julius and Nathalie Gumpertz, Prussian Jewish immigrants in the late 1870s, several years after Julius mysteriously disappeared, leaving Nathalie to support four children as a dressmaker. In the parlor, the "front room" with its crude wood floors and floral papered walls, fabric swatches lie on a Singer sewing machine, clothes are draped over a dressing screen, and a lace scarf of the type the family might have brought from Prussia dresses the mantel top. The tiny kitchen has just room enough for a small table against the wall and a cast-iron stove.
The tenants had to bring their own stoves, which meant lugging heavy coal-burning stoves up the stairs, breathing strong odors and never escaping the fine black powder covering walls and floors. Until the end of the 1880s, when porcelain sinks brought cold running water indoors, the apartments had no running water, only a pump in the rear yard from a shallow well, and tenants used the six outhouses in the filthy back yard. Germs and disease festered. Four of every 10 babies born in the building died of dysentery.
Another apartment looks as it did in 1935 when the Sicilian Catholic Baldizzi family lived here. Linoleum covers the floors, and electricity lights the rooms. Family possessions fill the place: a Brownie box camera in the kitchen, the cabinetmaker father's tool box, Rosary beads hanging from a bureau, morning glories climbing from flower boxes in the window.
Josephine Baldizzi Esposito, who lived in the apartment as a child and died in Brooklyn in 1998, would say visiting the restored apartment after completion of the 1994 restoration was like revisiting her childhood.
Listen to her tape-recorded voice, and you hear recollections of happy memories of playing checkers and gin rummy with her father and brother at the kitchen table while her mother buzzed around, cooking, serving food, always moving, singing along to the Italian operas on the radio. But the joy is tinged with an undercurrent of sorrow.
"The radio was always playing, Italian music, Italian soap operas, and my mother crying all the time," Baldizzi recalled. "She used to miss her family. She left her whole family in Italy, came here as a young girl, and she never saw them again. She never saw her mother or her father again."
Such stories resonate on the Lower East Side, where loss, poverty, discrimination against the latest ethnic group to arrive and horrendous living conditions were commonplace. But the immigrants proved a resilient lot.
Today, immigrants and their descendants still hawk their wares on Orchard Street, which turns into an outdoor bazaar every weekend, with cotton print skirts, leather coats, scarves, shoes and hats spilling onto sidewalk tables in front of shops.
The neighborhood is forever in flux. Little Ireland became Little Germany became Little Italy. Now Asian immigrants toil in sweatshops within site of former tenement houses where tiny apartments that rented for less than $15 a month at the turn of the century have been renovated and now fetch more than $1,500 a month. The white building that once housed the radical Jewish Daily Forward became a Chinese Bible factory. The English Lutheran Church became a Catholic church for the Irish, then the Italians, and now offers Masses in Cantonese and English.
But some stalwarts seem to defy change.
Still a place for immigrants
Harris and Ester Levy came to the Lower East Side in 1893 from a small town on the Russian-Polish border and started selling linens from a pushcart. Today, Bob Levy runs Harris Levy Inc., the Grand Street store that sells fine linens to affluent customers worldwide.
You won't find glaring fluorescent lights or endless rows of towels here. Instead the old building retains its original hardwood floors, high sculpted ceilings and cubbyholes along the walls to store and display towels and sheets. At the height of the recession of the early 1990s, Bob Levy considered moving uptown. Now he's glad he hung on to keep the family-owned store in the neighborhood into a second century.
"We did think about moving," he says, "but, you know, we're so attached to this community here, the community of immigrants and the history down here, and that's really what we're all about."
At Ben Freedman on Orchard Street, Avi Saks sells "gents' furnishings" - shirts, sweaters, slacks - as he has since 1962, when he started working for his father-in-law, Ben Freedman, who died five years ago. Freedman arrived with his mother and sister in the United States in November 1925.
"He came on Thanksgiving and he said: `What a country. They welcome you with a turkey dinner and all,' " Saks recalls his father-in-law saying. Now, Saks says, "You see people come here from all over the world. Why is very simple. They come here to create a new life because opportunities exist here."
Then, as now.