Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Felicity Osman

This is one apple I just love. You know the one I mean. The one, the only – the true Big Apple. Shiny and red and utterly irresistible. Whether it is a nibble or the whole, crazy thing.

The first time I visited NYC I was 30 years old and immediately questioned what I had been doing with my life. I love this city. No matter how many times you visit, there is something new around the corner, a friendly soul on the subway, another sandwich to try at Dean & Deluca, a new shop to give my credit card a thorough and exhausting workout in.

So I find myself once again in NYC and decide to let myself get lost in this wonder. I shuffle into my Havianas and let them melt comfortably into the souls of my feet and the hot, grimy sidewalk.

Destination – Lower East Side. A side that escapes many first time visitors, it is found as described, on the lower east side of Manhattan. Nowadays it is another trendy, urban area, slightly grubby, full of artists, galleries and small boutiques, oozing New York cool. I, however, am heading back in time to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (www.tenement.org) to experience how newly arrived immigrants used to live.

Between 1815 and 1914 over 30 million immigrants arrived in the US searching for a better life. Many of them ended up on the Lower East Side. Most came from northern and western Europe – Ireland, Scandinavia and Germany but later this shifted to eastern and southern Europe – Poland and Ukraine amongst other places.

Immigrants left behind poverty and unemployment in their home countries to come to this land of dreams where the ‘streets were paved with gold’. Work in the garment industry, making clothes, was freely available on the Lower East Side but you had to work hard for it, getting paid 4 or 5 cents a garment. So we are talking 15 hour days on average, six days a week – probably longer hours when the push was on.

The tenements you can visit were built in 1863-64 when the area was becoming more culturally diverse with immigrants. Apartments as we know them didn’t exist at this time (the first one, ‘an apartment house’ built in New York for ‘respectable’ families was opened in 1869). Before this, wealthy New Yorkers lived in a single row house or mansion. So the tenement buildings were unusual as they were the first lodgings built to accommodate families – in the small bedroom, kitchen and living room which constituted a ‘tenement’ – on average we are talking mum, dad, baby and maybe 4 or so other children. Cosy.

All tours are guided by friendly, sparky and knowledgeable staff, providing a fascinating insight into the everyday lives of these New York ‘newbies’ in these brilliantly preserved buildings. On arrival, you walk into the front corridor which is dark and dank only to find out that the original tenants had no lights whatsoever –ok so they had no electricity, I knew that, but we’re talking natural light here. The glass pane in the door was added years later. So we are in pitch darkness, no lift of course, no running water, initially no toilets and the sounds of dozens of families going about their business.

Around this time, the sewing machine became available to the masses. As such families could start their own garment ‘factory’ working from their living rooms. Everyone in the family had a role and additional workers were employed to increase production.

There are some great examples of success. One family, after striving for years to put money away and make a good life for themselves in this new land, were able to buy their home in Brooklyn out right. Wish that was possible in London…..But with those stories come the stories of heavily pregnant women going up and down several flights of stairs (in the darkness) for water eight or so times a day, of giving birth and then getting up to finish the day’s chores, of illness – cholera, typhoid, polio, of long hours, hard work in crowded conditions, working by the daylight from the living room windows, and of searing temperatures – irons were kept going all day in the kitchen for pressing the dresses.

And I sometimes think my work-life conditions here in London are tough. Long hours at the office (but in an airy, light space where one can chatter to colleagues and share cake. Oh and never for 15 hours) and exorbitant rent (but hey I have electricity and running water. Bonus! Oh and I don’t have to share a room with three children). But you know, a lot of these workers didn’t think they had it too bad. This was the land of dreams, they had homes and work and to them, as one tenant wrote back home to family in Europe, ‘the streets here, truly are paved in gold’.