Sunday, August 31, 2008

Unexpected Findings

"Crowd of women, led by Mrs. Ida Harris, president of the Women's Vigilance League, at the city hall to protest the soaring cost of food. (Source: Independent, 12 March 1917; International Socialist Review, April 1917)"
Image courtesy US Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

I love google.  I am working on putting together a google map for the play which will show locations of places that existed during that time period and specific locations referenced in the text of the play.  I am also interested in using it for a walking tour with the cast during our first two weeks of rehearsal.  

I wanted to find the location of City Hall when the riots occurred, so I googled it with the date "1917" - in retrospect I should have googled City Hall alone to find out when it was built but this slightly roundabout way of finding that out led to the discovery of this fantastic photo!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Window Into Time

I found a great resource while searching online last night: The History Box, which has a trove of information on immigration and immigrant groups in NYC.

Most fascinating was a photo archive taken from Jacob Riis' book, "How The Other Half Lives," which focused on the "plight of the poor" in the Lower East Side.  It was a collection of photographs and drawings based on photographs, made possible "due to the recent invention of magnesium flash" which made it possible for him to "venture into the dimly lit areas of tenements and document the wretched conditions in which the 'other half' lived and worked."

This photo (above) is of a tenement apartment in 1910.  Imagine a whole family living out their lives in this one room.  It seems unfathomable, even by today's standards, with urban legends of people renting out closets in NYC (not so much an urban legend - I once went to look at a room for rent in the West Village and it was indeed a closet with a tri-fold door and no natural light....but that's another story.)

Apparently, the work "shocked most wealthy New Yorkers who had no idea such a world existed within a few miles of their own opulent neighborhoods."

This photo (to the right) is credited to Jessie Tarbox Beals photo (Community Service Society, 105 E 22nd St., NY, NY 10010). It is a mother and her children in a tenement kitchen in 1915, just two years before our play takes place. 

As I start crafting a script based on the research I've done (and knowing that there is far more still to do), it's amazing to be able to see into this world.

I have been to The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side (one of the best museums I've ever been to - check it out!) but it's not quite the same as actually being able to peer into that history, to see people going about their daily lives in the photographs.

It is a testament to what these families were willing to sacrifice, all for the sake of having hope in a better tomorrow, a better future.  

Are we willing to sacrifice this much?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Anti-Immigrant Policy

I just finished a compelling chapter in Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars (right before getting kicked out the library at closing time - maybe I should just buy a copy of this book...).  The end of the chapter left a disappointing and sour taste in my mouth.  

After weeks of successful boycotting and rioting, the price of food started to fall.  And then the city took its first and only official action: they passed legislation that stipulated that NYC peddler's licenses could only be issued to citizens of the United States.  Two hundred older Jewish men protested to no avail.  The Commission felt there were too many peddlers and so used discrimination and xenophobia to try and eliminate immigrants from the marketplace.  It also meant that consumers were increasingly at the mercy of those who could afford storefronts, which many times meant corporations.  This legislation really set the stage for corporate control of the marketplace.

This outcome made me think of the global food market as it exists today.  Today's big players aren't the farms/farmers, it's the corporations who distribute food.  Today food is exported and imported across the world and all too often, even though there are farmers in New Jersey producing perfectly good tomatoes, you're probably eating ones shipped in from California.  


Because growing vegetables doesn't pay.  Shipping them does.  (For further reading on this topic, I recommend Stuffed and Starved; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The Omnivore's Dilemma.)

I found it interesting though, that nearly 100 years later, we seem to be coming full circle.  The local marketplace seems to be thriving again, made desirable and viable by the green movement.  

In regards to food and buying locally, I have recently joined a CSA or Community Supported Agriculture.  Basically, you buy a share of vegetables (or in my case, vegetables, fruit and flowers) and pay for it in full at the beginning of the growing season.  Each week, the farmer who in exchange delivers fresh produce to our neighborhood.  It's an amazing way to get fresh food grown by people who are fairly compensated for their work.  Shout out to Windflower Farm!  

There's probably one in your neighborhood!  Here's the link for Just Food and CSA's in NYC.


I love when I find connections.  I swear I have the serendipity gene and I never tire of it.  

Or maybe I read too much into things.

At any rate, a year ago, we were doing research for our first full-length work, The Columbus Project, an exploration of the myth and the man, Christopher Columbus.   (This piece was inspired by a ten-minute play about potatoes).  

So I find it quite reassuring that these riots were born out of a boycott on (initially) potatoes.  But perhaps even more of a sign that I am on the right track is the following quote from Elizabeth Ewen's fabulous and meticulously written history of immigrant women in America, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars.  Here, Leonard Covello, who grew up on the LES in the early 1900's recalls his mother's kitchen table, which was "covered by an oilcloth with a picture of Columbus setting foot on American soil.  More than once my father glared at this oilcloth and poured a malediction on Columbus and his great discovery."

Only one more week until rehearsals begin for Phase 1 of this project's development and I have committed myself to reading only materials related to NYC in the early 1900's until then (other than the daily news).  I just want to immerse myself in all the details, a good soaking to flavor the writing....wish me luck! 

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Looking Forward to Go Back

Today I am blogging on-site at the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research on 16th Street @ 5th Ave. It is housed in the beautiful Center for Jewish History.

I came here today to access the archives of the Forward, the Yiddish daily newspaper.  Long known for its connection to the people, I thought that this would be a wonderful place to find detailed and first-hand accounts of the riots.

I was right.  However, the information still proves elusive for me.  The archives have not been translated from Yiddish to English.  In fact, if it were not for the obliging research librarian, Yeshaya Metal, I would not have much of anything to show for my trip here.  I do not speak Yiddish.  I certainly have Yiddish words that have found their way from my grandparents' and parents' limited vocabulary into my own, but these are probably the most banal of Yiddish words:  oy, get the point.

Since I knew the months and year I was looking for, even down to a few specific days, Mr. Metal was kind enough to sit at the Microform reader (the archives are all on microfilm) and scan through the paper looking for headlines.  He found several and I have printed the articles for later translation (brush up on that Yiddish, Katy Rubin!).  The first one - February 21 - was a huge success as it also included a photo of hundreds of protesting women surging towards the forefront of the photograph.  

It was an interesting experience, sitting beside him as he would read bits of Yiddish out loud and chuckle, occasionally translating for me.  

"crazy prices!"
"This happened in America"
"Don't buy potatoes!"
"The riots are going well!"

We printed up several articles from February 21 - 23.  After Mr. Metal returned to his desk, I stayed to look through the papers at the ads which were featured.  Many of them were in English.  D. Jones Furniture at 62 Orchard Street.....Luden's Cough Drops for 5 cents...Ridgeways India-Ceylon Tea....Narimova in War Brides at the Majestic Theatre on Second Avenue at 1st Street.

I am fascinated by these little bits and pieces - it's like opening up a time capsule.  I want to immerse myself in all the details of life in New York City at the early part of the 20th Century.  I want to visit these locations and squint my eyes and try to imagine what it was like 100 years ago. I want to connect with the memory of these women and these places.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pinching Pennies

We often use the phrase "pinching pennies" when describing a thrifty perspective.  Perhaps it's not such a popular turn of phrase these days but we still all recognize its meaning: finding ways to cut corners and hold on to our money.  

Strange that we identify with this when we hardly ever deal with pennies.  In fact, some people believe that we should do away with this near-obsolete currency; one group has a whole website devoted to it!

Today I've been reading a paper from Feminist Studies, "Housewives, Socialists and the Politics of Food: The 1917 New York Cost-of-Living Protests" by Dana Frank (1985).  It looks at the food riots and the connection to the Socialist party which had a stronghold in NYC at the time.  In the paper, Frank documents examples of increases in the cost of food: potatoes suddenly went from $0.05/lb to $0.10/lb, onions from $0.14/lb to $0.18.

It's hard to connect with what those four or five pennies mean.  I remember reading All-Of-A-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor about a family of five young jewish girls growing up on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century (I should definitely re-read this book).  I remember the girls going to the cracker barrels to buy 1/2 cent crackers as a special treat!  I could never figure out how they actually paid for it - how could they possibly split a penny in half?  Did they give the shopkeeper the other half for future credit?  Adolescent misunderstanding aside, it's still hard to comprehend.  Nowadays, when prices go up, they seem more likely to increase by a quarter or a dollar so as to facilitate making change. Just look at the MTA - their fare increases to the single-ride fare jump by $0.50 at a time (we won't talk about the monthly card).

A huge difference today is that we can (most of us do) live on credit.  When the price of food goes up, we'll probably just put it on our credit card (or put something else on the credit card) to compensate.  That is, of course, my own perspective and I realize that I am very fortunate.  I know that millions of people around the world can't do that. In America, perhaps, we are living in a very warped world indeed.

There's one quote in the article that stuck out to me, from a woman protester explaining why it was necessary to boycott and riot:

"With $14 a week, we used to just make a living.  With prices as they are now, we could not even live on $2 a day.  We would just exist."

Let us not forget that almost one hundred years later, there are still people trying to exist on $2 a day.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Slice of Life

Yesterday I discovered a great book at the New York Public Library of Humanities & Social Sciences. It was a slim little text called Not So Long Ago: A Recollection by Emma Beckman, published in 1980. Ms. Beckman immigrated to NYC from Hanover, Germany as a young girl (5 or 6) at the beginning of the 20th century. Her brief and delightfully candid memoir is full of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the Lower East Side in the early 1900's. The volume tantalizingly ends just before 1917 as Ms. Beckman gets hired and (and fired from!) her first job as a secretary.

Here are just a few of the details I found:
  • going to Orchard Street for bargains
  • buying fish at the end of the day, when they nearly gave it away
  • naptha soap which smelled like kerosene
  • pushcarts "piled high with slightly rotted fruits and vegetables"
  • attending the Hebrew Technical School for Girls to learn stenography, typing & bookkeeping
  • public baths for children on Hester Street
What I loved the most about this book is that I felt like Ms. Beckman was speaking directly to me, telling me stories from her childhood. The chapters were simple and straightforward and really conveyed the angst and heartbreak of leaving one country for another and what it meant to be an immigrant, a Jew and a young woman in New York City.
When the book was over, it simply ended. No prologue, no summation. I wondered if Ms. Beckman decided to end her stories there or if she simply couldn't write any more. I have the feeling that there were many other stories to tell and I would have loved to have seen more of New York through her eyes.

Here's an image of Hester Street around the time that Ms. Beckman and her family moved to the Lower East Side, courtesy Wired New York.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Journey Begins

Last week, I officially started research on the Food Riot Project.  (Official title forthcoming!) After a few google searches several weeks ago, which turned up few details, I decided to begin true academic research at the New York Historical Society Library.  The NYHS is housed in a beautiful, stately building on Central Park West.  On this particular day, I only had enough time to visit the library but I hope to return soon to visit some of the other exhibits available.  

Once inside the library, an extremely helpful librarian endeavored to find some more specific information for me.  The first book we consulted had no mention of the riots whatsoever, even though it was cataloguing a list of riots in NYC.  Other books about women in the 20th century did not appear to have the information I was looking for.  Finally, he rushed over to bring me a book, whispering excitedly, "I found something!"

The book was The New York Chronology: The Ultimate Compendium of Events, People and Anecdotes from the Dutch to the Present by James Trager.  It's just what is sounds like: little bits and pieces of New York's history gathered together painstakingly.  I might just buy a copy of this to improve my NYC trivia skills!  Here is the gem that James Trager gave me:

In February, 1917, rising food prices led rioters to attac
k food shops and burn peddler's pushcarts on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn's Brownsville and Williamsburg sections, "rejecting suggestions that they substitute rice for potatoes and milk for eggs and meat.  6,000 Kosher poultry shops and 150 Kosher poultry slaughterhouses close down just before Passover to protest wholesalers accused of cornering the market."

Suddenly, the picture opened up with details of location, food and people.  

Initial thoughts:
  • There's a Brownsville in Brooklyn?  I've never heard of it!  (It is later confirmed to still be there by my friend, Father Joe Franco).
  • Interesting that rice was being promoted then, whereas now it's the subject of dramatic price increases.
  • This seems to be a largely Jewish movement, which confirms that this is going to be an immigrant's story.  This also opens up more specific places to look for information.  I wonder if the Yiddish Forward has first-hand accounts!
Amazing how just a few lines have helped to jumpstart this investigation.  This is definitely going to be a scavenger hunt, my friends.

I'll leave you with this great photo, courtesy History Matters, the U.S. Survey Course on the Web (great resource!).   

I'm continually amazed when I find photos from this early on.  Even though the camera had been around for quite some time, I think it's unusual to find photos of a journalistic nature vs. portraiture.  I hope I'll find more....