A few weeks ago while attending a meeting in the Time Warner building in New York City, I decided to skip out of a boring afternoon lecture and visit the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. This was one of the things I always wanted to do because the Lower East Side was a neighborhood similar to the North End but on a much larger scale. Waves of immigrants washed through this area, Irish, German Jews, Russian Jews and finally Italians, each group leaving a bit of it’s own culture. Several years ago a group bought a tenement building on Orchard St. that was in the same condition when the last family left in the late 1930’s. They built an interesting museum next door and give guided tours of the apartments, each tour profiling a different ethnic group. The tour I took concerned two families, the Gumpertz family who were German Jews and lived there in the late 19th century and the Baldizzi family who were the last tenants in the late 1930’s.
The tour group had about fifteen people and the guide, an aspiring actor, was terrific. Walking through that building was like a trip back in time for me because it reminded me so much of how we lived in the North End. The dark hallways with ten watt light bulbs, shared toilets, tiny rooms with linoleum on the floors, layer upon layer of paint or wall paper on the walls, no central heat; all these I remembered so well. (The Tenement Museum photos)
The other people on the tour gasped and murmured about the primitive living conditions, how could anyone live like this? I kept quiet because the guide was so engaging but I wanted to tell them, this is how I lived and it really wasn’t so bad. Living rough in a cold water flat was never about what we didn’t have but what we did have; the closeness of family and friends and the shared experiences of living in an urban neighborhood. I don’t want to romanticize it because there were hard times as well but anyone who lived in the North End during the middle of the last century will know exactly what I mean.
The tour guide, being an actor, was able to assume the character and even the manner of speech of the families. He knew a lot of details about the two families who lived in the apartment, their names, occupations, dates of birth and death, anything that could be learned from public records. What he didn’t know was what it was like living day to day in a tenement apartment, the many small details that made life tolerable and even pleasurable.
For example, how did people do their laundry? In our kitchen there was a big, two tub soap stone sink, one side was for the dishes the other for laundry. My mother and grandmother did laundry every day using lye soap and bluing for the sheets. They hand wrung the clothes and hung them up on clotheslines that were strung between almost every building in the North End. In the winter the clothes would come back in stiff as boards. Are there any clotheslines left in the North End today?
What about heat? The kitchen stove was our only source of heat and it was kept on all winter. We had what my mother called a “gas on gas” stove which meant there was a small, ineffective blower on the side so we didn’t have to keep the oven door open. Attached to the top of the stove, on the wall next to the gas meter, was a small, five gallon water tank which was our only source of hot water. The bedrooms in the back of the flat were ice cold so we had a brown porcelain space heater that ran on coal oil, a kind of cheap kerosene that was a by product of the gassification of coal. Coal gas is what was produced in the original “Gassy”. These heaters were eventually outlawed because of the fire risk. On many winter mornings the ice on the inside of our bedroom windows made fabulous designs and was so thick we could scratch it with our fingernails. Because the bedrooms were so cold we spent all our waking hours in the kitchen and what a wonderful experience that was. My mother, grandmother, aunts, uncles and some cousins all sitting around the big kitchen table talking, arguing, cooking, eating, telling stories and teaching us about the nuances of life in America.
The photo I’m sharing was taken right after World War II in our first apartment on the corner of Salem and Cross Streets. This was a typical “renovated” tenement apartment, three rooms, no heat, third floor walk up but we did have our own toilet. My father is giving me a bath in the kitchen sink, the only place where there was hot water. We both look pretty happy, living in a tenement flat wasn’t as bad as one would imagine.
Times change and so does the city. The tenements of my childhood are now fancy apartments where one months rent could have bought an entire building a hundred years ago. I hope the people who now live in these former cold water flats can still get a sense of what life was like not that long ago and consider the poor immigrants whose first foothold in America was right here in the North End.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.