Monday, June 6, 2011
We were not much impressed by our visit to the Folk Art Museum last week, but the art we saw in the East Village during our bike tour captivated us, and we had to go back to get a closer look today.
These fanciful flowers made of aluminum cans, plastic bottles and other found objects line the chain link fence surrounding a community garden that is only open during limited hours on weekends. These festive flowers are always in bloom, they’re accessible even when the garden gates are locked, and they project the spirit of the community instead of hiding it away inside a fence.
There are lots of aluminum security shutters with graffiti painted on them all over the city, but this mural is exceptional for both its artistry and the poignancy to the message.
This is the most beautiful fire escape in all of New York, blooming with brightly painted umbrellas.
It isn’t far from here to the edge of the largest China Town in the Western Hemisphere. We lunch at a Chinese restaurant where we are the only English speakers, and the only customers who don’t look Asian. We do not recognize much on the menu except dumplings, but because each item is clearly described in English, we avoid ordering goose web or intestines, duck’s tongue or blood, chicken feet or cold jelly fish. Our food is good, and they even have a fork for Dick (he is the only one in the restaurant using this utensil).
Just around the corner is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, where an outstanding educator leads us on a tour of a tenement building, telling us the story of the neighborhood, the building, and two Jewish immigrant families who lived there in 1900, when this block was the most crowded place in the world. Back then, 2,200 people lived on the block, which houses 300 people today. There were half a million Jewish people living in the Lower East Side, the largest settlement of Jewish people in the world. There were also 25,000 homeless children.
The two families whose recreated apartments we visit worked in the garment industry. There were 23 garment factories on this block—most of them in the tiny three room apartments where families lived—and 70% of residents here worked in the garment trade. Through photographs, demonstrations, and vivid descriptions, our guide helps us imagine just how miserable life must have been back then, with no electricity or running water, and no cross ventilation in the summer (it was a warm day, so we got an inkling, but could only imagine how much worse it would be without the electric fan and with a stove on to heat the coals for an iron to press fabric during garment construction). The word “sweat shop” was coined here, and our guide tells us that to this day there are still 300-400 sweat shops in the city, according to city inspectors. Things may not have changed as much as we would wish over the past 100 years.
After wandering around the Lower East Side for a week now, it does not surprise us to learn that 40% of Lower East Side residents were born in another country.
We end our day at the Empire State Building, where we stand in a long line to be screened by security, another long line to wait for the elevator that goes six floors below the observation deck, another line for the elevator that takes us up the final six floors, and then we join a huge mob on the observation deck. The views of the city shining below us are stunning, but we have to wait to get to the rail for an unimpeded view no matter where we go around the perimeter of the deck. I find myself doing mental calculus to determine whether the aggravation is worth the reward. I think my results may be biased by my lack of affection for heights, but this experience is clearly not going to make it to my top ten highlights of the trip list. We did get some pretty nifty pictures to show for all our trouble, though