The Baldizzi family have given NYC a lot to be grateful for. In the time capsule that is now the Tenement Museum and was the family’s home after the first world war, visitors can see the origins of Italian-American culture. But it almost didn’t happen. Lawmakers, anxious that the homogeneity of America was being threatened by the arrival of too many Catholic Italians, (+ Asians and Jews ), closed the door selectively to these immigrants in 1924. Momma mia! So Adolfo & Rosario came uninvited and joined other newcomers in the tiny apartments of Orchard Street on the Lower East Side just a few years before the building was condemned and closed up for over 50 years.
Amazingly, there is no smell. At least not now – imagine what it was like when they jimmied open the doors in 1988? Forty layers of paint, soot and sweat. Some rooms have been left in the decrepit style in which they were found, while others have been restored to show life as it was. The floor still squeaks and the doors open between apartments – it was communal living at its best. You can even run your hand down the same wooden staircase that all those 20 families did in the dark years ago, but fortunately the 4 toilets they shared in the back yard are no longer part of the experience.
The educator on our tour had many stories to tell, the best being about Josephine, the Baldazzi’s daughter. Apparently she knocked on the door soon after the Museum opened and asked why they were giving tours through her old house? Now a grandmother living in Brooklyn, Josephine filled in a lot of historical gaps, talking about eating egg rolls around the kitchen table and listening to Italian opera on the radio. Imagine New York without the Baldizzi’s, imagine New York without pizza? Fuhgeddaboudit!
( No photography is allowed in the museum – all photos here are provided courtesy of the Tenement Museum )