“When the sun hits”. Lower East Side, New York City.
It’s been exactly a year since I moved from the border area of Spanish Harlem in Upper Manhattan down to the Lower East Side. This photo will forever remind me of what a turning point this move was for me. My life has changed in so many ways since I moved that it feels as if my life has been divided in two parts now; life before moving to the Lower East Side and life after moving to the Lower East Side.
Having been notified that I had to find an apartment in a period of only two weeks because of a not-so-great landlord issue I spent every waking moment scouring Manhattan for a new, affordable apartment (a rarity). New York City was experiencing a dramatic heat wave at the time with temperatures in the triple digits and humidity at nearly 100 percent for days on end. On a 100 degree + (Fahrenheit) weekend, I moved into a tenement on the Lower East Side. This was no easy feat considering that my new apartment was on the 5th floor of a walk-up (it’s 76 steps up to my apartment! I have grown to love it). With no air conditioner, no fans, no internet and two extremely angry cats, I experienced the heat wave in all its glory.
I spent that memorable weekend roaming the nearby streets taking photos between ducking into places hoping to catch some relief. I would spend the rest of my time laying out ice blankets and pans of ice water for my cats because the temperature in the apartment was close to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the middle of my first week living on the Lower East Side, I decided to take a two hour tour at the Tenement Museum. Since my apartment is one of the early tenements and I am an avid New York City history buff, I couldn’t resist finally going to this museum. To say that it was one of the most incredible experiences I have had would be an understatement. Being the daughter of an immigrant to the United States (my mother came here as a concentration camp survivor of WWII when she was nearly 10 years old) and growing up in the dense cultural center of Flushing, Queens (a borough of New York City), I have always enjoyed learning about other people’s experiences with immigration to New York City and the United States.
On our tour that day, we learned all about the families who lived in the tenement apartments we toured (kept as they would have looked like when the families lived there) and viewed census records, photographs and keepsakes. At one point we listened to a short oratory recollection by an inhabitant of one of the apartments via a recording. She spoke about what it was like to live in the tenement we were standing in during the beginning of the 20th century. Being able to visually see these recollected remnants of someone’s experiences as they described them was a special experience. My group was also taken through a non-restored apartment in various stages of decay. Writing etched into crumbling walls indicated the amount of garments that had been stored in the room by tenants who would often share these tiny dwellings with their large families. Every object, every garment meant so much to them.
Since it was the two hour tour, we were able to ask a lot of questions of the historians and engage in quite a bit of spirited discussion. At the end of our tour through the early tenements, we spent a good half hour around a table in a cooled room eating cookies and drinking iced tea while listening to each other’s family histories. We cried and laughed together and when it was all over we hugged each other as if we had become a family right then and there. It was a quintessential New York City experience.
This photo for me represents the heat of that summer, the heat in my apartment that was similar to the heat felt by the tenants over one hundred years ago before there was air conditioning/reliable fans and many of the amenities we are used to in our modern living environments. It represents the heat of the hot tears that ran down my face while I cooled off that one morning at the Tenement Museum after sharing my own family’s history and listening to other people’s family’s immigration stories.
The sun hit the buildings in the most beautiful of ways that summer. The sun hits the buildings in the most beautiful of ways all year here. Because the Lower East Side is home to many of the original tenements which are shorter than modern buildings, it’s one of the neighborhoods where the sun can be seen regularly as it illuminates the fire escapes on the tenements that housed early New York City residents who carried with them many of the same hopes and dreams as those who inhabitant the same tenements today.
I wouldn’t trade the light and the heat for anything.
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