Street Scenes: Staging the Self in Immigrant New York, 1880-1924

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ARNO L. It is not that the old-time vaudeville show was a good show; it often, certainly, was anything but that. It was rather that it had an innocence and artlessness that made it appealing to men who prefer to take their diversion in an easy-come-easy-go fashion instead of in the railroad-schedule manner imposed upon them by present-day theatrical managers and traffic cops.

I have this dream, we're all at the table Sharing verses, stories and song Vaudeville Nanna and The Banjolele She hands it to me and I play along The best days of my life Are somewhere up the road With my family and friends I can close my eyes And I can see them, see them.

Street Scenes: Staging the Self in Immigrant New York, 1880-1924

There were a great many in vaudeville -- people who never quite came through. But they had their place, and they filled it. They kept theatres open. Those pan-timers, those interstate-timers, those four-a-dayers, those six-a-dayers -- they were an integral part of that endearing merry-go-round called vaudeville.

Vaudeville was characterized by sunny optimism, acts that were uplifting, cheerful, and clean. It provided a fanciful, magical escape, but after Black Friday, the tone of American entertainment changed almost overnight. Vaudeville's buoyant spirit no longer spoke to the country's mood, but burlesque did, loud and clear. Vaudeville was not quite what people today think it was; it suffers from the fact that no visual or audio record of it has survived. There is no film to speak of, no videotape.

Legitimate plays and musical comedies can be revived; film, even silent film, has endured to a substantial degree. But vaudeville is gone! Vaudeville was sinking already. Apartments were stifling in the summer; living rooms became bedrooms for multiple family members in the evenings.

Before running water, tenants ran up and down several flights of stairs per day, fetching water and using the outhouses, which were dismally few to serve the number of residents. The museum also holds neighborhood walking tours and special events such as food tastings and lectures. Start here to begin planning your visit. One way to earn a living was to rent a push cart by the day and sell goods that were in demand from fellow countrymen.

Push cart vendors sold baked goods, knishes, and hats, calling out their wares into the congested crowds of shoppers. As the population increased, the area became so crowded with push carts that it created a hygiene crisis and interfered with the safe passage of pedestrians. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, in an effort to ease the congestion crisis, created an indoor public market and moved the push carts inside so that on January 9, , Essex Street Market officially became a New York City indoor public market, consisting of four buildings and vendors. For the next 79 years, vendors sold goods to Lower East Side residents.

The market became a social gathering place, and also helped people through the depression by offering advice on how to stretch ration tickets. In May, , Essex Market moved across Delancey Street into a brand-new light-filled, 37, square foot building.

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Most long-time vendors made the move with them and because the space is larger, 18 new vendors have been added. Grocers and fishmongers are there, as are vendors selling Dominican food, Sicilian street food, ceviche, and bagels. There are Japanese snacks, Thai and Mexican food, and a creamery with over 30 types of cheese. Stroll the aisles with a cup of coffee, gather up an eclectic lunch from various vendors, and park yourself on the second-floor mezzanine, which is a dedicated seating area and a wonderful place to people-watch.

Be sure to check out the wall of historical photos at the Delancey Street entrance. Picture again the cramped, airless apartments of the Tenement Museum and the Lower East Side streets cluttered with push cart peddlers. The Eldridge Street Synagogue was built by and for Jewish immigrants, meant to be a place of light and air and a reprieve from the crowds.

New York City

The synagogue, built in , seats more than people. Light streams in from the 67 stained glass windows and an elaborate brass Victorian chandelier hangs from the high ceiling. It was among the first houses of worship built by Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who came to New York in staggering numbers. Between , the United States received 25 million immigrants. Of those, 2. The Eldridge Street Synagogue served this dense population. By the early s; however, the Immigrant Quota Laws and movement out of the neighborhood began to have an impact. The number of congregants decreased and eventually the grand main sanctuary was shuttered.

In , a movement to restore the building fell into place.


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The grand sanctuary reopened, and the Museum at Eldridge Street was created. Below the grand sanctuary are exhibitions, which explain the waves of Jewish immigration to New York. Digital interactive displays allow visitors to hear about prominent congregants, browse photos of the neighborhood through the years, and inspect before and after photos of the renovation project. The museum hosts classes and events like Egg Rolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas, a nod to the ever-changing neighborhood they are a part of. Group tours are available; self-guided tours are also possible.

See here for tour schedule and admission.


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