By Deborah Harley
With summer approaching, I’m looking forward to taking a nice relaxing ferry ride on one of the new ferry routes around NYC. Last year my husband and I cycled over to the Rockaways and afterwards ferried home -- sipping a beer and watching the scenery go by—all for the price of a subway ride, but a whole lot more fun. Ferries have become the trendy new alternative for getting around New York. The city has even added a new commuter ferry to Astoria, Queens. Which brings to mind a story that Robert Caro tells in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Power Broker, about the incorrigible Robert Moses, and a time when ferry service to Astoria wasn’t so prized.
During the early twentieth century, a municipal ferry house stood at 92nd Street and York Avenue in Manhattan. The ferry, named the Rockaway, carried commuters between Manhattan and Astoria. In 1936, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia arranged to end the city-operated ferry and transfer the land to the Triborough Authority to build a new approach to the Triborough Bridge. La Guardia finalized the plans for the turnover on July 15 but gave the ferry an additional sixty days to wind down operations while ferry riders found alternative ways across the East River. However, Robert Moses, who headed the Triborough Authority, didn’t want to wait that long.
Robert Moses, for those who don’t know, was for many decades the most powerful man in New York City and New York State. Arguably, he was even more powerful than Franklin Roosevelt, who was then President of the United States. Caro maintains that Moses was singularly responsible for the physical direction that the entire country took during the first half of the twentieth century. He influenced a generation of young urban engineers who went on to design and build the national landscape that we live in today.
Moses was a man who was used to getting what he wanted. Not willing to wait for LaGuardia’s sixty days to pass, Moses took action to raze the ferry terminal immediately. On July 21, after the Rockaway had pulled away from the terminal for an early afternoon run, Moses directed his contractor to block access to the terminal both by land and by sea and to yank the slip apart. When Plants and Structures Commissioner Frederick Kracke heard what was happening, he frantically tried contacting La Guardia while he dispatched Deputy Commissioner Andrew Hudson to halt the destruction.
Arriving at the scene, Hudson could not believe what was happening. The Rockaway was already on its return trip to Manhattan and would not be able to dock. Worse yet, in a few hours hundreds of commuters would suddenly find themselves stranded and unable to make it back across the river to their homes in Queens. Hudson argued with the contractors, whom Moses had instructed to stop at nothing, even as the dock was being torn to bits.
La Guardia, meanwhile, was livid. He contacted Moses, begged him to stop the destruction, and promised to shorten the waiting period. When that didn’t work, he ordered the police to intervene. But the contractors knew who their boss was—and it wasn’t the mayor or the police. It was Moses. Rush hour came, and a steady stream of commuters stood on York Avenue watching helplessly as the ferry dock was being carted away.
La Guardia pushed harder, and the police were finally able to stop the contractors from destroying the rest of the dock. That night, the city hastily rebuilt the damaged dock and ferry house. By morning, the Rockaway was back in service.
In the end, Moses won the battle. La Guardia waited about a week for the story to play out in the papers and then quietly allowed the demolition to begin in earnest. Late on the night of July 31, the Rockaway pulled away from the terminal for the last time, and the ferry house was torn down.
By Laurie Lewis
At New York’s Tenement Museum (www.tenement.org), you don’t just look at exhibits; you become part of them. The museum founders purchased a tenement building, researched past tenants, and restored many of the apartments to look as they might have when particular families lived there. You can’t walk through the building alone; you must take a tour with a guide, known in the museum’s parlance as an educator. It’s an apt term, because you learn so much from the guide: about tenement life, about the family that occupied the apartment at a point in time, and about society then and parallels today.
I’ve taken most of the tours the Tenement Museum offers, and each time I leave with a better understanding and feel for life in a period we usually learn about only through reading. You get a much deeper appreciation from being in the very rooms that housed thousands of immigrants over the years—millions, when you consider all the people who lived in tenement apartments like the ones you see at the museum. Recognizing that words fall short of the experience of visiting a tenement, I’ll nonetheless try to capture some of the impressions from the tour I took recently of an Irish family’s home.
The tenement building we visited is 97 Orchard Street, on the Lower East Side. Built in 1863, the building is one of the oldest tenements still standing. The Irish Outsiders tour focuses on the Moore family, who lived in the building for only a year, in 1869. Except for one other Irish family, all the occupants of the building at the time were German (which explains, in part, the name of the tour). Later tenants included Italians and East European Jews.
We entered the tenement in a way you never want to enter someone’s home: through the back yard, a small plot with four privies. Standing in the little yard on a blustery March day, we didn’t have to think long about the challenges of answering the call of nature in inclement weather. Or the long flight down and the even harder ascent that Bridget Moore had to make to her fourth-floor home carrying sloshing buckets from the building’s only water source, near the toilets. For those who needed a little help imagining the burden, the museum has filled a pail with stones to approximate the weight of water. The educator, Sara, pointed out that Bridget probably carried two pails at a time, one in each hand, to avoid another trip, although she might have had difficulty doing that with three young children along.
Bridget and Joseph Moore lived in a three-room apartment with their three daughters, the youngest an infant. The layout of their apartment was similar to that of all apartments in the building, indeed in most tenements. The living room of the Moore’s apartment faced the street; the living room of the back apartments overlooked the privy yard. A bedroom could hold a double bed and dresser but not much else. Between the living room and the bedroom was the kitchen. The stove was the only source of heat in the apartment. Although we saw fireplaces, they were too shallow to be functional, Sara explained, and were boarded up almost as soon as the tenement was built.
The museum limits the size of tour groups. The twelve people in my group filled each of the small rooms, even the unfurnished rooms we saw in apartments that the museum has not restored. “Cozy” doesn’t begin to describe the feel.
Previously, I had toured the restored apartment of a Jewish family that had lived in the building about thirty-five years after the Moores. The entire family, even the children, did piecework for the garment industry, and they were often joined in their home-based sweatshop by other workers. The apartment struck me as too dark to do delicate sewing, and I perspired just thinking about the heat in the airless space on a summer day with all those bodies and an iron going full blast to press the clothing under construction.
Tenements like this were the first homes for most immigrants in New York through the early twentieth century. Although some people moved out as soon as they were able, others lived in these conditions for many years, and second-generation tenement families were not uncommon. It’s hard for modern-day Americans to appreciate what our ancestors endured, what was considered normal for the working class. A visit to the Tenement Museum is a great eye-opener.
For more about tenements in New York, see our April 2018 newsletter.