Heroines of the Lower East Side, a walking tour with the LES Jewish Conservancy, comes right out of Joyce Mendelsohn’s book. Joyce inspired us with stories of women you know–Emma Goldman, Louise Nevelson, Lillian D. Wald, and Belle Moskowitz–and those you probably don’t.
Of the latter, my favorite was “The Red Yiddish Cinderella,” Rose Pastor Stokes. Rose was so poor that as a child, she was sent to work in a cigar factory. Writing about working conditions, she became a journalist, and then interviewed one of the Phelps-Stokes who was working in a settlement house, so called because the volunteers settled in the neighborhood or building they were serving. The two fell in love, overcame family prejudices of their inter-religious marriage, and enjoyed their wedding gift of an island off Connecticut. Yes, seriously. They divorced after 20 years, but it was a real life Cinderella story, and she continued to serve the LES all her life.
My favorite building was the “Forward” Building, where the Yiddish socialist paper was published for over 40 years. Perhaps one of the most memorable parts of the paper, which advocated for workers’ rights, social reform, and the importance of education, was the Letters to the Editor section called A Bintel Brief. Joyce told us ethical conundrums and heart-wrenching dilemmas of those asking for advice. The response generally was to rally the community to support the their struggling neighbors–an ongoing theme on the LES. I look forward to reading the book of letters.
The ‘Forward’ building is now luxury condos, of course, and we all wondered if residents would get the irony each day as they exit and enter their building. Just overhead, on the protected facade of the building, are the carved faces of Marx and Engels.
Right across from the building is Strauss Square, originally Rutgers Square, where we stood on the ubiquitous Belgian blocks (not cobblestones, which are rounded), the site of soapbox mass meetings. Here, the 1917 riot of housewives took place. That year, the pushcart sellers raised the price of onions, a symbol of good luck, from 3 cents per pound to 10 cents per pound. One housewife became irate, and because the peddler couldn’t hit a woman, he instead enlisted his wife, who wasn’t shy.
The riot ensued, and then housewives met at Rutgers Square and organized. They decided to boycott all food except for milk, bread, eggs, and butter, and then marched to City Hall. Guess what? They won! Heroines indeed.
One other special stop was the Henry Street Settlement House. Image, we got to sit in the dining room, a beautiful Federal style room with a piano, where Lillian Wald and others worked to introduce just the most basic sanitary and health care needs of LES residents.
I didn’t know that the Settlement House still operates, serving about 60,000 people per year, in all five boroughs. They’ve expanded beyond health care and early Wald innovations like advocating for the first playground in New York, revolutionizing public schools with special education and school nurses, and creating the Visiting Nurses concept. Now they also provide counseling, day care, elder care, college counseling, and even music, art, and dance lessons.
What was so good about Joyce’s tour was her stories of how ordinary women become heroines, with compassionate hearts and courage to enact their beliefs–a timely reminder in this time of ongoing challenges. Everywhere on the tour were signs of Hurricane Sandy. Volunteers were clearing away debris and broken tree limbs, as life limps back to normal. There are heroines, and heroes, everywhere we look.