A sign project shows the way life was and is lived


By Gerard Flynn

“From the ‘slave galleries’ you are invisible. You can see but you can’t be seen. Black people, free and enslaved, were forced to sit in hidden, cramped rooms above the balcony of our church,” the Reverend Errol Harvey of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church told a small crowd gathered last month at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. 

Harvey was describing the segregated experiences African-Americans faced even in sacred spaces, and was quoting from a testimonial he had submitted, one of 28, which make up “Your Guide To The Lower East Side,” a sign project mapping memories of community life over the past century or so. 

In the project, launched by the Municipal Art Society and City Lore at the beginning of September, private testimonials have been mounted at six sites throughout the neighborhood to celebrate the varied history and cultural richness of more than a century and a half of life there. The exhibition will extend through February 2008.

The idea, which started as a pilot project in 2002, aims to give voice to the stories of otherwise-silent historical sites, promoting the practice of place marking as a way of visibly showing why these locations matter. 

Four of the signs were recently mounted at P.S. 42, an early-20th-century school building straddling the border between Chinatown and the Lower East Side at Hester St.

With a demographic history largely reflecting the neighborhood’s changing cultural character, the school, according to its principal, Rosa Casiello O’Day — who provided testimony for the project — helped bring into focus for its students the intimate relationship between the area’s diverse denizens.

“The story of a place is the story of its people; the people and the place are one. People are the physicality of the place,” she said.

“On a personal level, place provides a framework for how I look at the world, I’ve always been particularly attuned to my physical surroundings,” added Marci Reaven, managing director of City Lore and also director of the signs project. 

“As a historian,” Reaven said, “I find that ‘place’ offers a way to do history in a way that’s meaningful and tangible for a wide variety of people.”

Signs will also be mounted at St. Teresa’s Church on Henry St., at Seward Park and at Straus Square on Rutgers St. 

The event was also attended by David McWater, chairperson of Community Board 3, who spoke about the important contributions immigrants had made to the area and to the country at large. 

Recalling how hers was the second Puerto Rican family to arrive on her street in the late 1950s, Lillian Rivera — whose statement graces one of the 28 signs — vividly expressed just how trying that immigrant experience could be, especially for the unskilled. 

“My mother worked hard to raise us five — garment factories during the day, other people’s laundry at night, in our tub,” Rivera said. “She made her own starch using yucca.”

Another contributor to the project, Rebecca Lepkoff, who grew up during the Depression on the Lower East Side, said it was first-generation or immigrant mothers that mattered and ought to be honored, “with their children, pans in hand as they stopped to talk to each other on the street. …”

“People sitting on stoops…so much gold lettering on the store windows,” she said, lamenting the loss of fond scenes.

However, of all 28 sign testimonials, perhaps none gives a greater sense of how discomforting life on the Lower East Side could be back in the old days than the one referring to a 1993 excavation in the Tenement Museum’s backyard at 97 Orchard St. 

Not gold, not dinosaur bones, not a long-forgotten tomb, archaeologists and staff dug up the building’s outhouse, an underground vault, draining into the sewers “with multiple seats,” which served as a temporary resting place for the 7,000 immigrants who lived in the tenement from 1864 to 1905.