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Archive for the ‘poverty’ Category

My partner and I visited New York City in the spring, to celebrate his 40th birthday. We stayed in a ‘bed and coffee’ in Alphabet city. Apparently this was a prettyorchard.jpg rough area not that long ago, but has undergone a – is it revitalization, renewal, or gentrification? – I’m not sure. It was great to be in an area of the city where you could actually imagine yourself living, rather than the more touristed Manhattan destinations. We visited the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum and heard about the masses of immigrants who lived cheek by jowl in these tiny apartments. Often this was their first experience of America – straight from the docks into and dingy, crowded room in a tenement. I can’t really explain why I find this little part of history so fascinating, but ever since the visit I have been reading about the lower eastside.

A subject heading search with “lower east side” and fiction lead me to Eleanor Widmer’s book Up From Orchard Street. This is the story of a Jewish family, living in the tenements in the 20’s and 30’s. Bubby is the matriarch of the story. She’s really the only adult who has any sense, so she acts as a parent to her grandchildren, while her son and his wife, Jack and Lil, carry on like a couple of kids in love. Jack and Lil make a spotty living in the fashion industry. They are fond of fine clothes and spend their evenings dressing up like a couple of swells and going to the theatre to spend money they don’t have. Bubby runs a restaurant out of the tiny living room. Her food is famous, but increasingly, she has to compete with the shiny new delicatessans moving into the neighborhood. The story is told from the perspective of Elka, the ugly duckling, and the brightest member of the family. She’s a reader and writer, and learns her craft recounting the stories of her childhood.

This is an autobiographical novel. Either that fact, or the fine writing makes you feel like you know what it would have been like to live on Orchard Street.

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