Thanks to the images in the New York City Public Library's digital collections, I can see tenements similar to the building where Dad lived and read about conditions there. These East Harlem buildings were not quite as cramped and dank as tenements in the Lower East Side. Another plus: They were "uptown" and therefore more desirable, with less-crowded streets and within reach of greener pastures (literally) in upper Manhattan and lower Bronx.
The reason Dad's family lived uptown, rather than downtown in the Lower East Side where so many immigrants lived, has to do with family connections as much as infrastructure. When my grandpa Isaac Burk (1882-1943) got to New York City in 1904-5, he boarded with the Mahler family at 1956 Third Avenue in Manhattan. That's where Isaac married my grandma Henrietta Mahler (1881-1954) in June, 1906.
The bride and groom may have been cousins, a possibility I'm still researching, because documents show Isaac's mother's maiden name as Shuham and the maiden name of Henrietta's grandmother as Shuham. Both of those families had roots in Lithuania. Strong possibility of family connections, but no proof (yet).
By 1909, when Dad was born, his parents Isaac & Henrietta were living only a seven-minute walk from Henrietta's Mahler family apartment on Third Avenue. By 1915, according to the New York City Census, the two families were living in separate apartments in the same tenement house at 7 East 105th Street in Jewish Harlem. Built-in babysitters for a growing family: Dad was 6, his older sister was 8, and there were two more siblings under the age of 4.
Both the Burk and Mahler families found it convenient and desirable to live uptown in East Harlem because workers could commute by "el" (elevated trains) to jobs located in midtown or downtown. The Third Avenue El, as it was known, was fast and affordable.
This elevated train line stopped running during my lifetime as other mass transit options took its place, and the car culture took hold. In the early 1900s, however, the el and later underground subway lines enabled working people to escape the dirty, noisy, crowded Lower East Side. The NYPL has some atmospheric photos of the "el" at various periods.
Dad told stories of playing stickball in the streets as a youngster (maybe ducking the few cars that passed). He also told of boys daring each other to jump from one tenement rooftop to another. Even though the tenements were often butted up against each other or barely a few inches away, it wasn't at all easy or safe. Dad admitted he was just plain lucky to live through those escapades. Bet his parents never knew what he was doing!
Dad also told stories of taking horse-drawn buses from his Harlem home north to the Bronx for a daylong picnic outing. Sounds like the children would eat and then play while the adults shmoozed and snoozed before returning to their tenements. By the time I was old enough to hear these stories, it was hard to imagine the Bronx as a bucolic collection of farmlands and rural picnic vistas--but entirely true, as photos in the NYPL collection demonstrate.
Happy Father's Day to my Dad and I'm delighted to keep his memory and his stories alive for future generations, in the spirit of #52Ancestors and the #GenealogyBlogParty's Dynamite Dads.