This blog post was written by summer 2021 intern Emma Thibodeaux-Thompson.
Looking for a kid-friendly way to get out and enjoy the balmy NYC summer? Our Manager of Family Programs Nancy Beiles is leading a walking tour on July 29th, focusing on what it was like to be a kid in the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side. In this interview, I asked Nancy about her “A Kid’s Life on the Lower East Side” family walking tour and the highlights that make a kid’s perspective so interesting.
What makes the lives of kids 100 years ago so interesting?
If you were growing up on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s, chances are you were an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. You were navigating a whole new world, trying to understand the customs and traditions of a new place, sometimes learning a new language. That was exciting, but also hard. Some of what kids did back then would be familiar to kids growing up today – playing games with friends, eating candy, going to school. But much was super different. For example, tons of little kids had jobs because they needed to earn money to help their households. There are other things too, but I don’t want to spill all the beans.
Why did you want to develop a tour that focused on childhood in the early 1900s?
I think it’s sometimes easier to connect to history when you see yourself in it, and kids can recognize elements of their own experiences in the lives of other children. New York is always changing, but many of the places that were central to LES kids back then are still around today. You just might not know what they are if you breeze down, say, Orchard Street, on your own. My tour attendees will be walking through the actual places where this history happened – so it allows you to almost put yourself in the shoes of kids who lived a long time ago. We’ll show families the actual spots that tell the story of what it was like to be an immigrant child growing up in the neighborhood in the early 1900s.
What makes a tour like this a fun activity for kids and their families now?
A walking tour isn’t reading a history book – though I love to do that, too – and what I mean is this is a very interactive, engaging way to learn. I’ll share stories and history, but kids are asking questions and making connections, using all their senses to imagine a world and an experience that we can see only remnants of today. Love history? This tour is for you. Love architecture? This tour is for you. Love to walk and people-watch while your kids are entertained? This tour is for you, too!
What made life for kids different then compared to now?
The biggest differences that I see between childhood then and now are in two broad categories. The first is that kids often had a lot more responsibility than they do now – or, let me say it this way: kids back then had more responsibility than my kids do today! I already mentioned that kids had jobs, but in lots of other ways children were little adults – caring for younger kids, navigating the city – sometimes late at night – on their own. The other difference is in the material stuff that accompanies childhood. This was the era before Legos and video games and TVs. What were kids back then doing with their free time? They had to get creative.
What kind of sites will the tour focus on and why?
The tour will include stops at buildings and neighborhood spots that meant something to children growing up on the Lower East Side. Lots of life was lived in the streets so while buildings are definitely important on the tour, sometimes we’ll be looking at an intersection that has significance as, say, a pushcart market, and other types of public spaces.
What is your favorite thing about sharing this history?
I love seeing people make personal connections to history. When we talk about what kids were learning in school in the early 1900s, children might be able to see that some of what they do or don’t learn today has been influenced by ideas about education that started on the Lower East Side. Children might feel more connected to their grandma because they can better imagine her experience as a little girl.
What is your favorite fact discussed on the walking tour?
I always struggle with naming favorites, so I’m going to share three: bananas were dangerous; the roots of The Baby-Sitters Club are on the Lower East Side; and a playground caused a riot. If you want to know more about what I’m talking about, you have to come on the tour!
Is there anything else you want to share about this tour?
A good walking tour is a combination of fascinating history, key places, and engaged participants. I have the first two covered. The last part is up to you!
If what Nancy has shared intrigues you, join her for A Kid’s Life on the Jewish Lower East Side Thursday, July 29th at 11:00 AM! Buy tickets for this family walking tour here, and be sure to follow the Museum at Eldridge Street on Instagram @museumateldridgestreet.
Emma just finished her sophomore year of undergrad at Sarah Lawrence College, and will spend the next year abroad studying at the University of Leeds in England. She grew up in Springfield, IL and is studying European/American art history and history.