‘Bridgets’ of Park Avenue still serve the wealthy
New York Letter: The Tenement Museum highlights the harsh lives of city’s poor
Park Avenue: In contrast with the many litter-strewn neighbourhoods downtown, Park is the Big Apple’s pristine core. Photograph: Daniel Barry/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Red cabbage is all the rage this season on fashionable New York streets. On Park Avenue frilly magenta heads tilt coyly at passers-by from between the green moon-faces of their less dashing cousins. So meticulously maintained are the plant boxes fronting some of the world’s most expensive real estate that cabbages get haircuts at the whiff of a wayward curl.
Park Avenue’s uniformed doormen use long-handled brushes and dustpans to sweep specks of dirt off the footpath, paying special attention to the carpeted aisle beneath the canvas awning where residents scurry the short distance to taxi or private car. In contrast with the many litter-strewn neighbourhoods downtown, Park is the Big Apple’s pristine core.
Still, some dog owners are taking no chances. Recently a glum-looking young woman emerged from an apartment building straining behind the leash of a beautiful black spaniel whose ridiculous purple rubbery shoes made it plop its paws like a dressage horse. The woman, a maid’s uniform flashing beneath her coat, gripped the strap at arm’s length and looked with disdain into the distance as she walked, perhaps trying to dissociate herself from this surreal turn in her immigrant life.
Two blocks away, in the shadow of Trump Tower, a woman with mental health issues and Parkinson’s lay on Fifth Avenue, her bare shoulders visible above a thin blanket she held in shaking hands.
Dog-walking was probably not a standard job requirement in uptown households in the 19th century, when the majority of New York’s housemaids were recently arrived Irish immigrants. So closely associated was domestic service with being Irish that to be a maid, regardless of nationality, was to be known as a “Bridget”.
With no dogs to attend, the Bridgets nonetheless had large and fancy households to clean and manage; newfangled cooking equipment to master; and many-coursed dinner parties to serve while trying to not scald guests or smash anything.
As documented in Margaret Lynch-Brennan’s The Irish Bridget, the maids – many unused to handling china or crystal – were warned to be truthful when breakages occurred and to avoid sweeping shards under carpets. There were children to bathe and feed, when in many cases the maids themselves were children, and the live-in nature of the job resulted in prolonged working hours.
As hard and lonely as such a life may have been, it was probably tougher downtown, where most Bridgets ended up if they married. The cramped but usually clean and warm accommodation of Manhattan’s uptown avenues was exchanged for tenement living and what amounted to another kind of domestic service, albeit unpaid. Whereas once only their working conditions had been difficult, their new living arrangements imposed a shortened life of physical toil.
The life of one such Bridget, whose name happened to be Bridget Moore (née Meehan), is traced in tangible detail in the tenement building where she once lived with her husband Joseph and family, at Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. Now a museum, the five-storey brownstone, purpose-built in the 1860s and abandoned for much of the 20th century, housed mostly German and some Irish families in its 20 apartments, and a vast German beer hall on the ground floor.
Although without indoor plumbing (three privies in the yard were shared by residents and beer hall clients, and often overflowed around the sole water-pump), the tenement in its day was considered more luxurious than the Moores’ previous address at Mott Street in the notoriously impoverished Five Points neighbourhood.
While Joseph worked in a bar, Bridget hauled buckets of water up four flights and carried slops back down. Clean washing hung outside was often soiled again by sweepings and slops hurled through neighbours’ windows.
The building’s dilapidated state when the Tenement Museum founders came across it in the 1980s has allowed them to present its residents’ stories in a time capsule of original cramped apartments complete with thick layers of peeling wallpaper and windowless passageways.
Sitting in the tiny living-room of the 30sq m flat where Bridget and Joseph, then parents of three girls, waked their daughter Agnes following her death at five months from malnutrition, museum guide Ruth sets the scene. The priest who baptised Agnes was probably there, along with some German neighbours, a few of Joseph’s colleagues, a representative of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and at least one Democratic Party politician keen to secure the Moores’ vote.
Bridget Moore gave birth to eight daughters, four of whom survived to adulthood, before dying herself aged 36. The cause of death in each case was related to unsanitary conditions, malnutrition and limited access to healthcare.
What would she say of her adopted city today, where food is folderol in select quarters and her modern-day colleagues wage chimeric battles against bacteria? She might not be surprised. New York, where some streets are paved with cabbages, still attracts many in search of better lives, still spits out the weak like pips.