Thursday 26th May 2016
If there’s one place you can go to learn what it was like to live on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1920s, it’s the Tenement Museum.
Before filming started in August 2015, Fantastic Beasts director David Yates took some of his creative team on a top-secret reconnaissance mission to New York. He, production designer Stuart Craig, and several others flew to New York City to get a feel for its architecture, its scale, its grandeur and its grit.
They were there, primarily, searching for inspiration so they could recreate their own New York at Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden, England.
But New York was not the same city in 1926, the year Fantastic Beasts is set. The Empire State Building would not exist for another four years. So David, Stuart and co. turned up at number 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side.
The Tenement Museum, a five-storey high building of 20 apartments in which immigrants would once have lived. Walk into the right apartment and it’s like time traveling back to the 1920s.
The museum's ‘Hard Times’ tour focuses on two apartments: one in which a German-Jewish family called the Gumpertz lived in the 1880s, and one in which the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family lived in the 1920s.
On the set of Fantastic Beasts, the influence of this place and this trip is obvious. The exterior of Jacob’s apartment could be modeled directly on one of these tenement apartment buildings. The red-brick walls of the Goldsteins’ apartment are just right. The little row of shops at the bottom of the residential buildings is accurate to the time. The production design team imported details of a bygone era to their own set impeccably – any historian would be spellbound.
Historian and vice president for education and programs at The Tenement Museum, Annie Polland, certainly will be pleased when she sees the film. She knows better than anyone how well maintained the museum's apartments are, and therefore how helpful.
‘If you tell someone’s story through a tenement building, you get to immerse people in the immigrants’ daily lives,’ she tells me. ‘As opposed to a place like Ellis Island, where you can visit and see what the first few hours of arriving might’ve been like.
'If you’re looking at a tenement, you’re looking at longer-running issues of what it’s like to adapt to a new country, what it’s like to find work, what it’s like to weather economic depressions, what it’s like to rebuild your culture. So all of those longer term questions can be examined in a tenement, where immigrants actually lived.’
The 1920s was a complicated decade in a lot of ways. It began with post-war hope, celebrated peace, evolved its culture and then ended in the Great Depression. It was racially complex too, as Annie tells me. Which is perhaps an important backdrop for Fantastic Beasts.
‘In 1926, when your movie is set, New York is not as crowded as it has been,’ she says. ‘What’s happened is the United States has put through a restrictive immigration law in 1924 that made it much harder to come here and to get in. New York was a cosmopolitan city and many people were against this legislation – and a lot of them were children of immigrants themselves, so they were much more sympathetic. The children of those who immigrated there in the 1890s, for example, were coming of age.’
I decide to ask, for obvious reasons, how a young English gentleman might be treated if he arrived in New York at this time. ‘Well,’ she says, not skipping a beat, ‘you guys have such good accents. It really helps. People from England would have been fine; I don’t think he would experience any real animosity or discrimination.’
I decided not to tell Annie at this stage that the young English gentleman is actually a wizard called Newt Scamander and he’s carrying a suitcase of creatures. She’ll find out in November.