Josephine Baldizzi came to this country as a young girl from Sicily. Her family lived on the Lower East Side of New York from 1928 to 1935, in a small tenement apartment at 97 Orchard Street.
In those depression years, there was no money for Christmas presents or decorations, so her father, Adolfo, traveled the city, scavenging fallen pine branches from other peoples’ trees. Returning home, he put his carpentry skills to work, drilling holes into a long piece of wood and using the scavenged branches to create a Christmas tree for his family.
Josephine told the story with obvious pleasure. “He would make his own tree, shape it, tie it to the wall, and then get ornaments and dress it all up,” she said. There were glass ornaments, some lights and tinsel for the tree. For the children, there was a tray filled with traditional holiday treats – marzipan, dried fruits, walnuts, chestnuts, and oranges. It was, she said later, both memorable and magical.
Josephine was my parents’ age, and her story was their story. But by the time I began celebrating Christmas, the Depression had passed. Fresh, fragrant Christmas trees were commonplace, and the excitement of presents was real.
Still, our Christmas was made more than purchased. We cut paper snowflakes, and pasted strips of old magazines into colorful chains. We strung together long garlands of popcorn and cranberries with needles, thread and a thimble. Sometimes, we shaped tin foil around those same thimbles and hung our glittering “bells” among the garlands, but when a set of colored aluminum bells appeared, we tied them with ribbons and gave up bell-making. The new bells joined other cherished traditions, and still ring with gentle clarity as they swing from the branches of my tree.
A few years ago, I took on a new Christmas project, one requiring even less in the way of material. All that’s needed is a way to measure, and some imagination. If you don’t have a metal tape, the kind used by carpenters of contractors, any sort will do. If you don’t have a tape measure, a ruler will suffice. Precision isn’t important, only the ability to make rough measurements.
Once you have your tape or ruler, find a place in your home that seems about 10′ x 10′ square. If you aren’t certain what 10′ looks like, do some measuring. Reel out the tape across a living room or bedroom floor. Get a feel for the space, then find a corner of your dwelling where 10′ x 10′ can be easily visualized.
My own 10′ x 10′ space is my dining area. It’s exactly that size, if you don’t count a little built-out alcove. Facing the east wall, I sit at a teak computer desk with an open hutch, the printer and scanner tucked neatly beside it. To the north is my beloved window, my ever-changing view of water and sky. Behind me, the oak dining table that graced my parents’ first home and two pressed-back chairs caned by my mother take a bit of space, and on the other side of the table, on the west wall, are two shallow, mission-style china cabinets with glass fronts.To the south, against a half-wall separating the dining and kitchen areas, a small Chinese tea cabinet holds cameras, candles, a few skeins of yarn, and an assortment of shells, seed pods and rocks.
I spend most of my at-home waking hours here, reading, writing or dreaming, surrounded by some of my favorite possessions – a print of cowgirl Helen Bonham, a collection of oil lamps, a Paul de Longpré watercolor, a few Victorian photographs.
It’s a lovely, comfortable room, but in the end it’s only a room – one of five in my apartment, 100 square feet carved from 840. Granted, I’ve lived in spaces hardly larger than this room. The sailboat I lived aboard could sleep four in a pinch, but the usable space was about a hundred square feet. The cabin where I experienced the acorn storm held everything needed for country comfort – a woodstove and bed, a propane stove, chainsaws, a table and chairs – in an expansive 196 square feet of space.
But those were temporary living quarters, even when “temporary” was measured in months rather than weekends. For much of the world, 10′ x 10′ isn’t a getaway but a way of life, a routine, an inescapable reality.
In an extraordinary collection called 100 x 100, German photographer Michael Wolf recorded the lives of 100 residents in their 100 square foot flats in Shek Kip Mei, Hong Kong’s oldest public housing estate.
Located in Sham Shui Po, one of Hong Kong’s eighteen Administrative Districts, Shek Kip Mei was the first resettlement estate built after a tragic squatter fire on Christmas Eve, 1953 left approximately 50,000 people homeless. Refugees from Mainland China, they had been living on mixed agricultural and Crown land just north of the Walled City of Kowloon, itself the site of a squatter fire in 1950. While there is some disagreement about the nature of the government’s response to the tragedies, there’s no question the beginnings of Hong Kong’s current housing policy can be traced to the Shek Kip Mei fire.
Completed in two phases during the middle 1950s, Lower and Upper Shek Kip Mei Estates comprised 42 blocks of 6, 7 and 13 storey buildings. Redesigned, reconfigured and rennovated over the years, Shek Kip Mei became more livable, but remained what it was in its inception: minimal housing for the maximum number of people.
In April of 2007, shortly before residents were to begin moving out in advance of Shek Kip Mei’s demolition, photographer Michael Wolf and a social worker began knocking on doors. An accomplished urban photographer who worked extensively in Hong Kong, Wolf had focused exclusively on building exteriors. At the urging of friends he moved inside, and in the space of only four days compiled a compelling portrait of urban life. In an interview with the New York Times’ Valerie Lipinski, Mr. Wolf said,
“I had the methodology worked out. You open the door, and you put the camera with one foot of the tripod inside. I used a small flash to bounce off the ceiling. I wanted to see into every corner. I took three or four photographs and moved on to the next one. If someone said no, I didn’t waste any time trying to convince them.
In total, I photographed 118 rooms. When I had them all printed, it was almost a new looking at these interiors, because while I was photographing, I really didn’t have time to look really at what I was seeing.”
The visual impact of the homes’ small size and clutter can be overwhelming, but the words of the residents hardly communicate a sense of deprivation. While taking his photographs, Mr. Wolf asked each resident a few questions: How long have you lived here? What do you do for a living? Do you like living in Shek Kip Mei? Despite differences in age and length of residency, the same good qualities were mentioned repeatedly – convenient transportation, friendly neighbors, low rent, dependable air conditioning. It all sounds so very, very familiar.
Today, Shek Kip Mei is gone, nearly all of its residents re-located into slightly larger living spaces within the same District. A single block (Block 41, Mei Ho House) has been transformed into a youth hostel, preserved for its historical value and as a reminder of the resourceful people who lived their lives within its walls.
Pondering these quite different spaces, I marvel at their similarities even as I’m reminded of how our measure of things can change over the years.
For now, I have space and light, the luxury of privacy and freedom of movement. Just across the road in a local nursing home, residents are living out their lives in hundred-square-foot rooms, limited by age and illness as surely as residents of Shek Kip Mei were limited by poverty and displacement.
Crowded into tiny trailers and rented rooms, survivors of Hurricane Sandy continue to rebuild their lives much as immigrants to New York, Boston and Minneapolis built their new lives, one step at a time.
Suddenly, in my own hundred square feet of space, I feel the richness of life, and the coming of Christmas becomes as simple to conceive as a childhood craft. Lighting an oil lamp far older than my years, I move it to the middle of my parents’ table. Clearing a stack of papers from the tea chest, I set out two bare-branched metal pines, their branches tipped in copper. My grandmother’s ceramic angels peer down at me from the hutch, warmed by candlelight, and the cat sighs with pleasure as I lay out her sheepskin.
Watching the warm, fine mist beginning to drift, I know the evening darkness will settle early, and there are chores still to be done. I slide the tape measure back into its drawer and smile. Christmas is coming, and there’s more than enough room for Christmas in a hundred square feet of space.