TENEMENT MUSEUM, NEW YORK CITY: The Story of Immigration to America

TENEMENT MUSEUM, NEW YORK CITY: The Story of Immigration to America

TENEMENT MUSEUM, NEW YORK CITY: The Story of Immigration to America
Tenement at 87 Orchard Street, NYC, part of the Tenement Museum

Ever since the Tenement Museum opened on New York City’s Lower East Side, I have been wanting to visit it. Two weeks ago, on a cold January day, I finally had my chance. We were staying in a hotel just off Delancey Street, and the museum, located at 103 Orchard Street, was just a few blocks away. The Lower East Side is now largely gentrified, but in the late 19th Century, it was a seething mass of immigrants, who lived in cramped apartment buildings (tenements) with no heat, light or plumbing. (We were glad we were wearing our winter jackets!)

97 Orchard Street was named a National Historic Landmark in 1994. This 1863 tenement was home to 7000 immigrants. They faced challenges we face today–making new lives, raising families, working for better futures. Today, it houses the Lower East Side Tenement Musseum, which presents the history of immigration through the personal stories of generations of newcomers who built this country.

The Tenement Museum was founded in 1988 by historian Ruth Abram and social
activist Anita Jacobsen, who arranged to purchase a dilapidated tenement
building that had not been lived in for more then 50 years, for the
purpose of preserving its history. As they repaired and restored the
building they discovered the stories of the many families that had lived
in the building between the 1860s and 1930s. Most of them were immigrants. (Different apartments represent families in different periods of time. Furnishings represent the kind of things typical of that time.)

Halls and stairways inside the tenements were unlit–tenants had to provide their own lighting

We only had time for one tour–there are ten different tours one can take, each led by a very knowledgeable docent. We chose the “Sweatshop Workers” tour which focuses on two families who worked in the garment business, one who used their tiny apartment as a workshop plus living quarters for a family of six, and another family who lived in the building a few years later. By that time new laws required building owners to provide inside plumbing (before that, water and toilets–outhouses–were in a back courtyard!)

A large selection of books and other information about New York’s Lower East Side and the immigrant experience are available in the Tenement Museum Visitor Center. Photographs by Jacob Riis exposed the crowded conditions of the tenements to the public and helped spark social reform.

We arrived at the Visitor Center/Gift Shop (103 Orchard Street) early to pick up our tickets (which we had purchased online ahead of time.) While we waited for our tour to start we watched a video that documented the history of the Lower East Side and the making of the Tenement Museum.

A visit to a lager beer saloon on the street level of 97 Orchard Street is a tour option. Immigrants John and Caroline Schneider lived and worked at Schneider’s Lager Beer Saloon from 1864-1886. Their saloon served as a communal space where people gathered not
only to socialize but also for political debate and business.

We then met our guide, Ruth, and she led our small group (15 people) outside the Visitor Center and up the stairs of the building at 97 Orchard.We followed Ruth up a narrow flight of stairs inside the building to a small room for a brief introduction and some historical background. Only some of the apartments in the building have been restored. As we walked through the hall we got a glimpse of the building’s extreme disrepair and the enormous task it had been to create the museum.

When 97 Orchard Street was purchased, it showed signs of extreme neglect.

The first apartment we saw belonged to the Levine family, who lived there for 13 years beginning in 1892. Harris Levine, the patriarch, hired three workers and worked long 15-hour days, stopping only to observe the Sabbath each Saturday. A sewing machine sat on a table by the window and an ironing board was set up in the kitchen next to the stove that heated the heavy irons. Pieces of cloth ready to be assembled were piled on a table. The Levines managed to raise their children and compete with other garment shops for 13 years — and all within a 325-square-foot apartment.
We then walked down the hall to another apartment that, beginning in 1908, was lived in by the Rogarshevky famiy. With six children, the Rogarshevskys squeezed into their tiny three-room apartment, the older boys sleeping on boxes in the living room. The patriarch, Abraham, earned a living as a garment presser in one of the neighborhood shops.
We were not allowed to take photos inside the apartments. (There are photos at the museum website.)

Lillian Wald House at Henry Street Settlement. Lillian Wald lived and worked at 265 Henry Street improving the quality of life in the Lower East Side, throughout New York City and across the nation.

During the tour we learned about Lillian Wald, a public health nurse who worked to improve health conditions in the tenements. In 1893, she founded Henry Street Settlement, a social service agency that continues to work with people in the neighborhood. After our tour finished, we took a short walk to see it. Nearby is University Settlement, the very first settlement house in the United States.
We then stopped for lunch at a small bakery on Broome Street, around the corner from the Tenement Museum, where we sat on stools to eat our sandwiches and hot chicken soup. The night before we had gone to Katz’s, a famous NY deli, where we stood in line to get a giant corned beef sandwich.

Our corned beef sandwich at Katz’s Deli

I am glad I finally had a chance to visit the Tenement Museum. It was a fascinating peek into the lives of real people who came to America and worked hard to improve their lives. Now I want to go back and take some of the other tours.

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