Apr 172016

The founders of the Tenement Museum would have been pleased to see visitors drawing parallels both with their own family backgrounds and the immigration headlines in the news.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard Street, New York City. Guided Tours by Reservation Only. Tickets: Adults: $25; Students: $20; Seniors (65+): $20 (Accessibility and rules regarding children, see website)

Exterior of the Museum. Photo: Helen Epstein

Exterior of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Photo: ArtsFuse.

By Helen Epstein

There’s something unsettling about visiting the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s 97 Orchard St and the corner of Delancey. In the last 20 years, the neighborhood around it has been condo-ized and transformed by expensive restaurants and boutiques. In a final blow to the old neighborhood, Streit’s Matzos, which has been producing Passover products since 1925 in its nearby Rivington Street factory, announced a couple of weeks ago that it was moving to Rockland County. A developer has filed plans for a 7-story, 45-unit luxury residence on the site.

Many other Lower East Side tenement buildings have been upgraded and some of the newly-glamorized, three-room 325-square-foot apartments now rent for $3000 and up. The Museum’s own spacious, glitzy store is packed with expensive doodads. Viewing them through the sparkling plate glass reminded me of seeing Les Miserables on Broadway.

This jarring introduction to the Tenement Museum is unfortunate since it was founded with a loftier mission than a Broadway musical. It was the brainchild of two women, social activists Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson, who wanted to build a museum that both honored America’s immigrants in the U.S. and use it as a site-specific instrument for social change. Its mission reads in part, that it was founded in America’s iconic immigrant neighborhood “to forge emotional connections between visitors and immigrants past and present; and to enhance appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America’s evolving national identity.”

An army of specialists has made this early example of a tenement building possible: not only historians, demographers, and sociologists, but genealogists, paint experts, wallpaper conservators, urban archeologists, and the museum workers who serve as docents and performers. Parts of the building have been deliberately left unrestored to give the visitor a sense of years of urban decay.

A free 30-minute introductory film screened in a small space behind the shop contextualizes the red-brick building at 97 Orchard Street. Originally a middle-class neighborhood where one family lived in one house, the Lower East Side was, by the 1840s, changing to tenements — defined as any building that houses three or more families.

At 97 Orchard Street, each floor was divided into four apartments. Each apartment had three rooms: parlor, kitchen, and a bedroom – with no windows in the last two – that could accommodate up to 12. There was no bathroom in these apartments, no running water, no gas — one fireplace. Coal and water were hand-carried up the stairs by bucket.

About 7,000 people from more than 20 countries lived in these conditions from 1863 until 1935, when progressive housing laws made the firetrap staircase and corridors illegal. Rather than undertake the expense of fireproofing, the landlord sealed off the four upper floors of the building and rented out only the basement, leaving the apartments with their 20 layers of paint and 30 layers of wallpaper to molder.

The shop

Exterior of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and shop. Photo: tenement.org.

There are several 60-90-minute guided tours through the five-story building. All require advance reservations.

The “Shop Life” Tour takes in the basement of the building, home to 30 different, family-run shops between 1863 and 1988 including kosher butchers, an auctioneer, an undergarment discounter, and the 1870s saloon of German immigrants John and Caroline Schneider. The saloon has been restored along with the kitchen where Caroline prepared the saloon’s food, and the couple’s bedroom with windows looking out on the outhouse with four privvies that served their customers as well as the sometimes more than 80 residents.

The “Sweatshop Workers” Tour visits the Levine family’s garment workshop and the Rogarshevskys’ Sabbath table at the turn of the 20th century, when the Lower East Side was allegedly the most densely populated place in the world. Its residents raise the issue of the garment trade and sweat shops.

The “Hard Times” tour visits the German-Jewish Gumpertz family, whose patriarch disappeared during the Panic of 1873, and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family, who lived through the Great Depression.

The “Irish Outsiders” tour focuses on the earliest family of the group — the Moore family in 1869, who lived on the fourth floor — and it was the only tour available the day I visited. I assume it is typical of the others in efficiently packing in family, social, and political history.

Tours are limited to 12 people. Ours began in the courtyard at the back of the tenement where, our animated docent told us, the Moores used the outhouse, obtained their drinking and washing water from a solitary spigot, and hauled it up the dark stairs, bucket by bucket (she passed around a filled bucket to give us an idea of how much it weighs).

Levine Family Kitchen, Photo: Battman Studios

Levine Family Kitchen, Photo: Battman Studios.

The Moores may not have lived on the fourth floor but, like all the families who lived in the tenement, their genealogies have been painstakingly researched by the Museum. Bridget and Joseph were “famine babies” who grew up malnourished in rural Ireland and arrived in New York separately in the early 1860s. At the time, the name Bridget was synonymous with the word “maid.” While earlier German immigrant women refused that kind of domestic service, in 1860s New York, 70% of all maids were Irish, which lead to the stereotype of Irish women as “strong, dumb, mean, and Catholic.” Irish men of the time worked as day laborers and waiters; Joseph made one dollar a day as a waiter.

By this time, my group was seated in a fourth floor unrestored apartment and was watching a slide show including a contemporary caricature of a Popeye-like “Bridget” terrifying her daintily-dressed employer somewhere uptown.

The Moores, we learned, were outliers at 97 Orchard then.The building was part of a German neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland and no one knows the extent to which the various families in the tenement socialized. What came through loud and clear was the daily fight for survival in these tight quarters. Only four of the Moores’ eight children, all girls, reached adulthood. Mrs. Moore herself died in 1882, when she was 36, shortly after giving birth to her eighth daughter. Curators speculate that the malnutrition that killed one of the children was caused by drinking swill: milk from diseased cows, kept in dirty containers.

Public health, Irish wakes, Irish music, Tammany Hall, politicians of Irish descent such as Al Smith, the eventual move of many Irish into the teaching professions: these and other topics were packed into the minutes we toured the tiny parlor and viewed the tiny windowless bedroom and kitchen. The two children on my tour seemed awestruck; the adults, engaged. Ruth Abram would have been pleased to see museumgoers drawing parallels both with their own family backgrounds and the immigration headlines in the news.

I did not have time to go to “Tastings at the Tenement,” which pairs a tour of 97 Orchard with sit-down tasting meal in the Museum’s private dining room overlooking Delancey Street. This tour, the Museum notes, is air-conditioned.

If you notice some ambivalence in my write-up of this visit, it’s because I can’t quite make up my mind what I’m left with. The Tenement Museum certainly fulfills its mission of educating visitors about generations of 19th century and turn of the 20th-century immigrants. Yet the tenor of its marketing effort seems very much at odds with its purpose. But, given the cost of living in today’s city, maybe it’s the only way it can survive.

Helen Epstein grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and lived in the city until 1985. Her books can be found at Plunkett Lake Press.


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