New York's Tenement Museum
A Salute to Early Immigrants
By Chris McBeath
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is one of the more intriguing activities New York has to offer.
Housed at 97 Orchard Street, the museum is part of a unique network of 'social conscience' museums that use real life stories and heirlooms to recreate history. Here, it's of the everyday lives of those immigrants who helped shape New York's history and culture.
In its heyday at the turn of the last century, this part of the city produced 85 per cent of garments for the entire United States, and the area teemed with new arrivals: Jewish Eastern Europeans, Germans, Irish, Italians and others. Most came with the intent of living the American dream, but the facts of their lives were stark. Tenement living was crowded, noisy and unsanitary, and always either too hot or too cold. Yet with little choice, from 1863 to 1935, some 7,000 immigrants made 97 Orchard Street their home.
By the mid 1930s, when legislation required landlords to fireproof hallways and undertake other upgrades, many of these cockroach-infested tenements were torn down. Except for Number 97, where the owner deemed it easier to evict the tenants and board the building up. This is how it remained for more than half a century during which it has become something akin to a time capsule. The faded wallpaper still oozes the smell of soot from the coal-burning stoves, the paintwork has turned the color of tobacco, and the stained wooden staircases creak at every step with the pain and anguish of the building's history.
One of the oldest tenements in New York, Number 97 is typical of its day. Each of the five floors accommodates four tiny apartments, no more than 350 sq feet, and each housed an average of six people as well as, in many instances, the family business. In 1905 when indoor plumbing was introduced, each floor shared one toilet in the hallway. Back then it was considered a huge improvement to traipsing along the dark corridors (gas lighting didn't arrive until the early 1900s) and down several flights of stairs to the communal outhouse - a six-seat privy located near the building's sole water supply.
The intimate stories of the building's past occupants are compelling. As you tour the apartments, you learn of the Rogarshevsky family, Eastern European Jews (1918);
the Baldizzi family, Italian Catholics (1930s);
and the Gumpertz family, German Jews (1870s) whose dream for a better life took an unexpected turn. One day in 1878, Nathalie Gumpertz's shoemaker husband went to work and never returned, forcing his wife into the dressmaking business (out of the front room) in order to support her four young children. One child was dead within a year.
Then there is rags to riches history of Polish-born Harris and Jennie Levine and their four children who lived, worked, cooked, ate and slept in three tiny rooms that were - and still are - crammed with beds, cribs, and household essentials alongside machinery that comprised a small garment factory. A presser would wield an 18-pound iron from the same stove top that simmered the family's soup pot; cutters and sewers worked near the apartment's only window, and yards of pink silk, coloured threads and black brocade lie on every flat surface.
Levine family parlour
Dress in Levine apartment
As with all the families represented here, research is a slow, time-consuming process of delving into genealogy, exploring their trades and work, and the things they could have afforded and would have liked to put in their home.
Wherever possible, family members are tracked down to help recreate a real-life story with stories and inherited furnishings that are, in effect, returned to the home they once served. Although it can take years to gather enough information to re-occupy an apartment, it's an approach that has made the Tenement Museum both a National Historic Landmark and a founding member of The International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, a worldwide network that use a site's history to explore contemporary social issues ranging from racism to genocide. Members include South Africa's District Six (Apartheid) Museum, The Gulag Museum (Russia), The Slave House (Senegal) and The Workhouse (England).
At the Tenement Museum, displays show how immigrants shaped the garment industry that seems to have changed little from one century to the next. The Lower East Side currently houses an estimated 500 garment factories, 80 per cent of which are owned by Chinese immigrants. Hence, history is shedding light on a very current issue.
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