By Stephanie & Jeff Sylva
The year is 1883. You are 14 years old and recently arrived in a strange city in a new country. You live in a cramped, dingy one-bedroom apartment with your parents and five siblings. You are cold because there is no heat; you are hungry because the family shared a meager meal for dinner; you need to use the bathroom, but are reluctant to descend the four flights to visit the community outhouses in the rear of the building. Yet, you are happy – excited by the promise of a new and prosperous life in this land of freedom and hope – you are in America.
The tiny, cramped, dark apartment, with no water and no heat located in New York City’s lower east side is home – home for The German-Jewish Gumpertz family, and later the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family. And at other times the Irish Moore family, and possibly a Polish or Ukrainian family, or any number of other immigrant families, making this tenement home a fixture of the “melting pot.”
America’s history of immigration and its diverse cultures is often summed up in the term “melting pot.” And nowhere is the melting pot experience more evident than in New York’s Lower East Side, where, for more than 200 years, generations of immigrants faced monstrous challenges to survive as they attempted to fulfill their dreams of a better life in America. And the best way visitors to this iconic neighborhood can learn about the immigrant experience is with a visit to the Tenement Museum, located in the heart of the Lower East Side at Orchard and Delancey Streets.
Built in 1863 the apartment building at 97 Orchard Street, over the years, was home to nearly 7,000 working class immigrants from over 20 nations. Museum visitors have a variety of ways to experience 97 Orchard Street and relive the immigrants’ stories. Guided tours, led by well-informed and genuinely enthusiastic museum educators, reveal the restored apartments and businesses of past residents and merchants. We selected the “Hard Times” tour on our visit and enjoyed discovering how the Gumpertz family and the Baldizzi family survived economic depression and crowded living conditions.
Armed with a wealth of specific details from painstaking research in preparing the museum, educators presented an authentic and moving account of the residents’ struggles in this teeming neighborhood. We were amazed by the primary-source facts about these families garnered from authentic documents such as census, birth and immigration records and time-period photographs of some of the residents and neighborhood scenes. Even recorded audio accounts from actual residents such as Josephine Baldizzi, who shares her recollections as a child living in the building, helped us relive the immigrants’ experiences.
Other guided tours, just as informative and engaging as the one we experienced, are sure to immerse visitors in the daily lives of the working families of 97 Orchard St. Tours of the building include “Shop Life,” “Sweatshop Workers,” “Irish Outsiders,” and “Exploring 97 Orchard Street.”
A highly interactive experience is the museum’s “Meet the Residents” tour, where visitors will go to the apartment of a Greek Sephardic family and talk with 14-year-old Victoria Confino (played by a costumed interpreter) who lived in the apartment in 1916. Visitors take on the role of newly arrived immigrants and ask Victoria questions about adjusting to life on the Lower East Side.
Another “Meet the Residents” tour, “Tenement Inspectors,” will have you take on the role of housing inspectors in 1906. The Assignment: investigate 97 Orchard Street to see if the building is up to code, and interview actors portraying the building’s landlord and tenant to get both sides of the story. Come find out if 97 Orchard was in compliance, and delve into the broader questions of social justice and housing.
A third way the museum immerses visitors in the immigrant experience is with “Walk the Neighborhood” tours. “Storefront Stories” explores the neighborhood’s historic shopping district and its importance to New Yorkers, as well as a variety of other immigrant entrepreneurs in the past and present who have made – and still make – the Lower East Side a vibrant community of small businesses.
Other walking tours include “Foods of the Lower East Side,” which includes wonderful tastes of ethnic foods and their importance in shaping American food. We experienced this tour in its indoor version, “Tastings of the Tenement,” which is offered on Thursday evenings, and enjoyed delightful tastes of pickles from the Pickle Guys, dumplings from Vanessa’s Dumplings, fried plantains from El Castillo de Jugua, and wonderful samplings from a number of other local favorite food establishments.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is excited about its expansion plans for new permanent exhibits exploring the stories of Chinese immigrants, Jewish holocaust survivors, and Puerto Rican migrants who began new lives on the Lower East Side after World War II.
“Now more than ever, the Tenement Museum’s mission and work is deeply relevant,” said Museum President Morris J. Vogel. “The story of our nation’s immigrants is America’s defining narrative, and the joys and challenges of establishing new lives and new communities continue for present-day immigrants around the world. We’re proud and excited that we’ll soon be able to explore a wider range of these stories for a larger audience.”
The Tenement Museum currently serves 200,000 visitors annually, but turns away many others due to space limitations. These new exhibits, with a planned opening for 2017, will significantly expand the Museum’s capacity as well as its scope.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is a National Historic Landmark and a National Trust Historic Site. The museum’s Visitor Center, located at 103 Orchard Street, offers a wonderful collection of books and artifacts for sale in its museum shop. A 30-minute, continuously-running movie is a great place for visitors to get an introduction to the Tenement Museum and the historical and cultural importance of the Lower East Side, America’s most iconic immigrant neighborhood.
For more information on the Tenement Museum and its tours call 212.982.8420 or visit www.tenement.org.
All photos courtesy of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.