Tired of traipsing around museums to peer at objects of art and getting scolded by guards for leaning in too closely? Weary of walking tours that neglect to give details of real life in the neighborhood? Head to the Tenement Museum in NYC which provides a deep understanding of the immigrant experience by uncovering the histories of the building’s tenants. It’s a unique learning interaction, a small group led by a guide who engages you in the conversation, asking you to venture thoughts about what life was like. Sometimes this can backfire (Our guide asks, “What do Germans smell like?” Smartypants answers,“Germans. Cabbage.”) but for the most part people attempt to find real answers.
Brace yourself for some numbers: the six floor tenement building at 97 Orchard St. was built in 1863, providing twenty-two apartments and serving as a home for 7000 residents between 1863 and 1935. A law requiring removal of the wooden staircase inside the building was too cost-prohibitive, so the owner sealed up the top four stories and kept the bottom two floors available for retail. The top floors remained a sealed time-capsule until 1988 when the Tenement Museum purchased the building. Layers of paint, wallpaper, dirt, and grime greeted the restoration team, which left some of the building as-is, to convey what happens to a space abandoned for over fifty years.
Tours focus on several layers of the building’s history, exploring what it was like for an Irish family to move into this German-dominated tenement in the late 1860s, the life of a German family that ran a saloon on the first floor, the family of kosher butchers whose window was shattered by riots after an increase in meat prices, a man who abandoned his family during the 1880s financial crisis then inherited $600 after disappearing, prompting his wife to have him declared dead so she could tap into the inheritance. Deadbeat dad eventually died in Cincinnati in the 1920s. To gather all these stories, they’ve scoured public records (birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, the Census), archives of the New York Times and other newspapers, and interviewed descendants of the families. There are also cases that display artifacts (old bottles, scraps of paper) found stuffed in chimneys and other areas of the building.
Several flavors of tours happen concurrently, and I recommend booking more than one to get a deeper appreciation for the museum. Of the tours I experienced, my favorite was their most recent addition, Shop Life. They’ve recreated the 1870s saloon of John and Caroline Schneider, complete with a food table that served free lunch with your $0.05 beer. We imagine the various characters who may have been customers: a cigar manufacturer, a local bookbinder, a brewery owner. The saloon was the community’s living room, embracing all ages and genders. Passing through the saloon keeper's apartment, we’re led to the other shop space. Of the thirty stores that existed in the building, the museum narrowed its recreation to three (in addition to the saloon): turn-of-the-century kosher butcher shop, a Depression-era auction house, and underwear discounters in the 1970s. In this second shop area, chairs line the wall and a long bar dominates the room, with spotlights indicating “Place Object Here.” After a brief history of the three stores, we each take an object from the cabinet to learn more via an interactive display. Curious about the butchers, I grabbed an apron and placed it on the indicated spot. The screen in front of me immediately flooded full of information about the Lustgarden family, with audio spurting from an old-timey telephone earpiece I put to my ear. This was an interesting use of technology (“A combination of Xbox and computers,” the guide tells me), but I regretted not being able to dive deep into the other two stores (undies & auctions).
The Tenement Museum is located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which was the most densely populated spot on the planet during the peak years of immigration to the United States. Reserve your ticket in advance because tours sell out. If there are no available spots, be sure to check out the free film “An American Story” which runs on loop in the theater. In it, a staff member notes that “Immigrants create excitement and inject energy as they make their new life. People with no energy stay put. These are the people who define America.”
FIVE THôT columnist Laura Zander is a book nerd on a perpetual quest to satiate her curiosity and observe the magic of juxtapositions. A veteran of the tech world, she's widely acknowledged as a product, marketing, and operations guru. You can read her other articles on FIVE THôT here, and follow her reading life at loudlatinlaughing.com or @lz
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Black and White image via photo archive of the NYC Department of Records. Color image courtesy of the author.