Make Time for the Tenement Museum

Life as an Immigrant Comes Alive at a Storytelling Museum in Manhattan

 

A storytelling museum on the Lower East Side reveals what immigrant life was really like in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

A storytelling museum on the Lower East Side reveals what immigrant life was really like in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

For anyone who has ever wondered why on Earth their grandparents ditched the city for, say, the suburbs of New Jersey, a visit to the Tenement Museum can offer some experiential learning. The museum draws its patrons back in time from the moment a visitor enters the tenement to be overcome by the darkness, the coal-darkened hallways lacking lighting, and the narrow stairs down which earlier generations of tenants carried slop buckets full of human waste from upper levels to the bottom one to be emptied,

This isn’t a visit to the Met. Visitors must decide beforehand which of a number of tours they would like to go on, and they will not be allowed to just meander through the building unescorted. Photographs of the interior are not allowed. A history-recounting guide will lead a small group through the building, bringing people to apartments restored from different eras. One can begin to appreciate zoning laws, requirements that there be fire escapes and windows in bedrooms and bathrooms that are not shared with three other families.

Life on New York City's Orchard Street was a crowded one for tenement-dwellers. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Life on New York City’s Orchard Street was a crowded one for tenement-dwellers. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Life in the late 1800s might have seemed romantic, what with horses and carriages in the streets of New York City, long dresses on women, and candles lighting interiors. The reality of living in an apartment with no running water or refrigeration and just a coal-powered stove to heat the place and also cook on combined with long trips down those dark, dirty stairs to an outhouse tell a much more grimy story.

One cannot help but wonder whether the immigrants who ended up living in places like this on streets like this in New York were convinced they had made the right decision to leave their homeland, especially if they had to enter through the somewhat less than welcoming Ellis Island. On our most recent tour, we learn that single moms are hardly an invention of recent eras and that people worked from home even way back when. We wonder what the tenement and its inhabitants must have smelled like when water had to be pumped and carried from the ground level and refrigeration of food was merely an aspiration.

Although Tenement Museum tours begin at 103 Orchard Street, the tenement itself is at No. 97. Built in the 1800s, the building is now a protected building. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Although Tenement Museum tours begin at 103 Orchard Street, the tenement itself is at No. 97. Built in the 1800s, the building is now a protected building. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Tourists in our small group feel compelled to comment on immigration policy in light of the recent election. Given the attention, lately, to matters of immigration policy, the museum seems especially topical right now, and attendance seems to mirror that fact. On the weekend day of our visit, most of the tours were already sold out. This place requires that plans be made ahead. Despite that inconvenience, it is worth a trip.

Tenement Museum, 103 Orchard Street, New York, N.Y. 10022

—Lori Tripoli

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