ARTS AND CULTURE
Step Back in Time at New York's Tenement Museum
A living testament to the city’s immigrant history, and the lives those newcomers led, this unique museum is unlike any other in Manhattan.
Standing in the parlor of the actual Orchard Street apartment that was home to the Baldizzi family in the 1930s and hearing a tour guide explain how the Sicilian immigrants survived the Great Depression is one of the enlightening and moving experiences that makes a visit to Manhattan’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum truly memorable.
As a museum, it’s completely unique. Visitors don’t stroll through galleries looking at paintings or roped-off exhibits. Rather, they literally step back in time when they enter the dark, narrow entryway of the museum’s restored tenement at 97 Orchard Street and embark on one of eight guided tours of apartments once inhabited by real-life working-class immigrants who came to America from countries like Italy, Ireland, Poland and Germany from the late 1800s to the mid 1930s.
Tenement buildings, which remain a hallmark of the Lower East Side landscape, though they have been modernized over the years, were originally built to house these newcomers to America. Brick dwellings that stood four to six stories high, they were far from luxurious, providing basic accommodations. In the earliest days, the apartments didn’t have toilets, and all of the residents shared an outhouse in the backyard.
The biggest surprise to people who visit the museum’s tenement, according to David Favaloro, the Tenement Museum’s director of curatorial affairs and Hebrew Technical Institute Research Fellow, is just how small the apartments are—there are four on each floor, and they are each made up of three tiny rooms. With their low ceilings, the spaces can feel claustrophobic. “The initial reaction always is, ‘Wow, this is tiny! I can’t imagine living here with my family,” he says. “But people made a home in those spaces. I hesitate to use the word thrived in every single case, but they were really able to make a life there.”
The tenement that is home to the Tenement Museum was in ruins when historians Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson bought the building in 1988. Built in 1863, 97 Orchard Street had been condemned in 1935, and while businesses continued to operate in the ground-level commercial basement space after 1935, the apartments remained vacant and untouched for decades.
Historians got to work finding out who lived in these apartments over the years, and each one was carefully restored to what it would have looked like during the era when a particular family lived there. The restoration involved everything from salvaging sheet-metal ceilings to woodwork.
After four years of painstaking work that included outfitting each space with the appropriate period decor and furnishings, the Tenement Museum opened in 1992 and began offering guided tours of the apartments in the hopes that visitors would have an appreciation of how hard immigrants from all generations have worked to make lives for themselves in America.
One tour dubbed Hard Times focuses on the aforementioned Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family as well as the German-Jewish Gumpertz family. Both families endured economic depressions while living at 97 Orchard Street.
“The mother of the Baldizzi family came to America as what we would call an undocumented or illegal immigrant today,” Favaloro points out, noting, “I think that’s surprising to a lot of folks who don’t think that illegal immigration was a component of our past as they get involved in the current national debate about immigration.”
The Tenement Museum knows the intimate details of the Baldizzi’s story because Josephine Baldizzi Esposito, the daughter of the Sicilian immigrants who rented the apartment, shared her family’s history and memories of life at 97 Orchard Street with the museum’s curators.
You can actually hear Josephine’s voice and her recollections via an audio recording that is played when you visit the sparsely furnished Baldizzi family apartment. They didn’t have much, but Josephine shares warm memories of life on the Lower East Side and remembers little details of everyday life like how her mother washed the dishes with Bon Ami dish soap.
The Grumpertz family lived in the other apartment featured on the Hard Times tour. “They were German-Jewish immigrants who lived in the building in the first decade or so after it was built. That story involves the disappearance of the husband during what was then the nation’s worst economic depression – what they called the Panic of 1873,” Favaloro says, adding, “His wife was left to support the family.”
And she did so by performing piece work, sewing clothing at home like so many immigrants did.
For a more in-depth look at how immigrants toiled in the garment industry, go on the Tenement Museum’s Sweatshop Tour, which takes visitors through the Orchard Street apartments of Polish and Lithuanian immigrants who struggled to make ends meet doing the demanding and low-paying work, which was all they could get at the time.
Aside from hearing the stories of the residents of 97 Orchard Street, visitors to the Tenement Museum can also gain entry to the building’s basement commercial space through the Shop Life tour and spend time in a restored German saloon that Bavarian immigrants John and Caroline Schneider opened in the 1870s. As you learn on the tour, subsequent business tenants ran the gamut from a kosher butcher shop to a ladies undergarment store.
The Tenement Museum regularly schedules talks and walking tours, too, and they focus on everything from the architecture of the Lower East Side to the food favored by immigrants of the past and present. Tickets to tours, talks and walks can be purchased online or in person at the museum’s visitor center and gift shop at 103 Orchard Street.
While the Lower East Side is currently in what Favaloro describes as “an advanced state of gentrification,” there are people in the neighborhood who represent the immigrant experience of today. “There’s still a large number of Chinese immigrants who call the neighborhood home, and there are a lot of Latino residents as well,” Favaloro says, noting, “The Latino residents may not be immigrants, but they are the children of folks who came to America in the 1970s.”
Part of the appeal of the Tenement Museum is the ability to immerse yourself in the visceral details of living in New York’s storied immigrant Lower East Side, but it also affords the visitor the opportunity to empathize with those who are currently trying to establish themselves in a completely new country.