So on Monday we went to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. Spurred on by visiting friends, (isn’t that always the way), we decided to tag along with their plans, and all met up in time for the 1:45 tour.
The Museum, founded around 1988 by Ruth Abrams and Anita Jacobson, owns the now partially restored tenement at 97 Orchard Street. Built in 1863, the tenement (actually just a common word for apartment, despite negative connotations) had over 7000 occupants in the fifty years that it was open for business. After sitting idle for almost as long, the building was discovered, and the museum’s journey begun.
Helping visitors understand life in working class New York at the end of the nineteenth century is the goal of the museum. By taking museum patrons on a journey through the life of one of four different families, the tours open a specific window into lives that were difficult by modern standards, and yet surprisingly parallel to experiences some immigrants still have today.
We chose the newest tour, the Moores, a family of Irish immigrants that were part of the wave of Irish people coming to the US in the 1860’s. The Moores lived briefly at 97 Orchard Street starting in 1869. A primarily German area at the time, the Moores would have been out of place in the building, isolated because of language. But the building itself had certain amenities that would have meant a “step-up” from other more Irish neighborhoods. Certainly nothing to speak of now, the building’s underground sewage system meant that waste was carried away from outhouses located in the back “yard” of the building, and that running water in the form of a tap out back (next to the outhouses) was available.
Inside the apartments, however, there was no water and no indoor plumbing. Because there were no city health ordnances yet, there was no protection for renters. Diseae ran rampant. So much so that infant mortality was exceedingly high–as Bridget and John Moore found out when their five and a half month old passed away.
Wages at the time (if you could find a job—racism was at an all-time high—especially where immigrants were involved), were something like $20 a month. To put it in perspective, rent at 97 Orchard at that time was $10. So the Moores were paying half their income for a three room walk up on the fourth floor with five of them, including the baby, in residence at the time.
The apartment itself, had a large (for New York) living area, a smallish kitchen/workroom and a tiny bedroom. Only one room had windows, and while it might have afforded a breeze, the rest of the apartment would have been stifling in the summer and probably except for the kitchen with its iron stove, freezing in the winter. Living just below subsistence level, families were malnourished, which lead often times to disease and early death.
In addition immigrants also delt with isolation, due to in part to prejudice and in larger part to the fact that often one’s entire family had been left in the “old country”. And yet, many of these people not only survived but triumphed, their children moving up and onward, finding their place as Americans in New York.
The Museum, open every day except holidays, can be contacted through their website at http://www.tenement.org/tours.php or by phone, 866-606-7232. Tour reservations are recommended. Other tours include different decades and immigrants, so I suspect repeat visits would be equally interesting. All in all I highly recommend taking the time to get to know a little bit more about New York’s immigrant communities. There are also two walking tours of the area available.
Photographs are not allowed, so all pictures used here are from Flickr and the Tenement Museum website.