Lower East Side #3 – The Tenement Museum

August 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

97 Orchard Street, Lower East Side

Quick, a pop quiz.  What museum do you visit if you want to learn about the immigrant experience in New York?  No doubt, what immediately comes to mind is Ellis Island.  And, the answer is yes, but…

The “but” being that there’s a fantastic museum located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the first stop after Ellis Island for most recently-landed immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  It’s called the Tenement Museum, and it’s a must-see.

The tenement is located at 97 Orchard Street in the Lower East Side.  Having long been abandoned, it was re-discovered in 1988, completely by accident (isn’t that true of most of the wonderful things in life?), by a female real estate broker (she needed to use the loo and came across a toilet dating back to 1905).  Originally built in 1863, it was one of the first multi-family dwellings of its kind.  Over 7,000 working class immigrants, representing over 1,700 families, lived in the 22 (and later 20) apartments housed in the tenement, from 1863 until the building was condemned in 1935 due to new tenement housing regulations.

Tenement Museum "Getting By" Tour

Visits to the Tenement Museum consist of guided tours.  You choose from  one of the following: Getting By, Piecing It Together, The Moores: An Irish Family in America, Confino Family Living History Program, Immigrant Soles: A Neighborhood Walking Tour, and Next Steps: A Walking Tour.   I chose “Getting By.”  It is conducted on the second floor of the tenement, in two apartments, one inhabited in the 1870’s – 1890’s by a Jewish family from Germany, and the other by an Italian family, who lived there in the latter part of the tenement’s life, until they were forced to leave when it was condemned.

Our tour guide, Emily, was extremely knowledgeable, and answered our questions with insight and grace, even as we “jumped ahead.”  (We were an interested and inquisitive group of Americans, Germans, and Australians.)  You can get a glimpse of the tours and an idea of what life was like in terms of bathrooms, light, water, and heat (in 1863 – there was none) on the website.  But, did you know that there was a “Great Panic of 1873” greatly resembling the financial meltdown of 2008 (yes, history really does repeat itself), and that social assistance in the 1870’s meant a loaf of bread and some coal?  Or that the country instituted immigration restrictions in 1924 based on the new science of eugenics?  Neither did I.

Tours cost $20 for adults, $15 for students and seniors.    Should you decide to become a member after a tour, not only do you get a tax deduction (the museum is a non-profit organization), but the cost of your ticket is deducted from the membership fee.  After that, all subsequent visits are free and you receive 10 percent off all Museum Shop purchases (once you peruse the fabulous shop, you’ll see that this benefit alone is worth the cost).

Yes, there’s The Met and MOMA and the Statue of Liberty … but make some time for Tenement Museum.  It’s another reason to visit the Lower East Side.


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