The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is a different kind of museum.
Rather than celebrate the arts and triumphs of past luminaries, it remembers some of the lesser-known New York City folk, highlighting the immigrant populations that came to America and the hardships they endured in their search for a better life.
Founded in 1988 by Ruth J. Abram and Anita Jacobson, the Tenement Museum is a must-see attraction for both tourists and lifelong New Yorkers. Between 1863 and 1935, the five-story brick building at 97 Orchard Street was home to an estimated 7,000 people from 20 countries. Today the National Historic Site is a microcosm of the proverbial American melting pot, an integral piece of New York’s storied past.
The Tenement Museum has expanded and modernized since its days as an overcrowded residence. The Lower East Side staple now has a small theater, an excellent gift shop, and it serves as a venue for various talks and private events. The original building itself, though, has been painstakingly preserved, and that’s where you’ll find the museum’s flagship program: a bevy of well-designed walking tours that explore the lives of the people that once lived there.
Each day, museum tour guides—justly labeled ‘educators’—lead groups through the building. Visitors can select from a handful of tours that are each developed around a centralized theme in the Tenement’s history.
I had the opportunity to take the Sweatshop Workers tour, a journey that visits both the Rogarshevsky family’s Sabbath table and the Levines’ garment workshop at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, the Lower East Side was the most densely populated place in the entire world—something the building’s architecture can attest to.
Once inside, visitors navigate thin hallways and feeble walls held together by horsehair and plaster. Four small outhouses and a single water pump in the backyard served all of the building’s 100+ residents, and each family was allotted just 325 square feet of living space.
Our educator spun the Sweatshop narrative, using the Rogarshevskys and Levines as lenses through which we could imagine the lifestyles of people living in a much different New York City. Over the course of an hour (some tours can last up to two), we pieced together their day-to-day lived experiences through censuses, ship manifests and personal relics. And buried deep within the countless layers of wallpaper that still adorn the rooms, we were able to round out their stories.
When we emerged into the backyard at the end of the tour (the outhouses are still there), I asked the educator about her own interest in the Tenement Museum. She told me that she became interested, first and foremost, because she, too, is an immigrant, and she saw the contemporary application of the work to immigration policy—a topic that’s constantly revisited during election season but never actually resolved.
“Tradition is hard,” she told me, “keeping tradition alive is hard work.”
Indeed it is, and the Tenement Museum staff is currently expanding its efforts to preserve the city’s immigrant histories. 103 Orchard Street, an adjacent building, is being renovated and will soon open to add the voice of Chinese and Puerto Rican immigrants to the Tenement Museum experience.
The forthcoming extension was alluded to in a recording at the end of our tour. Mr. Yu, a Cantonese immigrant and one-time resident of 97 Orchard Street, can be heard telling his granddaughter, “you will know English; my fear is that you will not know Chinese.” His statement acts as an important reminder of the reason we need places like the Tenement Museum: to recognize our culture’s presence within us, even as it evolves.
The Tenement Museum is increasing the multicultural IQ of a city that is as multicultural as anywhere in the world. It’s a fascinating and refreshing experience that’s worth being a part of, no matter where you’re from. Tour tickets are generally $25 for adults and $20 for both seniors and students. Membership programs are also available.
You can read more about the Tenement Museum here.