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Exposing the many layers of tenement life

The Levines moved in in the 1890s, had four children, and made clothing in another room.
The Levines moved in in the 1890s, had four children, and made clothing in another room.(COURTESY BATTMAN STUDIOS)

With the boom in television shows and websites dedicated to discovering one’s ancestral roots and with debate over immigration dominating yet another campaign season, it’s heartening and enlightening to visit a place that honors the immigration experience of the past and thoughtfully examines its connections to the present.

New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum, an unrestored four-story tenement in what was once a teeming repository for new arrivals to the United States from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe and Asia, is easily one of the most unusual of the city’s many fascinating museums. Interactive and educational (all tours are suitable for children; the website gives an age guide), it offers the opportunity to see firsthand how some of our ancestors lived — and makes one grateful for things like basic sanitation, running water, and a room of one’s own.

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The building at 97 Orchard St. dates to 1873; over the next several decades it was home to nearly 7,000 immigrants — some 2,780 people per block — until it was shuttered by the city and boarded up in 1935. Each floor had four small apartments; extended families of six to 10 people lived in a three-room apartment sharing it with rats, mice, and bugs. In 1988, historian and social activist Ruth Abram, who’d long been searching for such a building, decided that the rich history of 97 Orchard St., so typical of Lower East Side tenements but remarkably still standing and unrestored, could be converted into a living museum.

The Tenement Museum includes an adjacent visitors center and ticket office at 103 Orchard St., where guests can watch an introductory film, use restrooms, and browse the gift shop which stocks a great selection of books. Each of the various tours is dedicated to a particular family who arrived in the congested streets of Lower Manhattan on a wave of immigration. Small groups are guided through six of the tenement’s apartments. Each tour lasts roughly an hour (or longer if discussions or talks follow) and focuses on a particular aspect of the immigrant experience within its walls.

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The newest tour and one that might appeal to Boston visitors is “Irish Outsiders,” with its focus on the Moore family, who survived the Irish famine and arrived at 97 Orchard in 1869.

Each tour is conducted by historical interpreters who bring their own interests and expertise to it. “Irish Outsiders” began in the courtyard at the rear of the building, a place where the women of the families would fetch water and haul it up several flights of steps (usually balancing a baby on one hip) for cooking and bathing.

Two outhouses also occupied the courtyard, and the guide gave a colorful and detailed description of the sanitation conditions of the time. In response to the hazardous and unsanitary conditions of tenement life, New York State in 1901 passed the landmark Tenement Housing Act. But long before that, the Moores were part of the massive exodus from Ireland. The family first arrived in the Five Points, the area of New York (close to the contemporary Wall Street ) so infamously hellish it was the setting for Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” Next to the slums of Five Points, the Lower East Side seemed a step up.

The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side is in a building that dates to the 1860s and was home to scores of immigrants until 1935.
The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side is in a building that dates to the 1860s and was home to scores of immigrants until 1935.(KEIKO NIWA)

Inside the apartment itself, 18 layers of wallpaper and linoleum are left peeled-back as testimony to the many dwellers who passed through these quarters and who, for a time, tried to make the rooms their own. Found materials and records link 1,300 names to this one address. The “Irish Outsiders” interpreter explained that the emigrants leaving rural Ireland at the time were between the ages of 12-24, mostly girls who were sent to work as housekeepers and nannies. We learn how one of the young Moore children died, probably from contaminated milk, and was waked in the “parlor” of the apartment — until the powerful Roman Catholic Church in New York pressured devout immigrant families to conduct their rituals in the churches. Ward bosses and politicians helped these new arrivals navigate such unfamiliar ways and provided the fees to do so — with the expectation that theywould support them when they sought office or reelection, building the Irish-run New York political machines.

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The other tour I participated in at the museum was “Sweatshop Workers,” led by an interpreter who took the small group through the front door of 97 Orchard St. and into the unfinished hall, its tin ceiling dating to 1901 when the neighborhood was a mostly German-speaking community. We climbed the steps to the tight quarters that served as the living and work space of the Levine family, who arrived in New York from Poland in 1897. A glass enclosure displayed the ordinary artifacts left behind in the apartment when its inhabitants left: a synagogue ticket, children’s jacks, a thimble.

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There’s also a copy of the 1900 Census that shows the names of numerous Jewish and Italian immigrants who worked in what was known as the “needle trades.” The tour guide explained that immigrant children often worked as peddlers and garment runners while their parents toiled inside the apartment. Women and girls usually sewed while men pressed the cloth with heavy irons. These apartments were in effect sweatshops, with the residents paid per piece, in air thick with heat and lint, all contributing to tuberculosis as a common occupational disease on the Lower East Side.

Since working conditions and their attendant social problems is a topic of many tours, it’s worth noting that the museum offers an interactive one called “Tenement Inspectors,” in which participants take the role of housing inspectors in 1906. The assignment is to investigate to see if the building is up to code, and interview actors playing the building’s landlord and tenant to get both sides of the story. In this way, the museum is able to naturally connect past and present, and offers an accessible way to examine broader questions of housing, immigration, social justice, and responsibility.

The Lower East Side isn’t the ethnic enclave it was in the 19th century, but it still claims two enduring culinary spots. It’s a short walk to Russ and Daughters at 179 East Houston St., a takeout shop established in 1914. An old world culinary haven that’s still family run, it offers bagels (small, like they’re supposed to be); dried fruits and nuts; sweets; and a gleaming glass case filled with sturgeon, herring, and lox. Historical photos on the walls and the timeless food take you back.

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If a sit-down meal is to your liking, head for the next block and Katz’s Delicatessen, a landmark since 1888 when it was established on Ludlow Street. (Katz’s moved to its present location across the street in 1917 during the construction of the subway system.) The deli, with its raucous atmosphere and crowded tables, is famous for a memorable scene in “When Harry Met Sally” and for, among other offerings, its pastrami, considered by many, me included, to be the best in the city.

TENEMENT MUSEUM 103 Orchard St., New York, N.Y. 877-975-3786, www.tenement.org. Adults $25, seniors and students $20, under 6 not permitted on building tours; members free. Open daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.


Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.