Engaging in Immigrant History: Exploring the Tenement Museum

tenementfront

Orchard Street Façade,
Photograph by Keiko Niwa
Courtesy of The Tenement Museum

A long way from the grand buildings of the “museum mile” that runs along the east side of Central Park in Manhattan, in an old apartment building in the Lower East Side, is one of my favorite museums anywhere in the world.  

The Tenement Museum tells the story of the immigrant families that lived at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935.  Their day-to-day lives, their families, their hardships, their struggles with integration into their new country.  But, like most things related to immigration, the museum touches on so many other subjects as it leads visitors through an exploration of social history: the urban planning and development of New York, public health changes, racial perceptions and prejudice, and political and cultural changes are all touched upon in any tour given. There’s a lot of history at 97 Orchard Street, both in the form of those broad strokes and in the individual stories of the families.  As a book published by the museum illustrates, “[i]n 1903, the square block on which sits the Tenement Museum was the most crowded block in the most densely populated place on earth.”  That’s a lot of people, and a lot of stories to explore, and the museum deftly handles the complexity of the history and issues involved.

The museum chose to only partially restore the tenement building.  The building is half reinforced ruin, with peeling wallpaper, paint, and warped plaster held together with subtle clear circles and pins to prevent further deterioration.  Several apartments have been carefully restored to reflect how they might have looked at various points in its history. Among the apartments and families recreated for visitors include the Irish Moore family who lived in the mostly German tenement building in the 1860s, the Prussian Gumpertzes in the 1870s, the Italian Baldizzis during the Great Depression.  It would have been relatively easy to simply focus on the families and their personal stories, but the Tenement Museum goes a step further.

Confino Family Kitchen, Photograph by Keiko Niwa

Confino Family Kitchen, Photograph by Keiko Niwa
Courtesy of The Tenement Museum

The tour I took last week was “Irish Outsiders,” which is a 60 minute tour focused on the Moore family.  Beyond the Moore family though, the tour examines issues of public health.  The tour includes listening to Irish-American songs that explore the discrimination they faced (“No Irish Need Apply”) and public health concerns (“Swill Milk No. 2”).  The public health concerns were particularly prominent in this tour as the Moore’s infant daughter died during the years they lived at 97 Orchard street.  In addition to blatant public health concerns such as swill milk, the tour discusses the health and family challenges of a new Irish-American community composed almost entirely of young men and women.  When your infant child is sick and doctors are unaffordable (and, at that point, frequently did more harm than good), your first resort might be home remedies.  But how do you know what the home remedies are when your mother and grandmother and the entire set of the older generation of your community is over 3,000 miles away?  The answer, frequently enough, was the cure-all “medicines” advertised in newspapers – medicine that would face extinction less than fifty years later in the face of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act.  Furthermore, when the infant daughter eventually dies, the generational gap is felt again.  Traditionally, there would be keening performed by the older women in the family at Irish wakes – without the previous generation, the Moores would have been forced to hire someone to keen at the wake of their infant: a new, albeit specialized industry born out of an immigrant need to maintain traditions in the face of generational separation.

One of the stories the building itself tells is that of policy changes.  “Tenement” within American English is an old fashioned word for “apartment building” that comes with the connotations of being a crowded slum full of immigrants.  When 97 Orchard Street was built, the concept of the tenement was still new – it wasn’t until four years after its construction that tenement was defined in public housing code and the city began wrestling with the urban development and health implications of tenement buildings.  The First Tenement House Law of 1867 required one outside privy per 20 occupants and a fire escape for every apartment.  Later laws changed the interior of the apartments within 97 Orchard to include interior windows – few, if any of the apartments had more than one room that had exterior windows.  The Tenement House Law of 1901 required that the owners of 97 Orchard Street build the interior toilets you can see today – one for every two families – and improve hallway lighting.  The final round of policy changes that affected 97 Orchard Street and its immigrant inhabitants was a 1934 amendment to the Multiple Dwellings Law that required the fire-proofing of public hallways within the tenement.  This law proved too expensive to comply with during the Great Depression – instead, the owners chose to evict their tenants.  No one lived in the apartments after 1935, leaving an effective time capsule for the museum founders in 1988.

For the interested tourist, the Tenement Museum provides an opportunity to engage with history.  Some of their tours (such as the one I did back in 2011 that focused on immigrant experiences in recessions) are longer and allow for more conversation, the museum equivalent of a seminar class.  One of their tours, geared towards youth, has a costumed guide acting the part of a 14 year old immigrant girl.  Most of their tours are shaped as interactive lecture: questions are asked, and even the most reluctant museum visitor will have a hard time not engaging with the information shared.  For the tourist that also happens to be a migrationist, the Tenement Museum leaves you with seeds for further research.  Did Tammany Hall have any influence in the development of city public health laws?  How effective were songs as public service announcements for the illiterate?  Where did immigrants move to from 97 Orchard Street as their ethnic origin “became white” in the eyes of their new country?

As a migrationist and traveller, I enthusiastically gush about this museum to anyone who visits New York City.  It successfully goes beyond making its visitors think about the immigrants of yesterday to encouraging the visitor to think about what it means to be an immigrant – and an American – today.

This is part of a series of posts inspired by visits to New York City.  You can read others here.

You can explore the tours and offerings of the Tenement Museum at their website.  The book “A Tenement Story,” produced by the museum and purchased in the museum gift shop (available used on amazon), informed parts of this post, as did my own notes from the tour itself (“Irish Outsiders,” taken on 18 November 2013).  

Further Reading

Lower East Side Tenement Museum, A Tenement Story: The History of 97 Orchard Street and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Linda Granfield, 97 Orchard Street, New York: Stories of Immigrant Life

Jane Ziegelman, 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement

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3 comments

  1. Excellent blog. I read it all, make me understand more the concept of been an immigrant, besides I love history and I never knew before about this museum. Hope to visit it when I go New York.

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  2. Thanks Iván! I hope you get a chance to visit.

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  3. […] Engaging in Immigrant History: Exploring the Tenement Museum (themigrationist.net) […]

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