When people ask what made me become an immigration attorney, it’s difficult to give one reason since I can usually think up a number of influences. But one of these influences was a trip I took as a teenager to The Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side. It was an exceptionally hot August weekend when my mom, aunt, and I took the train to the City for the day. It wasn’t a day that I particularly wanted to be traipsing around tiny tenement apartments—but that’s just what made it so meaningful. We felt in some way how it really would have been one hundred years ago to live in such conditions. As my own ancestors came to the US during the end of the 19th century during the pogroms in Eastern Europe, I could better appreciate what their life may have been like upon arriving in America. I recently had the pleasure to re-visit the museum (on a much cooler day, I’m happy to say), and I can report that the experience is still very worthwhile.
Founded in 1988, The Tenement Museum is in a landmarked tenement building on Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the epicenter of New York new-immigrant culture at the end of the 19th century. Since the building was built in 1863, it is estimated that over 7,000 immigrants from twenty different countries lived in the building that now houses the museum.
The Tenement Museum offers guests different tours through the building—some which have been recreated to look as it would have in a certain period of history. Moreover, some spaces were left just as they were found. One exhibit currently at the museum is called “Shop Life,” which re-creates the German beer saloon run by John and Caroline Schneider (no relation) in the 19th century. This saloon was run at the 97 Orchard Street location (that the museum now occupies) and was a social gathering place where patrons drank and ate but also networked and debated. Displays of typical food of the time are laid out on the tables and look unbelievably real. Speaking of food, the museum also puts together a “Food of the Lower East Side” tour that allows patrons to eat typical foods of immigrants from the neighborhood, including varieties of pickles, Chinese dumplings, and warm pretzels with mustards.
Another tour, called “Hard Times,” follows the families that lived in the building between 1863 and 1935. Within the building there were German-Jewish immigrants and Italian-Catholic immigrants. The museum recreates what the living spaces of the families would have looked like with impressive detail. Thinking about how much fun it would be to be a curator for this museum, on a more recent visit I asked the tour guide how they know what items would have been in a typical tenement at that time period. Apparently, a major source of knowledge comes from old crime scene photos taken by the police. Curators analyze the photos to see the different rugs, furniture, and knickknacks that were typical of the time period.
As much as the museum does to recreate the look of a tenement set in a defined time period, it also has apartments that remain as they were found by the museum when the space was purchased. This was one of my favorite parts of the tour. One can still see the multiple layers of wallpaper going back a century. It’s possible to see how thin the walls are and imagine the cold winters spent in the building. The bathrooms (which weren’t installed inside the tenement until after 1901) and were shared by all who lived on the floor, would make anyone appreciate their current living space, no matter how small.
When I visited the museum again after all these years, the memories from my visit as a teenager came back to me. My interest in immigration history and the lives of past immigrants is part of what made me want to be a part of today’s immigration story. The museum is not only a reminder of what immigrants’ lives were like in past centuries, but also what some immigrants’ lives are like today. Overall, it’s an important reminder about what people will go through to make a better life for themselves and their families.