Museum Month: The Tenement Museum In New York’s Lower East Side

Often, the sights that are just around the corner are the ones that you somehow never get around to exploring. You say that you’ll go one day, but there’s never a real rush. You tell yourself that it will always be there.

For me, that sight is the Tenement Museum, located in the heart of New York City‘s Lower East Side, a block and a half from the apartment I’ve called home for the past three years.

The Tenement Museum celebrates New York’s immigrants by exploring the history of a single tenement building at 97 Orchard Street, built in 1863. From the outside, the museum doesn’t look too different from the other apartment buildings on the block, including my own. But inside lies a rich tapestry of stories tracking the major immigration waves of the 19th- and 20th- centuries, starting with the Germans and followed by Eastern European Jews and Italians.

There are three ways to experience the Tenement Museum: by exploring the carefully restored apartments at 97 Orchard; by taking walking tours of the neighborhood; or by attending a “meet the residents” session, which allows guests to interact with costumed interpreters depicting people who once lived in the building.

On a recent Sunday, I opted for a building tour that was focused on the experience of sweatshop workers. At one time, the Lower East Side was the center of the American garment industry, particularly in the 1860s when the neighborhood was bustling with workers churning out Civil War military uniforms. Most work was completed in small home-based garment workshops, in cramped and often overheated quarters.

The tour started with a visit to the garment workshop of Harris Levine, a Russian tailor whose 1900 census data provided the basis for the space’s recreation. The guide explained how workers would work an average of 70 hours per week, crammed into tiny quarters along with the boss’s wife and children.

Once garment factories were introduced at the turn of the century, units at 97 Orchard became slightly more spacious and tailored for family living. A visit to the Rogarshevsky apartment, which was inhabited in the 1910s and 1920s, provided a look at the changing nature of the neighborhood as immigrants started to assimilate and economic conditions started to improve.

The building was condemned in 1935, which is where the museum’s focus ends. But stepping out into the traffic and construction of Allen Street, it was evident that life in today’s Lower East Side isn’t too different from the world depicted inside the Tenement Museum. It is still a neighborhood of immigrants, crammed together in tiny apartments, working like maniacs to survive… just today with higher rents and more espresso bars.

[Images via Tenement Museum]