Tuesday, February 19, 2019

HIDDEN GEM #4 The Tenement Museum

People often ask me “What should I do while visiting New York?” Llke the good librarian I once was, my response is always, “What interests you? History, art, science, sports, theater, architecture?”  Because New York really does have it all. The truth is, so do other cities.

One of the things New York has, almost uniquely, is a history of immigration. Even when it was still Dutch New Amsterdam, it is estimated that 18 languages were spoken and ethnic groups included Dutch, Danes, English, Flemish, French, Germans, Irish, Italians, Norwegians, Poles, Portuguese, Scots, Swedes, Walloons, and Bohemians.

 That history suggests a visit to the least hidden gem, the Statue of Liberty, and along with it- same boat, same ticket – the fascinating and moving Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island. You will not come away unchanged, I promise. 


Or, maybe you do not have a whole day to do this terrific excursion. Or, maybe you want to know more about what happened after. After the voyage. After the scary processing on Ellis Island. After the arrival in the Promised  Land of New York.  Hop a subway or bus or cab downtown to the Tenement Museum.

It is on the Lower East side, once
the most crowded neighborhood on the planet, home to successive waves of immigrants, hopeful new Americans-to-be. 

 Meet the families who lived in this building, long-abandoned 97 Orchard Street, now recreated to show different lives at different point in its history. 

They are the actual families who lived there, and your guide will tell you about them and what happened after, when they moved on and moved away, and what happened to their descendants.

They were German, Irish, East European Jews, Italian.

The tenements were cheap, unsanitary, a disgrace to the city and eventually ordered closed or renovated.  Most were shut down. It wasn’t worth the investment to make them livable. 
1890's photo

Decades later, a group of people found that this building was available and that the complete records existed for the people who lived there. They went to work. In my early visits, they had touching taped memories - happy ones - of  a couple of elderly ladies who were part of the last families who lived there in the 1930's.

Now the museum offers tours of the neighborhood as well as the original building, has added another building, offers programs with historical reenactors, has a sleek new visitors center, and works with the more recent neighborhood immigrants, ranging from Holocaust survivors to those from China and Latin America.

What? Did you think this story is over? It is not. While the neighborhood has become surprisingly trendy, some of the old places remain and the story of immigration continues. We live in debt to those brave or desperate souls who came here earlier and it matters that we remember their lives. They built this city, those impoverished immigrants, then and now.  

American Immigrant Wall of Honor

You will not come away unchanged, I promise.

(And then you can have a meal at a hipster bar or restaurant, or choose a living piece of history such as 4th-generation family business Russ & Daughters.)