New York City Tenement Museum
by Neala Schwartzberg
Although often described as a melting pot New York is more like a savory stew in which many different cultures contribute their unique flavors. Jews, Italians, Germans, Chinese, Irish, and more all took up residence in the area which came to be known as the Lower East Side. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum honors the experiences and stories of these families who came to the land where the streets were said to be paved with gold.
The Tenement Museum, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, at 97 Orchard Street is an actual tenement building dating back to 1863. Several apartments have been renovated backwards to recreate the life and living conditions of various immigrant groups. The tour, Getting By: Immigrants Weather the Great Depressions, provides insights into how a German-Jewish, and a Sicilian-Catholic family survived the Depressions of 1873 and 1929 through visits to the recreated apartments. The garment industry figures prominently into the history of the Lower East Side, and Piecing It Together is another narrated apartment tour telling the story through two families - one who ran a garment shop in their home and the other who worked as a presser in a factory.
The Confino tour is interactive. Visitors tour the living quarters of the Confino family, pretending to be newly arrived immigrants in the year 1916. Victoria Confino, the daughter of the family is off from work and has agreed to help orient them. On our tour the costumed historical interpreter chatted for 45 minutes about the reasons her family moved from Kastoria (in what is now Greece), the voyage, and going through immigration. She helpfully explained to us about the public baths (no bathing facilities were available in the building), and the importance of using a chamber pot at night (there was no lock on the door to the building and so the two bathrooms that served the entire floor were not safe after dark).
Reservations should be made in advance. Almost unheard of in New York, free parking is available through the Lower East Side Business Improvement District. The museum also offers a film and regularly scheduled exhibits, and plays, and walking tours of the area.
No exploration of the history of New York City would be complete without a visit to this innovative recreation of life in NYC tenements. There are several tours available visiting "families" who might have lived in the rescued building at 97 Orchard Street.
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