Some people are excited to go to New York to see a Broadway show. Some plan elaborate shopping trips. Some come to see famous sights like the Statue of Liberty.
The word “tenement” has an ugly connotation these days, but it really just means apartment or apartment building. It brings to mind much more than that, though. We think of long dark hallways, dingy rooms with stained wallpaper, appalling sanitation and immigrants living in dire poverty.
Isn’t that what everyone wants to see on vacation?
Well, you should.
We all like different types of stories, but one thing our favorite stories all have in common is that they involve humans or creatures that share enough characteristics with humans to appeal to a human audience. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum tells the story of what happened to various humans as they traveled outside their familiar surroundings and tried establish themselves in a new world. That survival experience can take place in virtually any imaginable place and time, but there are some characteristics that repeat regardless of the setting. So even if you don’t like history, visiting a museum that focuses on this type of social history can be engaging, enlightening, and inspirational.
The Tenement Museum is considered one of the best social history museums in the country. One thing that makes it so unique and valuable is that it preserves and shares the stories of everyday life of the urban poor. There are many historic mansion museums depicting life for the wealthy and their servants. But most of the buildings that housed the poor have been torn down or gutted. The fact that this one was found by a group that had the vision and drive to turn it into a museum is little short of a miracle.
The main building of the Tenement Museum is a set of apartments built in 1863. It’s five stories tall with four apartments on each floor and it had good water and sewer facilities at the time it opened. Of course, all that means there was a pump in the yard and an outhouse that got emptied a little more often than average.
Museum guides give different tours that show visitors what the tenement experience was like at different times during the building’s occupation, which continued until 1935. (At that time, new fire codes would have required such extensive renovation that the owner just evicted the tenants from the upper floors and rented the ground floor to businesses.)
One of the tours tells the story of an Irish family who moved up from the notorious Five Points neighborhood in 1869. Another tour depicts the lives of Jewish garment workers who lived, worked and worshipped in the most densely populated area on Earth at the turn of the century. Still other tours tell the story of immigrants getting by during the depressions of 1873 and the 1930s, and branch out to explore the immigrant experience in the years since this tenement closed its doors.
The most recent apartment open for tours looks much as it did when the last tenants lived there in 1935. By this time, the building had been upgraded so there were two shared toilets on each floor and a sink in each apartment! The rooms, however, are even smaller than they were in the early years (the space for those toilets had to come from somewhere).
Standing in the small places where families lived and often worked, it’s hard to imagine that this was a step up for some. Immigrants in the worst Five Points tenements, for example, would sometimes have as many as fifteen people living in a single room.
If this was the start of the American dream, it must have at times seemed like a nightmare. We’ve all heard stories of difficult conditions, but seeing the actual living spaces—with a fireplace boarded up because it was so poorly designed that it produced more cold air than heat—and hearing the stories of individual families makes the whole immigrant experience much more real, immediate and personal.
Most of us have immigrant ancestors somewhere in our past and even if they never lived in urban areas, chances are they shared some of the struggle to get by in small crowded rooms whether a tenement in the city or a sod house on the prairie. Walk through some of those once-crowded rooms and let the ghosts of the past share their stories with you. When you’re in New York, take time to visit the Tenement Museum. To learn more, visit www.tenement.org.
(And no, my promotional consideration was not given in exchange for anything. I just think it’s a place you should see.)