The Tenement Museum in New York is a clear reflection of the immigrant experience on the Lower East Side. Tours with stories that will move you.
The banister at 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side is original to the building. Run smooth by thousands of immigrant hands it is one of the few objects in the Tenement Museum that you can touch. “Go ahead and shake hands with the residents,” our guide told us, and a shiver went through me as I thought of my own great grandparents, who came to the States through Ellis Island and later settled in Monongahela, Pennsylvania. There is no one American immigrant story, but the important part, what sticks with you after you visit the Tenement Museum is just that: the stories. The only way to truly understand the complexities of American culture is by listening to the stories, the sacrifices and the cultural fusions that took place as people began to figure out what it meant to be “American.” (And I’m still not sure if I would be able to answer that question.)
The Sweatshop Tour
What comes to mind when you hear the word “sweatshop” is very different from the small apartments on Orchard Street. Back when the Lower East Side was the most crowded neighborhood in the country, this was the center of the Garment District and according to the records the museum dug up, in one of the apartments the Levin family shared their home with their garment making business. The rooms were over crowded, sparsely furnished, and across the way, you would have seen various other families trying to make a living in the same way; they would be your competition.
Our guide described the difficulties and hardships of life in the tenement during the mid 1800’s, but moreover she asked us to consider what it meant to adapt to life in this country on a cultural basis. What did it mean to be Jewish in America? How did languages change and evolve? What styles of clothing were acceptable to wear? When would a little boy be allowed to work and make deliveries? These are all questions that people grapple with, even today, as the world becomes more “global” and we begin to live and work across several countries and continents.
In terms of living conditions, 97 Orchard Street was built in the year 1863, a time when the city was just beginning to question what was necessary in a residence. There was no indoor plumbing or electricity and the standard three room apartment measured only 325 square feet for an average of five to seven people. In fact, the most crowded apartment at this address was registered with twelve occupants. It remained a working residence through the year 1935 when the building was condemned due to it’s wooden stairwell and entryway which didn’t meet the new fire code.
What was most striking about the apartments was the fact that in such a small space, there was a clear effort to make a home. In some places there were layers and layers of linoleum tiles, “the carpet you can mop,” as it was advertised at the time. There were children’s games and library cards and evidence of life that reminded me just how many things have stayed the same. This rang true especially since we recently finished cleaning out Pedro’s maternal grandmother’s home and sifting through her memories, and her own story.
Foods of the Lower East Side
Considering the fact that the actual living space was so small in the tenements of the Lower East Side, a lot of life happened in the streets. So, the Tenement Museum offers several walking tours where you can get to know the neighborhood, as well. We chose to take the food tour mainly because it is one of the first ways that we connect with a place as travelers. Cuisine and “what’s tasty” is a question we grapple with even in our own home as a bicultural couple. (By the way, did you know that if we had been married back in the 1800’s, I would have lost my citizenship by marrying Pedro? Crazy!)
Our guide started off the gastronomic experience and walking tour by telling us that we’d be eating our way through 150 years of history. Then came the more difficult question of “What is immigrant food?” The answer, perhaps, is better explained through the stops on the tour. We headed out into the spring sunshine with a little rolling cooler filled with goodies. I was a little surprised by the fact that a lot of the tastes on the tour had been “pre-bought.” We had to stand outside the traditional, family run shops, and our guide explained a bit of the history of the foods we would be eating. I can understand why the stores wouldn’t want 15 people traipsing in and out; but I really was curious to go inside a few of the places and get a better feel for the atmosphere.
Our first stop on the tour was just outside the museum where we tried a German immigrant food: soft pretzels with a deliciously spicy horseradish mustard and another spread made with paprika. Pedro almost killed me after that one for not warning him of how spicy the horseradish was; but I would have bought a jar to take home with us! We stopped again outside Pickle Guys where there were large buckets filled with everything you can imagine. 36 pickled products, if you will. It was so interesting because Pedro and I have noticed that while in Spain they do pickle lots of things, the actual pickled cucumber (which to me is the original pickle) is not a common sight.
We passed through Essex Street Market, which was one of the more interesting stops on the tour. It was essentially a market created to get the vendors off the streets and to give the neighbors a place to buy the ingredients to recreate familiar dishes at home. That was one of the points that resonated most with me on the tour; the fact that recipes inherently change and evolve when you move to a new country because many ingredients simply aren’t available. In fact, it’s what’s happened in our house in terms of recipes that are a fusion between my American background and Pedro’s Spanish upbringing. I’m pretty sure things turn out more deliciously that way, too!
The tour made 12 stops in all, and my favorite was definitely a little Dominican diner that served tostones. The fried plantains have almost become an “American food” already, since you can find them on so many menus in Latino restaurants. Plus, who could resist a golden twice fried plantain dusted with salt? I dare you not to eat more than one!
We highly recommend a visit to the Tenement Museum. Both the food tour and the sweatshop tour gave us a better sense of what it would have been like to live in the Lower East Side during the 1800s and early 1900s. It’s also a great way to scratch the surface of the American cultural “melting pot” experience, which is so much a part of life in New York City even today. Although, we should warn you that the popular tours tend to sell out quickly, so it’s best to book your tour online ahead of time. Also, the tours are given in English, so keep that in mind as you choose your tour.
*** Photo with license (by-nc-nd).
Cover photo (by-nc-nd) by El Boqueron Viajero
Information about Tenement Museum