Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: The Tenement Museum

...the one in which we get a sobering education on the hard life of an immigrant in the late 1800's....

On my previous trip to New York City, a friend had suggested that I "must" visit the Tenement Museum, which is located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I really didn't know much about it - and because my time was extremely limited - I skipped it...vowing, though, that when I took the Hubby and Daughter back for our summer vacation, we'd definitely explore it.

A 5-story building, designed to house twenty families....


All I can say is, wow. And Mary? You were SO right - it's a gem of a museum, and something that should be on everyone's "must-do" list while visiting the Big Apple. Thank you SO much for your earlier recommendation - I'm just sorry I didn't have time to do it in February.

So...the Tenement Museum...located at 103 Orchard Street...currently ranked 19th out of 763 activities in Manhattan....

Here's the scoop:

The Tenement Museum is an ACTUAL, RESTORED tenement building that offers an amazing view of what life was like for an immigrant before modern society....It's a unique opportunity for adult and child alike to learn what it was like to not only live in a tenement, but to work in the neighborhood, as well. The people behind the museum don't just "make up" stories of fictional residents of the neighborhood; they've actually done EXTENSIVE research and tell you the REAL stories of the REAL families that lived in this building over the years.

The building was constructed back in the early 1800's...and was closed in 1935, due to changing building codes for tenements. The building sat, unused, for decades - and so became a virtual "time capsule" into tenement life when it was purchased and restored.

It can ONLY be visited by guided tour - and here's where it can be confusing. Currently, there are several tours to choose from, and you must make reservations & purchase tickets ahead of time. We chose four tours this afternoon - but you can choose one, two, or more - it's up to you, based on cost and time.

We arrived at 103 Orchard Street, which is actually a book/gift shop for the museum. I was highly impressed with the merchandise and books offered here - even if you have NO plans to visit the museum, the shop is well worth a visit to pick up some unique books or items relative to not only the Lower East Side, but New York, in general. There are bathroom facilities here, as well as free storage lockers located in the basement of the shop. We took advantage of the storage lockers to stash our bags, ponchos and we'd been warned that "space was tight" on the tour.

When a timed tour is about to begin, it will be announced in the gift shop - and you head outside the front door to find your tour guide. A short, one-minute walk down to 97 Orchard gets you in front of the actual, restored tenement - and this is where you will start your tours.

At 1:30 pm, we took the 60-minute "Hard Times" tour...which took us up the stairs of the tenement, where we first visited the apartment of a German-Jewish family who lived in the building in the 1870's. This family was suffering from poverty and illness, when the father disappeared...leaving the mother alone with several children to support. We then visited another tenement apartment of an Italian Catholic family, who inhabited the building during the Great Depression. We were fascinated by the furniture; the accessories; the clothing; the appliances; and the stories...we were engrossed for the entire sixty minutes.

I think what shocked us was the lack of space...a mere 325 square feet per "apartment", which would house entire families. The apartment would consist of a front room (the parlor), the kitchen, and one bedroom. Toilet facilities were out in the backyard. No showers. No bathing. Very few windows - so no lighting or ventilation. Appalling, actually, to think that so many families lived this way for so many years.

At 2:30 pm, we visited the basement of the tenement building for the 90-minute "Shop Life" tour. In the 1870's, the basement was a saloon, run by a German family. Again, what a great experience for us and Daughter to see what it was like to run a saloon during this time - and how difficult the work actually was.

At 4:45 pm, we visited another floor in the building for the 60-minute "Sweatshop Workers" tour. At one point, a Jewish family ran a garment workshop in their apartment, and we were astonished to see the tiny dwelling literally draped with fabrics and tools, all necessary for their trade...and learning how difficult the working conditions actually were for the immigrants. Again, very little ventilation - so it was very, very hot. However, each apartment DID have a fireplace, so heat was available, for the most part.

On Thursday evenings only, the museum offers a 60-minute "behind the scenes tour" at 6:30 pm, called "Exploring 97 Orchard Street." Here is where they took us through the building again, showing how the restoration process was done, as well as how the research was done on the families who lived in the building.

I loved the entrance to the pretty....

This was a first-rate museum. If you could only do one tour, I would recommend the "Hard Times" tour, with perhaps the "Sweatshop Workers" as a second choice. I think every one of us walked out of there with a renewed sense of appreciation for our own good fortune, after seeing the conditions that were in this building. It's one thing to read about the tenements - but to actually see one? Wow.

An interesting read regarding the building can be found HERE.

Note that the tenement is NOT air-conditioned...and because it was an extremely hot day the day we visited, it just drove home the point on how miserable the living conditions actually were. We were allowed to take bottled water with us, and I can't recommend this enough if you visit on a hot day. There are tons and tons of stairs involved, as well - so keep that in mind. Wear comfortable shoes; dress for the elements; and have water. summarize: YOU MUST VISIT THE TENEMENT MUSEUM!!!



John and Suz said...

If I ever get back to NYC, I most definitely want to go here! It looks absolutely fascinating -- especially to someone like me, a huge lover of history! Thanks for sharing about this place! :)

Mike said...

Now this is a museum I have never heard of and must visit some day! I have always been fascinated with tenements while learning about them in US History. Loving your NYC adventures! =D

-swim13 from CC