One of my goals living in New York has been to do the New York activities. Well it’s kind of taken me leaving to get to some of them. One of the ones that has been high up on my list has been to go to the Tenement Museum. The concept behind the Tenement Museum is really cool, in the late 80’s, two women wanted to create a museum to the immigrant experience that centered around the Lower East Side starting in the 1800’s (as early as 1830s & 40s). They fell upon 97 Orchard Street. 97 Orchard Street had been a tenement house, in fact one of the earlier built ones, in the 1860’s but in the 1940’s when housing laws were getting more strict, the owner couldn’t afford to fireproof the building and so just sealed the upper floors shut. It stayed that way for forty some years and now has been made into a museum.
For a great book about the building, there is a book called 97 Orchard that tells the story through the edible history of the family-a great book that I completely recommend. The book talks about the families from different countries and religions based on the foods that they ate but also gave a good description of life in the tenement.
My roommate and I went on a tour entitled Sweatshop Workers. The tour centered around two Jewish families from the turn of the 20th century, the Levin’s and the Rogarshevsky’s that both lived in the building. The Levin’s lived in the building and the husband also ran a sweatshop in his front room and main room, employing three other people. The Levins ultimately moved to Williamsburg where Mr. Levin ended up working in the garment industry outside of the home. We got to see a sweet picture of his three daughters at the wedding of one of their grandchildren in the 70’s.
The other family’s apartment that we saw were the Rogarshevskys. They had the same size apartment but lived in the tenement slightly later than the Levins. They also had six children living there. I cannot even imagine how eight people lived in three rooms. The older two girls worked in a factory as did the father. The father was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1916 and passed way in 1918. Mrs. Rogarshevsky was actually quite brilliant and used her skill as a master housekeeper to become the superintendent of the building and was actually permitted to live there long after everyone else had been evicted.
The entire neighborhood has existed as somewhat of an entry point for new Americans and the streets have even represented that.
There are still remnants of the large Jewish community that remained throughout the Lower East Side and we walked near some of them but ultimately were curtailed by the massive rainstorms.
“97 Orchard Street-built in 1863-64 by Lucas Glockner, a German-born tailor, 97 Orchard Street is typical of the earliest form of tenement house constructed in New York. For millions of immigrants from scores of nations, this tenement and others like it was a place of first settlement in America. We salute them as our urban pioneers on the municipal frontier.
This is the first tenement to be individually listed on the National Register of Historical Places by the United States Department of the Interior. September, 1992.”
My family’s immigration story is a bit different, my mother’s family immigrated directly prior to and following WWII and lived in Upstate New York, Lockport, near Buffalo before moving to California. I’m not sure if my father’s family lived in the Lower East Side at all but my dad’s grandfather definitely came in the right time period-landing at Ellis Island in 1906. My dad’s mother’s family came earlier and unfortunately I haven’t been able to discover much about her family although I would really love to.
It’s interesting to think how our family histories play such an important part in where we end up today and I wish I knew more about certain pieces of my family history. Regardless, the Tenement Museum offers quality tours and quality historical documentation on a huge piece of the American Immigration experience.