Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Museum Is Tenement Time Warp

Vacated New York building provides visitors with a taste of immigrant life (1863 to 1935)

THE musty front hallway of the tenement is so dimly lit that Ruth Abram carries a flashlight. She stops at the first step of the narrow, wooden stairway leading to the second floor and points the light back at the darkened front door beneath a tin-plated ceiling. "We estimate that as many as 10,000 people walked through the front door from 20 nations," she says.

In this six-story tenement building at 97 Orchard Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a visitor can find the answer to what happened to the flood of European immigrants who left Ellis Island and started new lives in the crucible of New York.

About these ads

Hundreds of thousands of them, wide-eyed and carrying bundles and luggage from the Old World, stepped through the front doors of tenements like this one. For $10 a month at the turn of the century, a family lived in three rooms with no running water, no indoor toilets, no electricity, and a coal- or wood-burning stove.

The hardships, joys, and details of their daily lives are slowly coming to light here at 97 Orchard Street, the tenement home of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, with a hallway as dimly lit as those of the early 1900s.

"A tenement like this one was the first place of settlement to more Americans than were log cabins or farmhouses," says Ms. Abram, the president of the museum, "and we are just beginning to learn what happened in the tenements. We have the names of over 1,100 people who lived here between 1863 and 1935 and over 100 have come back to tell us what they experienced."

Built in 1863, the building was occupied until l935. Then upper floors were shut because the owner was reluctant to do extensive renovation to comply with new housing regulations. For the next 53 years, no one set foot here, leaving the rooms in a rundown condition but creating a haunting time warp that reveals much about the daily life of immigrants.

By 1988, Abram and museum curator Anita Jacobson had just about given up their search to find a suitable tenement to launch their idea of telling the story of immigrants in New York. But Jacobson saw a "For Rent" sign on the building and investigated. "When she saw the toilet stall from the l900s," says Abram, "she knew she was on hallowed ground. When she told the landlord how unique it was and why we wanted the building, he said, `I think you've come home.' "

Now the building has two galleries for exhibits and displays on the first floor, and museum offices in the basement. The upper floors are still untouched. Depending on funds and support, some apartments will be restored and others left as they are. One room will be a memory room where visitors can speak about their lives as tenement dwellers and take home a recording of it.

The tenement was home for Jenny Richter who was born here in the early 1900s and lived on the first floor for nine years.

About these ads

"My father [from Romania] died before I was born," she says, "and my mother [from Russia] had three boys and three girls to take care of. She was the sole support. She wouldn't put us in a home. She took in sewing. We slept on folding beds: the boys in one room, the girls in the other. There was one toilet for two families, and we had a wood stove in the kitchen."

Mrs. Richter, now living in New Jersey, remembers a good childhood in the Lower East Side. "We all tried to help my mother," she says."If I found some wood I'd drag it home. We always kept the house clean, and we always had something to eat. Bread was 10 cents a loaf and there were lots of pushcarts on the block. We'd take showers at the Allen Street bathhouse. Mother spoke nine languages because she was smart and picked them up when she came from Russia. I can still see the apartment in my mind's eye as

clean and neat."

Abram says that social historians are too ready to find only the misery of tenement life. "Those who lived here as children often remember the beautiful embroidered curtains their mother made," she says, "or they remember the Persian design in the linoleum, or the floor in the entrance hallway with white tiles."

But there was misery and hardship in a building, which originally had little light and little sanitation or air circulation. Before basic housing laws were established in l905, the only running water at 97 Orchard was a spigot in a courtyard in the back near the privies. Four years after the building went up, landlords were required to provide fire escapes and backyard toilets with lids.

"Many tenement renters took in boarders at the rate of 25 cents a shift," says Abram, standing in a third-floor apartment where the walls are mottled with layers of peeling wallpaper. "You had eight hours of sleep on a mat, and then out you went. Our records show that as many as 18 people lived in an apartment, which means people at any given time were sleeping, eating, coming and going, arguing, making love, having babies, studying, working or going outside to the privy."

OVER a door in the apartment is a small ledge with a disconnected pipe above it. "We couldn't figure out what that was for,"says Abram, "and then Max Mason, who lived here in the '20s, told us that his father used to put him on his shoulders, and he would put a quarter in the meter there to pay for several hours of electric light."

Abram shines the flashlight on the door jam between rooms. In dark pencil, written on the jam, are numbered lists of clothing items such as shirts, coats, and blouses. "When someone from the International Ladies Garment Union saw this," says Abram, "they said the apartment had to be a sweatshop at one time because a single tailor couldn't have done all that."

Abram wants to clarify the meaning of the immigrant experience and relate it to today's immigrants. "I'm hoping that if I can introduce you to your family before they were acceptable," she says, "you'll make the connection between that experience and your life so that you can feel some confidence about the people you see on the streets today who don't sound like Americans but will one day be standing in your shoes. That's our mission, to promote tolerance and historical perspective."

The museum offers programs, walking tours, and donor options. It also publishes an eight-page newspaper called Tenement Times. On June 18th the museum is holding a gala reunion for anyone who lived in the tenement. For information about the Lower East Side Tenement Museum write: 97 Orchard St., New York, NY, 10002 or call: (212) 431-0233.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.