I had heard good reports about the Tenement Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate museum in the lower east side of New York City. I decided it was time to visit. That’s not so easy to do. You must visit the museum in a tour for reasons that become obvious once you go. The spaces are very tight and fragile. Each tour group is only about 14 people. Arriving around 10:30 a.m., the first available tour wasn’t until 2 p.m., and this was during a slow day in the middle of the week. You can book online and, perhaps, have a better experience. I took the first available one — Sweatshop Workers — but there are others. Each is led by an “educator.” All of the tours are expensive, but some discounts are available for seniors and students. Don’t miss this place if you are in New York City!
Except for Native Americans, we are all immigrants. The Tenement Museum concentrates on the great wave of immigration around 1910 from Europe. I knew that many of them lived in tenements on the lower east side of New York City. I had no idea what that life was actually like until I took the museum tour. Unfortunately, the Tenement does not allow any photography — even more reason to see it.
Today, gentrification has taken over the lower east side of New York; apartments cost more than $1 million. Down the street from the museum, the old Essex Street Market — once a place for pushcart vendors — is being re-imagined as an upscale shopping center while retaining some nods to its humble past, including a timeline on the wall that explains the changes in the neighborhood. The Tenement Museum is a step back in time inside an abandoned tenement building cleaned up a bit with reinforced stairways. You learn that building codes made residential use too expensive and landlords were satisfied with increased street-level retail rent. Abandoned upper levels were for retail storage and rats.
The apartments that today are so expensive once housed six to seven people in a room the size of my bathroom. They were “walk ups,” without electricity or running water. Still the immigrants attempted to make the apartments as nice as possible. The details on the decorative walls and ceilings is remarkable, but with remnants so fragile you can’t touch, just look. Having to climb down three to four flights of stairs to a courtyard to use a shared bathroom with about 30 other people, and to carry water up for cooking and bathing, however, is hard to imagine today without seeing it.
A tenement apartment was only three tiny rooms, a sleeping room, a kitchen and a parlor. The entire apartment would fit in my dining room today. The parlor was typically devoted to piecemeal clothing-making using needle and thread. At night the parlor could be the sleeping place for a few inhabitants. Typical clothing made here would sell for $10 apiece at a place like Macy’s, and of that the worker would receive about 75 cents. Rent was about $15, so these workers definitely could not afford the garments they were making.
Eventually, with the advent of electricity, people began to buy sewing machines, and factories started to gather workers in one place. Also, as the factories in the lower east side generated more income for workers and the workers started to unionize, some were able to move to bigger quarters across the East River in Brooklyn. These hard-working immigrants would, over time, have children with better educations who would lift themselves out of poverty and become the middle class of America today.
The immigration saga continues today, one of the points of the Tenement Museum. The place may be different but the cycle is familiar. How we welcome or reject those coming to improve their lives in America says a lot about how America became the place it is today and whether it will continue to be that way in the future.