Last week, I got to know a couple of New York families - the Gumpertzs and the Baldizzis. I visited their homes and saw where they ate, slept, lived. I looked at pictures of parents and grandparents, listened to some of their favorite music, and saw the street-view from their front room windows. Last week, I visited the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street.
Friend Beth was in town for a few days, so we pounded the pavement visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the new High Line Park, Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Trinity Wall Street, Times Square, and the Empire State Building. But one place I'd never been was the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. Beth's visit gave me the opportunity to see this treasure for the first time.
I've always been curious about it. I mean, how interesting could visiting a tenement be? "And here's a really tiny room where 14 people slept. Over here's is the coal stove. Notice there's no running water or toilet." Really. Seen one poverty-stricken apartment, seen 'em all.
But the Tenement Museum's tours are based on the stories of real people who lived at 97 Orchard Street over time - from the 1860's to the 1930's. Each family has been researched through immigration and court records, oral histories, and the things they left behind, enabling tour guides to pull visitors into the lives of the families who lived in the building.
Several tours are available, giving a slice-of-time look at how the tenement dwellers coped with local and global events that shaped their lives. We took "Getting By," where we experienced how the Gumpertz family coped with the Panic of 1973 (um, pretty much exactly what we're going through today) and the Baldizzis made it through the Great Depression. Other tours focus on the garment industry, one Irish family's experience, the life of a Sephardic-Jewish teen, and a neighborhood walking tour. Each tour cost $20, which is kinda pricey, but you really get your money's worth.
Immigration is a touchy issue, I know, but in hearing these stories, I was struck by how similar the arguments then are to the arguments now. "There's no excuse for hard-working people not to have enough money to pay for food, housing, education, medicine." "Only people born here deserve jobs and benefits." "If we let these people in, we'll no longer be Americans, but Irish. . .German . . . Polish . . . Italian . . . " No one could possibly dispute that the vast majority of immigrants coming to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries were hard working, imaginative folks who mostly blended in (though some never did). It takes hearing stories of real people to bring that message home.
The other thing that struck me, living in a tiny NYC apartment of my own, was "Wow! A little paint, a new hardwood floor, a private bath, and you could rent this 'tenement' for $1800-2000/month these days." The tour was a great history of apartment-living in the city and how what was required of landlords changed over time. The biggest breakthrough was when the powers-that-be determined that every New York apartment-dweller had the right to air (thanks for the air shafts, guys!), water (at least cold running water), and light (a window in every room).
When I scrape up enough money, I hope to take the other tours and meet more New York families. I highly recommend spending time with the Gumpertzs and the Baldizzis.