One of the first museums we visited during our stay in New York was the Tenement Museum. It’s located on the Lower East Side, in an area that’s always been an immigrant area. Today, it’s mainly populated by Latin American immigrants but over the years it has been home to German Jews, Eastern-European Jews, Italians, Irish and virtually every single immigrant wave that made it to America over the years.
The museum entrance is right on the corner of Orchard street. You have to be a part of a tour to visit the actual museum building, 97 Orchard Street. They had four different tours to choose from: Hard Times, about immigrants during the Great Depression, which we chose, Sweatshop Workers, Irish Outsiders and Exploring 97 Orchard Street. You can read more about the different tours here.
I think they run two different tours each hour, and we chose the Hard Times one which ran about 10 minutes after we got there. There was plenty to look at in the museum store, so we didn’t just have to stand and wait.
The tour was led by a history student and it took us a little down the street in a group of about 10-15 people to 97 Orchard Street. It’s a building which was bought by the museum in the 1990s but which stood empty, except for the basement, between the 1950s (I think) until it was bought and renovated, partially, by the museum.
The different tours offer a look into different immigrant areas and the Hard Times tour takes you into the home of a German Jewish family in the 1860s and 70s and the home of an Italian family in the 1930s. During both of these periods the US experienced an economic downswing and there was a focus on this during the tour.
We were taken into the building and then shown upstairs to the two rooms that the German family, the Gumpertz, lived in. These were the actual apartments they had occupied and they were restored like the late 1860s. We were then given an extremely detailed account of their life during the 1860s depression. I won’t go in to too much detail because it won’t make much sense if you weren’t there, such a big part of the tour was the impact the building gave you, but it involved husbands running of, wives and children being left destitute and then pulling themselves up by their bootstraps until they reached such a level of prosperity they could afford to leave the Lower East Side.
One of the focuses of the tour was the difference in the charitable attitude of the government during these two times. The tour guide was very personable and funny, and she encouraged us visitors to participate with questions and would ask us our impressions about the different times which gave it a really nice touch.
The Gumpertz family lived four, then three people, in two rooms and one was converted into a sewing studio. I assume they all slept in the same room, if not the same bed. They had no gas and no electricity, and no running water inside the building. All residents in the building shared a toilet in the yard.
It is also interesting to note that during the 1860s the Lower East Side was known as Klein Deutschland, or Little Germany, and was made up of both Jewish and non-Jewish Germans. This wouldn’t change until Eastern-European Jews started arriving in the 1870s and 80s when the area would start changing, and Yiddish would become the majority language rather than German. It was around this time Mrs. Gumpertz moved from the area. I had no idea there had ever been a thing like Klein Deutschland, and in Manhattan too!
The other family, the Baldizzis, lived in three rooms, some 50-60 years later, adjacent to the Gumpertz of yore.
Most of the info about this apartment, both in how it looked and how it was to live there, comes from Josephine, daughter of the Baldizzis. Her family was the last to stay in 97 Orchard Street before it was closed for residents. She and her family lived through the Great Depression and although she remembers the hardships, she also remembers not wanting for much because she had her family with her and they were close. She also remembers the help the government issued during the Great Depression. She received men’s shoes in one instance, in a charitable act.
You can read more from The Tenement Museum blog here.
As I said, a large part of the tour was exploring how attitudes towards charity, received and given, were during the two different eras. The 1860s were very big on self-sufficiency. This is something I also mention in my post about Ellis Island. The prevailing attitude for a long time was that you should not become a burden to the state. And, indeed, the state had very few ways to help people who could not support themselves. This attitude had changed by the 1930s and the Great Depression, in part because of the Great Depression, and the Baldizzis received a weekly shipment of food, and used clothes and shoes.
If I had been in NYC longer, I think I might have gone back to visit another of the tours because it was really brilliant and I’m sure the other ones were equally as interesting. I can definitely recomment the Tenement Museum, if you’re interested in immigrant histories iand the immigrant experience.