Lower East Side Tenement Museum


Edification value 4/5
Entertainment value
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 109 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned My favorite fun fact from the tour is that the Lower East Side got the moniker “Klein Deutschland” before there even was a unified “Deutschland.”

There are certain combinations of places and architecture that just go together.  Paris+garret; Newport+mansion; San Francisco+Victorian ; Brooklyn+brownstone.  And “Lower East Side+tenement.”  It’s almost redundant to call a place the “Lower East Side Tenement Museum.”  But New York has one of those, and redundant or not, it is a fantastic, unforgettable recreation of a slice of life in this city.

Tenement Museum

How the Other Half Lived

The word “tenement” originally referred to any multiple dwelling building, what we’d call an “apartment” today.  Very quickly, however, “tenement” came to mean a very particular type of multiple dwelling building.  One aimed at the working class and recent immigrants, crammed with people and with very limited light, ventilation, and amenities.

Like how non-New Yorkers imagine New Yorkers live today, only even worse.

The Tenement Museum occupies an entire building located at 97 Orchard Street. The museum’s website describes its discovery as a happy accident.  Founders Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson wanted to tell the stories of immigrants, but where to do it?  They discovered in 97 Orchard almost a time capsule — an un-gentrified, un-repaired, abandoned for half a century building.  Today the museum also has a nearby storefront, which serves as gift shop, media center, and admission/check-in counter.  

Tenement Museum
97 Orchard Street

Rather than tell a generalized story of the immigrant experience on the Lower East Side, the Tenement Museum from the start brilliantly opted for the opposite.  It has reconstructed the apartments and lives of specific inhabitants of the building, from a variety of different times and cultures.

Dwellings are meticulously furnished and decorated, as period-accurate as possible.  Skilled guides tell the stories of the families, bringing them back to life.  Alternately there are “meet the residents” experiences where actors portray the residents, in a sort of poor immigrant take on Colonial Williamsburg. Note that photos aren’t permitted, so I don’t have interior shots. 

Chosing from among the seven tours currently offered, visitors will get to know the Schneiders, the Rogarshevskys, the Gumpertzes, the Baldizzis, the Moores, or the Levines.  Plus assorted other residents over time.

Meet the Schneiders

For my visit, I opted for the Storefronts tour, which introduced me to John and Caroline Schneider, who lived in the building from 1864 and operated a German lager beer saloon for about twenty years on the ground floor.  

Tenement Museum
Lager Bier on One Side of Orchard St., “Great Beer” on the Other

German lager beer parlors were fine upstanding places. Not locations to get drunk, but places for music (the Schneiders had a piano), food, and wholesome, low-alcohol German-style beer.  They’d mix the lager with lemonade for the kids.  

Not only were they upstanding places, there were a lot of them.  The museum reckons 700 coexisted on the Lower East Side, which makes about four per block.

The Schneiders lived in two dark, cozy rooms tucked behind the saloon, also part of the tour.  John joined various societies (the Odd Fellows and Order of Red Men).  Caroline was a “superb” cook — and perhaps the brains behind the success of their business.  John didn’t keep the saloon going too long after she died.

It was interesting to hear what the museum knows and doesn’t know about the Schneiders, their social circle, and their world.  Through them, our tour discussed assimilation and perceptions of immigrants; how German food became American food (frankfurters and hamburgers!); and how German beer became American beer. As a recent Super Bowl ad observed, the Budweiser story is an immigrant story.

An Interactive Retail History

After the story of the Schneiders, the tour proceeded through less renovated parts of the retail spaces.  To offer a sense of retail in the building over time, the museum deployed an interesting interactive device.  It has a long table divided so that each person on the tour gets their own slice.  Visitors select from a variety of faux artifacts, placing their chosen one on the table to start a multimedia experience — pictures, oral history recordings, etc. –from 4 other retail moments in the history of 97 Orchard Street.  

Tenement Museum
Sidney Undergarment Co.

I’m iffy about the interactive implementation.  On the one hand, I like that visitors can follow their own path and focus on the people and stories of greatest interest.  On the other hand, the interface was a bit fiddly.  Moreover, it was something of a bummer to trade our guide Sarah, a great storyteller,  for a multimedia table.  At least that’s one thing humans still do better than machines.

Neighborhood A-Changin’

The Tenement Museum has built an institution based on storytelling, focused on the working class immigrant experience.  It’s interesting how much the Lower East Side has changed since it opened in the 1980s.  The neighborhood today is not exactly the Mecca for huddled masses yearning to breathe free that it once was.

Which makes it all the luckier that Abram and Jacobson founded the museum when they did.  I doubt any scrappy startup nonprofit could fundraise enough to buy a building on Orchard nowadays.

A Deeply, Uniquely, American and New York Story

The Tenement Museum’s guides have consistently impressed me with their knowledge and storytelling skill.  I don’t know how the museum’s training program works, but it’s phenomenal.  They absolutely, literally bring the place to life.  

Everyone with any interest in New York or American history must visit.  The Tenement Museum and Ellis Island together tell the story of a time when the United States threw its doors open wide to those seeking a better life.

I recommend booking a tour in advance. Unlike many museums, you have to take a tour to visit, and they keep the groups small, since the spaces are pretty tiny.

A part of me quibbles that I didn’t see much of the museum on my visit — tours deliver depth rather than breadth. But the Tenement Museum repays repeat visits in a way that other museums of its size might not.  Its variety of tours and families make for a different experience each time you go.  You just have to accept that on any given visit, you’re getting a small slice of a richly layered story of lives gone by.

Tenement Museum
Orchard Street

For Reference:

Address 103 Orchard Street, Manhattan (plus museum building at 97 Orchard Street)
Website tenement.org
Cost  General Admission:  $25/tour


One Reply to “Lower East Side Tenement Museum”

Comments are closed.