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Remembrance of Things Past: New York’s Tenement Museum Recalls the Immigrant Experience

January 30, 2010 by · 2 comments

Elayne Clift

Photo: Tony the Misfit (taking a break)

Although my mother and father went directly to Philadelphia and Toronto, respectively, when they arrived at Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20th century, I have always imagined them living for a time on Hester Street, that teaming gateway to a new country that would bring them freedom from religious persecution in The Ukraine and, if they were lucky, a modicum of prosperity. In fact, my parents came to America as small children, preceded by other relatives who could provide for them upon their arrival, so they did not suffer the indignities of tenement living on the lower east side of New York. Having seen the reality of such suffering, perhaps I can put to rest my romanticized fantasies of my family’s immigrant past.

A visit to the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan is a sobering experience. It enlightens, humbles and inspires simultaneously. That old adage “you had to be there” was never more true: Unless you’ve seen for yourself the cramped three-room apartments — 325 square feet in total — that family, friends and resident workers occupied, it is impossible to grasp the full reality of tenement living at the turn of the century. Imagine rising every day to the same squalor and hard work of survival, sharing a hall toilet with twenty or more neighbors (once indoor plumbing had been installed), roasting in the hot, humid summers and huddling for warmth around a coal-burning stove in the frigid winter, working in sweatshops for twelve hours or more a day six days a week, bathing weekly, maybe, at a communal facility down the street, hauling water up the steep, dark stairs, and garbage down, boiling diapers in a huge cast iron pot next to the cooking. Who among us could survive it? And yet, immigrants did, by the multitudes. Then, if they were lucky, they moved uptown to Yorkville, and on up from there.

Some 7,000 people from more than twenty countries lived at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. Among them were German Jews Nathalie and Julius Gumpertz and their four children, who probably slept head to foot on a mattress in the cramped living room. One day in the 1870s, Julius rose, ate breakfast, left for work, and never returned. No one knows why he disappeared or what became of him. Nathalie, who had also suffered the death of her only son, supported her three daughters by setting up a seamstress shop in her sitting room. Some years later, Julius was declared legally dead.

In a bizarre twist of fate, Julius Gumpertz’s great-great grandson, Frank Reisman, also rose one day, had breakfast with his family, went to work, and vanished. He perished in the World Trade Center bombing of September 11, 2001.

The first thing that strikes you about the ground floor of the Orchard Street tenement is the darkness. It must have seemed dangerous and stifling to the men, women and children who trod its narrow steps each day. The building’s canvas-covered walls were a firetrap, and its poor ventilation provided a breeding ground for tuberculosis.

The tiny apartments were hardly a respite. Crowded, sooty, and often shared with boarders, it’s difficult to imagine more than two people living in them, and yet as many as ten or eleven have been recorded. Some children, it is said, slept with their heads on a sofa, their little bodies stretched out on chairs. The floors slant and only hooks on the walls serve for hanging clothes. In the kitchen, there might be a cradle, a small icebox, a stove, and an ironing board with a heavy flat iron perched on it. A small cupboard kept the eating and cooking utensils, and a table with mismatched chairs — perhaps with an old tablecloth on it – suggest meager meals. In the bedroom, only a double bed and a chamber pot, and in the sitting room, possibly a foot-pedaled sewing machine and a work station for a tailor’s helper.

In a Jewish apartment, the mantel would likely have a set of shabbas candles on a doily; in an Irish Catholic home, a crucifix. Because of the potato famine, nearly 53,000 Irish immigrants arrived in New York in 1847 alone. One of those Irish families, the Meehan-Moores, lived at 97 Orchard Street in 1868. Theirs was a sad life. Six of their children died before the age of one, at least one of them from malnutrition. Joseph Moore worked as a bartender and later a waiter while two of his daughters worked as well, one as a hair weaver and the other making artificial flowers.

The tenement building on Orchard Street became a museum in 1998 “to interpret the urban, working class, immigrant experience,” and is now a National Historic Landmark and a featured property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2000, it joined eight other historic site museums to form the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, a group committed to exploring complex historical issues and using these issues to promote democratic and humanitarian values. According to Ruth Abram, a founder of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum which first proposed the coalition, historic sites like the Tenement Museum “are valuable because embedded in the stories we tell are lessons so powerful that, if fully appreciated and understood, they can inform, guide and indeed improve our future.”

The Coalition’s web site says of the Tenement Museum: “Here, generations of newcomers have toiled in sweatshops, struggled against poverty and racism, built thriving communities, and redefined American culture.” It seems a timely reminder in this new anti-immigration age.

My grandfather, who was a tailor, might well have been one of the men, like Mr. Gumpertz, who rose day after day to toil on the lower east side of New York. My grandmother, like Nathalie, was a wonderful seamstress, and my mother, just like Joseph Moore’s daughter, went to work after eighth grade. Even though my family never actually lived in a Hester Street tenement, I take pride in the fact that they were among those brave and determined immigrants who helped to shape our culture. In my heart, I am a child of Orchard Street.

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