Looking into the Lives of the City’s Past

The Tenement Museum’s Alisa Martin on revisiting the spaces where immigrants made their new lives

06 Sep 2020 | 12:56

When the founders of the Tenement Museum were searching the Lower East Side for a place to honor the lives of the immigrants who came before us, they serendipitously happened upon a vacant storefront on 97 Orchard Street. The residential portion of the tenement, condemned in 1935, was boarded up, with belongings from the 22 families that lived on its five floors at that time still inside.

“Upon stopping in our space to use the restroom, it was realized that it was basically a time capsule,” explained the vice president of educational operations, Alisa Martin. In 1988, that building became the museum, which beautifully illustrates the stories of the immigrants who resided there, with apartments set up as if they still were.

Due to COVID, apartment tours are now only conducted virtually, however, their walking tour “Outside the Home,” will resume on September 12. Guests will get a glimpse into what the area was like in the 19th and early 20th centuries, at landmarks like what was once Ridley’s department store at Grand and Orchard Streets. As for upcoming projects, Martin, a Brooklyn native, spoke about “Reclaiming Black Spaces,” a tour that will launch in the spring. “We have done a lot of scholarly research to learn about the extent to which there have always been African American residents in the area,” she said. “Some of those stories have gotten lost, but we, along with other organizations, are really making the attempt to help in the reclaiming of those histories.”

Your walking tour “Outside the Home” has returned. What does it entail and what safety measures have been put into place?

The tour really focuses on key spots within the area where the immigrants engaged with the physical space and made their mark. We go to Jarmulowsky Bank. We stop at the Forward building, neighborhood school, Steward Park, the old Loew’s theater. We talk about what the significance of those buildings were to the immigrant communities that lived there, particularly when the museum was primarily a Jewish neighborhood. In normal times, we could welcome as many as 25 people on a tour. Now, with COVID, everyone is wearing a mask, our staff, as well as visitors. Our visitors’ services staff will call the person purchasing the tour, making sure everyone is aware of the need to wear a mask and that they should make sure they feel well. These tours are one-household programs, for eight people within one household. They don’t need to social distance from each other, but have to maintain distance with our staff.

The building at 97 Orchard was home to an estimated 7,000 people from over 20 countries between 1863 and 1935. Explain how it was arranged at the time.

The museum is five floors and on each, there are four apartments and then there are two more apartments at the ground floor level. There are also shops at the ground and basement levels. When the building was new, there were four outhouses in the back and that was relatively state of the art for working-class housing. But after the Tenement House Act of 1901, there was an expectation that landlords would upgrade the building. By 1905, there was the addition of indoor bathrooms, but there were two bathrooms in the hall, so four families on each floor would share the two toilets. Running water came in because previously the only water was from a fresh water pump out on the privy. Gas lighting came in, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that the building got electricity. By the ‘30s, there were buildings that had much better amenities. So the landlords were realizing that for buildings that were not at fully occupancy but the businesses were still doing well, it made sense just to board up the residences and maintain the businesses at the lower levels.

Tell us about the items the families left behind.

We start tours in what we call a ruin apartment, where you see what 50 years of neglect looks like. Some of the spaces are restored to how they would have looked during the time frame when the families lived there, but others are left as they were found in the late 80s. We have a vitrine that shows objects that the families left behind because they didn’t know their home was going to become a museum someday. The building was condemned and they left. The objects left behind were under floorboards, behind mailboxes and cabinets. Things like jacks, the child’s game, an overdue library notice for a book about Israel, a ticket to a High Holy Day ceremony, an ad about learning English quickly for a school in Brooklyn.

What are some of your favorite artifacts in the museum?

The first tour that I learned is the one of the sweatshop workers, and one of the stories we tell is of the Levine family who operated a dress shop out of their home. There is a replica of a dress that we don’t know for sure if the family made, but it was of the time, which was 1897. It’s a pink dress and it anchors the story, but also visually anchors the room. It was their life’s work to produce that dress, whether it was the husband of the family who was the tailor at the pedal-operated sewing machine working by daylight near then window and later on, kerosene light. There’s an ironing board in the kitchen, because that’s where any wrinkles were taken out of the dress so it could then go and be sold in the fancy department store.

The museum also has a second address at 103 Orchard, which tells the stories of immigrants who came after World War II.

The “Under One Roof” tour was an important next step for the museum as we began to tell stories that happened after 1935. Because it’s not as if the immigration story of the Lower East Side stopped; it definitely didn’t. One family in the 1950s, the husband and wife were Holocaust survivors and met at a displaced persons’ camp. They both lost families in the Holocaust and found each other and started anew. Then there’s a family in the 1960s who migrated from Puerto Rico. And the ‘70s is represented with a family that immigrated from China.

For more information on programming and to support the museum, visit www.tenement.org