The grand museums of New York City top many visitors’ to-do lists when traveling to The Big Apple. MoMA and The Met feature prominently on traveler checklists, and they’re both worth the visit. But there’s one museum that is often forgotten, and now more than ever, it seems imperative that it take a more prominent role on visitor checklists: the Tenement Museum.
In spite of having lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn, I never made it to the Tenement Museum until this year. And perhaps that is for the best, as my Tenement Museum experience landed this spring, just as our national government began hardening its policies and attitudes related to immigrants. The timing was fortuitous, as I was feeling wounded by the changes taking place in our country, and I needed to reconnect with our immigrant history.
I won’t tell you we’re a nation of immigrants; you’ve heard that before. But I would like to suggest that many of us, particularly those of us in positions of influence, are so far removed from the immigrant experience that we could stand to benefit from a reminder. The Tenement Museum is an invaluable resource for all, but particularly for those who have forgotten or chosen to disregard our nation’s humble beginnings.
Located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Tenement Museum features a confounding number of tours including neighborhood walking tours, live reenactments, culinary experiences and tours of an actual tenement. The 1863 tenement, located at 97 Orchard Street, was home to nearly 7,000 immigrants. Though photos are not allowed inside the building, I can assure you the apartments were cramped, ventilation was provided by a window at most, and conditions were ripe for the quick spread of disease and despair. It is for this that many left their homes, their families, and the nations where they spoke the language and understood the culture fluently. They made the arduous journey with a hope for something better, a dream of a shot at opportunity, and when they didn’t find it, they forged it. From fearlessness. From hard work. From necessity.
Through an incredible amount of painstaking research, the Tenement Museum has pieced together the lives and histories of several immigrant families who called 97 Orchard Street home. Depending on the tours you select, you can retrace the steps of families from various countries of origin, learn about their lives, their work, their struggles and challenges. You can stand in their restored kitchen, or look out the window of their living room – if they were lucky enough to have an apartment with a window. You can feel the oppressive heat they must have felt in the middle of a New York summer, with none of the cooling conveniences we so take for granted today. You can read the census data collected, or view records that track the births of their children, and in some cases, their deaths.
During my visit, I opted for the Hard Times tour, which included tours of the restored apartments of two families from two different time periods of economic depression. During the tour, visitors learn the stories of the Gumpertz family of German-Jewish origin and the Italian-Catholic Baldizzi family. To this day, the story of the disappearance of Mr. Gumpertz haunts me.
Walking through the tenement at 97 Orchard Street is an incredible and moving experience, but don’t let your Tenement Museum tour end there. I urge you to consider adding on another tour, which is offered at a discount when paired. I selected the Then & Now tour, which offered valuable insights into the ever-evolving Lower East Side, and the challenges change presents to those who consider the neighborhood their home. It was a moving and thought-provoking tour.
I know there are some upon whom these tours will have no impact; perhaps there will be some initial glimmers of understanding, and then a return to digging the stubborn heels of opinion into the soft earth of our inherent oneness. In the wake of my tours, I for one couldn’t help but wonder: at what point does a person stop acknowledging the immigrant within themselves? When do we determine that we’ve done so well for ourselves on our climb that we must pull up the ladder behind us to prevent others from achieving the same? 1863 wasn’t so very long ago; though its buildings may be crumbling, the ghosts within still tell our stories. That’s right: they’re our stories. But the humble span of time since is apparently long enough for some to feel as if they are entirely removed from the immigrants their ancestors were. When we as a country stop acknowledging the lessons from what is in effect a very recent history, we find ourselves on tenuous soil, indeed.
I can’t tell you how grateful I am to the founders of this museum, to those who support it and help grow its mission, and to the educators who guide the rest of us to a deeper understanding of our immigrant stories. Their work is a gift to all of us.
The Tenement Museum is a must-do on your next visit to New York. Be aware that Tenement Museum tours often fill in advance (I tried just showing up, and they were booked for the day, so I had to come back the following day). Reserve your space online beforehand to ensure your spot in this one-of-a-kind classroom, for your refresher on the history of those who built our country and made her what she is today.
You can also support their important mission by donating to the Tenement Museum directly.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to her clients.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.