Posted by: Josey | December 13, 2008

Lower East Side Tenement Museum in NYC: Save it for a Rainy Day

“We never leave the apartment on Sundays. Why today?” he whined as the two of us crowded under my clear, one-person umbrella. I’d made up my mind the afternoon prior that this would be my day to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street in NYC, with or without Jeff. A complete and utter downpourA little rain wasn’t going to stop me. We shuffled across Manhattan on Houston Street.

We bought our tickets: $25 per person for both the 1:15pm “Piecing It Together” and 2:30pm “Getting By” tours, each an hour long. But it was only 12:40pm—and we hadn’t eaten yet that morning—so we ran over to Flowers, a hippie café around the corner, for a quick bagel, coffee and OJ.

The tour started in a classroom with an immigration history lesson from our guide. (Fact: In the mid- to late-1800s, New York City was the third largest German speaking city in the world.) We then entered the stairwell, where she turned off the lights to give us a sense of what it would have been like pre-electricity. The photos she showed us of what Orchard Street looked like back then by day—mobbed with people and street vendors—reminded me of the current Little Italy San Gennaro Festival… which is too overwhelming for me for a few hours, let alone all the time.

We proceeded up the creaky staircase with its authentic mahogany banister, and our group of twelve squeezed into apartments recreated to look as it would have in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Jeff gasped: “Holy crap, you lived in a tenement. Your old apartment on MacDougal Street was a tenement, air shaft and all. …And a small one, too!”

“But you lived there alone, not with five or six other people like these people,” he corrected himself.

Our guide showed us some of the artifacts the museum found when they took over the abandoned building in 1988: dried, flaky schmaltz, travel-sized olive oil, a faded receipt from a nearby Chinese laundromat, a rusty rotary cutter a garment-industry worker would have used—evidence of so many ethnicities and trades. And she walked us through daily life for a few specific (real-life) families who had resided in each of these cramped apartments: some who were born there, some who came down with tuberculosis and died there.

The gray light of our rainy day only added to the affect of imagining what it must have been like.

And the following day, curiosity piqued, I called my grandmother—my only living grandparent—to ask her questions I wish I’d asked years ago about our family’s history.



TRAVEL TIP: Because a lot of the information repeats from tour to tour, if I could do it over, I would save the extra $8 and only take one: probably “Piecing It Together.”


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