The Tenement Museum

PrintPrintEmailEmailFor many immigrants, moving to a new country is in ways like becoming a child again. Like children, they have few connections outside of their immediate families; some cannot speak the language well and are assumed to be ignorant and mute; they may have few skills or few ways to apply those skills. And like children, they feel strongly the pain of loneliness. The vast majority of American immigrant families, whether they came here in 1790 or 1990, have known this loneliness, but their descendants don’t know what that feels like. Now a museum in New York City has taken up the task of reminding them.

No. 97 Orchard Street, in the downtown area known to New Yorkers as the Lower East Side, was once a tenement. The word—from the Latin verb tenere , or “to hold—at first simply meant a property. As immigrants began to flood New York City in the nineteenth century, the word was adopted to mean a shared building with multiple housing units—in modern parlance, an apartment house. But before long the Lower East Side had acquired so stark a reputation that New York’s superintendent of buildings described the tenement as a place where “the greatest amount of profit is to be realized from the least possible amount of space, with little or no regard for the health, comfort, or protection of the lives of the tenants.” In 1879 the city passed a reform that came to be known as the Old Law, requiring that air shafts provide light and ventilation to interior rooms in tenement buildings. An aggressive reform campaign led to the Tenement House Act of 1901—the New Law—enforcing and expanding prior requirements that every room receive direct air and sunlight and, more significant, that indoor toilets be installed. In 1929 the Multiple Dwelling Act demanded that additional toilets be installed at the rate of one per private apartment (though the subsequent stock market crash made paying for these changes virtually impossible for many landlords). The era of the tenement, at least as it was remembered by millions of immigrants between 1840 and 1935, had come to a close.

Orchard Street took its name from the path it follows, which once led to the arbors of the colonial British landowner Lord Delancey, but by the late nineteenth century there wasn’t a tree in sight on this crowded block. No one admits to having designed No. 97, which was built in 1863. It fits the usual pattern for pre-Old Law tenements put up during the 1860s. Each of the five floors has four apartments, and each apartment consists of three rooms: a front room, roughly eleven by twelve and a half feet, a bedroom of about eight by eight feet, and an even smaller kitchen area, originally with a “slop sink,” and then, probably around 1905, with running water, adding up to about 325 square feet. (To today’s New Yorkers a 325-square-foot apartment might sound relatively comfortable. But imagine living in it with your ten closest relatives.) At first, of these three rooms, only one had any windows. The toilets were outdoor privies, and the only source of fresh water was a pump in the same yard, creating a major sanitation hazard. Yet it was good enough for Lucas Glockner, who put up the building and then served as its first landlord. He lived there himself.

When Natalie’s husband abandoned her, she went into business for herself.

But after the Glockner era and with the ever-growing stream of immigrants into the neighborhood, the building’s identity began to change from a middle-class multifamily home into something more closely resembling slum housing. Gas lighting arrived in the late 1890s, followed by electricity thirty years later, so 97 Orchard Street remained in a swamp of shadows for most of its seventy-two-year existence as housing. Indoor toilets were finally installed—in the hallways, two on each floor servicing four families—about 1905. Perhaps unable to pay for a toilet in each apartment as city law later demanded, the landlord closed down everything in his building but its storefronts in 1935, evicting all its residents. The building’s apartments stayed vacant for about fifty years, until Ruth Abram, a vigorous and imaginative social worker and historian, and the museum’s founder and president, first set foot inside.

The Tenement Museum had modest beginnings, starting in 1988 as little more than a photography exhibit as its researchers began to gather information about immigrant communities, placing ads in local newspapers to seek out those who might know people who had lived there. This expanded into an ongoing search through census data, occupational directories, municipal archives, voter registrations, even Civil War draft records. Today, out of an estimated seven thousand people who lived at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935, the museum lists some fourteen hundred by name. From those names, more information has come to light—a family that had been involved in a court case, for example, plus a family remembered by those who responded to the museum’s ads—and so the Lower East Side Tenement Museum grew up. By now its curators have been able to reconstruct the lives of some real families who actually made the building their home.